There Is No Centre
THERE IS NO CENTRE was an interactive digital exhibition curated by Katie Micak for the MacKenzie Art Gallery that ran from 23 February until 24 May 2023. Click below to visit the exhibition archive.
There Is No Centre
Can an exhibition be a game and the viewer a player? In the experiential online exhibition, THERE IS NO CENTRE, the visual language of gaming is adapted to explore how the presentation of an artwork in a digital environment shifts the viewer’s role as a player and challenges traditional exhibition-making norms.
The exhibition’s title comes from the game studies concept of the “Magic Circle,” which refers to the idea that games exist within a separate, constructed reality with its own rules and dynamics. In this context, THERE IS NO CENTRE investigates what happens when the magic circle is applied to an art exhibition, transforming it into a game-like experience.
THERE IS NO CENTRE takes place in a virtual gallery composed of seven ‘levels,’ each hosting a ‘solo show’ for each artwork. Inspired by the magic circle concept, this framing invites viewers to explore and engage with the art pieces in a game-like environment.
In adopting the first-person player perspective, THERE IS NO CENTRE considers the accepted norms and familiar mechanics of contemporary video gaming, such as choice-based moments, goal-less exploration, and even “loot boxes.” This approach enables a meta-awareness of the medium specificity of online exhibitions. By allowing each artwork to exist, per the “Magic Circle,” in its own “separate and special place,” viewers become more immersed in artworks spanning various practices, including video games, memes, 3D sculptures, VR landscapes, and video art.
The exhibit features works by Thoreau Bakker, Milumbe Haimbe, Elizabeth LaPensée and Weshoyot Alvitre (et al.), Adrienne Matheuszik, Tom Sherman, Fallon Simard, and Xuan Ye.
Curated by Katie Micak.
Katie Micak is a hybrid professional with curatorial, research and artistic practices focused on technology’s effect on space, relationships, emotional states and our collective understanding of shifting realities.
She is one of the founding members and returning curators of Vector Festival. Vector Festival began as an independent initiative highlighting video game-based artwork as a mode of research and personal expression. Vector Festival is now part of the Toronto based ARC, InterAccess’ annual programming, and now showcasing a broad range of digital art across diverse presentation platforms.
Micak has worked as Gallery Director of Spark Contemporary Art Space (Syracuse, NY) and Propeller Gallery (Toronto), as Digital Media Presentation Specialist at the Phillips Collection (Washington, DC), curated the Toronto Kids Digital Festival, and recently as curator and artist residency coordinator at the Living Arts Centre for the City of Mississauga.
As an educator Micak has developed and delivered courses for Syracuse University in the department of Transmedia, and at Brock University in the department of Communications, Popular Culture, and Film. She has also held teaching academic positions at OCAD University and Western University in visual arts. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University in Transmedia: Video Art, and an MA in Digital Futures from OCAD University.
THERE IS NO CENTRE is the first in a series of digital exhibitions created through the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s Digital Exhibitions Toolkit and Art Installation Launcher (DETAIL)—a newly developed resource championing the development of art exhibitions for digital platforms.
DETAIL provides institutions, curators, and artists with tools to help facilitate the production of interactive digital art exhibitions. DETAIL incorporate solutions for mobile and desktop access to artworks created in virtual reality, augmented reality, exhibitions for video game consoles, in-person interactive experiences, and online browser-based exhibitions. The MacKenzie Art Gallery is hosting three digital exhibitions built with DETAIL between 2023-24 to demonstrate the toolkit’s capabilities. Funded by the Canada Council for the Art’s Digital Strategy Fund, DETAIL will be publicly launched in late 2024.
DETAIL is developed by Cat Bluemke and Jonathan Carroll, Digital Exhibitions Consultants at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
VR Cat, 2018-2022
Courtesy of the artist
VR Cat is a 3D sculpture born from digital and analog processes. Using Virtual Reality sculpting software, Bakker could simulate a process similar to the clay technique of “hand-building” with digital hand-tracking controllers and software accessed through an Oculus VR headset. Because of the sculpting program’s automated nature, Bakker achieved a highly polished figure, like a commercial toy.
The VR Cat is gamified in a custom digital environment for THERE IS NO CENTRE. Upon entering the space, viewers will see a box reading ‘click’ to activate the interaction. Once clicked, a VR Cat will emerge, levitate in the air, and then toss to the floor.
Bakker has created 60 skins, or colourful textures, resulting in 60 versions of the VR Cat. Viewers can only see all iterations of the sculpture by clicking the box to reveal one version at a time. As such, viewers can continue to ‘unbox’ VR Cats indefinitely, piling them into a mountain of colourful cat cuteness.
In this piece, Bakker comments on the repetitive nature of dopamine-driven online behaviours such as shopping, gambling, or social media interactions. The work also references ‘blind box’ toys and the indisputable popularity of cats on the internet.
Thoreau Bakker is a Toronto-based artist and academic. Initially a sculptor, Bakker engages with digital fabrication artworks for public space and how physical objects shift to digital spaces. Bakker is a PhD candidate in the Media & Design Innovation at Toronto Metropolitan University, and is currently exploring social interaction in online multiplayer video games as a subset of virtual environments, searching for alternatives to combat based game affordances, in hopes of making virtual environments welcoming and accessible.
