There Is No Centre
This exhibit is best experienced on a computer using Firefox or Chrome web browsers. Headphones are recommended as the exhibit contains audio.
There Is No Centre
THERE IS NO CENTRE is an experiential online show adapting video game sensibilities to traditional exhibitions. It seeks to understand the difference and similarities between viewers and players in the interactive, online format.
THERE IS NO CENTRE takes place in a fictional museum composed of seven ‘levels’, each hosting a ‘solo show’ for each art work. Works are accessed by riding a directionless elevator, transporting viewers into the collection of virtual worlds. Customized digital environments host an array of practices, all of which allow viewers to explore, interact and play with artworks in the forms of video games, memes, 3D sculptures, VR landscapes and video art.
The presentation of the works is influenced by concepts presented by game theorist Henry Jenkins’ in The Art of Contested Spaces. This article defines and unpacks how game spaces exist entirely in constructed environments, and these virtual spaces dictate the purpose, mood, rules and relationships across landscapes, objects and dynamic experiences.
THERE IS NO CENTRE offers an expanded and interactive art experience, that reflect on medium specificity in online exhibitions, and reflections on the malleability digital art can offer in experimenting with the constraints of physical reality, communicating stories and histories, translating and predictive outcomes of technology.
Artworks by: Thoreau Bakker, Milumbe Haimbe, Elizabeth LaPensée and Weshoyot Alvitre (et. All), 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.
Eshu Elegbara – God of Crossroads
Video Game: 2D point and click / choice- based / text
This game presents powerful allegories asking questions about truth. Zambian- born artist Milumbe Haimbe, illustrates cultural mythology through an interactive game format. Players are transported from a sleepy bus located 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 are cultural allegories, 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.
3D sculpture, gamified in custom digital environment
VR Cat is a virtual 3D sculpture born from a combination digital / analog process. Using a Virtual Reality sculpting software, Bakker was able to simulate a process similar to the clay technique of “hand- building” with digital hand- tracking controllers and software accessed through an Occulus VR headset. Because of the automated nature of the sculpting program, Bakker was able to achieve a highly polished figure, similar to that of a commercial toy.
For THERE IS NO CENTRE, the VR Cat is gamified. 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 tossed 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 of the sculpture at a time. Viewers can continue to ‘unbox’ VR Cats indefinitely, piling them into a mountain for colourful cat cuteness.
In this piece, Bakker comments on online dopamine-driven behaviors, such as online shopping, gambling, or social media interactions while also referencing ‘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.
When Rivers Were Trails
2D adventure video game- downloadable file
When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D adventure game told through a myriad of Indigenous cultures. This immersive game allows players to journey from Minnesota to California amidst the impact of land allotment in the 1890s.
Players are challenged to balance their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing with foods and medicines while making choices about contributing to resistances as well as trading, fishing, hunting, gifting, and honoring the people they meet as they travel through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and eventually must find a place to call home in California.
This nonlinear game offers choices as to how players travel, coming across Indigenous people, animals, plants, and run-ins with Indian Agents. Gameplay speaks to sovereignty, nationhood, and being reciprocal with land, while also translates historical events into an immersive experience.
Installed in a forest, viewers may wander through the landscape, enclosed by a thick boundary of fog. Floating are two screens which operate as access points for the game: a button hyperlinking to an external webpage where the game’s full download is available and a video trailer of the game.
BIO / List of collaborators
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.
Bodies That Monetize (series)
Images of “Memes”presented in a custom digital environment
Anishinaabe-Metis artist, educator and policy writer, Fallon Simard explores the formal and conceptual potential of memes in the series, Bodies that Monetize. This series is an investigation on the complexity of value in image presentation; print vs. digital image formats, low- resolution or ‘poor images’ and their relationship to class, politics, race and colonialism.
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 intercedes 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 Indigenous inherent sovereignty.
The images are installed large-scale, in an arrangement similar to an IRL gallery exhibition in a warehouse interior filled with coniferous vegetation. In video games, warehouses function as locations for gun battles. To counteract images of violence in this space, 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 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.
Exclusive Memory, excerpt #9
20 mins, looping
Originally conceived of as a video installation shown in multiple parts, Exclusive Memory was commissioned by Vancouver Art Gallery in 1987. In its entirety, Exclusive Memory is a six hour video performance where Sherman attempts to train a factitious Artificially Intelligent robot through conversational monologues referred to as ‘experience transfers’ from human to machine.
