Minecraft exhibit helps people escape reality virtually

A screenshot from the video game Minecraft, featuring an in-game landscape of trees, grass and dirt in Minecraft’s distinctive “blocky” format. Pixabay

MacKenzie Art Gallery embraces digital art during pandemic

While people are shut-in during a pandemic, digital art curators with the MacKenzie Art Gallery are figuring out ways to engage people with art. Canadian artist Sarah Friend, who is currently based in Berlin, Cat Bluemke and Jonathan Carroll came up with the idea for a digital art gallery featuring the popular video game Minecraft.

Carroll likes the idea of using Minecraft as a platform for digital art because it’s an interactive system that has a creative platform.

“There’s what’s called a sandbox game, which means that there aren’t a lot of limitations to what you can do within the system of the game, including of course building things out of blocks that the game is made of,” he said.

Minecraft is one of the most popular video games ever – among young and old.

“It’s transcended the status [of] most video games. It has become this cultural and societal phenomenon that permeates all these different spheres into education and science as well as art in this instance,” said Carroll.

The pandemic has created a new interest in digital art. Digital art isn’t confined to computers or something that appears on a screen, says Bluemke. Different types of communications devices can be a digital work.

Traditional art gallery visits mean people have different experiences from virtual displays.

“Being able to see a work that is specifically physical, that is located in a gallery that is lit specifically and evokes a certain type of experience. But if you’re sitting at home, there’s still a lot of work that artists have been creating, not just recently, but over 60 years that had been intended to be consumed on a screen. Conceptually, within the boundary of the screen or website, whatever the media might be,” said Bluemke.

Because people can’t visit spaces like art galleries, people are forced to do everything through their screens, noted Bluemke. With all this screen time, people are getting fatigued, such as attending too many virtual meetings.

Much of the gallery’s funding focuses on youth because they are already enmeshed within digital technology. He hopes this call for artists will empower young people, like students, to use the tools they already use to produce their own digital art.

She hopes to encourage youth to think about computers in a critical way.

“We want the youth to reflect both the creative potential use of technology, but also the conceptual nature of what drives some of these technologies to be created and used in the first place,” she said.

In Minecraft, people can explore and interact with that world, which offers more engagement.

“That was one of the things that drew us to it, from an audience perspective, of thinking how people could actually engage with these works in the Minecraft world,” said Bluemke.

Because the video game is a blank slate in which the artist can create whatever they want in an infinite space, it presents the problematic notion of terra nullius, which is the idea that land that is legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited can then be occupied.

“It’s like the colonialist idea of these environments that are empty and inhabitants are free and open for the individual who is in power to take over and use it to their own advantage,” said Carroll.

The call for submissions, which closed at the end of January, has generated some interest locally and internationally.

“Some people seem to still be in school as they referenced it, as well as a pair of parents who wanted artists, parents who wanted to do this as a collaboration with their children. And there were people who were digital artists who do this as their living. There’s a really wide spectrum of applicants being drawn in because the media, Minecraft, is broadly appealing to different people as a mass culture,” said Bluemke.

Bluemke and Carroll started working with the art gallery in September 2019. Canada Council for the Arts has a grant called digital strategy fund, which is aimed to promote growth in the digital sector in Saskatchewan. Out of this fund, the two digital positions were created.

“We are running programming like workshops and classrooms to demonstrate to people what digital art, for example how artists are using technology to use art. And then also trying to show how the audience of the Mackenzie can use digital technology to make art whether or not they’re already practising artists,” said Carroll.

The four selected artists will be announced in early March. They will have their creations featured two months on the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s server, each one being on display one at a time. Each artist will have two months to develop his or her exhibit. Then, the exhibit will be showcased for two months. The first exhibit will start April 1. In addition to the exhibits, the gallery will hold livestream presentations, artists talks and panel discussions that will be streamed over the gallery’s social channels.

“The development for the studio server will be private and that the artists can be working on for those two months. And then the next artist will work on their exhibition [which] will last for two months afterwards. So by the end of this project, there will have been four different projects developed, over the course of […] 10 months, eight of those will be exhibition periods. The production periods would overlap,” said Bluemke.

Like an in-person exhibition, the Minecraft showcase will have an artist statement, curatorial statement and documentation so people can engage with it without having to log onto the game. But for those who do login to the game, they can enter as a character.

“You can look at the work, but you won’t be able to destroy it […] at least not until the end. Maybe that’ll be a special party or event,” said Bluemke.

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