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‘Modules’ by Maxim Zhestkov: A creative undertaking at the cutting edge of VR

Russian artist Maxim Zhestkov, in conversation with STIR, regarding his virtual reality project that blurs various creative disciplines.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : May 26, 2023

London-based Russian artist Maxim Zhestkov is no stranger to STIR. He has already been covered for his stark, largely monochrome arts practice that seeks to reproduce natural motion within digital architectural forms. This earlier interview may be read here.

Catching up with the artist, we find that Zhestkov is currently expanding on the ways in which his work can be experienced, and has recently released Modules—an immersive virtual reality environment that blends together architecture, sculpture, film and music. He intends to soon enable audience members to participate as his co-creators. Modules seeks to question the limits of our reality, and blurs lines between the aforementioned disciplines, boldly imagining new creative possibilities for both the artist and the audience. Zhestkov discusses the current state of the project in an interview with STIR. “In this first iteration of Modules, the audience is unable to co-create, as I made it a foundational story where they can just go through (the world) and experience it through their points of view,” he says. Already, the project highlights the stark difference between linear and nonlinear VR experiences, and a user may spend hours inside one of its 11 rooms, treating it as a gallery space filled with a series of digital architectural installations. Interactivity will only enhance this engagement format, and is sure to produce a fascinating, perhaps seemingly endless content stream filled with screenshots and video clips of iterations on the artist’s unmistakable work.

Modules #2, 2023, screen capture | Maxim Zhestkov | Modules | STIRworld
Modules #2, 2023, screen capture Image: Maxim Zhestkov, Courtesy of Zhestkov.Studio

Zhestkov is currently labouring away to expand on the world and interface of the project as he mentions, “I am already working on interactivity, which I will upload into new versions of Modules. It's like a universe that you start this way, and then make bigger and bigger, for the rest of your life.” He approaches it as an endless canvas, with other interconnected canvases, all of which allow for a peek into the fascinating works being created within each other. With great excitement for the possibilities that lie ahead, he proclaims, “This is a really, really wonderful and insane process of making.” He wants users to envision their soon-to-be-created works within Modules not merely as standalone “small” things, but rather as aspects of a standalone universe, which their participation will expand and grow.

Modules #3, 2023, screen capture | Maxim Zhestkov | Modules | STIRworld
Modules #3, 2023, screen capture Image: Maxim Zhestkov, Courtesy of Zhestkov.Studio

As it expands, Modules will come to incorporate Zhestkov’s entire body of work, and shall grow as his oeuvre does. However, the road ahead is not without its challenges: user feedback seems to be consistent in that the program has not been optimised for either the VR systems or more commonplace computer terminals it may be accessed through, and some suggest that the artist should commit entirely to VR. What is commonly forgotten, however, is that commercial VR tech itself is very new and is still being refined rapidly. With that in mind, perhaps it is in the project’s best interest for the artist to remain pragmatic in his approach to interfacing with it, as both avenues may indeed become equally viable a short way down the road.

Modules trailer, 2023, animated video Video: Maxim Zhestkov, Courtesy of Zhestkov.Studio

There is an ongoing cross-pollination of ideas and approaches between artists, filmmakers and game designers happening within the VR space, and Zhestkov seems to be quite happy to be a part of this creative melting pot. “It's fascinating how these new artists can use already existing technologies to build their own spatial experiences and distribute them in ways that were not designed for art. They were designed for games,” he tells STIR. He takes this a step further, explaining that the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution occurring at the moment has arisen out of technology that was never meant for its predominant use case, and was instead also originally intended for games. “And” he says, “one guy just realised that he could use video cards to calculate all the AI calculations on CUDA cores, and it changed everything.” Zhestkov believes that the entirety of creative culture will soon migrate to digital platforms that resemble game environments, which is all thanks to those early pioneers who attempted to compute VR calculations on powerful video cards made for gaming. For his own role in all this, he explains that these worlds are all still somewhat separated, and that he is doing his part climate to bring them closer together.

Modules #27, 2023,  screen capture| Maxim Zhestkov | Modules | STIRworld
Modules #27, 2023, screen capture Image: Maxim Zhestkov, Courtesy of Zhestkov.Studio

A major concern that arises out of the proliferation of digital spaces is the acceleration of climate crises. This is highlighted in The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, co-authored by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. To quote a section of the book that underlines the culpability of digital activities—“Today, the digital economy uses 10 per cent of the world's total electricity. It’s the same amount that was used to light the entire planet in 1985.” When asked if he has any concerns regarding his role in all of this, Zhestkov responds, “I truly believe that more crises could happen if we continue all things as they are without a new approach to experiencing the world.” He highlights the vast impact that travelling to art exhibitions has on the environment, and believes his efforts in democratising the viewing experience for his digital art by allowing audiences to explore his oeuvre from the comfort of their homes will do more good than bad.

Portrait Image of Maxim Zhestkov | Maxim Zhestkov | Modules | STIRworld
Artist Maxim Zhestkov Image: Courtesy of Zhestkov.Studio

When all is said and done, it is unclear what direction digital technology will progress in, what its final destination might look like, or how quickly it will get there. What is for certain, however, is that its evolution signals exciting possibilities for digital artists such as Zhestkov to take advantage of. And Zhestkov, or even the arts community in its broadest sense, is by no means the only one mining tech in search of democratic solutions to the pressing issues of our day and age; consider, for example, that the non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders created a library of banned and controlled publications within a server on the video game Minecraft. Creative ingenuity certainly seems to be thriving within  the  virtual world, and pioneers such as Maxim Zhestkov are charting out a bold, if largely unknowable future. These are exciting times to say the very least, and what is currently unfolding within the ether demands our full and uninterrupted attention.

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