Sherman can be seen on a split-screen, speaking directly to the machine via a rotary telephone. The machine is able to understand colloquial language but is unable to respond, allowing for the artist to present a wide range of topics to the newly born AI. Sherman, acknowledging the impending evolution of human relationships with technology, understands that building a computer to think requires more than technical or scientific practices, instead opting for conversation and storytelling as his chosen form of training.
THERE IS NO CENTRE presents one excerpt of the total video in which Sherman explains contemporary technological innovations and limitations of robotics and AI in 1987, how still images function, personal feelings towards the evolution of human- computer relationships, the importance of how and what is ‘fed’ to AI, and how modeling perceptual techniques inmachines can free humans from the limitations of their own reality.
Looking back at this iconic and historical video, viewers can observe an artistic gesture that is both visionary and cautionary, as Sherman predicts the potential of Artificially Intelligent technology, while including the importance of human experience for the building of 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.
Belly of the Whale
Interactive Unity Environment with data visualizations of user paths
Belly of the Whale takes place on a commercial cruise ship, offering viewers a first-person Virtual Reality experience of cruising. As viewers wander the ship their geo-location (path of movement) is tracked and stored as a data stream.
Traces of each viewer’s navigational path are visualized dynamically as a ghostly specter, and remain visible for the duration of the exhibition. As more visitors explore the artwork, 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 collecting of micro-pathways of audience movements symbolically reflect macro- migration patterns and systemic structures of surveillance capitalism. By capturing data, the viewer’s navigation of the artwork becomes an observable, quantifiable 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!.
Interactive Unity Environment
This immersive 3D environment addresses themes of colonialism, exploitation and consumption by examining a possible future of space travel and tourism. Interstellar Illusions leverages science fiction and fantasy aesthetics within a navigate-able speculative narrative. Viewers are invited to explore a fictional and abandoned extraplanetary luxury resort. It is unclear as to why the resort has been vacated, but what’s left behind offers an eerie glimpse of what the future of space travel and tourism could be.
Existing extraplanetary explorations currently prioritize uncovering “biological potential” for supporting human life on other planets. In 2022, around fifty 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?
Interstellar Illusions was produced with the 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).
When Viewers are Players
Exhibitions, whether online, or IRL, invite viewers to travel through designed, meaningful spaces, encountering artworks, and concepts, where they are asked to ‘solve’ an art work’s meaning, while engaging in an overarching story or narrative voice. Art exhibitions welcome viewers to gather knowledge, share experiences, learn new things, feel expansively, and occasionally, have fun.
Online exhibitions offer unique possibilities for the presentation of art. They exist entirely in digital space, integrating digital art practices seamlessly, unbound from the laws of physics. They have the unique ability to transport viewers into constructed realities, integrating visual, and sonic universes within a single screen.
Online digital shows are typically developed through an intensive process requiring planning, storyboarding, and collaboration between artists, curators, and teams of designers, and programmers. Exhibitions that reside on the Internet often require experimentation, user testing, and an iterative design methodology.
THERE IS NO CENTRE was initiated by the MacKenzie Art Gallery located in Regina, Canada. It takes place in 2023, after a paradigm shifting global health crisis, which ushered in many observable cultural, and technological changes. One such impact, which affected the art world specifically, was the introduction of art exhibitions into the comfort of viewers’ homes.
This exhibition is located on the Internet, built for a custom website using the 3D animation software Unity. A flexible animation software, Unity enables users to build three-dimensional, 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.
Within this context, 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 visual language of 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.)
In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, museums, and galleries moved quickly to adapt to the ‘new normal’ presenting their programming online. These shows became stand-ins for ‘real’ exhibitions, built rapidly to present artwork in simple web pages with appearances similar to PDFs. Navigable online exhibitions, often imitated white cube galleries by presenting JPEG images on 3D sculpted walls, uploads of video art with their scrub bars removed, and 360 degree documentation of existing IRL exhibitions. At this time, skeuomorphic designs dominated as online exhibitions made their first leap into the mainstream.1
Although difficult, THERE IS NO CENTRE attempts to move away from skeuomorphic tendencies. By investigating the experimental potential of how customised digital space expands presentation potentials of digital work, this exhibition asks, where do digital artworks and digital environments intersect or blur?