Eshu Elegbara — God of Crossroads, 2018
Courtesy of the artist
In Zambian-born artist Milumbe Haimbe’s 2D point-and-click game, African cultural mythology and its allegories—re-interpreted using the Tyrano Builder visual novel engine—ask powerful questions about truth. Players transport from a sleepy bus in downtown Toronto to a liminal and timeless space inhabited and controlled by the ancient Eshu Elegbara — God of the Crossroads.
Eshu Elegbara comes originally from the Yoruba people of West Africa and is known as a benevolent trickster who moves between the known and divine realms. By taking you to the crossroads, Eshu Elegbara traps you between realms until you’ve successfully answered his three riddles.
These riddles, presented in the game as choice-based prompts, recall West African folklore, traditionally passed down generationally through oral storytelling, and are meant to teach concepts including compromise, humility and the importance of kindness.
In this piece, Haimbe asks; how does the traditional format of oral storytelling translate into the medium of the video game? Can games, or interactive digital media, echo and expand upon the affective impact of lessons passed down through generations?
Milumbe Haimbe was born in Lusaka, Zambia. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture obtained from the Copperbelt University in Kitwe Zambia, and also holds a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts obtained from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Norway.
She is a multimedia artist interested in exploring diversity in popular media and culture. Her work combines several mediums including drawing, illustration, animation, video, 3D modeling, text and comic book art to navigate these themes.
She has exhibited her work in numerous shows and has attended several international art residencies, including the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in Washington DC in 2016. Haimbe is a recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Arts Fellowship Award in 2015 and recently participated in the Vector Festival for new media art in Toronto in July 2020.
Interstellar Illusions, 2022
Courtesy of the artist
Adrienne Matheuszik’s Interstellar Illusions addresses themes of colonialism, exploitation and consumption by examining a possible future of space travel and tourism. The immersive, Unity-built 3D environment leverages science fiction and fantasy aesthetics within a navigate-able speculative narrative, where viewers can explore a fictional and abandoned extraplanetary luxury resort. It is unclear why it is a vacated resort, but what’s left behind offers an eerie glimpse of the future of space travel and tourism.
Existing extraplanetary explorations prioritize uncovering “biological potential” for supporting human life on other planets. As of 2022, around 50 planets are identified as having this potential. Corporations such as SpaceX pursue the possibility of colonizing Mars as the Earth’s ecological disasters become more intense.
Interstellar Illusions asks if humans colonize new worlds, would we create new systems, or will extra-terrestrial planets simply become extensions of existing models of colonization, which has been the Earthling’s experience?
The artist produced Interstellar Illusions with generous support from the Canada Council for the Arts.
Adrienne Matheuszik is a mixed Jamaican & settler-Canadian interdisciplinary artist in Toronto. Adrienne has had unsupervised access to the internet since she was nine years old. Adrienne uses computers to make art — video, physical computing, creative coding & 3D design — which usually result in interactive installations, augmented reality, short film and video. Her work explores ideas of representation & identity online and IRL. She is interested in speculative futures and using sci-fi to examine the possibility of the post-colonial.
Adrienne has an MFA from OCAD University from the Interdisciplinary Masters of Art Media and Design Graduate program (2019), and a BFA from University of Ottawa with a specialization in New Media Art (2014).
Exclusive Memory (excerpt #9), 1987
single-channel video, 20:00 minutes, looping
Courtesy of the VTape
As a three-hour-long video installation commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1987, Tom Sherman’s Exclusive Memory moves through excerpts from a 6-hour-long monologue where the artist attempts to train a factitious Artificially Intelligent (AI) robot.
Sherman can be seen on a split-screen, speaking directly to the machine via a rotary telephone, providing so-called “experience transfers” through conversational, human-to-machine monologues. The robot can understand the colloquial language but cannot respond, allowing the artist to present a wide range of topics to the newly born AI. Sherman, acknowledging that building a computer to think requires more than technical or scientific practices, opts for conversation and storytelling as his chosen form of training.
THERE IS NO CENTRE presents a looping, 20-minute-long excerpt of Exclusive Memory where Sherman explains the then-contemporary technological innovations and limitations of robotics and AI and the artist’s personal feelings towards the evolution of human-computer relationships.
Looking back at this landmark video, viewers can observe an artistic gesture that is both visionary and cautionary, as Sherman predicts the potential of AI technology while including the importance of human experience for building future machines.
Tom Sherman is an artist and writer. He works across media (video, radio, performance, print and the Web). From a phenomenological perspective, he is obsessed with tracking perception and experience through description and to this end he authors all manner of texts. He represented Canada in “Canada Video” at the Venice Biennale in 1980, and for over five decades his interdisciplinary work has been featured in hundreds of international exhibitions and festivals, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, National Gallery of Canada, Museum of Modern Art (New York), Whitney Museum of American Art, Documenta X, Ars Electronica, Tate Britain, the Impakt Festival, Kassseler Dokfest, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. In 1997 he founded Nerve Theory, a recording and performance duo with Viennese musician and composer Bernhard Loibner, and has been a contributor to many radio art programs on Kunstradio, the Austrian Broadcasting System, and other radio venues internationally from 1997 to 2021. He has published extensively, including Cultural Engineering, National Gallery of Canada, 1983, and Before and After the I-Bomb: an Artist in the Information Environment, Banff Centre Press, 2002. He received the Bell Canada Award for excellence in video art in 2003, and Canada’s Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Art in 2010. Sherman is professor emeritus in the Department of Film and Media Art at Syracuse University.
