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Art What!: Video games elevated to art at the ArtScience Museum’s Virtual Realms

One of my earliest video game memories was heading to the arcade at the nearby mall, inserting a few tokens into the Street Fighter machine, and then promptly proceeding to get completely whomped by the older boy playing against me. Yes, I cried, but in a time before the Internet was as prolific as it is today, video games were the best way for younger, non-sporty me to connect with others via silly rumours, tips and tricks, and just the act of playing together.

A quarter of a century later, and video games have developed above and beyond anything five-year old me could imagine. With high-speed Internet, MMORPGs flourished with guilds and parties spending hours a day tackling superbosses, while home console systems like the Nintendo Switch have encouraged friends and family to wipe each other out with a Blue Shell in Mario Kart from the comfort of home. More than ever, it is this sense of play that encourages us to connect with one another, and in these times of isolation and social distancing, can be integral to rekindling those relationships again.

That is the central idea behind Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed, which makes its world premiere at the ArtScience Museum on 12th June 2021. A co-production between the ArtScience Museum, the Barbican in London, and the Melbourne Museum, Virtual Realms unites six of the world’s leading video game developers and media designers, as each team created an interactive installation designed to elevate the artistry of video games and use play to encourage togetherness between visitors.

Virtual Realms is a multi-sensorial, interactive presentation of artworks inspired by videogames. To present the global premiere of this extraordinary exhibition at ArtScience Museum, we had to work together with our colleagues at the Barbican, and all the game designers and artists in the exhibition, on overcoming a myriad of challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum.

“Whilst the pandemic is a global event, it has the curious effect of making us feel less connected to the rest of the world, due to border closures and restrictions on travel. So, international endeavours like Virtual Realms feel more important than ever, especially as this exhibition showcases artworks that are fundamentally about forging deep connections between people.”

– Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum.

Virtual Realms was co-curated by Patrick Moran, Acting Co-Head of Barbican International Enterprises, as well as celebrated video game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, also the founder of Enhance. The exhibition is split across six sections or ‘realms’, with each section holding a single installation by each video game developer/media designer team. Naturally, in the midst of a pandemic, appropriate safety measures have been implemented, from safe distancing to hand sanitisers at each section, to stipulated timeslots to ensure all visitors get a fair chance to experience the installations.

Patrick Moran

“Virtual Realms transforms the concepts and creativity of videogames into six experiential realms. We are really excited to finally bring Virtual Realms to life and invite the public to activate these works,” said co-curator Patrick Moran. “Collaboration is at the heart of this exhibition, with our co-producers ArtScience Museum and Melbourne Museum working together with the Barbican on the exhibition’s production across time zones and locations, as well as six new collaborative partnerships being formed between leading game designers and cutting-edge media artists.”

“What’s also key is the collaboration between the creators of these experiences and their audience – for it is only through interaction and play that these artworks truly take form and become transformative. We hope game connoisseurs and gallery visitors alike find in Virtual Realms a platform to discover videogame creativity anew: as an artform in its own right, a powerful medium of our time, and a playful collaborative experience beyond the constraints of a virtual world.”

– Patrick Moran, Co-curator of Virtual Realms

With a collaboration on such a global scale, the process leading up to the exhibition’s launch hasn’t been easy, with none of the creators being physically present for the actual installation process due to flight restrictions. First conceptualised in 2018, most of the major briefings and discussions between producers and creators have been held over video chat. Co-curator Patrick Moran himself had to serve a 21-day quarantine after flying over to Singapore, before he could formally begin work on the exhibition proper, along with his team of assistants.

“Any exhibition at the moment faces challenges, but because of its complexity, Virtual Realms in particular has shown the incredible amount of commitment from our partners and all the teams involved,” says Patrick.

“The pandemic may have happened but life hasn’t stopped. As soon as the opportunity arose, we wanted to take it up so we could showcase the incredible work and creativity that went into this project. I am hugely grateful for the trust people put in me, from the Barbican to the ArtScience Museum to all the creatives involved, and I am incredibly pleased with everyone’s contributions, and excited to be sharing this with the public here in Singapore.”

– Patrick Moran, Co-curator of Virtual Realms

Upon entering the exhibition, one is greeted by an audio soundscape specially commissioned by Scottish composer Erland Cooper. Titled Kyirked, the 13-minute track plays throughout the exhibition as you walk from installation to installation, and was created from a palette of digital instruments. The composition was then transferred onto magnetic tape, which gave the soundscape a physical texture, and with its rich tapestry of sounds, invites viewers to imagine a slowly growing ecosystem, immersing us across various ‘realms’ as we wander.