The Magic Circle
The magic circle is a game theory first presented by Johann Huizinga in the book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938). The concept describes how game play exists in a distinct realm with its own rules, reality, and goals.2
Further examined in the text, Rules of Play, Game Design Fundamentals (2004) by Katie Selan and Eric Zimmerman, the magic circle posits that a game is similar to 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 bus filled advertisements from the future, a video game floating above a river, and a robot sleeping behind a screen.
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, doorless atrium enclosed with poster size images, that are previews of the artworks in the exhibition.
A directionless elevator with an unusual, round dial allows viewers to select the order they will visit the works. Connecting the show, the elevator operates as a transitional space between the virtual worlds, with mysterious icons representing the individual works.
The virtual worlds that either host or interact with the artworks presented in THERE IS NO CENTRE were built in Unity by The MacKenzie Art Gallery’s Digital Exhibitions Consultants, Cat Bluemke & Jonthan Carroll, while the atrium was modelled by one of the exhibition’s artists Adrienne Matheuszik. This team worked in close collaboration with the exhibition’s Curator, Katie Micak and many of the artists in the show.
Games are Stories
Two of the works are video games, each born from a need to tell a cultural history. These immerse players in interactive stories, urging them to explore space and play.
Zambian-born artist Milumbe Haimbe, presents powerful allegories in her illustrated, text-based 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 that emanates light that invites viewers to proceed towards it. This screen is the portal for entering Eshu Elegbara – God of Crossroads’ game world.
The first point of play is again in a bus interior. From here, Eshu Elegbara captures you, taking you to his realm called ‘the crossroads’. The goal is to return to your world, but before that is possible, you must successfully answer three riddles. Haimbe selects three stories which she presents as riddles, traditionally these riddles are passed down generationally through oral storytelling.
If a riddle is answered incorrectly, players must start at the beginning, and are unable to skip any previously played stories. This game provides a cyclical experience and depending on how it is played, results in delightful or frustrating moments.
Aesthetically, Haimbe’s minimalist drawings and text animations simultaneously reach into the past and 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 the traditional oral format. It embraces technology as a means of connection between diasporic communities by creating a contained digital archive.
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 over 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 (Minnesota) to Red Lake (California). Today these locations are known as White Earth Indian Reservation and Red Lake Indian Reservation respectively.
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 authorised 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 6
Installed in a forest, viewers may wander the landscape until they reach an invisible spatial boundary of thick fog. In the wooded area, two peculiar square objects float in the air. These objects are access points for the game: a button that hyperlinks to an external webpage for downloading the game in full, and a screen that hosts a video trailer of the game.
Gameplay requires players to face life or death decisions as they navigate rough terrain, actively hunt or fish, and in choice-based moments, decide how to deal with complex run-ins with law enforcement or 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 an Anishinaabe person who lived through this complex history, travelling the vast landscape intentionally with the goal of survival.
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. Jesper Juul’s article, Without a goal: On open and expressive games states:
[often] video games are goal-oriented, rule-based activities, where players find enjoyment in working towards the game goal… Goals provide a sense of direction and set up challenges for players to face… Removing or making [goals] optional, can make way for new types of player experience.7
Rather than moving through digital space with a distinct aim, the works described in this section operate as expressive and metaphorical landscapes. Of course, there are still ‘rules’ to goalless games including limitations and requirements of navigation, or the boundaries of pathways. These games create meaning through the construction of the game world and the immersive player experience.
For Interstellar Illusions, Matheuszik invites viewers to wander a fictional and abandoned extra-planetary luxury 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 recent and real possibilities of space travel and tourism, Matheuszik is interested in addressing themes of colonialism, exploitation, and consumption by speculating how humans might approach inhabiting ‘new’ planets.
Would humans create new systems and realities if offered with a fresh start? Or, will extra-terrestrial exploration result in extensions of existing models of colonisation as it 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.
The next game without a goal is 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, with a surround-sound soundscape. 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 behind a ghosty white trail – a real-time visualisation 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 with a fog of captured movement.
The trails are a form of data visualisation, collected to illustrate an individual player’s route of exploration. In tracking the personalised movement, Ye builds a spatial metaphor for referencing an invisible undertone present in all data collection efforts; capitalism.
Ye positions Belly of the Whale as a work in reaction to ‘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. (Data is) then computed and packaged as prediction products, and sold into behavioural futures markets.8
Viewers will leave evidence of their exploration of Belly of the Whale, a work interested in creating a visual metaphor of the insidious quality data collection, movement tracking, and surveillance have in both IRL and digital contexts.
