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POSTHUMANIST SANDBOX: THE POTENTIAL OF MULTIPLAYER – ENVIRONMENTS
Eva Sommeregger Valerie Messini
This paper seeks to reveal a novel assessment of creative production in academic education, re-evaluating the conceptual and artistic potential of virtual real-time collaboration through digital media. Allowing for transcultural exchange as well as global participation, this could positively influence the development of novel artistic approaches and innovative measures for universities by contributing to a more contemporary, location-independent, and ultimately more equal form of art and knowledge production.
Reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic in his essay Virus, Viralität, Virtualität
Weibel, Peter, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Wie gerade die erste Ferngesellschaft der Menschheitsgeschichte entsteht. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20.03.2020, accessible on moonmoonmoonmoon.com from 2013-2017
Peter Weibel states, that the virus sheds light on the fragility of the so-called ‘Nahgesellschaft’, in which we still live, physically close to one another, even though for more than 20 years, remote forms of communication have become dominant in large parts of the world. Thus new forms of individual and collective agency are required as well as interactive and hybrid types of space and production processes.
We suggest a digital collaborative space that is supposedly post-ethnicity and post-gender, as only interactions with others defines the players’ identities, as shown in the discussion of Safari, an experimental digital learning environment developed in 2019 for a seminar at the ./studio3 – Institute of Experimental Architecture at the University of Innsbruck that was held by the author and others: Safari allowed up to 50 players to inhabit and manipulate the same shared virtual space. Players navigated through a game-like three-dimensional environment and were led through a series of experimental tasks to communively create architectural artefacts. Within a shared immersive environment, digital collaboration can encourage the unfolding of an emergent intermingling of expressive qualities while inducing novel means of co-existence and cooperative artistic decision making.
Taking a posthumanist stance, the conceptual value of such multiplayer environments will be proven by calling in Karen Barad’s Theory of agential realism based on the ‘ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies’ 2 Barad, Karen, 1998. Getting real: technoscientific practices and the materialization of reality. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 10(2), Barad uses ‘they’ as a pronoun, a practice we will follow throughout the paper when describing Barad whereby matter and meaning do not preexist, but rather are co-constituted via intra-actions.
This paper seeks to reveal a novel assessment of artistic education and production by re-evaluating collaborative design strategies and allowing a link to be created between the virtual and the physical world, using a quantum field theory approach and especially adopting feminist theorist Karen Barad’s notion of agential realism. We want to ‘cut together apart’ 3 Malou Juelskjaer, 2012. Intra-active entanglements: an interview with Karen Barad, Women, gender and research.21: 10-23 the apparently opposed terms of virtuality and materiality – or, better still, we want to perform the queering of the virtuality/materiality binary through digital technologies. Barad expresses this quantum superposition that cuts terms together and apart in the same moment by using the slash (/): this is crucial in Barad’s thinking in order to divide and pull together pairs of terms such as non/being, in/determinacy, any/thing, non/existent, and im/possibility. What Barad means by the slash is more than just ‘and’ or rather ‘or’; instead, the slash is entangling and differentiating in one move. This paper also examines the conceptual and artistic potential of virtual real-time collaboration and the ways in which collaborative virtual environments can be integrated in architectural and artistic design processes. This approach could generate positive effects on the development of novel artistic approaches by contributing to a more contemporary, location-independent, and ultimately more equal form of art production.
