Kaws for cheer: This art show took place in the metaverse

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It starts off like a visit to any art gallery: A walk past manicured lawns, up a bank of stairs, past imposing pillars and into a large hall. A floating sculpture is the first exhibit. Canvases are laid out on the walls. Only, this exhibition is being hosted in the metaverse, a complex and layered virtual reality that mirrors and intersects with the real world, in ways that enable socialisation, gaming, collaboration, events and a host of other activities.

One walked through this exhibition as an avatar within the videogame Fortnite. Those who logged into the popular game between January 18 and 25 could head to an area called Serpentine North, to view dozens of works by Kaws, an American artist best known for his distinctive, post-apocalyptic street art.

The works on display at the virtual gallery within Fortnite were digital manifestations of actual Kaws works on display offline, at the same time, at London’s prestigious Serpentine gallery. In a marriage of real and virtual, augmented-reality features at the offline gallery allowed visitors to enter the in-game exhibition, via a smartphone or laptop (the Fortnite world can be accessed free across a range of platforms and devices).

Because Fortnite is the world’s single-largest active game, with an estimated daily user base of 8 million — and because this exhibition was a first of its kind — it could eventually go down as one of the most-visited art events in history.

“This is an incredibly exciting project for me. I always like exploring new mediums for my art,” Kaws wrote in a blog post on January 18. “The collaboration with Fortnite means everything is coming together in a complex exhibition that takes place in parallel realities.”

“This multi-dimensional project demonstrates the remarkable synergies between gaming, space, and sensorial experience,” Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist and CEO Bettina Korek said in a joint statement.

Events are not new to Fortnite. The game world’s first non-gaming event was a virtual concert by EDM artist Marshmello, in February 2019. An estimated 10 million players logged in to watch it live. Ticketed virtual concerts by BTS, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have followed.

Amid the pandemic, the game has hosted a growing number of non-gaming experiences, including virtual premiers and screenings of films such as Tenet (2020).

Concerts and art shows have since become part of mainstream gaming culture, with the game world of Roblox hosting gigs by rapper Lil Nas X and rock band Royal Blood, and gaming behemoth Minecraft hosting a virtual music festival called Block by Blockwest.

The Kaws experience, which was free to access, threw open the doors to high art from the streets of Kensington; also, vitally, it merged the virtual and real in a way that had not been experimented with before.

The implications for the art world are dramatic. Galleries can now choose to be part of a radical change in how art is viewed, literally and figuratively. They can reach out further, geographically, and engage with younger and newer audiences.

“I have attended all the concerts held on Fortnite. Being a student with limited financial freedom, it’s hard not to appreciate the chance to experience such things. And I have always appreciated street art, so seeing the Kaws exhibition was a surreal experience,” says Ishu Bhandari, 23, an MBA student from Faridabad. Offline, he says, he’s only been inside an art gallery once. Within the game, the art felt more accessible. He would be interested in checking out more exhibitions within his game world, Bhandari added.

The metaverse cannot constitute a shift so much as an addition, says Aparajita Jain, director of Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery. “The metaverse essentially allows a more real parallel digital world that one can access from anywhere. This is not a trend but an addition to where we already are in the world,” she says. “We saw people adopt technology in the most aggressive way during the pandemic, and that use of hybrid models will continue. So we will see physical and digital manifestation of the arts as we move along.”

“Our relationship to art is premised on the idea of a conversation between creator and audience,” says Mortimer Chatterjee, director at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal Gallery. “That communication can happen in countless ways, and it is only natural that it will follow whatever trends are prevalent in society at large. Where cave walls, canvas, photography and video were once heralded as cutting-edge platforms for art, today it is the metaverse. Tomorrow, undoubtedly, there will be new channels through which art will travel from artist to viewer.”

Meanwhile, within Fortnite, as in the real world, art offered respite and a safe haven. All weapons were automatically disabled within the virtual Serpentine North gallery. Avatars of sworn enemies could stand shoulder-to-shoulder, setting all else aside, to admire, for a few moments, visions of another world.

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