Last year, Rough Guides, the travel book publishers, released a new edition that invited its readers to discover epic temples, beautiful sunsets and dense jungles. The eight “unforgettable lands”, described in the guidebook as “stunningly alien”, were to be found within video games for the Xbox.
Rough Guides may have realised more people were likely to be found playing the game Tomb Raider than visiting the Taj Mahal. They claimed that the thrill of discovering places was no longer exclusive to real-world travel, but an experience that could also be felt from exploring computer-generated worlds.
How virtual architecture can be an extension of our world is the focus of Virtual Factory, a programme of new work by artists acclaimed for constructing new worlds and alternate realities, inspired by the architecture, site, and construction of a new cultural space in Manchester called The Factory.
The first project has been created by virtual artist LaTurbo Avedon, who crafts their artwork using computer-based tools. Avedon presents themselves within video game environments, a practice that has its origins in artistic interventions, in virtual environments like the multiplayer world of Second Life. Over the years they have extended their work into the physical world through exhibitions and performances such as Still Be Here, a collaboration with holographic pop-star Hatsune Miku.
Concerned with virtual authorship and identity, Avedon has closely followed the evolution of multiplayer games and the growth of the ‘Metaverse’, a concept that describes an online, three-dimensional space where people can socialise, work, trade, and create. The origins of the idea can be traced back to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, in which humans access a virtual universe experienced through headsets, and appear as avatars of any form.
Since then, the idea of the Metaverse has resurfaced again and again in popular culture and it was more recently brought to light in Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which visualised a dystopian future characterised by people escaping their reality to pursue a virtual life.
A more recent attempt at reviving the Metaverse is Fortnite Creative, an ambitious world-building mode of the game Fortnite developed by Epic Games, comprising of an ever-expanding network of virtual islands which are built by players for other players to visit. When Fortnite launched in 2017, it quickly amassed over a hundred million players. Fortnite Creative was released the following year, and has quickly expanded into a global community in which creators build everything from non-violent games to spaces for socialising.
Keen to explore this world, LaTurbo Avedon has relocated The Factory there, using it as a site for experimentation with the tools and affordances of the sandbox game. Treating the entire build of the island as an all-encompassing artwork titled Your Progress Will Be Saved, LaTurbo encourages visitors to question who these virtual spaces are for:
When Second Life was introduced to the public it was a fascinating experiment in understanding the tools and liberty of a metaverse. A user could exist as a tree if they wanted, they could script and simulate a self that had no correspondence to what or who they were at the keyboard. Yet, as we can see now, it isn’t long till virtual worlds default to the templates of Barbie, Ken, and the consumer architecture that people wanted to escape from in the first place LaTurbo Avedon
LaTurbo has created a journey that allures visitors ever-further away from a simulation of everyday life, and into a series of adventures which invite memories to be collected. Starting from a familiar-looking apartment, visitors must find a computer to escape to The Factory, which has been revamped for entertainment and social connection, and layered with hidden areas that are accessed via secret portals. The work was built with the help of a group of expert Fortnite creators called Team Cre8, who have created islands for celebrity interventions into Fortnite, illustrating a growing demand for self-taught Metaverse architects.
Visitors are welcome to sign up for tours of Avedon’s space, which have been captured with in-game photography, a feature which offers players the opportunity to pause the action and reposition the in- game cameras. An example of this is the tour of Your Progress Will Be Saved.
In Fortnite Creative, players become cinematographers and directors of their own narrative. This feature, along with the ability to become architects of their surroundings, determines how players express themselves, and has contributed to a flurry of user-generated content which gives communities a sense of authorship over their experience. This can also be seen in the success of other world-building games such as Minecraft, and Animal Crossing.
What is fascinating about this sense of collectivity, is that video games seem to offer a more defined sense of place and identity than social media platforms. Within Fortnite Creative, players not only build the features of their island, but also set the terms of play, they make their own rules (you can for example, ban weapons). As lessons from social media and multiplayer games reveal how interconnected the shaping of our online identity is with the online environment that incubates its formation, we begin to fully appreciate and understand the essence of LaTurbo Avedon’s practice, who’s own identity as an artist and avatar, has to shift for each platform or game they manifest in.
We launched Virtual Factory at the start of July and for you to come with us on this journey, we have scheduled a number of events which offer greater insight into the making of the work. These include tours by invited artists, a workshop by Fortnite Creators, Studio Cre8 and a show and tell about world-building and imaginary worlds.
Excitingly, over the next year we will be releasing new Virtual Factory projects consecutively, these include the visual artist Tai Shani, games developer Robert Yang and artist and filmmaker Jenn Nkiru.