Bodies That Monetize (series), 2018
Images of “Memes”
Courtesy of the artist
In the series, Bodies that Monetize, Anishinaabe-Metis artist, educator, and policy writer Fallon Simard explores memes’ formal and conceptual potential. First developed for a physical installation, Simard showed the memes as giclée prints, a gesture meant to dislocate the images from their expected, shareable online platforms.
Bodies that Monetize investigate ‘bad feelings’ as manifestations of injustice, human rights violations and colonial violence, which remains present and lived. Capturing how racism and colonialism intercede to form the bases of capitalism’s devastating attempts at cultural erasure and genocide, these images assert Simard’s position that Indigenous art is an exclamation of Indigeneity’s inherent sovereignty.
The images are installed large-scale, like an IRL gallery exhibition, in a warehouse interior filled with coniferous vegetation. Within first-person shooter (FPS) video games, the warehouse typically functions as a location for a gun battle. To counteract the images of violence it evokes, this warehouse supports a growing forest, pointing to concepts of returning to the land and the restoration of Indigenous sovereignty over it. In revisiting the project within a custom digital environment for THERE IS NO CENTRE, Simard reframes these image objects in a virtual and conceptual place of regrowth.
Fallon Simard is an Anishinaabe-Metis interdisciplinary, artist, filmmaker, educator and policy writer from Couchiching First Nation in Grand Council Treaty #3 Territory. He is an interdisciplinary artist, research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, policy analyst at the Chiefs of Ontario, and Owner of Contrary Company. His professional appointments enable research into social policy fields such as gender identity, mental-health, child-welfare, and mortality. The experience in these fields propels Simard to create artwork that directly investigates policy and theory in these areas through video, illustration, and memes. Thirza Cuthand in a review in Canadian Art describes Simard’s work “as firmly situated within a strong history in Canada of experimental Indigenous video art. Their experimental, politically charged work gets to the heart of issues of Indigenous sovereignty and struggle.” Simard graduated from OCAD University through the interdisciplinary Masters of Art, Media and Design program. He has exhibited at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, curated for the Queer Art Festival in Toronto, written policy for the Yellowhead Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University and participated in Plug In ICA’s Summer Institute.
When Rivers Were Trails, 2019
Courtesy of the artists
When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D adventure game told through many Indigenous cultural histories and values. This immersive game allows players to journey from Minnesota to California amidst the impact of land allotment in the 1890s.
Within the game, players face life-or-death decisions as they navigate rough terrain, deal with run-ins with law enforcement, and assist fellow travellers. Interjections of stories and myths teach players about the medicinal properties of plants or the symbolic histories of animals.
This nonlinear game is vast, detailed, historical, and educational. It offers choices regarding how players travel, coming across Indigenous people, animals, plants, and run-ins with Indian Agents. Gameplay then speaks to sovereignty, nationhood, and being reciprocal with the land while translating historical events into an immersive experience.
Starting from a forest enclosed by a thick fog boundary; viewers may aimlessly wander through the landscape before entering the game. When ready, floating above are two screens operating as the game’s access points: a button hyperlinking to an external webpage where the game’s full download is available and a video trailer of the game.
When Rivers Were Trails was developed in collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab thanks to support from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The game features over thirty Indigenous contributors with creative directing by Nichlas Emmons, creative directing, design, and user interface art by Elizabeth LaPensée, art by Weshoyot Alvitre, and music by Supaman and Michael Charette. Indigenous writers include Weshoyot Alvitre, Li Boyd, Trevino Brings Plenty, Tyrone Cawston, Richard Crowsong, Eve Cuevas, Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter, Lee Francis IV, Carl Gawboy, Elaine Gomez, Ronnie Dean Harris, Tashia Hart, Renee Holt, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Adrian Jawort, Kris Knigge, E. M. Knowles, Elizabeth LaPensée, Annette S. Lee, David Gene Lewis, Korii Northrup, Nokomis Paiz, Carl Petersen, Manny Redbear, Travis McKay Roberts, Sheena Louise Roetman, Sara Siestreem, Joel Southall, Jo Tallchief, Allen Turner, and William Wilson, alongside guest writers Toiya K. Finley and Cat Wendt
Belly of the Whale, (2018-ongoing)
Courtesy of the artist
Built using the cross-platform game engine Unity, Belly of the Whale takes place on a commercial cruise ship, offering viewers a first-person virtual reality cruising experience. As viewers wander the ship, their geo-location—or movement path—is tracked and stored as a data stream.
Data traces of each viewer’s navigational path are visualized dynamically as a ghostly spectre and remain visible during THERE IS NO CENTRE’s exhibition run. As more visitors explore the interactive website, more pathways will appear, eventually overtaking the ship with a fog of movement. Viewers have the choice to either follow existing paths or create their own.
Moving beyond a simple virtual space, Belly of the Whale becomes a real-time living environment inhabited and changed by those who have visited. The micro-pathway collecting of audience movements symbolically reflects surveillance capitalism’s macro-migration patterns and systemic structures. By capturing data, the viewer’s navigation of the interactive website becomes an observable, quantifiable art experience. What happens when artworks become a source of data collection?
Xuan Ye 叶轩 works across various contexts of art, music, design and technology. Their works cohere around hacking-informed noisemaking, the erratum and the untranslatable. They make bots, edibles, digital neon signs and other multisensory networked experiences synthesizing language, code, sound, body, image, data, light, and time.