Phygials in Space
The term “phygial” describes this blending of digital and physical experiences, or objects.9 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 (2018-2022) is a 3D sculpture gamified in Unity. Created in the software, Adobe Medium, this program requires a VR headset and specialized hand controllers, resulting in the artist being able to simulate a “hand-building” clay technique to ‘physically’ sculpt. The specialized process allows Bakker to develop a highly polished figure with a similar aesthetic to a commercial toy.
THERE IS NO CENTRE gamifies VR Cat allowing viewers to ‘play’ with both a digital toy, and with the idea of mass production. To expand on these, Bakker investigates the impulsive need to click and collect by hiding VR Cat in a mysterious and bottomless box. Bakker developed 60 colourful textures called ‘skins’ for the sculpture, changing a singular digital sculpture into a series.
Upon entering the space, viewers will see a cardbox sitting within a white void of nothingness. The box reads ‘click’- an instruction to activate 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. Viewers can interact and ‘unbox’ VR Cats repeatedly, gathering dopamine ‘hits’, similarly experienced with 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. THERE IS NO CENTRE presents six images from a larger series called Bodies that Monetize (2016-2017).
First developed for a physical installation at Toronto’s Blank Canvas Gallery in April 2017, Bodies that Monetize showed the memes (printed on giclee) dislocated from their expected, shareable, online platforms. The tangible objects were meant to engage and activate conversations in physical space and IRL communities.
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. As 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, but, infer how in their distance, the systems of harm still cause cognitive injury.10
Presenting these memes in physical space as standalone objects creates a disconnect between their typical or intended usage. The gesture was meant to illustrate how cognitive dissonance has been normalised 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.11
Six featured 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 abstract (a line drawing resembling a human figure) with text phrases layered overtop. Bodies that Monetize visualises ‘bad feelings’ in response to injustice, human rights violations, and colonial violence.
THERE IS NO CENTRE presents images from Bodies that Monetize installed at a large-scale, in the interior of a warehouse filled with coniferous vegetation.
Often, warehouses in video games function as a location for gun battles 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 by returning them to their natural digital environment, but 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 video is presented in the most skeuomorphic digital installation of the show; a typical IRL video projection setup of a dark and disorienting 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 dramatises a university professor working in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning conducting research. The video is static, showing the artist speaking through a corded, rotary telephone to a listener off-screen. Shot with two synchronized cameras, Sherman can be seen from two angles simultaneously. The unusual visual composition refers to how the robot might be ‘seeing’ him, putting the viewer in the position of the machine’s visual perspective.
The work illustrates a fictional training session between the artist and an intelligent robot, who is able to see Sherman via video cameras. The robot can understand colloquial language but is not able to respond to it or process the video’s movement.
Sherman speaks on a variety of concepts. His monologue is a stream of consciousness, flowing between real and fabricated descriptions of types of images, human perception, technological innovation, and predictive observations. Humorous asides are interwoven as 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; the 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. Sherman speaks:
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.12
Humans have peripheral, or circular, vision and the ability to move around objects, conveying meaning in real time, while building on personal memory and experience. Not having to contend with cameras and their narrow frames of capture, Sherman explains that humans are ‘in’ the image, and the image is the world.
He continues, sharing his excitement in recognizing 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.13
By training the robot in notions of the economy of images, the artist is presenting his understanding of how technology operates as a mirror that reflects and defines human awareness.
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. Breaking the fourth wall and turning his attention away from the invisible robot towards unseen viewers collapses the conceptual and spatial boundaries of the piece.
Exclusive Memory is a video, installed in a custom Unity environment. As Sherman reaches through the video’s frame, addressing the viewer, the boundaries of artwork blur into the digital environment built for hosting the piece, or the ‘location’ of the viewer in virtual space. In referencing the layers of image construction in the overall exhibition, Sherman points to how all of the artworks in THERE IS NO CENTRE involve, collapse, or address the ‘frame’ (the installation built in Unity), asking, where does the artwork start and stop in digital space?
As a note, within this installation, a digital image is hidden. 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.
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 game space and the activity of play. THERE IS NO CENTRE points towards expanding the conceptual boundaries of digital art presentation, pointing towards endless digital vistas, and 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 immersive environments hosting each artworks.
Thank you to Adrienne Mathusik for beautifully constructing and visualising designs for the THERE IS NO CENTRE atrium.
Thank you to the MacKenzie Art Gallery for inviting me to participate and curate for this exciting and experimental initiative, and to Crystal Mowery for championing the project. Special thanks to Shauna Jean Doherty for text editing 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.
