by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
Having created viscerally exciting works through the mediums of digital sculptural art, AR and digital animation, and having engaged meaningfully with the NFT space as well, Gabriel Massan (they/them) has now extended their salient aesthetics past the purview of many a digital artist, going beyond the digital sculpture practice they are known for, and into the realm of video games. Through Third World: The Bottom Dimension, which is being shown at an art exhibition hosted by Serpentine North in London, the artist embarks on a new collaborative journey.
Gabriel Massan and Collaborators: Third World: The Bottom Dimension features the playable game, along with sculpture and video artworks that extend the world building undertaken by the interdisciplinary artist, along with fellow artists that include Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro, Novíssimo Edgar, Jota Mombaça, Ventura Profana, and music producer LYZZA, who undertook sound design duties on the game. The exhibition also features contributions from Masako Hirano, Marchino Manga, Ralph McCoy, Carlos Minozzi, Iraj Montasham, Alexandre Pina and Sweet Baby Inc., which is an organisation of gamers and game developers. Third World: The Bottom Dimension was produced and curated by Serpentine Arts Technologies, which is headed by Commissions Curator, Tamar Clarke-Brown; Kay Watson, the Head of Arts Technologies itself, and Róisín McVeigh, the Associate Producer. They are joined by Curator Eva Jaeger, Strategic Lead Victoria Ivanova and Producer Alex Boyes. Assistant Exhibitions Curator Sarah Hamed and Production Manager Halime Özdemir complete the team by focusing on exhibitions.
Massan is a Brazilian artist who is based in Berlin and Paris, and has achieved great acclaim for their vividly original digital art. Their fantastically alien visions have already been the subject of coverage by STIR, which you can read here.
Clarke-Brown discusses the project, along with Serpentine Galleries and Massan, telling STIR that "this session started as the second commission in our ongoing Artist Worlds series, which looks at virtual reality, simulated environments, simulated reality and simulated world building. The first artist we invited was Jakob Kudsk Steensen, who we worked with for a long period on multiple collaborations and commissions, after which we began searching for our second entrant. We undertook many studio visits and eventually found Gabriel, and to be honest, it was immediately obvious that it was them who we should bring onboard for our next project. I think we aligned on a lot of the things that we were talking and thinking about, especially in relation to decentralisation, how technology can further that process and help us empower other people and not only ourselves. They are a very eco-systemic thinker, which was incredibly inspiring to us.”
Apart from providing attending audience members a look into the creative vision behind the project, the exhibition also allows folx to experience the game together, recording and minting each individual gaming experience as a digital token meant to be released on the Tezos blockchain. Neither Serpentine’s CEO Bettina Korek and Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, nor Massan are any strangers to blockchain technology, but it is nonetheless curious that the project possesses such a contentious component, with due regard to the current discourse around the NFT space and its hotly debated benefits for artists and collectors. Massan shed some light on this topic and beyond, in a conversation with STIR’s Curatorial Director Samta Nadeem. Here are some excerpts from that discussion.
Samta Nadeem: Congratulations on this project. We understand that anything on this scale and of this nature, that is collaborative in its very foundation, is never easy. Could you start by telling us about how the project came to be?
Gabriel Massan: So, three to four years ago, I had a dream of inviting many of my friends who are artists from Brazil, to create an experience based on their dreams and fantasies, and I was well aware of how difficult that would be, and how large of a team I would need in order to process those ideas and to do justice to their artistry. So, it just sat in my mind for a long time, until the end of 2021, when Tamar approached me, discussing Artist Worlds, which is run by Serpentine Gallery. We started out with meetings every week, and then I came to London to meet with Tamar and the rest of the team. We did this for about three months, and then I entered the R&D phase, which also took me around two to three months. In the beginning, I wanted to claim this new technology in order to create a platform for artists who experiment with radical storytelling, which for me is interlinked with gamification—gamification of art and storytelling. I also wanted to create an experience based on confusion and not knowing. So, my first task was to build a structure that had no maps or ways of navigating, because I wanted the game to reveal the inequality within this structure organically. Not to simulate, but to actually reveal. Then, little by little, I started to come up with the set pieces, and began inviting the collaborators, the technologists and the researchers. Then, we did one-on-one sessions with various artists and producers. We met Jakob Kudsk Steensen, who was the first artist to work with us, and we also met with Veronica So, who works as a producer with the American artist Ian Cheng, and artist and software developer Sarah Friend in order to brainstorm a collaboration with the Tezos community and the Tezos platform. This universe began with me developing 70 sculptures, and then setting up the limitations of this space which would eventually come to be known as Third World: The Bottom Dimension. Initially, it was intended to have four levels, but because of the time and difficulty involved in creating such a massive work, we decided to go for two. We had two artists direct the art for one level each, and these were Igba Tingbo and Sòfo. However, I also needed artists who would form interlinks, and work together with me to build bridges between different practitioners. So, for the first level, I invited Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro, who I have been meeting with to create a relationship built on collaborative process since 2017, and for the second level, I invited Novíssimo Edgar.