The artist has appeared internationally at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art (CN), the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada, Venice Architecture Biennale (IT), Fonderie Darling (CA), the Art Gallery of Ontario (CA), Inside-out Art Museum (CN), the Goethe-Institut (Beijing & Montreal), ArtAsiaPacific, KUNSTFORUM (GE), among others. They have performed at numerous experimental music festivals and DIY shows as a musician. Their live performances and releases have received critical accolades from Bandcamp, Musicworks and Exclaim!.
When Viewers are Players
Lockdowns and closures resulting from the COVID 19 pandemic, pushed many art exhibitions to be rapidly migrated online. These shows often operated like PDF documents or traditional webpages, and occasionally immersive digital environments.
Interestingly, many 3D digital exhibitions choose to present work in simulated white cube galleries presenting JPEGs or 3D sculptures scaled to their IRL size, or documented existing real-world exhibitions similarly navigable to real estate listings—most still very much referencing physical reality. Skeuomorphic designs (the design concept of making digital items resemble their real-world counterparts) dominated as online exhibitions made their first leap into the mainstream.1
Online exhibitions can offer unique possibilities for the presentation of art. Existing entirely in digital space, and integrating digital art practices seamlessly, they are unbound from the laws of physics. Digital shows have the unique ability to transport viewers into constructed realities, integrating visual, and sonic universes within a single screen.
Exhibitions, whether online, or IRL, invite viewers to travel through designed, meaningful spaces, however online exhibitions offer unique possibilities for the presentation of art. Online digital shows are typically developed through an intensive process requiring planning, storyboarding, and collaboration between artists, curators, and teams of designers or programmers. Exhibitions that reside on the Internet often require experimentation, user testing, and an iterative design methodology.
THERE IS NO CENTRE does not assume to be the first of its kind; there is definitely already a history of online experimental shows—Net Art exhibitions have been around as long as the Internet-but THERE IS NO CENTRE references video games, and attempts to pull from its unique qualities and visual language as presentation format in hopes of expanding the potential of what online exhibitions can offer to artists as expansions of their work, and to audiences as an experience.
This exhibition was built using the 3D animation software Unity. Unity enables users to build interactive and real-time responsive digital environments or scenes. Online shows built in this framework hold similar aesthetics to video games. Visitors can navigate environments as an avatar in first person point-of-view, with the task of viewing an exhibition.
The Magic Circle
In developing the show, I was inspired by a game theory first presented by Johann Huizinga in the book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Elements in Culture (1938). The concept describes how game play exists within a Magic Circle: a distinct realm with its own rules, reality, and goals.2
Katie Selan and Eric Zimmerman further examined this text in, Rules of Play, Game Design Fundamentals (2004) describing The Magic Circle as an imaginary location which can be entered into and exited out of, paused and resumed. This location is the idea of:
a special place in time and space created by a game. The circle is an important feature of this concept. As a closed circle, the space it circumscribes is enclosed and separate from the real world. As a marker of time, the magic circle is like a clock: it simultaneously represents a path with a beginning and end, but one without beginning and end. The magic circle inscribes a space that is repeatable, a space both limited and limitless. In short, a finite space with infinite possibility.3
The notion of ‘a centre’ implies symmetry, an intersection, or the middle of an enclosed shape.
THERE IS NO CENTRE presents concepts of asymmetry, or centereless-ness. It does so by evaluating how ‘rules’ of exhibition development alter when it comes to the process of constructing immersive digital shows.
Rules and roles for artists, curators, technical support teams, and viewers are often clearly defined in IRL shows. The specifics of working in the digital, a form that requires collaboration, allows iteration and experimentation, which shifts how these roles interact.
The artworks in this show are definitely developed by the artists, but the conversations that emerged around how these works could be presented in the digital space resulted in surprising outcomes. What emerged were; the gamification of 3D sculpture, the transportation of memes to a forest, a city bus to another realm, a video game floating above a river, alien mazes, the invisible made visible, and a robot sleeping behind a screen.
THERE IS NO CENTRE asks, how does the presentation of an artwork in a digital environment change the role of the viewer? Are works inherently gamified if they operate in the language of video games? If so, can an exhibition be a game, and the viewer, a player?
For the purposes of this essay, the terms ‘viewer’ and ‘player’ will be used interchangeably.
THERE IS NO CENTRE
THERE IS NO CENTRE takes place in a fictitious museum composed of seven ‘levels’. Viewers first find themselves in a round, door-less atrium enclosed with large poster-size images, similar to movie posters. Each image references a work in the exhibition. On one wall, A directionless elevator with an unusual, round dial allows viewers to select the order they will visit the show. Connecting the show, the elevator operates as a transitional space between virtual worlds, with mysterious icons representing the individual works.
Games are Stories
Two of the works are video games, each born from a need to tell a cultural history, immersing players in interactive stories.
Zambian-born artist Milumbe Haimbe, presents powerful allegories in her 2D puzzle game, Eshu Elegbara–God of Crossroads (2018). Eshu Elegbara is a mythological character originally from West Africa and is known as a benevolent trickster who moves between the material and divine realms.4
To access the game, players must first exit the elevator directly into the interior of a city bus. The bus appears to be completely ordinary, except for the presence of a floating screen emanating light. This screen is the portal for entering the artwork.
Players are captured and transported to a realm called ‘the crossroads.’ The goal is to return to your world, but before that is possible you must successfully answer three riddles.