1Heffernan, K. J. “Skeuomorphism is dead, long live skeuomorphism.” Medium, 5, Mar, 2019, https://medium.com/seek-blog/skeuomorphic-design-is-dead-long-live-skeuomorphism-1998c9a4fdc3
2Johann, Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London. Routledge & Outledge & Kegan Paul. 1938. Online access: http://creativegames.org.uk/modules/Intro_Game_Studies/Huizinga_homo_ludens_Chapter_Nature_Significance-1949.pdf
3Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Press, 2003. Online access: https://gamifique.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/1-rules-of-play-game-design-fundamentals.pdf
4Sandoval, M. C. Worldview, the Orichas, and Santeria: Africa to Cuba and beyond. Florida. University Press of Florida. 2009. Online access: https://academic.oup.com/florida-scholarship-online/book/21720
5LaPensée, E.& Emmons, N. “When Rivers Were Trails,” Films for the Feminist Classroom, Issue 9 (Summer, 2019): 1. Online access: http://ffc.twu.edu/issue_9-1/lesson_LaPensee-and-Emmons_9-1.html
6“Dawes Act( 1887).” National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/dawes-act.Online access: https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/dawes-act
7Juul, J. Without a goal – on open and expressive games. B. Atkins & T. Krzywinska (Eds.), Videogame, player, text.
Manchester University Press. 2007. Online access: https://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/
8Laidler, J. “Harvard professor says surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy.” Harvard Gazette. 4, Mar, 2019. Online access: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/03/harvard-professor-says-surveillance-capitalism-is-undermining-democracy/
9Jorge, M. G. de. The art object in a post-digital world: Some artistic tendencies in the use of Instagram ‘ Electronic Book Review. 6, Mar, 2022. Access: https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/the-art-object-in-a-post-digital-world-some-artistic-tendencies-in-the-use-of-instagram/
10 11Simard, F. A. (2017). Bodies that Monetize (thesis). OCAD University, Toronto. Online access: https://www.fallonsimard.com/_files/ugd/06e44b_90bf62c07f81467ab3d298117258b7ad.pdf
12Sherman, Tom. Exclusive Memory. 1987.
13Sherman, Tom. Robot Errors. 1987.
Texts of inspiration (not cited in essay):
Connor, M. (2020, May 13). Curating online exhibitions. Rhizome. Online access: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2020/may/13/curating-online-exhibitions-pt-1/
Jenkins, H., & Squire, K. (2002). The Art of Contested Spaces. Game On. Online access: 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: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 2. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, THERE IS NO CENTRE (elevator detail), 2023. Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 3. Milumbe Haimbe, Eshu Elegbara – God of Crossroads (Crossroads 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: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
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 (installation detail). Interactive environment built in Unity. Screenshot: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 8. Elizabeth LaPensée, Weshoyot Alvitre and their Collaborators, When Rivers Were Trails (Three Sisters), 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 (ProximaB detail), 2022. Interactive Unity Environment. Image: courtesy of the artist.
Figure 11. Adrienne Matheuszik, Interstellar Illusions (Satellite 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. Three dimensional sculpture. Image: courtesy of the artist. (NEW / replacement image on drive)
Figure 15. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation for VR Cat by Thoreau Bakker. Interactive environment built in Unity. 2023 (installation detail). Screenshot: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 16. Figure 16. Fallon Simard, Disassociated (Bodies That Monetize Series). 2016, Meme printed on giclee, 127 x 97 cm. Photo: 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 (installation detail). Screenshot: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 18. Tom Sherman, Exclusive Memory, 1987. Video. Image: courtesy of the artist. (image to be replaced)
Figure 19. Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Screenshot of digital installation Exclusive Memory by Tom Sherman. Interactive environment built in Unity. 2023 (installation detail). Screenshot: taken by the curator. (image to be replaced)
Figure 20. Tom Sherman, Sleeping Robot in the exhibition Siting Technologies curated by Diana Augaitis at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 1988. Photo: courtesy of the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
THERE IS NO CENTRE is an interactive digital exhibition that merges the experiences of art and video games.
Seven artworks are displayed across digital environments. This exhibit is best experienced on a computer using Firefox or Chrome web browsers. Headphones are recommended as the exhibit contains audio.
