Have you ever fantasised about being someone else, even just for a day? Let’s face it, life can be pretty boring. Rent, bills, work and buying potatoes are more common occurrences in the average person’s life than wild adventures trekking across mountains or escaping a mob of angry gunmen. We all dream of a life more extraordinary, to escape the mundane. Computer games are the ultimate escapism, because they allow us to live out our wildest fantasies from the comfort of our sofa.
Gaming culture — particularly live action role play (or LARP) and first person games like “Far Cry” and “Tomb Raider!” — creates a space to perform fictional identities and experience the lives we dream of. We can survive, die and come back to life behind the protection of a computer screen or VR headset. With recent technological developments in CGI, 3D effects and virtual reality, the fictional characters we perform in games seem more real than ever before. The idea of the digital becoming ‘real’ may sound like something from “Blade Runner”, but does it have to be such a negative thing? Perhaps the digital realm provides a necessary escape from a life spent buying groceries from Lidl.
Two exhibitions in Berlin, “R U Still There?” curated by Annika Kulhman and artist collective The Mycological Twist, and “Traction Flesh-Hold” by Omsk Social Club, play with the implications of gaming culture, using multi-mediums perfectly suited for our technology-obsessed society. By holding a distorted mirror up to modern digital culture, the artists dissect the relationship between escapism, alter egos, and technology, with art installations that share a distinctly dystopian aesthetic. At a time of instability in politics, the economy and the environment, these artists play with the idea of unstable identity.
Omsk Social Club’s performative installation is also an invitation to escape. The soundscape, created in collaboration with Vonverhille, provides instructions for role-play, dictated in a cool, robotic, voice which aptly says “everyone wants to be someone else”.
“R U Still There?” brings together multiple artists who are all inspired by the notoriously brutal online game “Rust”. “Rust” is a test of survival and endurance for the player, and the artists attempted to recreate this brutal survival test in a week-long in game residency in which they lived together and staged performances and exhibitions in a virtual world. The exhibition at House of Egorn brings the game’s virtual indulgence in the limits of human endurance into the non-virtual world.
A series of sculptures by artist Eloise Bonneviot play with the performance of survival in “Rust” and many other popular online games in which escaping death is the main objective. White masks hang on stands with a selection of mixed sport gears, like surreal costumes for surviving the harshest of environments. Bonneviot’s hanging masks paired with the game “Rust” playing on a television in the middle of the exhibition, create an open invitation to step out of the real world and escape to a fantasy of survival.
I wanted to find out about Omsk Social Club’s own digital escapes. This “futuristically politically” installation artist explores character construction in live action role play, but her own preferred tool of online escapism is a Google Doc. “I find the template of a Google Doc oddly calming,” she explains “I write all my games, texts, plans via the program. It’s my internal sketchbook.”
Her installation similarly evokes an oddly calming mood, as the soundscape is somewhat like a sci-fi character from the seventies, both relaxing and intimidating. The installation is hard to leave — you become hooked, listening to philosophical and poetic instructions like “let the human pour out of you”, imagining the different characters you could be, obsessing over an art installation about obsessions with gaming culture. Had Omsk Social Club ever been obsessed with a computer game? “Computer game no, but game yes and even more so a gamer,” she says. “Last year, I began a game called “Deep Intimacy” with one other player Dvd Jns, it lasted five months and was one of the most euphorically unethical places I have ever been. Bleed lust and bleed crush is the ultimate rush when life becomes play.” Play, playing, and pretend runs throughout her work and the spectators are invited to act out their own characters in response to the audio performance.
“R U Still Here?” is also an inherently playful display of artwork. “The Young-Girl Smells” by Dorota Gaweda and Egle Kulbokaite is a small white globe which sits next to the television playing “Rust”, occasionally releasing the specially designed smell of young girls, as if femininity were nothing more than a perfume. In a similarly playful vein, the audio guide of the exhibition is a deliberately unhelpful conceptual soundscape, which pokes fun at the serious nature in which most art exhibitions are viewed. The exhibition space is a home for the online play of gaming in the offline world, and we are invited to join in with this celebration of play.
Rarely do online spaces materialise in the offline world, and yet we spend more time online than offline. We spend most of our lives on social media, performing our online identities. “This idea of too long on Facebook doesn’t disturb me”, argues Omsk Social Club. “I find a scrolling feed almost meditative or something of a present raw archive.” Facebook is arguably the most popular form of online escapism, there is something peculiarly relaxing about scrolling through news of old school friends and enviable holiday photos from people you don’t even remember meeting.
This desire to escape to digital spaces is particularly prevalent in “R U Still There?”. In one room there is a CGI short film about birds migrating, by artist Anna Mikkola. As I watched the birds flying, I thought about all the different ways of fulfilling the human desire to escape: computer games, films, drugs, alcohol and of course the internet. The internet is the place where we can be whoever we want to be — we can be completely anonymous, or create a whole new digital identity. I asked Omsk Social Club if she had ever created a digital persona. “Well my practice is built on alternative personas,” she explains. “Re-appropriating life or a persona per se is crucial to allowing the human mind to be disrupted and brought into a state of the uncanny. This enables it to hack its common nodes of perception and taught identity. I think we all need multiple personas to survive neoliberalism and a state of co-habiting with various characters is vital to disrupt the authoritarian world we live in. Using the mechanics of LARP and Real Game Play is a form of political exploration, not just an aesthetic gesture and so I think I live by multiple on and offline personas.”
Perhaps the escapism provided by computer games is necessary to survive in these unstable times. Computer games aren’t just an idle passtime for nerds who live in their bedrooms surrounded by pizza boxes — rather, gaming culture is a phenomenon that testifies our shared fantasy of being someone else.