2. A New Contemporary Field of Art
We are about to witness the emergence of a new contemporary field of art that collaboratively includes a new form of audience: visitors turn into collaborators in projects that have the tendency to go viral, usually initiated by online mass media platforms. 4 Rachel Marsden, 2013. ‘MOON’ by Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson, online source: https://rachelmarsden.blog/2013/11/12/moon-by-ai-weiwei-and-olafur-eliasson/, retrieved 2021-10-31 Reddit r/place, a 72-hour-long collaborative social network experiment that was hosted by the social networking site Reddit in 2017, can be regarded as an example of this: a Reddit subsite provided a digital canvas for collaborative pixel art, on which players could change the colour of a pixel every 5 minutes. 5 reddit, 2017. r/place, online source: https://www.reddit.com/r/place/, retrieved 2021-10-31 Reddit r/place started from a blank page. Signs, symbols, flags, and even more complex drawings emerged out of nothing, only through the interplay of a multitude of agencies. These fluctuating pixels, popping in and out of existence, 6 Anthony Zee, 2003. Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, Princeton University Press: 3-4. embody a never-ending dynamism of indeterminacy. Another example is Moon, a collaboration between the artists Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson. Moon gives an insight into the potential of multi-agent environments. It was based on a web platform where participants from all around the globe could collaboratively draw and thereby connect. 7 Weibel, Peter, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Wie gerade die erste Ferngesellschaft der Menschheitsgeschichte entsteht. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20.03.2020 The online visitors were welcomed to actively help shape a digital moon surface, initially white and empty, by scribbling on it or leaving a remark in text. The digitally created collaborative platform defined a space beyond national borders and let the participants connect and exchange in a remote but inventive and vivid manner (Link). The platform welcomed contributions from November 2013 to September 2017; in this period, over 80,000 entries were made, transforming the empty, digital canvas of the moon into a collaborative online space featuring drawings, remarks, and conversations. Moon underlines that online environments building on collaboration may go beyond what is defined as game. It blurs the distinction between online social environments and online gaming environments and ultimately makes art out of the practice of contributing playfully to a collaborative piece.
Both Reddit r/place and Moon are platforms that allow for a collaborative process filled with conversations and intra-actions performed by an online crowd. From an architectural perspective, we argue, both platforms cannot be considered just an online medium – they are highly spatial. We will furthermore use Barad’s theories to elaborate on the spatial qualities embedded in these collaborative art works.
3. Agential Realism – Karen Barad
An excursus into Barad’s agential realism will shed light on the educational potential of the newly emerged online collaborative spaces. In the essay What is the measure of nothingness? Infinity, virtuality, justice, 8 Karen Barad, 2012. What Is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice, 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts / 100 Notizen – 100 Gedanken, No099, documenta(13) Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern: 6 Barad approaches nothingness through the lens of quantum field theory. Theyintroduce a set of concepts (measurement, intra-action, in/determinacy, vacuum fluctuations, virtual particles, and in/finity) which lead to the final conclusion that ‘nothingness is not (a form of) absence but an infinitive plentitude of openness’. 9 ibid.: 16 Barad begins with the difficulties of measuring nothingness. They point out that measurements are performative as ‘they help to constitute and are a constitutive part of what is being measured. […] measurements are intra-actions’. Intra-actions substantially differ from interactions, as they inseparably entangle the observer with the observed and thereby deconstruct the binary between subject and object. Barad states that ‘Measurements are world-making: matter and meaning do not pre-exist, but rather are co-constituted via measurement intra-actions.’ 10 ibid.: 6 Their account thus dismisses and deconstructs classical ontology and proposes instead the notion of ‘inherent ontological indeterminacy’ 11 ibid.: 7 at the heart of quantum field theory. Ontological ‘in/determinacy is […] an unending dynamism’. It is the condition for the possibility of all structures which are unstable and constantly reconfiguring. In other words, it is ‘the condition of im/possibilities’ 12 ibid.: 8 and ‘an un/doing of identity that unsettles the very foundations of non/being’. 13 ibid.: 15
In quantized fields, not everything is possible but it is important to understand that nevertheless there are infinite possibilities. Therefore, a vacuum is not to be considered empty, even if nothing measurable seems to be in it. This also means that a particle is not just made up of itself, on the contrary it includes a myriad of indeterminate virtual particles. Science journalist Stephen Battersby expounds the existence of these virtual particles in his article It is confirmed. Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations: ‘Each proton (or neutron) is made of three quarks – but the individual masses of these quarks only add up to about 1% of the proton’s mass. So what accounts for the rest of it?’ 14 Stephen Battersby, 2008. It is confirmed. Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations, New Scientist, November 20, 2008. online source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16095-its-confirmed-matter-is-merely-vacuum-fluctuations/ retrieved 2021-10-31