You control a first-person perspective avatar to navigate the exhibition. Use the arrow keys or WASD keys on your keyboard to move around. Rotate your view using your mouse or trackpad. Pressing the “L” key at any time returns you to the lobby of the exhibit. Pressing the “I” key will bring up more information about each artwork.
To access the exhibition, return to the website’s main screen and click the button “Launch Exhibit.”
Upon launching the exhibit you will see a dark screen with white text. 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 space and have control over an avatar. Information about the exhibition, including the curator’s statement and list of participating artists, will immediately launch. Press “I” to minimize this information window. You can summon it again by pressing “I” when in the Lobby space.
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.
Using either the arrow keys or WASD keys on your keyboard, move your avatar towards the elevator. The ^/up arrow key or the W key will move forwards in the direction you are currently viewing. When you are in the elevator, select any of the icons to be taken to the corresponding artwork.
The exhibition is intended to be a self-directed experience, and you may visit the works in any order, or re-visit them again at any time. The artworks are listed here alphabetically by artist’s name, but you are encouraged to explore at your own intuition.
Exit the elevator by moving your avatar towards the open doors. 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 sixty colourful textures for VR Cat. Viewers can only see all sixty iterations of the sculpture through interacting with the box, revealing one version of the sculpture at a time.
In this piece, Bakker comments on online dopamine-driven behaviors, such as online shopping, gambling, or social media interactions while also referencing ‘blind box’ toys, and the indisputable popularity of cats on the Internet.
Return to the elevator when you are ready.
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 towards the screen. Click “start new game” with your cursor. This is a choice-based game presenting three riddles. You answer by selecting one of the options available to you. There will be two options to select from. All choices have consequences. If you answer the riddle correctly you will progress in the game. If you are incorrect you return to the beginning of the game and start again.
Return to the Elevator when you are finished playing the game. You can return to the lobby any time by pressing the “L” key, even if you have not completed the game.
These riddles are cultural allegories, traditionally passed down generationally through oral storytelling, and are meant to teach concepts including compromise, humility and the importance of kindness. They are presented to you by Eshu Elegbara. Eshu Elegbara comes originally from the Yoruba people of West Africa, but is known throughout the continent of Africa as a benevolent trickster. Artist Milumbe Haimbe explores the translation of oral storytelling into an interactive digital medium.
Exit the elevator into the forest. You will see both a gameplay trailer and a separate button to download the When Rivers Were Trails video game. Use the WASD or arrow keys to move your avatar to the trailer and download button. Use your cursor to play the trailer by clicking on it. To download and launch the game, click the download button. You will be redirected to the game’s download page. Scroll down the page to the “Downloads” section. Choose the option that corresponds to your computer’s operating system.
Save the downloaded file to your computer. Remove firewalls to launch game. The game requires 877.2 MB of available space to run. 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.
In the game, you journey from Minnesota to California amidst the impact of land allotment in the 1890s. Audiences interact with different non-player characters that illustrate different perspectives of historical events.
You will need to return to the THERE IS NO CENTRE browser page to continue viewing the exhibition.
Upon 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 areas to explore. This immersive 3D environment addresses themes of colonialism, exploitation and consumption by examining a possible future of space travel and tourism. Interstellar Illusions leverages science fiction and fantasy aesthetics within a navigable speculative narrative.
You can return to the lobby any time by pressing the “L” key.
Exit the elevator. You will see a video projection in the room. Use the WASD or arrow keys to walk towards the projection. Exclusive Memory is a looping video running twenty minutes long. In this excerpt from a larger video performance, Sherman attempts to train a fictitious Artificially Intelligent robot through conversational monologues which he refers to as ‘experience transfers’ from human to machine.
Return to the elevator when you are ready to move on. You can return to the lobby any time by pressing the “L” key.
Exit the elevator into the warehouse space. Use the WASD or arrow keys to move around the space. The Bodies That Monetize series is displayed on the walls of the space. This series is an investigation on the complexity of value in image presentation; print vs. digital image formats, low-fi, low-resolution or ‘poor images’ and their relationship to class, politics, race, and colonialism.
Return to the elevator when you are ready. You can return to the lobby any time 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. You can see your previous visits and those of all audiences members represented as ghosts upon re-entry. As more visitors explore the artwork, more pathways will appear, eventually overtaking the ship with a fog of movement. The micro-pathways of audience movements symbolically reflect macro- migration patterns and systemic structures of surveillance capitalism through the metaphorical container of the cruise ship.
Return to the elevator when you are ready. You can return to the lobby any time by pressing the “L” key.