If a riddle is answered incorrectly, players must start at the beginning of the game, and are unable to skip previous riddles. The game provides a cyclical experience and depending on how it is played, can be either delightful or frustrating.
Aesthetically, Haimbe’s drawings and text animations simultaneously reach into the past and the future by alternating between the ancient and speculative science fiction. Her interest in building this game was inspired by her desire to keep traditional stories alive.
This work is designed to appeal to younger generations who might not have access to traditional oral storytelling formats. It embraces technology as a means of connecting diasporic communities, creating a contained digital archive of important lessons and tales.
When Rivers Were Trails (2019) is an expansive project led by Anishinaabe-Métis and Irish artist Elizabeth LaPensée and Tongva and Scottish artist, writer, and illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre, and it involved the collaboration of around thirty Indigenous contributors.
When Rivers Were Trails is an immersive, first-person, point-and-click adventure game in which players take on the role of an Anishinaabe person in the 1890s, travelling from White Earth (located in what is commonly known as Minnesota) to Red Lake (located in what is known as California). Today these locations are known as White Earth Indian Reservation and Red Lake Indian Reservation respectively.
Installed in a forest, viewers may wander a landscape with two peculiar square objects floating in the air. These objects are access points for the game: a button which hyperlinks to an external webpage for downloading the game in full, and a screen that hosts a video trailer for the work.
Contextually, this game freezes a moment in time, in which Indigenous communities were dispersed by the United States government through the Nelson Act of 1889. This Act authorized that, “Indian tribal land [be divided] into allotments …If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount [“needed”], the federal government could purchase the land from tribes and sell it to [white] settlers for business opportunities… also [encouraging] the assimilation of Native peoples.”5
Within the game, players face life or death decisions as they navigate rough terrain, deal with run-ins with law enforcement, and assist fellow travellers. Interjections of stories and myths teach players about the medicinal properties of plants, or symbolic histories of animals. This game is vast, detailed, historical, and educational.
When Rivers Were Trails oscillates between historical context and personal choice, placing the player within an abstracted, yet powerful position of a person who lived through travelling a vast landscape with survival as the goal.
Without a Goal
Interstellar Illusions (2022) by Jamaican-Canadian artist Adrienne Matheuszik and Belly of the Whale (2018-ongoing) by Chinese, Toronto-based artist Xuan Ye, are both exploratory 3D digital spaces built without a goal for players.
Considering games without goals, Jesper Juul writes in Without a goal: On open and expressive games, that:
[often] video games are goal-oriented, rule-based activities, where players find enjoyment in working towards it… Goals provide a sense of direction and set up challenges for players to face… (but) Removing or making [goals] optional, can make new types of player experience6.
Rather than moving through digital space with a distinct aim, these works operate as expressive and metaphorical landscapes. Of course, there are still ‘rules’ to goalless games including the limitations and requirements of navigation, or the boundaries of set pathways. But, these games create meaning through the artist’s construction of the virtual world and the immersive player experience.
For Interstellar Illusions, Matheuszik invites viewers to wander a fictional and abandoned extra-terrestrial planetary resort located on ProximaB. The resort offers a ‘Kubrickesque’ feel, with a high level of symmetry in a series of maze-like corridors and hallways. Portals lead to hotel suites and a poolside lounge built within the vista of rough alien terrain and expansive celestial skyscapes.
Inspired by the recent and real possibility of space travel and tourism, Matheuszik is interested in addressing themes of colonialism, exploitation, and consumption by speculating on how humans might approach inhabiting ‘new’ planets.
Would humans create new systems and realities if offered a fresh start? Or, will extra-terrestrial exploration result in extensions of existing models of colonization as it currently exists within the Earth-based, human experience?
Matheuszik’s practice addresses colonial oppression by retelling histories through a science fiction lens in order to reimagine postcolonial realities.
Her work floats through ideas and possibility, but ultimately, Interstellar Illusions creates a world in parallel to our own, where a planet’s life sustaining resources are used, abused, and abandoned.
Next, Belly of the Whale by Xuan Ye. Originally built as an immersive VR experience in combination with a real-time EEG, brainwave sensing headset, custom software, and surround-sound. For THERE IS NO CENTRE, Belly of the Whale has been converted into an in-browser experience.
Taking place on a commercial cruise ship, viewers explore decks and rooms, leaving a ghostly white trail as they walk – this is a real-time visualization of each travelled path. The trails remain present for all subsequent visitors to see for the duration of the exhibition. As more visitors explore the piece, more pathways appear, eventually consuming the ship in a fog of captured movement.
These trails are a form of data visualization, collected to illustrate an individual player’s route of exploration.
In tracking the personalized movement, Ye builds a spatial metaphor for referencing an invisible undertone present in all data collection efforts; surveillance capitalism.
Harvard professor Dr. Shoshana Zuboff defines this term as:
The unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data… (to be) computed and packaged as products, and sold into futures markets.7
In Belly of the Whale, viewers will leave evidence of their exploration. The work is interested in exposing the insidious quality that data collection and surveillance has in both IRL and digital contexts. (I wonder–will data collection have an impact on future art exhibitions?)
Phygials in Space
The term “phygial” describes the blending of digital and physical experiences or objects8. Two works in THERE IS NO CENTRE oscillate between the digital and the analogue in both their concept and execution.
Thoreau Bakker’s VR Cat (2018-revisited in 2022) is a gamified 3D sculpture.
