Why does the ‘metaverse’ matter to art and culture?

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The metaverse represents ongoing shifts in digital infrastructure. But how does it impact artists and cultural institutions, and how do we actively engage with it?

With David Blandy | Artist, Maitreyi Maheshwari | Head of Programmes FACT, Liverpool, Kay Watson | Head of Arts Technologies,Serpentine, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley | Artist

Part of Creative Coalition Festival’s Factory series, Why Does the ‘Metaverse’ Matter to Art and Culture? delved into the emergence of the metaverse, an online space where entertainment and gaming intertwines with community. Through the works of two artists, we gain an insight into the kinds of artwork being created in the digital sphere, and how the metaverse is both a promising and controversial space.

Kay Watson, Head of Arts Technologies at Serpentine, London, chaired the event, with speakers including: David Blandy – Artist; Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley – Artist; Maitreyi Maheshwari – Head of Programmes, FACT, Liverpool.

Kay Watson described the metaverse as a “persistent second virtual world and maturing internet megastructure.” The metaverse is not simply an amplification of the physical world, but instead its own independent “site and space of culture, creativity and participation.”

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley is a strong proponent of the digital space as an inclusive and supportive community. “I usually make art that archives Black trans people in the form of an interactive piece, so you usually have to input your identity.” Depending on what that identity is, the game will decide on your path through the game, and determine how the experience unfolds for the player.

But as far as the types of metaverses being created by social media companies such as Facebook go, Danielle has her reservations. Brandishing these attempts as a “moneyverse”, her concerns question the sincerity of these companies: “The kind of background things that these social media platforms do is quite worrying,” she says. “Like tracking certain data and advertisements, and how everything is pushed towards a more capitalistic idea rather than what the players want.”

David Blandy agreed, adding that the real impact of the metaverse lies in the spaces developed by the communities themselves. “I think a lot of these MMOs, they try to create a space where something can happen but they have no idea what’s going to happen there. And they have no idea who’s going to latch onto it. And often it becomes something completely different from what they envisaged… it’s a space to find like-minded individuals. And that’s what we want as humans.”

Maitreyi Maheshwari expanded upon this, saying “the disheartening thing about the commercialization of those spaces is that it is essentially monetizing a very basic, primal human need to be a social animal to be to exist in the company of others.” And, whilst Maitreyi can see a real social positive in the metaverse as a place of access for those marginalised in the physical world, she also is aware that these expanding digital spaces and ones of privilege. “Half the world will never have access to this technology… [the metaverse] is a playground for the privileged.”

Returning to David and Danielle’s work, Katy delves into the role of organisation and audience: “What do these spaces provide and how do they change the way you work in relation to audiences and community?”

“A lot of my works are online,” Danielle says. “They exist as their own URLs, but the reason they have to exist as their own URLs is because sometimes they can’t exist on these other platforms.” Her work, she says, has been rejected from sites like Facebook and Instagram in the past, raising the question of who controls those spaces.

Building an archive of work for and by Black Trans people, Danielle knows that her work is at risk of being silenced: “it’s strange that doing this on some of these platforms, you see how people are erased live and you see it happen on a day to day basis.”

Working with the tabletop game community, David recognises that his audience is already outside of the traditional gallery setting: “My primary audience is that space rather than the gallery space or an art audience. It’s both an infiltration and a kind of provocation in some ways.” That collaboration often leads to something being created that extends beyond David himself. “It turns into a document that other people in the community take and they’ll play their own games in their own time. It’s this activity that we’ll never see, only hear secondhand reports of.”

Wrapping up the discussion, Maitreyi describes how time is what is needed for artists; the need to break away from the cycle of constant delivery and towards a more patient approach. “[Artists] need time. They need time to be able to think and develop and grow their practice.” That breakway, for Danielle, is rooted in a break from the gallery institution: “You can make it whenever you want and say, I’ve made this, you can see it for free…You don’t have to uncomfortable in a certain space. Your space is the best space for it to be viewed.”