“It’s easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation,” writes the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, in his book Playing to the Gallery, “as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don’t have a lot of historical knowledge. But if there’s one message that I want you to take away, it’s that anybody can enjoy art.”
If you’ve ever walked into a deathly silent art gallery and stared at a glass of water on a shelf, trying to figure out how the hell it represents both an oak tree, Catholicism, and the suspension of reality itself, you’ll understand what Perry’s getting at here. And for Yarden Yaroshevski – the founder and CEO of KULTURA Ex Machina – tearing down some of these barriers is a central goal of his unique new project Occupy White Walls. In the game, which resembles something vaguely between The Sims and Minecraft, players instead build the art galleries of their dreams – and so far, creative players have built brand new virtual institutes based on everything from a faithful recreation of the periodic table, to sci-fi creations that feel plucked straight out of another galaxy. In place of a chin-stroking hush, many of these spaces have loud music blaring – and in stark opposition to many minimalist modern galleries, you’ll often struggle to find a lone canvas hanging on a bare white wall.
“Galleries exclude the vast majority of people,” Yaroshevski says. “The current art world basically tells people that they don’t understand art, and need some special education or the ‘high priesthood’ to explain it to them. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying one needs to have a music degree to figure out if they like or don’t like a specific Beatles song,” he points out. “Luckily most people are able to listen to a song and decide for themselves, and in many cases it’s not even a conscious decision, they just start humming it.”
And with Occupy White Walls, Yaroshevski and his team want to shake up the definition of a gallery in a similar way, favouring something that feels far more playful and instinctive. Within the game, you’ll find thousands of hugely impractical, financially unviable art galleries that could never exist in the real world – as the system stands – wrenched straight out of players’ imaginations. In place of neatly-organised rooms, carefully filed into different time periods or closely related art movements, any curation (or lack thereof) is left completely up to each player, or gallery boss.
Besides, Yaroshevski reckons that the current methods of exhibition curation are limited – here, the beauty is that players can approach their gallery however they like.
“What is curation?” he asks. “It’s that ‘I stayed up all night and made you a mixtape’
vibe. This is order vs entropy – and why not both? People do all sorts of things with galleries, which is what is so cool about it. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where there is a ‘right’ way to curate art.”
“I think [galleries] sometimes exclude people who aren’t as familiar with art,” agrees Rosa Francesca, a musician and visual artist who entered the world of Occupy White Walls as a regular player, but has since become one of the game’s most popular artists. Now, her striking work – which explores femininity with garish colour, crocheted eyeballs and disembodied limbs – hangs in virtual galleries scattered across the OWW universe.
“Early on in my time playing the game I remember coming across a user called Tive who created these really extravagant galleries that always took the game assets to the extreme. They had optical illusions going on and they were using the game in ways I didn’t know was possible! There are also a few galleries people have created for competitions that focus on my own art which is always really flattering. There’s a gallery called Not Alone that used sculptures and furniture to create little virtual installations to go with some of my artworks, and that was really cool,” she says. “I don’t sell my visual art or display it in exhibitions, so seeing how people would place it on walls is really interesting to me because it’s always in contexts that I don’t expect.”
“I’ve also seen some really random galleries in the game, like galleries designed to look like office buildings with documents floating around, or a 3D maze that I once got lost in for about an hour.”
As a gallery comes together, players are guided by an AI bot called Daisy, who adapts to individual taste and puts forward a tailored selection of work for each player. Crucially, Daisy is completely oblivious to art history and ranks the classical ‘greats’ on a level with less documented artists – here, you’ll find the Mona Lisa ranked next to the creation of a relative unknown.
“The hierarchy and the formal view of art history is skewed and precludes many, if not most, people,” Yaroshevski explains. “We are often asked by the community to feature more portraits and artwork by other than ‘white European men’ – however so much of ‘art history’ is dominated by those [kinds of artists]. We keep working on this, and I’m delighted that with living artists we have a much broader diversity.”
One of Yaroshevski’s favourite pieces of art is ‘Fountain’, a 1917 sculpture by the artist Marcel Duchamp. A central part of Dada – an anti-establishment art movement that favoured nonsense over the logic and order of society, as well as the rest of the art world – Duchamp famously autographed a porcelain urinal with the signature R. Mutt, and declared it a masterpiece. His choice of object was a fitting one, too – positioning art as something to piss all over. The irreverence of Duchamp is something of an inspiration for Occupy White Walls’ creators, who see him as “the first modern artist”.
“Duchamp went to the local B&Q and bought a generic urinal, one of thousands sold, a totally generic mass-produced object – that anyone can buy,” Yaroshevski says. “By not creating an authentic artwork and instead using a ‘ready made’ object, he broke the most holy law of art, and in the process invented ‘sampling’ if you’d like. He then went on and displayed this generic, mass-produced object in a gallery and established another important principle – that what gives an object the ‘art’ status is merely the fact it is presented in an art space and thus demands to be treated as art.”
“This is a part of Duchamp’s genius, he shone a light on the plumbing of the art world. And coming back to OWW, I believe we’re doing something equally radical. You see, generally in games when we play them, there’s this suspension of disbelief working in the background. When you kill a dragon in a game, you don’t really kill a dragon. At best, you kill some pixels on a screen that represents a (beautifully rendered, but still ‘fake’) dragon.”
“And I believe that OWW is a virtual world that influences old school reality,” he adds. “That’s something amazingly powerful that we’ve never seen before. To us, this blurring of the lines between ‘old school, stone bricks’ reality and a virtual world that affects our own reality here and now – call it a metaverse if you must –, is nothing short of revolutionary.”
Given the level of customisation involved in Occupy White Walls – as well as designing bespoke galleries, players can upload their own artwork – has Yaroshevski ever given any thought to similarly provocative modern artists having an effect on the game’s TTP metric? For the uninitiated, TTP – or Time To Penis – refers to the amount of time it takes a player to generate an in-game phallus.
“Yes I believe we have one or two artistic pensises…” he says, adding that Occupy White Walls has been an 18-rated game from the beginning in order to avoid issues around nudity in art, for instance. “Surprisingly, even for us, it took a very long time for someone to draw a penis in the game even after we introduced mosaics. That in theory made it very easy. I guess people are more mature than we expect and it’s not like there’s any shortage of better destinations for ‘titillation’ online. What a time to be alive!”
And however you choose to use Occupy White Walls, KULTURA Ex Machina is firm in the belief that there’s no single right approach – even if players fancy adorning their galleries with Medieval nudes, Jeff Koon’s explicit Made in Heaven series (very much NSFW) or even crude self-painted creations. “‘Art – like music, movies and video games – is about human creativity, this is what makes us human. In many ways we can argue that access to art, agency, being able to ‘own’ and shape one’s taste is really a human right. Art world,” he concludes, “here comes everyone!”
Occupy White Walls is available on PC via Steam