VR Cat was created in the software, Adobe Medium. This program requires a VR headset and specialized hand controllers. The artist was able to simulate a “hand-building” clay technique allowing Bakker to ‘physically’ sculpt the object in VR.
The specialized process allows Bakker to develop a highly polished figure with a similar aesthetic to a commercial toy, which was then 3D printed into a physical art object.
Returning to the digital, THERE IS NO CENTRE gamifies VR Cat allowing viewers to ‘play’ with a digital toy, and with the idea of mass production.
Upon entering the space, viewers will see a cardboard box sitting within a white void of nothingness. The box reads ‘click’–this instruction activates the interaction. Once clicked, a VR Cat is revealed, popping from the closed box, only to be tossed aside in order to reveal the next cute kitty.
To expand on this, Bakker investigates the impulsive need to click and collect by hiding VR Cats in a mysterious and bottomless box.
Bakker developed 60 colourful textures called ‘skins’ for the sculpture, changing a singular digital object into a series of multiples.
Viewers can interact and ‘unbox’ VR Cats repeatedly, gathering dopamine ‘hits’, similarly experienced in social media interactions, and referencing the pleasure of consumption and accumulation.
Anishinaabe-Metis artist, educator, and policy writer, Fallon Simard explores the formal and conceptual potential of memes as objects by presenting six images from a larger series of work called, Bodies that Monetize (2016-17).
The JPEGs show a range of imagery ranging from the mundane (a burger and fries, a crumpled bag), the natural (a pink cherry tree) and the abstracted (a line drawing resembling a human figure) with text phrases layered over top.
Bodies that Monetize visualizes ‘bad feelings’ in response to injustice, human rights violations, and colonial violence.
First developed for a physical installation at Toronto’s Blank Canvas Gallery in 2017, Bodies that Monetize showed the memes as giclée prints -dislocating them from their expected, shareable online platforms.
The tangible objects were meant to engage and activate conversations in physical space and IRL communities instead of in the digital.
Simard’s practice addresses the harm caused to bodies by colonial violence. The images that compose the Bodies that Monetize series are highly emotive, creating feelings of emptiness, grief, and loss. Simard writes:
Rather than seeing how the harms of resource extraction, settler-colonialism, and neoliberalism are imprinted on the body, my images reveal a distance … The still images –or memes–illustrate how bodies are disconnected and removed from the land due to the insidious methods of settler-colonialism.9
Presenting these memes in physical space as standalone objects creates a disconnect between their typical or intended usage. The metaphorical gesture is meant to illustrate how cognitive dissonance has been normalized as a coping strategy for living within the realities of colonial harm.
Simard points out that the concept applies not only to Indigenous communities, but for all those who live on unceded land.10
THERE IS NO CENTRE presents images from Bodies that Monetize in an interior of a warehouse filled with coniferous vegetation. In video games, warehouses often function as a location for gun battle or combat. To counteract associations with the violent stage, this warehouse supports a growing forest.
The presence of trees and plants point to concepts of returning to the land, and the restoration of Indigenous sovereignty over it.
In revisiting the project, Simard reframes these image/objects–returning them to their original digital environment, now in a virtual and conceptual place of regrowth.
Extending the Economy of Images
Standing alone as the only ‘non-computer’ and audio dependent piece, Tom Sherman’s Exclusive Memory (1987) is a 20-minute excerpt of a six-hour video performance selected in collaboration with the artist.
The work is presented in the most skeuomorphic installation of the show; a familiar IRL video projection setup in a dark room.
Speakers flank a suspended projection screen, allowing for the rich and textured audio of Sherman’s speaking voice to increase in volume as viewers approach the double-sided video image.
Exclusive Memory dramatizes a university professor working in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, who is conducting research. The video is static, showing the artist speaking through a corded telephone to a listener off-screen.
The work illustrates a fictional training session between the artist and an intelligent robot, who is able to see Sherman via the cameras, but is not able to process his movement. The robot can understand colloquial language but is not able to respond.
Sherman speaks on a variety of concepts. His monologue is a stream of consciousness, flowing between real and fabricated descriptions including: types of images, human perception, technological innovation, and predictive observations. Interwoven, are humorous tangents on past career ventures, and how video games keep children from killing insects.
These conversational monologues are referred to by Sherman as ‘experience transfers’, in which he relays information in a storytelling format. The excerpt, though broad, captures a central idea in Exclusive Memory’s overall investigation; an analysis of the economy of images.
There has been much theory and research pertaining to the concepts surrounding the economy of images as it relates to capitalist interests, or monetary value. However, in Exclusive Memory, Sherman creates his own definition.
He is interested in the currency images hold from an information standpoint, identifying that although still images do hold a great deal of informational value for the robot, it is what’s outside the frame, the spatial context, that extends and grounds the image’s meaning.
The still image has a great deal of value… (Humans) have mobility perceptually in terms of time, and referencing the imagery in terms of our own history, or psycho-history. We have the capability of moving our own bodies around and look (at still images) from different perspectives, looking at it comprehensively from different positions.11
Not having to contend with the narrow frame of the camera, Sherman explains to the robot that humans are ‘in’ the image, and the image is the world.
