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Hi. How have you been feeling? Have you visited the Metaverse lately? Are you trapped there in a permanent fearless fight for freedom? Are you keeping all your digital avatars in check? Are you lost? Are you scared? Have you been suffering from extreme pareidolia lately? Do you open Coingecko every three minutes or so? Did you attend any NFT conferences this year? Did you hear that the apes are purportedly nazis now? Have you tried DALL.E yet? How’s your body? Do you have a body anymore?
How do we come back from the great dark?
It’s June 23rd. I’m in Chinatown, New York ethereally, drunkenly satelliting a conference (I shall not pronounce the conference’s name, for it became a trifling detail), and I am engaging in casual conversation with a gallerist about video games, media and the art of cringe (I’m working on an audiovisual piece involving machinima, so I’ve been spreading my fixation on the subject all around me like Wi-Fi). We are talking about role-playing games. He says he’s played them before, I say I have too. At one point during our cigarette/vape/beer/vitamin water-infused-interchange he tells me about a GTA5 FIVEM server where real ex-cops can pretend to still be cops. And now, I bring you *me* trying to explain what this means:
GTA5 (Grand Theft Auto 5) is a third person open world video-game, part of a series that originated in 1997. Themed on the topic of guns, stealing cars and gangs, the game allows you to roam free in a city where you can pretty much do anything you want: steal cars, kill people or just vagabond around aimlessly without paying attention to the missions proposed by the game. This rage-induced, frantic, fast and furious fantasy takes place in a world developed by Rockstar Games that is vast and painstakingly elaborate in detail and precision. Over the years people began introducing third-party modifications into the game which expand its capabilities and functionalities. A huge community of GTA modders has formed since. One such mod is called FIVEM, and it lets you use GTA5 as a server for online role-playing (much like Second Life or Habbo). With this software, players customize a character and enter the game’s primary location, free to roam around and do whatever this world allows. But not quite. These role-playing servers are mediated by very strict rules: One shall NEVER powergame (do things your character wouldn’t be able to do in reality, like fly or drive a car without wheels). One shall also never anti-role, meaning you can’t “break character” or talk about your avatar in the third-person. Rebellion against these rules could get you kicked from the server or even perma-banned.
So, now that you have made yourself and landed in this world (usually dropped at the airport), what do you do? You have to go buy a phone. A fully-functioning in-game iPhone that is, loaded with Twitter, Whatsapp, a camera and a music player. Next step is to find a job. Head to the Employment Office. If you can’t find a bicycle rental, you’ll have to walk there. That might take you 10 to 15 minutes. Pick one of the jobs available: Uber driver, package delivery, gardener, woodmill operator, etc. Then go to work. And so it goes, working, buying shit, eventually buying a gun and robbing or killing someone. Or not. Some people go into this server just to pretend they are mechanics, sitting around all day in their workshops, waiting for someon with a broken car to drive in and get it fixed.
— — — — — — — — — 👮♂️⚙️🚨🚔🚍🚗🔫🚬🍻🥃💉💊— — — — — — — — —
Back to my conversation in Chinatown. The gallerist is telling me that, in the US, actual retired police officers use FIVEM to create servers where they can be cops within the game. Convoluted, masturbatory, self-referential auto-fiction. But it’s also a common phenomenon of sorts. In most of my encounters with these games, players spend their time becoming robbers, stealing cars, getting guns, and forming mafias, performing identical tasks to those within the actual GTA5 single-player storyline. I find this captivating. Drop me in an infinite, unrestrained pseudo-magical universe, all so I can pretend I’m doing my chores.
A question keeps trying to surface: Why are we so painfully uninventive? In a world where you can be anything and anyone, we choose to either be what the game’s actual plotline proposes or what we do for a living in physical life. Gallery spaces and museums in the Metaverse have an unfortunate tendency to follow this same trail. White walls, staircases, art mounted on flat surfaces. Most metaverses I know are fidgety replicas of our own world: floors, streets, blocks, squares, trees, water, buildings, gridlike gridlock simulacra, saccharine outfits and textures. We tend to think of Metaverse urbanism in terms of limited parcels of land and neighborhoods that are crammed together. Avatars in web3 are, for the most part, tremendously heteronormative and hegemonic. Men wear pants, while only girl avatars can wear skirts and makeup. On most platforms it’s even hard to find an all-black outfit for crying out loud! This is NOT the nightmare I was promised.
