When the global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland are finished discussing a ban on electric cars in Wyoming or competing with China for AI supremacy, they’ll have the unique opportunity to enjoy a metaverse art museum.
At the Crypto Valley Partners-sponsored networking lounge, attendees can strap on virtual reality goggles to visit the Octopus Contemporary Art Museum (OCAM) designed by ArtMeta, a metaverse and digital display company.
The museum, according to ArtMeta, exists on a “metaverse island” named Tchan-Zâca, which in ArtMeta lore is the “probable result of several underwater volcanic eruptions.” A Kraken that lived at the heart of Tchan-Zâca became fossilized during this period of volcanic violence and thus became the “octopus” at the center of the “Octopus Contemporary Art Museum”.
For those of us not in Davos, a browser version is available. Upon picking an avatar, complete with legs and everything, the audience member arrives in an atrium with a glowing billboard of Crypto Valley events. The museum is designed with a central hall whose walls are decorated with illustrations of monsteras and palm trees. Origami sculptures of kites and swans fit in the corners and lanterns float, tethered to benches should one’s digital feet grow tired. In short, it has the look of a children’s museum.
Off the main hall are adjoining rooms designed by Crypto Valley’s partners, including TrustSawp, a crypto trading app, and Tezos, a blockchain known for its artistic community. There is also a cafe. Though it serves no food if your avatar is still for too long it will land in that cafe in a pile of other avatars, awaiting their human puppeteers.
Each gallery contained, first and foremost, advertisements for the partner who was sponsoring it. In the TrustSwap gallery, animated and static pieces were pasted to monolith-like grey rectangles that sat around the perimeter of the room. Included there was Christine Wang’s Bitcoin Wife II, a digitized and animated version of her painting by the same name, which was copied from a meme in which a crying woman is shown beneath text that reads, “My husband is rich in Bitcoins/But if he dies I won’t understand how to spend them.” A tragic stanza for the modern age. It’s incredibly funny to see this piece —which has been appropriated into so many forms while staying, essentially, the same— contextualized now by this bizarre metaverse experience that attendees of the World Economic Forum are expected to walk around in.
It’s perfect — a perfect pile of junk, sublime absurdity.
The other galleries don’t quite reach this peak of irony, and the experience over all is hampered by the jerky avatars. Scrolling through an artist’s page on Instagram is a higher quality, more immersive way of interacting with digital or digitized art. And though the ArtMeta spokesperson wrote that the mission of the company was to create “a place where gallerists can exhibit their most visionary artists’ works without the bounds of a small booth of three white walls,” one hardly gets the sense that a new way of viewing art is being offered. The digital works are pasted to flat surfaces. The avatars, weirdly hunched, “look” at the painting. As a human being using the browser version, I can click “enlarge” but the view provided is compressed and lacking in information. At the Tezos-sponsored gallery, the works were afixed to digitally rendered parchment scrolls, so at least they took some liberties provided by the boundless opportunities digital display should provide, but is seldom taken advantage of.
That OCAM is uninspired in the display of work is not the fault of the medium — that is, the metaverse gallery. GMO Gallery, a digital gallery that was run by artists Michal Cihlar and Sean Kennedy during the pandemic was incredibly whimsical. Digital and digitized works occupied floating fairy castles and suburban backyards, they even hosted a Halloween space where getting close to works would trigger haunted screams and the viewer paced around by the light of a single flashlight. The work, of course, was interesting as well, featuring not just two-dimensional art but ceramic work and jewelry that had been 3D scanned and rendered.
The metaverse museum, though easy to laugh at as a concept, is not an idea without its merits. But when these digital experiences are ruled by advertisements and poor design, it’s no wonder that the public isn’t all that excited for the future of digital art and digital immersion.