Next, the artist speaks excitedly, sharing that at the core of technological innovation is the human desire to connect with machines:
Developments have occurred and we’re going to see a vast change in the whole concept of the economy of images…we’re going to see an interrelationship between the static and the moving which is going to be really incredible. Human awareness is going to be improved by modelling these perceptual techniques in machines.12
Next, pausing to think, Sherman changes his tone to speak directly to ‘us,’ the audience of his video. Revealing that he is ‘only pretending’ to train the robot, the performance is actually meant to model his ideal human-machine relationship.
By breaking the fourth wall and turning his attention away from the invisible robot towards us the unseen viewers, Sherman collapses the conceptual and spatial boundaries of the piece.
Exclusive Memory is a video from 1987, installed in the custom-built Unity environment in 2023. As Sherman reaches through the video’s frame, addressing the viewer, THE boundaries of artwork begin blur into the digital environment–bending the viewer’s ‘location’ in virtual space.
Sherman collapses the ‘frame’ of his video-and, in a way, enters the digital installation by engaging the virtual audience. Of course, the real audience is sitting at home on their computer, playing the show.13
THERE IS NO CENTRE does not strive to turn immersive online art exhibitions into video games, nor does it hope to turn all viewers into players.
Instead, this exhibition recognizes that three-dimensional and navigable worlds are instinctively tied to the visual language of video game space and the activity of play.
THERE IS NO CENTRE points towards expanding the conceptual boundaries of digital art presentation, pointing towards an endless digital vista, where horizons are illusions and viewers walk through walls.
This exhibition would not have been possible without collaboration. I am especially thankful for the care, attention, conversation, time, skill, creativity, and patience of Cat Bluemke and Jonathan Carroll who managed and coordinated much of this project, and built all of the host environments for each artwork.
Thank you to Adrienne Matheuszik for beautifully constructing and visualizing curatorial designs for the THERE IS NO CENTRE atrium and elevator.
Thank you to the MacKenzie Art Gallery for inviting me to participate and curate for this exciting and experimental initiative, and to Crystal Mowry for championing the project. Special thanks to Shauna Jean Doherty and Rea McNamara for editorial support and feedback.
And finally thank you to all of the artists for experimenting and engaging with the project, and to my IRL people for their abundance of support.
1. Kayla J. Heffernan, “Skeuomorphism is dead, long live skeuomorphism,” Medium, 5 Mar, 2019.
2. Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1938).
3. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003).
4. Merecedes Cros. Sandoval, Worldview, the Orichas, and Santeria: Africa to Cuba and Beyond (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009).
5. Elizabeth LaPensée & Nichlas Emmons, “When Rivers Were Trails,” in Films for the Feminist Classroom, Issue 9, Summer, 2019, See also “Dawes Act (1887).” National Archives and Records Administration.
6. Jesper Juul, “Without a Goal – On Open and Expressive Games,” in Videogame, Player, Text, eds. Barry Atkins & Tanya Krzywinska. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
7. John Laidler, “High tech is watching you,” The Harvard Gazette, Mar 4, 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/03/harvard-professor-says-surveillance-capitalism-is-undermining-democracy.
8. Maria Goicoechea de Jorge, “The Art Object in a Post-Digital World: Some Artistic Tendencies in the Use of Instagram,” Electronic Book Review, March 6, 2022, https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/the-art-object-in-a-post-digital-world-some-artistic-tendencies-in-the-use-of-instagram.
9. Fallon A. Simard, “Bodies that Monetize” (MFA thesis, Ontario College of Art and Design University, 2017).
10. Fallon Simard, Bodies that Monetize.
11. Tom Sherman, Exclusive Memory, 1987.
12. Tom Sherman, Exclusive Memory, 1987.
13. As a note, a digital image is hidden within this installation. This image is a rendering of an IRL painting by Sherman called Sleeping Robot (1987). Incidentally this painting was shown in an exhibition called Siting Technologies curated by Diana Augaitis at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1988.
Texts of inspiration (not cited in essay):
Connor, Michael. “Curating Online Exhibitions, Part 1: Performance, Variability, Objecthood.” Rhizome Blog (2020). https://rhizome.org/editorial/2020/may/13/curating-online-exhibitions-pt-1/
Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “The art of contested spaces.” In Game on, pp. 97-102. New York, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/~21fms/People/henry3/contestedspaces.html
List of Figures
Figure 1. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, THERE IS NO CENTRE (atrium detail), 2023. Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 2. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, THERE IS NO CENTRE (elevator detail), 2023. Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 3. Milumbe Haimbe, Eshu Elegbara—God of Crossroads (Crossroad detail), 2018. Video game. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 4. Milumbe Haimbe, Eshu Elegbara—God of Crossroads (Egret detail), 2018. Video game. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 5. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation for Eshu Elegbara—God of Crossroads, by Milumbe Haimbe. 2023 (installation detail). Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 6. Elizabeth LaPensée, Weshoyot Alvitre and their Collaborators, When Rivers Were Trails (Anishinaabe Territory), 2019. Video game. Image courtesy of the artists.
Figure 7. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation for When Rivers Were Trails by Elizabeth LaPensée, Weshoyot Alvitre and their Collaborators, 2023 (detail). Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 8. Elizabeth LaPensée, Weshoyot Alvitre and their Collaborators, When Rivers Were Trails (detail), 2019. Video game. Image courtesy of the artists.
Figure 9. Adrienne Matheuszik, Interstellar Illusions (Hallway detail), 2022. Interactive Unity Environment. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 10. Adrienne Matheuszik, Interstellar Illusions (detail), 2022. Interactive Unity Environment. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 11. Adrienne Matheuszik, Interstellar Illusions (detail), 2022. Interactive Unity Environment. Image: courtesy of the artist.