It follows that even ‘the smallest bits of matter are’ already ‘an enormous multitude’, 15 Karen Barad, 2012: 15 and, following Barad, we may conclude that matter is never settled. As stated above, matter is always radically open. Barad states, ‘Infinity and nothingness are infinitely threatened by one another so that every infinitesimal bit of one always already contains the other.’ 16 ibid.: 17 Infinities, beyond serving as mathematical assets, are the incarnations of all possibilities. They are ‘incarnated marks of in/determinacy’. Or, put differently, ‘infinity is the continuously ongoing material reconfiguration of nothingness’. 17 ibid.: 18
Following Barad, it may be concluded that both Reddit r/place and Moon start from so-called nothingness, not to be considered an emptiness but rather a radically open canvas ready to receive entries that intra-act or build relationships. The building of relations between the human and the non-human is the fundamental notion of Barad’s agential realism. For Barad, phenomena or objects do not exist, as such. Anteceding their interaction, on the contrary, they pop into existence via bespoken intra-action. Thus, the contributions made by online visitors of Reddit r/place are not to be viewed as objects; rather, they emerge from contributors performing intra-actions. Commenting on the Moon collaboration, Olafur Eliasson posits that ‘Each contribution has created a small but distinctive change to a developing landscape – highlighting the importance of individual expression amongst collective participation. Moon’s open call for creative input is a powerful statement about the potential for ideas to connect people across vast distances and break through political, social, and geographical boundaries in the Internet age.’ 18 Olafur Eliasson, 2013. Moon, online source: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK108821/moon, retrieved 2021-10-31 Eliasson’s explanation alludes to the need for joint and purposeful manners to overcome borders across nations and within societies, while creating spaces as well as opportunities for human and non-human entities to intra-act. His statement also expresses the extent to which the Internet, including its online shared environments, affects the production of art.
In the article Virus, Viralität, Virtualität (Virus, Virality, Virtuality), 19 Peter Weibel, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Oder: das Corona-Virus, der Leviathan der Nahgesellschaft, Hansgeorg Schmidt-Bergmann, Matthias Walz (eds.), allmende. Zeitschrift für Literatur, Jg. 40, Nr. 105 = Juli 2020, mdv Mitteldeutscher Verlag: 67–76 published in 2020 regarding the pandemic, artist and media theorist Peter Weibel makes clear that we currently live in a long-distance society based on digital technology rather than in a local society. He states that the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus sheds light on the fragility of the so-called close society in which we are physically close to one another; in need of a host, the virus spreads from body to body. For more than 100 years now, the invention of various telecommunication technologies has meant that people have not always needed to be physically near each other to communicate, resulting in an irreversible separation of messenger and message. 20 Edith Decker, Peter Weibel (eds.), 1990. Vom Verschwinden der Ferne: Telekommunikation und Kunst, DuMont
An underlying tone in Weibel’s words suggests that the state of contemporary online togetherness, in particular the ways in which we deal with and refer to one another, is in need of critical assessment. Therefore, in this paper, we will look further into notions of building identity.
4. Performative and Posthuman Identity
Looking again at Reddit r/place or Moon, it becomes evident that the online crowd of individuals characterize themselves via their real-time contributions – their performance. In performing their contributions to the environments, they overcome usual stigmata, such as nationality, gender, or age.
A major contribution to the notion of the performative can be found in Judith Butler’s essay from 1988, Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory, in which she introduces the concept of the performative into cultural philosophy: her notion of the performative is not primarily focused on the ‘success/failure’ criterion of a performed action; rather, Butler emphasizes phenomenal conditions of embodiment. 21 Erika Fischer-Lichte, 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Routledge, London: 26-27 She writes, ‘The body is […] a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities. One is not simply a body, but in some very key sense, one does one’s body, and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors as well.’ 22 Judith Butler, 1988. Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, vol. 40.4, 519-531:521 A body’s individual materiality is the result of a repetition of gestures and movements. These actions mark a body as an individual of a certain gender, ethnicity, and culture. This means, identity is constituted by performative acts – identity being bodily and social reality. For Butler, performative acts are constitutive of reality, and most importantly, they are non-referential. 23 Erika Fischer-Lichte, 2008: 27 She states, ‘an identity [is] instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.’ 24 Judith Butler, 1988: 519 An identity therefore does not refer to something ontologically or biologically given, to something inside of the body, to a substance, or to a being that needs to be expressed. Fixed identities do not exist. Identities are neither stable, nor given, they are performed and thus open. Following Butler, the body is ‘an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities’. 25 ibid.: 521 For her, the process of embodiment is a process of performative creation of identity.