Samta: Next, could you expand a little bit on the thematic groundwork of the project?
Gabriel: The whole process of building the game took off from our relationship with time, and so Third World unfolds in a non-linear way, with a close focus on how the player arrives in the game world and on who they are. My intention here was to create a game that is not rooted in the player being the protagonist, but instead, in having the environment and the creatures and the weather and everything else that happens inside the world utilising this source of energy that is actually the main actor of the whole experience. After the player leaves, the world still exists and the creatures are still feeding and taking strength from this source of energy. As we built upon that concept, we made it so that everything one collects inside the game world cannot be put back. So, every crystal, every bit of energy, every powerup that you collect, you collect only once. Through this, the player starts to understand how to navigate this space, and is also made aware that if they take too much from it, they cannot advance the game; they cannot keep exploring this world and building relationships within it. Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro, whose work revolves around experiences of cure and healing, was the perfect artist to welcome the player into this world, and to offer them a deeply emotional point of contact and approach that instigates them to question themselves and to question how they are interacting with the game and if they are following their mission or not.
Samta: Thematically, it seems that Third World diverges a great deal from traditional gaming tropes. I am thinking back to your earlier statement regarding "not knowing", and am wondering how this manifests itself within the game. Please tell us a little bit more about this.
Gabriel: The sense of "not knowing" comes from us offering the audience the opportunity to dive into a completely different dimension. The game is not based in terrestrial experience; it is a digital world. It is made up of sculptures that are performing nature, sculptures that are performing what it means to be alive, what it means to feel, what it means to fear and so on. By adding no maps or sense of location to this world, we break the knowledge of most of the game. And this is important to me because the game is trying to explore how we navigate worlds, and how we as a society are already beginning to create ways of navigating the digital world through colonialisation.
Samta: That is an intriguing approach to narrative building and exploration. Finally, could you go into a little bit of detail regarding the NFT aspect of the game, and what the crypto space means to you?
Gabriel: The NFT aspect of it all is interesting since the game is critical towards the act of collection, however NFTs are rooted in it. So, in order to align the NFT component with the concepts of the game, we enabled players to mint their own path inside the game world. As a player, you’re able to mint your own memories of the game; you’re minting your own unique journey and your understanding of it. At first, I was drawn to the NFT and crypto space to gain autonomy as an artist and to be able to price and advertise my work without the need for a gallery. Over time, I became fascinated with the ability to create DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations). Through these DAOs and through the Brazilian Tezos community, I could buy art as tokens from other artists, which would enable those artists to continue pursuing their practice and creating work. In these spaces, everything happens gradually, because you want others to move together in the same direction. When this happens, it elevates the value of the space and of the coin as well, and contributes positively to the whole community. I think it’s important for the art community to be able to create DAOs, and to patronise and help other artists outside of gallery representation. Within the DAO that I was a part of, we could also donate money to various funds, and we did this to get new, emerging artists into institutional spaces. Now that the boom of NFTs has passed, we can understand how to move better and collaborate in ways that do not allow traditional companies and institutions to take control of this space.
Serpentine’s Gabriel Massan and Collaborators: Third World: The Bottom Dimension is an intriguing exhibition that demands engagement from those interested in the worlds of digital art, gaming and blockchain technology. A budding game developer in particular could benefit greatly from Massan’s unique offering, which diverges from traditional gaming tropes in bold ways.
The exhibition is on view at Serpentine North until October 22, 2023.