Figure 12. Xuan Ye, Belly of the Whale (detail), 2018–ongoing. Interactive Unity Environment with data visualisations of user paths. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 13. Xuan Ye, Belly of the Whale (detail), 2018–ongoing. Interactive Unity Environment with data visualisations of user paths. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 14. Thoreau Bakker, VR Cat (collection detail), 2018-2022. 3D sculpture/skin variations. Image: courtesy of the artist.
Figure 15. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation for VR Cat by Thoreau Bakker (detail), 2023. Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 16. Fallon Simard, Disassociated (Bodies That Monetize Series). 2016, Meme printed on giclée, 127 x 97 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 17. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation Bodies that Monetize series by Fallon Simard. Interactive environment built in Unity. 2023. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure. 18. Tom Sherman, Exclusive Memory, 1987. Video. Image courtesy of the artist.
Figure 19. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation Exclusive Memory by Tom Sherman (detail), 2023. Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot credit: Katie Micak.
Figure 20. Tom Sherman, Sleeping Robot, 1987, painting on aluminum, in the exhibition Siting Technologies curated by Diana Augaitis at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1988. Photo courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
Please note this exhibition has closed. The instructions below do not refer to the content available on this website and remain for archival and educational purposes only.
In THERE IS NO CENTRE, the visual language of gaming is adapted to explore how the presentation of an artwork in an interactive digital exhibition shifts the viewer’s role to a first-person, avatar-based single-player.
Use the arrow keys or the keyboard’s WASD keys to move around.
Rotate your view using your mouse or trackpad.
Press the “L” key to return to the lobby.
Press the “I” key for more information about each artwork.
For the best experience, please use the Firefox web browser.
Since this exhibition features audio, we recommend the use of headphones.
To access the exhibition, return to the website’s main screen and select the “Click to Load” button.
You will see a dark screen with white text upon launching the exhibition. The text reiterates the movement instructions listed above. Click the button below the text to enter the exhibit.
You are now in the exhibition’s lobby and control an avatar. Information about the exhibit will launch, including the exhibition statement and a list of participating artists. Press “I” to minimize this information window. Summon it again by pressing “I” in the lobby.
The lobby has seven preview images of the artworks, each with a corresponding icon. Rotate your avatar’s view using your mouse or trackpad to view these preview images. Rotate your view 180 degrees from the starting point to reveal an elevator on the other side of the lobby.
Move your avatar towards the elevator using the arrow or WASD keys on your keyboard. The ^/up arrow or the W keys will move forwards in the direction you are currently viewing.
When you are in the elevator, select any icons to head to the corresponding artwork.
The exhibition is a self-directed experience; you may visit the works in any order or revisit them anytime. For reference, the artworks are listed here alphabetically by the artist’s name.
Exit the elevator by moving your avatar toward the open doors. As you approach the box in the centre of the room, use your cursor to click the box.
A VR Cat will emerge from the box, levitate and then fall to the ground. The box will close.
Click the box again to reveal a new VR Cat. Bakker has created 60 textures for VR Cat. Viewers can only see all 60 iterations of the sculpture by interacting with the box, revealing one version at a time.
Exit the elevator into a city bus. Opposite you, there is a screen hosting Eshu Elegbara—God of Crossroads. Use the WASD or arrow keys to move your avatar toward the screen. Click “start new game” with your cursor. A new browser tab will open with the game.
Eshu Elegbara is a choice-based game presenting three riddles. You select one of two options. If you answer correctly, you will progress. If you answer incorrectly, you must start again
Return to the browser tab containing the exhibition when you are finished playing the game, using your avatar to return to the elevator. You can return to the lobby any time by pressing the “L” key, even if you have not completed the game.
Exit the elevator into the forest. You will see a gameplay trailer and a separate button to download the When Rivers Were Trails video game, which you can access using the WASD or arrow keys to move your avatar to the trailer and download button. Click on the trailer to play it. Click the download button to launch the game. You will redirect to the game’s download page. Scroll down the page to the “Downloads” section. Choose the option that corresponds with your computer’s operating system.
Save the downloaded file to your computer. It will require 877.2 MB of available space to run. To launch the game, please remove firewalls. Once the game is downloaded and opened, use your mouse or trackpad to navigate and play. For more about When Rivers Were Trails, please visit the Gamepedia Official When Rivers Were Trails Wiki.
Return to the THERE IS NO CENTRE browser page to continue viewing the exhibition.
Exiting the elevator, you will find yourself in a maze of corridors. Use the WASD and arrow keys to navigate the area. When approached, doors will open to new places to explore.
You can return to the lobby anytime by pressing the “L” key.
When you exit the elevator, you will see a video projection in the room. Use the WASD or arrow keys to walk toward the moving image.
When you are ready to move on, return to the elevator. You can return to the lobby anytime by pressing the “L” key.
Exit the elevator into the warehouse space. Use the WASD or arrow keys to move around the area.
Return to the elevator when you are ready. You can return to the lobby anytime by pressing the “L” key.
Exit the elevator into the cruise ship and use the WASD or arrow keys to explore. Your movements are recorded and saved. Upon re-entry, you can see your previous visits and those of all audience members represented as ghosts.
Return to the elevator when you are ready. You can return to the lobby anytime by pressing the “L” key.