The realization that users, who are connected in online collective environments, perform a notion of identity in the way Butler suggests is derived from a critical investigation of a multiplayer experiment, which was already extensively discussed in a separate paper written by one of the authors (Valerie Messini) together with co-author Damjan Minovski for the Smart Art Conference in Belgrade earlier this year: CYBER SANDBOX – An experiment on collaborative sketching in shared virtual space. 26 Valerie Messini, Damjan Minovski, 2021. CYBER SANDBOX – An experiment on collaborative sketching in shared virtual space, 2nd International Conference SmartArt – Art and Science Applied, Faculty of Applied Arts in Belgrade, 24. September, 2021 The multiplayer experiment safari (zaˈfaːri) سفر – A Multiplayer Exploration took place within the framework of a seminar for Master’s students at ./studio3 – Institute for experimental architecture, under the lead of Professor Kathrin Aste at the University of Innsbruck, Austria and taught by Valerie Messini, Damjan Minovski, Dominic Schwab, and Dominik Strzelec during the winter term 2019–2020. The environment involved 50 students who collaborated in real time via a Unity application programmed specifically for the experiment. Without being able to communicate verbally, the 50 students had to build 3d models of, for example, an elephant in a limited time frame of no more than 15 minutes. In order to act, each student had their own (3–5 different) premodelled geometries – rotatable and scalable – to distribute, and they were entitled to delete whatever they liked. The results were remarkable: we could see how intuitive and spontaneous actions ultimately generated a highly speculative and fragile form of spatial and material organization and how collaborative environments guided the players towards a form of non-hierarchical cooperative artistic production, in which individual tasks were not given beforehand but emerged from the collaborative process itself.
The digital collaborative space is not only supposedly post-ethnicity and post-gender, as only the interaction with others defines the players’ identity (via enacted actions of placing or deleting, in this case), but it is also a multiverse of democratic collaboration, where constant creation, ruthless destruction and never-ending collective inspiration are extinguishing binaries, such as the binary categorization of a good versus a bad action.
Working in a collaborative real-time environment does enact a critical conception in Barad’s sense of ‘agential realism’, where meaning and knowledge is created only as per intra-action.We can suddenly imagine new forms of collaboration emerging from being together virtually, performing a digital real-time identity that is post-gender and post-ethnicity.
Employing collaborative online environments, such as safari, beyond their aesthetically appealing outcomes offers an enormous potential to convey to a student audience the importance of critically assessing the ways in which identity is performed and built. Students may become aware of their own existing biases towards origin and ideals regarding the notion of humans and eventually deconstruct these biases by enacting (infinitely) open human identities. Working within such an online multi-agent environment allows for an empirical understanding of the posthuman condition and thereby generates awareness for the limitations of ‘humanistic, anthropocentric and dualistic assumptions’ of the Western humanist philosophical discourse. 27 Francesca Ferrando, 2019. Philosophical Posthumanism, Bloomsbury Academic: 55
To conclude, Barad’s theory of agential realism proves fruitful and versatile when read against collaborative setups stemming from the art scene, so that pivotal aspects regarding the notion of relation-building may be distilled: as she draws the attention to the intra, the in-between of an interaction, the boundaries between the artist who is doing the designing and what they design are blurred.
