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January 19, 2024

The Metaverse as a Radical Medium

New communities are filling the virtual worlds vacated by the speculators, observes Bay Backner
Credit: Micah Alhadeff for MESHfair, The Glitch Haven, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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The Metaverse as a Radical Medium

We find ourselves at a precipice in digital creation, overlooking an emergent virtual art form that synthesizes the urgency of the happening with the borderless inclusivity of multiplayer gaming. This evolving genre is rooted in the real-world experiential art of collectives like TeamLab and Meow Wolf. Yet today’s new builders, taking the metaverse as their medium, aspire to create experiences that transcend the physical, moving beyond worldbuilding into something meaningful and social. 

With the metaverse gold rush fading to a pre-AI dream and spatial computing on the horizon, a new vanguard of creators is filling the virtual worlds that the speculators have left behind. 

In 2023, their work gained a foothold in the wider art world, as evidenced by exhibitions such as “Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age” at the Centre Pompidou-Metz and “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse” at HEK, Basel. Yet the model of worldbuilding as a meticulous creation of believable, alternative realities does not fully express the vision of this new art movement, whose conversations go beyond the construction of 3D environments to embrace the nature of collective virtual experience, shared memory, and communal narrative.

Leah Smithson for MESHfair, Soft Oblique Horizons, 2023. Courtesy of Bay Backner

These new developments are informed by the ideology of the more radical metaverse communities, who reject the monopolization of the term “metaverse” by Meta, Roblox, and Microsoft. These communities and their creators are now demanding the democratization of virtual space, gathering within more “open” metaverses, including Decentraland, Hyperfy, Mona, and OnCyber, while helping to build them out as shared, publicly accessible realms. 

Space in the metaverse need only be limited by file size or polygon count. But much like common land under the feudal system, which ultimately fell under the control of the Crown, platform owners continue to hold sway. 

Indeed, all of the aforementioned platforms still fall short of Theo Priestley’s metaverse ideal of “a multi-layered and experiential environment, pervasive and not a singular destination.” Unlike the open internet, we are still to see the kind of open virtual world that might be accessed freely, wherever we are, across all devices and browsers. What 2023 inaugurated was the model of the metaverse as a place of free artistic experimentation, with Discord dominated by debates over definitions and decentralization. In the process, a core of engaged creators gained the support of platform founders and coders, a number of whom made available privately-owned metaverse land that had once commanded staggering prices to artists. 

NeonGlitch86 and collaborators in OnCyber, GRIFT DISTRICT, 2023. Courtesy of Bay Backner

My own work with art collective Vueltta, which has had consistent access to land in our home metaverse of Decentraland, illustrates this trend. It also sits in stark contrast to the ongoing challenge of securing IRL exhibition space. The juxtaposition of different realms — one boundless and digital, the other constrained and physical — has led to a shift in our practice from the physical to the virtual. Although Priestley views the current metaverse as “exclusionary and niche, lacking in real social bonding and confined only to those who can access it,” my own experience as an artist has been different.¹

In comparison to the contemporary art scene in many cities, the metaverse is as open a venue as any, and it would be wrong to limit the open metaverse’s communal ideals to those of a freely-accessible art location. This is more than an open-air museum or sculpture park. What the new communities share is the guiding ethos of historical common lands such as the “Allmende” cooperative pastures in Germany as well as UK-based commoning practices. In the open metaverse, knowledge and space is shared so that anyone in the community can create. Indeed, the inherent problems of the metaverse as a medium — the lack of technical documentation, the early state of the code across multiple programming languages, the mainstream ambivalence and down-right hostility to the concept itself — are now helping to cement commoning as a guiding principle. 

Right now, individualism in the metaverse won’t work. To create requires contributing to a virtual community, which is as important as the underlying code base or 3D modeling tools. 
Mellowmann for MESHfair, Marvellous Meowies Wonderland, 2023. Courtesy of Bay Backner

Parallels can be drawn with open-source software development, where knowledge and resources are shared freely, and even with modern art movements like Dada and Surrealism. What unites all of these different communities is the meshing of radical ideas with performative approaches and a contrarian spirit of creation. The Dadaist nightclub Cabaret Voltaire makes for an especially apposite analogy as a point of creative convergence for artists and writers, from Tristan Tzara to Sophie Taeuber-Arp.  In today’s metaverse, we encounter artists collaborating in the free expression of radical ideas and the creation of avant-garde, performative art. 

In 1918, Tzara proclaimed the power of Dada with the words: “I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air.” More than a hundred years later, the metaverse is allowing us to achieve this through code. Indeed, for many of us, the metaverse is a manifesto:

 We write this code to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air. 

In discussing artworks that are representative of this movement, we must talk in terms of community, collaboration, and performative events that leave space to breathe. Just as the happenings of the 1960s took up Dada’s radical redefinition of art and its audience, so these virtual “acts” pick up the baton from the original happenings. And if the Web3 economy is a world of creative entrepreneurs, it is in the metaverse where the lines dividing artists from organizers, participants, and performers are visibly dissolving. In the chaotic playground of avatar experience, artists are expressing common concerns for open contribution, communal narrative, and collective expression once again.

