How Museums Can Tell Stories With Virtual Space


In our most recent WAC Weekly, the Synthesis Gallery’s George Vitale took the group on a guided tour of a virtual garden filled with art. Joined by exhibiting artists Mohsen Hazrati and Lauren Moffatt the group discussed the works, the virtual space itself, and what it was like for curators and artists to show art in the early metaverse.

1 — A walk through the virtual garden

In The flowers i have never seen in my garden, hosted on Mozilla Hubs, artists from around the world engage with the garden as an art-historical trope in the midst of digital transformation and ecological crisis.

As we’ve discussed before, virtual spaces offer much more for the exhibitor than just a simulation of rectangular pictures on the walls of a white cube. Instead, artist Mohsen Hazrati created a floating garden as a shared gathering space and a statement in itself.

On the browser, photoreal virtual reality is not (yet) an option. Within the limits of Mozilla Hubs’ low-fi graphics — reminiscent of the 90s / early-00s digital culture much of the Web3 crowd feels an alignment with — Hazrati creates a surreal space oriented around a vast tree whose branches arc and curl around the whole garden.

When discussing the inspirations for the space, Vitale draws a line from classical and religious literature — the Bible’s Garden of Eden, the hanging gardens of Babylons — down through history through the Renaissance, to modern takes such as Carla Gannis’ Garden of Emoji Delights.

From Eden onwards the garden is a kind of liminal space: curated, but with the potential for encounters with wild things. In this virtual garden, the artists take a look at the ecosphere through the often glitchy, broken lens of its digital representation.

Aura Garden — Chris Golden

In Chris Golden’s Aura Garden (2021) we see two images of the same branch of flowers, one a looping video of the light reflecting around its petals. The gentle music and the seamless video encourage the viewer to stay awhile and listen. As one might encounter a still and reflective place in the forest, Golden’s piece uses the space around it to capture that feeling in an 18-second loop.

Perception of Wine — Mohsen Hazrati

With Perception of Wine (2022), Mohsen Hazrati uses his virtual space to create a vast sculpture of two miniature pots. He talks the group through a discovery attributed to the ancient Iranians, as suggested by the “Baghdad Battery”: that wine and other astringents like lemon and vinegar powered small amounts of electricity.

He brings this larger research project to the garden with this sculpture: two floating bowls, decorated with birds and flowers as in Iranian pottery, turn as if powered by motors. But they’re connected only by a flow of holographic liquid flowing from the air above.

While talking about wine’s long history in Iranian art and literature, Hazrati discusses his efforts to create the shimmering effect in the liquid, which communicates the electrical quality. Rather than a literal representation of red wine flowing into the bowls, the holographic effect introduces the colors of the digital glitch we see in works throughout the garden.

Floralia — Sabrina Ratté

Artist Sabrina Ratté explores a speculative natural history in Floralia (2021), showing samples from a fictional archive in a sci-fi setting. Four looping gifs adapted from the video work are shown side by side. In one, a rose bush appears blown apart as if by a tornado, but has in fact been chopped up by glitchy video artifacts running out of sync with each other.

Floralia is the largest of the works in the garden. When discussing how the space as a whole might be used, Vitale talks about streaming a panel discussion live from within the piece. Using the four vast screens as backgrounds for the participants, this points to the use of the virtual exhibition space as more than just a gallery. When NFT protocols enable users to “curate” a series of on-chain images in minutes, the virtual gallery has to become more than just a link directory.

Compost XIV — Lauren Moffatt

We see an artifact from another sci-fi universe in Lauren Moffatt’s Compost XIV (2022), part of her larger project Flowers for Suzanne Clair.

Virtual spaces like the garden are designed with VR headsets in mind, but Moffatt considered that most of the visitors to Mozilla Hubs will be viewing through screens. For the tech to accommodate both viewing methods, it needs to bridge the gap with a “virtual camera” which causes some distortion.

Moffatt chose to embrace this in her sculpture, adapting a long and thin 3D composition specifically for this show. Moffatt collects 3D scans of flowers and uses them to create hybrids between species, hybrids between digital and physical form: the texture applied to Compost XIV is Moffat’s painting of that flower. This is just one part of what she calls a “multipass process” between the digital and the physical, creating “known errors and desired glitches”.

2 — Limits and opportunities of the virtual gallery

Leaning into the glitches and quirks of the digital representation, Moffatt is keenly aware of the challenges for an artist exhibiting in a virtual space rather than a physical one. Discussing the limits and opportunities, she says:

“I find the potential of [a virtual meeting place] makes it interesting enough to tolerate the limitations of this kind of space, in terms of what it’s possible to actually present. It’s also a little bit interesting working with limitations because they force you to be creative and economical in certain ways … in the end, it makes us stronger artists, having budgets to work with.”

The virtual space presents opportunities and challenges for the curator, too. In theory, a virtual exhibition could run indefinitely, but the pieces in The flowers I have never seen in my garden were all thoroughly archived as Mozilla Hubs will one day be gone. Systems like Arweave make a serious attempt at permanent storage, and platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox bring on-chain data into 3D space, but Hubs remains the platform of choice for digital exhibitions like this and New Art City’s Terms of Service.

As of 2022 Hubs is the most accessible platform for these experiences as it doesn’t require a headset, a gaming computer, or even the latest smartphone. As we discussed with New Art City’s Sammie Veeler in a previous event, metaverse experiences must extend beyond the language and tools of the gaming world if they’re going to have any mass appeal. Hubs is free, open-source software that doesn’t have the complexity of a crypto wallet or the expense of Ethereum’s gas fees, which made it easy for exhibitors to move into the virtual space in the midst of the pandemic.

In Floralia and Flowers for Suzanne Clair, named for the side character in Ballard’s The Crystal World, there’s a strong element of sci-fi worldbuilding. In Floralia the narrative is an initial point of inspiration for the videos. In Flowers, the story universe is expressed across spaces and shows: through vignettes like Compost XIV and fully-immersive experiences like Of Hybrids and Strings.

As the technologies required for a virtual show — 3D modeling, LiDAR scanning, device-agnostic virtual spaces — get more powerful and accessible, we’ll see more novel and narrative gallery experiences, such as DSL Collection and Sometimes Monastery’s Forgetter.

When discussing the inspirations behind Compost XIV, Moffatt talks about the power of storytelling: how the visions of sci-fi authors like Ballard have inspired the scientists and technologists of our time, who have gradually made those writers’ dreams and nightmares our reality. When the gallery space itself is a boundless creative work in the metaverse, this opens up new ways for artists and curators to engage with the real world we find ourselves in.

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