As our present is characterized by instability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, the way we live, learn, work, and socialize will profoundly change. New forms of individual and collective agency are required as well as interactive and hybrid types of space.
students performing Safari: Astl Kevin, Auer Dominik, Azizi Armin, Bauer Kilian, Casovskij Bogdan, Castegnaro Paolo Francesco, Castellanos Hornung Hedwig Michelle, Devos Michel, Dorner Sabrina Hildegard, Edelmann Julian, Etzelstorfer Sophia, Fantini Mirco, Felder Marco, Frick Magdalena, Gmeiner Melanie, Groß Larissa, Hamedinger Oliver, Hefel Jonas, Hetzenauer Michael, Hristov Toma, Jensen Peter Marius, Kammerlander Valentin, Kennel Christian Josef, Kipp David, Kirejenko Valeria, Kröss Daniel, Leiter Andreas Matthias, Linta Madeleine, Lukasser David, Mayer Johannes Michael, Navarro Preuß Luis, Nadia Rumpfhuber, Nagenrauft Caspar, Niederleitner Marina Carolin, Öcal Erkut, Petrovic Natalija Natasa, Plunger Alina, Pomberger Martin, Praxmarer Francisco Javier, Preims Nadia, Priester William, Reichinger Alexander, Rosenfelder Jonas Frederic, Sauer Robin Stefan Maria, Schlenz Wilhelm Konstantin, Stein Marian, Stock Lilly Anna Maria, Storke Elvis Samson Maxim, Trojer Maximilian, Garcia Überbacher Marc, Vogler Leon Viktor, Warmuth Adrianx, Winner Lisa-Maria, Wörister Michael
- Weibel, Peter, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Wie gerade die erste Ferngesellschaft der Menschheitsgeschichte entsteht. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20.03.2020, accessible on moonmoonmoonmoon.com from 2013-2017
- Barad, Karen, 1998. Getting real: technoscientific practices and the materialization of reality. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 10(2), Barad uses ‘they’ as a pronoun, a practice we will follow throughout the paper when describing Barad
- Malou Juelskjaer, 2012. Intra-active entanglements: an interview with Karen Barad, Women, gender and research.21: 10-23
- Rachel Marsden, 2013. ‘MOON’ by Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson, online source: https://rachelmarsden.blog/2013/11/12/moon-by-ai-weiwei-and-olafur-eliasson/, retrieved 2021-10-31
- reddit, 2017. r/place, online source: https://www.reddit.com/r/place/, retrieved 2021-10-31
- Anthony Zee, 2003. Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, Princeton University Press: 3-4.
- Weibel, Peter, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Wie gerade die erste Ferngesellschaft der Menschheitsgeschichte entsteht. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20.03.2020
- Karen Barad, 2012. What Is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice, 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts / 100 Notizen – 100 Gedanken, No099, documenta(13) Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern: 6
- ibid.: 16
- ibid.: 6
- ibid.: 7
- ibid.: 8
- ibid.: 15
- Stephen Battersby, 2008. It is confirmed. Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations, New Scientist, November 20, 2008. online source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16095-its-confirmed-matter-is-merely-vacuum-fluctuations/ retrieved 2021-10-31
- Karen Barad, 2012: 15
- ibid.: 17
- ibid.: 18
- Olafur Eliasson, 2013. Moon, online source: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK108821/moon, retrieved 2021-10-31
- Peter Weibel, 2020. Virus, Viralität, Virtualität. Oder: das Corona-Virus, der Leviathan der Nahgesellschaft, Hansgeorg Schmidt-Bergmann, Matthias Walz (eds.), allmende. Zeitschrift für Literatur, Jg. 40, Nr. 105 = Juli 2020, mdv Mitteldeutscher Verlag: 67–76
- Edith Decker, Peter Weibel (eds.), 1990. Vom Verschwinden der Ferne: Telekommunikation und Kunst, DuMont
- Erika Fischer-Lichte, 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Routledge, London: 26-27
- Judith Butler, 1988. Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, vol. 40.4, 519-531:521
- Erika Fischer-Lichte, 2008: 27
- Judith Butler, 1988: 519
- ibid.: 521
- Valerie Messini, Damjan Minovski, 2021. CYBER SANDBOX – An experiment on collaborative sketching in shared virtual space, 2nd International Conference SmartArt – Art and Science Applied, Faculty of Applied Arts in Belgrade, 24. September, 2021
- Francesca Ferrando, 2019. Philosophical Posthumanism, Bloomsbury Academic: 55