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

The very first installation, Rezonance, was created by co-curator Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s company Enhance, and Japanese media designer Rhizomatiks. Inspired by the theme of Synaesthesia, a condition where one can ‘see’ sound or ‘hear’ colour, the installation takes its cue from Mizuguchi’s hit musical rail shooter Rez (2001), which featured a constantly changing musical environment and landscape as they progressed through levels.

Rezonance then introduces the idea of cooperative play, where visitors each hold a polyhedron ‘controller’, and step into the colourful play area projected on the ground. Depending on how visitors move around the space, Rezonance will react to their avatars, as they burst orbs of light to produce new sounds, their ‘controllers’ vibrating in response to the track. With multimodal tech and motion sensors all around, even the height at which you move your ‘controller’ has an effect. Here’s a hint – get closer with your fellow players in each segment of the experience; you might just encounter something truly magical when you bring your ‘controllers’ together, and end up feeling like you’ve produced a work of art in the stunning finale.

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

In a similar vein to Rezonance, the second installation, Together: the distance between (us) has visitors working in tandem to provoke effects on a cosmic-looking light installation above them. Created by By thatgamecompany and FIELD.IO, the experience is themed after ‘Unity’, and takes a leaf from cooperative mobile game Sky: Children of the Light. Music and audio fragments from the game are triggered as viewers walk around the space. Gather in a circle, and you might be privy to a musical light show, as it dances for you like a dozen shooting stars, momentarily illuminating the faces of everyone around you, and know the people who are experiencing this profoundly beautiful moment alongside you.

Sky: Children of the Light was so visually different, and that excited us to do a bold shift, both in the sound and the approach,” says Vincent Diamante, music composer at thatgamecompany. “The game was so contrary to things we usually do, where instead of quests and objectives to achieve, it was about coming together, so we designed it such that the music structure changes keys every few sections.”

“We initially thought we would focus on the visual elements, but realised that the sound and composition were so important in thatgamecompany’s games,” adds Vera-Maria Glahn of FIELD.IO. “We ended up keeping it open-ended, and capitalising on the idea of bringing people together via play, and leaving it up to each person to navigate the space intuitively.”

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

The third segment takes inspiration from blockbuster game auteur Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. As explained to us, Kojima viewed games either as ‘sticks’ or ‘ropes’. “The stick is the first tool that mankind created to put distance between himself and bad things – to protect himself,” said Kojima, in an interview with IGN in 2016. “The second tool mankind created is a rope. A rope is a tool used to secure things that are important to you.”

“Most of your tools in action games are sticks. You punch or you shoot or you kick. The communication is always through these sticks. I want people to be connected not through sticks, but through what would be the equivalent of ropes.”

– game designer Hideo Kojima, on his idea behind Death Stranding, in an interview with IGN in 2016

In WALL then, themed around ‘Connection’, creators KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS and The Mill literally created a wall. One one side of the wall, visitors view cell-like objects, which divide as you interact with them. On the other side, the landscape is more akin to a solar system, with cosmic dust floating through it, which visitors can disperse and disturb with their movements.

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

But if you look closely, you’ll begin to notice additional patterns and formations, representing the silhouette of the visitor on the other side. This was by far the most sci-fi inspired and ‘artistic’ work of the six, and evoked curious questions about parallel universes as we pondered over the massiveness of outer space and the microscopic nature of where life began in cells, all while attempting to ‘communicate’ with each other on different sides of the wall. One was reminded of films like Arrival (2016), as we wondered: how do we speak to each other without words, and if we were on such a completely different existential scale from one another?

“Beyond just the core concept of Connection, Kojima has this whole wealth of themes and concepts and dualities in his games, from life and death to past and present,” says Noel Drew of The Mill. “Our initial thoughts led us to thinking how we could effectively build up these opposing worlds, and we hit upon the idea of the barriers we build up around us, and the use of tech to break down those barriers and allowing people to connect across this epic monolithic barrier.”

Moving on to the most physically-demanding of the six installations, Dream Shaping uses game developers Media Molecule’s digital toolset ‘Dreams’ to play in a digital ball pit. Co-created with media designers Marshmallow Laser Feast, the installation encapsulated the theme of ‘Play’, as visitors donned tracking helmets that connected them to this virtual world.