The WIP Meetup, WIPsgiving, 2023. Courtesy of Bay Backner

WIPsgiving by The WIP Meetup

A prime example is “WIPsgiving,” hosted by the loose collective of creators who self-organize around The WIP Meetup. This is a weekly metaverse social founded in January 2020 by writer, collector, NFT producer, and podcaster Matthew aka Niftytime and his podcast co-host, the creator Rizzle. For WIPsgiving, the collective created a full Thanksgiving parade in 24 hours in the Hyperfy metaverse. Artists including DragonNate, Godfrey Boombox, Fractilians, and Metageist produced mobile floats that filled an environment by one of the leading names in the open metaverse, DankVR.  During the hour-long parade, every participant was invited to ride the floats and take the Discord microphone to “express their gratitude.” True to the WIP’s anarchic culture, contributions were both profane and moving:

“Fucking thankful that we can manifest these ideas, this hilariously weird magic, week in and week out,” began Matthew. “It keeps the spirit alive that attracted us here; so thankful for all the builders that came before like Jin (DankVR) and Godfrey Boombox — godfathers of this space.”²

“I’m thankful for this technology, [which is] for making and breaking things, for sharing these fleeting, janky, [and] shanky moments — these hallucinations — with you.” (Metageist)
AKAHorus performs at VERTEX Series II, 2023. Courtesy of Tangpoko

VERTEX at Dollhouse by Tangpoko x GucciToe

Another established metaverse act is VERTEX: a series of happenings that started out in 2022 at Decentraland club, Dollhouse. Its founder, Tangpoko, collaborates with VERTEX creator and music producer GucciToe to stream live art creation with music. Their performances, which have included body painting by Roustan and graffiti by StoneyEye, merge with live sets by GucciToe, whose mixes create the “headspace for another visual artist.”³ As Tangpoko explains, “we take every series into a new metaverse location. VERTEX Series 1 was in Decentraland; we built Series 2 in both Decentraland and Spatial; and in Series 3 we used both Decentraland and Hyperfy. In 2024, we’re planning Series 4 to be somewhere new.”⁴

[VERTEX] represents metaverse-native artists from our “local” Decentraland community while introducing creators from the wider Web3 art world. (Tangpoko)

However, VERTEX goes beyond collaborative art-making to transform Dollhouse into a collective act. A community of fifty to eighty avatars gathers each week to interact with the narrative of the show, its environment, and each other. Participants cycle through their different wearables and emotes — digital fashion and motions collected as NFTs from other metaverse artists — in visual response to their experience. 

Microtrends ripple across the crowd, visual conversations take place, and in-jokes are celebrated. Pop art-style speech bubbles say “MEW,” in reference to creator SinfulMeatStick who live streams the act, or else the whole dance floor fills with “nude” body-painted wearables by Roustan while the artist paints live on screen. In many ways, VERTEX exemplifies contemporary virtual expression.

Vueltta x Luke Escobar, MESHfair 2023 environment. Courtesy of Bay Backner

MESHfair by Vueltta

Supported by Right Click Save, MESHfair began as an irreverent take on the IRL art world via a series of standardized virtual “white cubes.” By July 2023, it had become an open call for artists working with the metaverse-compliant 3D file standard .glb, including bunnybreaker, Low Poly Models, Mangoscam, Mellowmann, Adrián Martínez, and OgiWorlds. Leading curators of digital art, including Kate Vass of Kate Vass Galerie, Edward Zipco of Superchief Gallery NFT, and Belle NFTs then selected thirty artists who had produced site-specific experiences, set within an immersive landscape by architect Luke Escobar.

So far so IRL. MESHfair’s point of difference was its three-day program of community activations, tours, and Twitter Spaces. Avatars were reimagined as chess pieces on a giant war-room board in Rebecca Rose’s Man Upon Man cube, while Stephan Duqesnoy’s Pre-highpolyists played host to a pole-dancing flash mob, and strangers shared openly about the nature of loss while encased within Leah Smithson’s Soft Oblique Horizons. 

All thirty MESH cubes became acts in themselves, as well as foundations for collective storytelling and shared experience.

For OgiWorlds, “the technology not only enables the art, but the art is a collective expression of human interaction with converging technologies into the final medium. Everything conceptual is made possible. For me, it’s a conflux of experiential identity — identity through digital, identity through communication, identity through shared experience.”⁵

MESHfair 2023 — Rebecca Rose tour. Courtesy of Bay Backner

Across the metaverse

While theorists and futurists continue to challenge the monolith of a single metaverse, last year celebrated its growing plurality. Notable acts and events yet to be mentioned include the GRIFT DISTRICT happenings, hosted by Neonglitch86 across OnCyber and MONA; ANTIDOTE by Here and Now; and the installation-happenings created for Decentraland Music Festival by Argent, Low Poly Models, OgiWorlds, and Micah Alhadeff

Looking back, 2023 marked a philosophical shift in the evolution of virtual realities — the moment when the metaverse became a radical medium for experiential art. It compelled artists to transform our works into living, breathing, collaborative acts — collective narratives that leave room for fresh gulps of air. At the same time, this art aims to be a crucible for new virtual societies and the expression of the values at their core. Thanks to the aforementioned projects and the wider community, the metaverse has been reclaimed as a common land for creation. Such developments track closely with recent tectonic shifts in Web3 where communality reigns supreme and community is written into open code.

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Bay Backner is a metaverse artist and producer. She is a co-founder of Vueltta art collective, and the founder and director of MESHfair. Bay most recently produced Metaverse Art Week ’23 and Decentraland Music Festival ’23. She is also an Assistant Professor in Emerging Technologies at Berklee Valencia.

MESHfair returns from 24-29 March 2024. The free Open Call for artists closes on 27 January 2024. Details can be found at 


¹ T Priestley, interviewed by the author on 15 December 2023.

² WIPsgiving, hosted on 30 November, 2023.

³ GucciToe, Interviewed by the author on 7 December, 2023.

⁴ Tangpoko, Interviewed by the author on 7 December, 2023.

⁵ OgiWorlds, interviewed by the author on 7 December, 2023.