It’s a few months back, maybe April or May. I’m playing FIVEM with my friends (also cryptoartists that you may know). We run around the map, each trying to find a job or activity to do. I’m a gardener. I drive to a fancy neighborhood and plant myself in someone’s garden, pulling the weeds. A Latino, sitting in their home in Buenos Aires, roleplaying as a gardener for a North-American looking NPC in a Los-Angeles-inspired city made by a US game-development company. Suddenly one of us mentions an in-game tweet that reads “party on the yacht (sic)”. A photo escorts the tweet, a few wachiturro avatars on a yacht, in selfie format. “Let’s crash this party.” We head to the port to find the party, but some of us drown while swimming there (the game bugs out, and you can’t swim past a point). Fortunately, party-goers rescue us and take us to the hospital. Fittingly, a real-life nurse saves our lives. We’re charged 10 pesos. Everything is buggy, utterly incongruous, nervy, jittery, uncontainably funny. I’m crying-laughing, my ribs hurt. I’m having the best time of my life. I go outside the hospital, there’s more of our new friends waiting for us. Let’s go to a parking lot party. Things happening, people talking in circles, constant business transactions, like being in a Wall-Street party where you know business is going down but you can’t really pin down exactly how or what or who.
Digital sundown befalls us.
One of us activates a cigarette-smoking animation on their avatar.
Starts erratically walking and repeating an out-of-context phrase we’ve used in other games as an inside joke. A nonsensical relentless incantation: “va pegá.” It means “gonna hit” and doesn’t make any sense in this context. My other friend activates the same animation, starts walking behind him, also chanting. I follow. The three of us are forming a train, smoking and repeating this mantra. Everyone else is confused and slightly annoyed.
Until the magic happens.
One girl from outside our group activates the same smoking animation and follows behind me in the line. Now the performance is infecting others. More people join. This sudden disruptive personification engenders a group magic, a libidinal force of the absurd. No explanations, no rationale. Just pure ritual. Collective abstruse fervor for upsetting the norm. We all speak the same tongues.
This form of disruption, particularly of expectations in a structured context, is normally more welcomed than we give it credit for. There is solace in absurdity, in non-comprehension.
Low expectations with high returns on a subtle plane. But we tend to build and project “The Metaverse” as if everything has to be understood, pre-digested, known, knowable, manageable, white walls, 2D works on walls, utter conformity. Is it due to the technical limitations? Here I am again, urging the weird. The closest I’ve come to a form of disruption in the virtual exhibition space is the Virtual Dream Center, where exhibition spaces are more like virtual experiences created by artists themselves. Much like in art, Metaverse creation can function as a philosophical and aesthetic laboratory, where we can try all that we cannot in the physical realm. I feel we are ready to not understand, to explore, to do the work. Give us the uncanny, the weird, the deformed, the defiled, the undefined, the unprecedented, the unknowable, the bizarre, the shocking, the dizzying, the ugly. We want in on the world-building boon hallucinogenic non-utopia without a passport. We want it all.
Incoming is an era where open-source tools are becoming more and more normalized, where a distinction between contemporary culture and online culture is no longer viable, where computers are gradually becoming more apt at image-making than humans. It’s good to begin thinking of a closer, more viscid cohesion between technologists and artists.
Back in New York, under the funny heat, inside a shoddy building in Chinatown, we laugh through now-illegal Juul vapor and drink beer while Manhattan’s rooftops and hotel lounges are populated with NFT chetos getting ready to make their next big move. I ask the gallerist “What do you know about NFTs?” He says absolutely nothing, smiling a smile that will remain there for eternity.
╰( ⁰ ਊ ⁰ )━☆ﾟ.*･｡ﾟ GROUP MAGIK!!!!! ╰( ⁰ ਊ ⁰ )━☆ﾟ.*･｡ﾟ
***All unattributed artwork was created for this piece by the writer, Julian Brangold.***