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

Picking up oversized ‘controllers’ in various shapes, we felt like we were brought back to a simpler time, like kindergarteners, as we pushed a seemingly endless array of digital balls aside, before we were launched into space, where touching a cosmic ball of light would transform our onscreen avatars into something more. By making act of physical, tactile play such a key element of this installation, one almost saw it as a piece of interactive performance art, and took a moment to regress into our childhood and enjoy the fun of just letting go.

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

Developing a segment of their hit videogame RiME for this exhibition, Spanish game developers Tequila Works collaborated with The Workers to create The Book of Sand. Focusing on the theme of ‘Narrative’, this installation took the form of a 360-degree screen, where visitors can step into a spotlight to interact with the onscreen environment. Set up as a series of puzzles, visitors must work together and use their brains to move the story forward, as we fended off dark creatures and followed mysterious guides through this fantasy world, all the way to its emotional end.

“Life is a story that never ends, with an infinite number of chapters. We’re always longing to find meaning, but realistically, we can never gather all that knowledge, and all we know is what we can see, hear and experience,” says Raul Rubio, CEO and Creative Director of Tequila Works. “Like grains of sand, we are part of something bigger in the universe. And even the lake, the sea, the planet is a part of a greater solar system out there. I want visitors to go there and realise what a great privilege it is to be a grain of sand, with no instructions telling you what to do or what to feel as you play and experience The Book of Sand.”

Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

Virtual Realms ends off on its most ambitious work of all – Eye, by David OReilly and onedotzero. Based off David OReilly’s 2017 game Everything, Eye tackles the idea of infinite space, considering the beginning of life and the cosmos beyond it. Stepping into the room, we are immediately overwhelmed by a classical piece recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and face an endless stream of objects on a large screen before us. Visitors can rotate three oversized controllers to play with the ‘flow’, ‘scale’ and ‘warp’ of the shifting kaleidoscopic formations. Alternatively, one can simply sit down and watch, and consider the fascination of this computer-generated ‘mandala’, each psychedelic pattern unique and infinite, as it reflects off the many mirrors on the walls within the exhibition.

Co-curator Tetsuya Mizuguchi

“It has truly been an honour to serve as guest curator for Virtual Realms, work alongside the Barbican team, Chiara Stephenson, and build the exhibition together with the game developers and media artists,” says Virtual Realms co-curator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. “When the Barbican first approached me about Virtual Realms, I took immediate interest and knew I wanted to be involved.”

“From my own experience, I’ve seen and continue to learn how the pairing of game developers and media designers open up so much potential for new ways to play, connect, experience, and more. This exhibition is only the beginning of something much bigger – it paves the way for a future where the world of games spills out beyond the screen.”

– Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Co-curator of Virtual Realms

“Creating a game is creating an experience, much like creating experiential art. There is a fine line between that and entertainment, where they stand on the same line, but just take a different point of view,” adds Mizuguchi. “Games are constantly changing with technology, with new experiences that never stop. I often wonder what is the form games will take in future.”

With 2021 being the celebration of the ArtScience Museum’s 10th anniversary, Virtual Realms is all the more significant, as an example of an incredibly ambitious collaboration that has come to life against all odds, boldly challenging the uneasiness of human connection in the midst of a pandemic. That fear is assuaged by creating this safe space for people to come together, and for a few moments, as they play together and experience these works of art with each other, feel safe and sound, with the power of technology and creative design.

“We are immensely grateful to our partners for working so hard to allow our visitors in Singapore to step inside these six stunning installations. We hope to share that contemporary videogames transcend entertainment, and can be powerful mediums of exchange, creativity, collaboration and connectedness,” concludes Honor Harger.

Following its run in Singapore, Virtual Realms will go on to exhibit in Australia, starting in Perth (from March 2022 – June 2022), then Melbourne (October 2022 – March 2023), before returning to Europe.

Virtual Realms: Videogames Transformed runs from 12th June 2021 to 9th January 2022 at the ArtScience Museum. Tickets and more information available here

1 comment on “Art What!: Video games elevated to art at the ArtScience Museum’s Virtual Realms

  1. Pingback: Art What!: ArtScience Museum to open permanent VR Gallery this July – Bakchormeeboy

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