April 4, 2022

The Worldbuilders of Web3

As Krista Kim’s Continuum absorbs audiences worldwide and Lawrence Lek inaugurates Nepenthe Valley, Alex Estorick asks them to share their thoughts on the metaverse still under construction
Credit: Krista Kim, Mars House, 2020. Courtesy of the artist
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The Worldbuilders of Web3
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Alex Estorick: There’s obviously a conversation to be had here about digital architecture, including virtual worldbuilding, but also one about property relations in the metaverse. At least from my perspective, when I think about works by Lawrence like Geomancer (2017), there’s a kind of critical politics that underpins it all. While Krista has commodified NFT architecture through the Mars House (2020) and envisioned a native Web3 virtual world.

One area you both align is in the importance of digital consciousness, psychological states, and well-being to your different worlds. And I am interested in the ontological shift that may or may not be taking place as we move into the metaverse. I think sometimes when we talk about NFTs, there’s a temptation to start history over at year zero, but both of you are mindful of the histories in which you’re operating. 

Krista Kim: I am a student of Marshall McLuhan. I love his book, Understanding Media (1964), which taught me a lot about the world. Back when I started out in 2013, I was getting addicted to my phone. So McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message” began to really make sense to me, whereby this invasive, ubiquitous technology — smartphones and social media in particular — were taking over my consciousness through relentless distraction and reinforced behaviors like dopamine hits. This was a disturbing realization for me.

So I basically decided that, as someone who practices regular meditation in order to mitigate anxiety and depression, I was very sensitive to the inputs of the world on my inner sanctum. And so meditation and the expression of the sublime in our environment was something that I thought would help me, so I began to create art with light, influenced by the work of Rothko and James Turrell. Many of us don’t realize that the screen can be repurposed to create a state of Zen.

Krista Kim, No. 1024 v. 4b, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

I was born in Canada, but my background is Korean. And when I lived in Japan for three years, I would often travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, which became my favorite place in the world. Kyoto is a place where every design decision in the environment — from architecture to landscaping, cuisine to fashion — was imbued with Zen consciousness. It was in the Ryōan-ji temple garden where I realized that our environment is a mirror of the mind. And so I knew that art can be of service to humanity, which became my revelation.

A few years later, when I moved to Singapore, I realized that I needed to create the Zen garden of the 21st century and beyond. We need it as a counterbalance. So what I do is I basically gather images of LED lights, manipulating them using Adobe Suite, and I create these gradient artworks — very minimalist and visceral. And I find them very healing and soothing for my eyes, for my senses, for my state of mind.

In March 2020, when everyone was locked down around the world, I decided to build the Mars House as my escape, my dream home, which I would actually experience in virtual reality. Over that period, I hired a freelancer to do the 3D renderings of my sketches, integrating my artwork and video art. It was in December 2020 when I discovered blockchain, when I went down the rabbit hole of NFTs.

I signed up for SuperRare and was whitelisted for February. And I could just see that NFTs would become every mode of human exchange that’s digital, that we would create digital twins, and it would become a new decentralized economy and political system. It would, in fact, create a better world for all of us. So I then said, “wow, I already have this home, that’s a 3D asset. I should mint this and ask the world whether we are ready for a metaverse lifestyle.” And I guess that question was answered.

Krista Kim, Continuum Times Square, 2022. Courtesy of Michael Hull and Times Square Arts

Lawrence Lek: I see lots of parallels with my journey. Firstly, I’m Malaysian-Chinese, born in Germany, growing up around Asia and in London as well. So for me, I guess the paradigm of making things is this division between the journey — the wandering aspect of life — and, on the other hand, the desire for worldbuilding.

There are child psychologists who say that the reason children play in doll’s houses or with Lego is because they are powerless in everyday life. Creating something that they have control of gives them a sense of meaning and causality and power in a way that’s quite intuitive. I also grew up in the mid-90s, when the two hot topics were virtual reality and the internet. And so I remember, as a kid, I tried to teach myself Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML), a complete Web1 super low poly kind of world. 

One Chinese New Year, a cousin taught me how to draw in single-point perspective. And then this whole 3D world opened up. Three years down the line, a family friend suggested I check out Doom (1993), the first kind of popularized 3D game, even though I later learned that it’s 2.5D, that the vertical dimension is a programming trick. I didn’t piece together the significance of the technological and aesthetic history that I was living through in real time. It followed a very early cyberpunk hacker aesthetic without big data or fake news — an early primitive utopia in a sense, which is an idea I often go back to.

Krista Kim, Continuum, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

I studied architecture and was doing electronic music for a long time as well. I started doing virtual worlds around 2013, starting off with this idea that the virtual world, instead of being a playground for interaction, is actually more like landscape painting. It’s a way of adding this layer of speculative or science fiction. 

Last year, Kelani Nichole invited me to be part of a show at Transfer Gallery and then Rick Silva asked me to take part in the exhibition he was curating on Feral File. For those shows, I made NFTs based on my previous films. But this year I felt it was time to bring together my interest in episodic world building, in a serial work that continues over time with a new sense of what kinds of community Web3 might promise in the future, which brings us to Nepenthe Valley (2022).

KK: After I sold Mars House there were so many people who came to me and said, “Krista, let’s sell houses, can you make more?” I’m like, “No, I’ve got to just wait.” Because if I’m just creating houses and selling them, I don’t think that that’s really going to fill my soul. So I waited. And also I was scoping out the metaverse, figuring out which platform to work with, and also how you might build a world. That’s the question. It really is about creating a new civilization. And how does one do that? Well, you can’t do it by yourself, that’s for sure. It is a co-creation collaborative project that’s ongoing. 

Krista Kim, No. 700 v. 2, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

I really want to bring health and wealth and well-being into the metaverse. But how do you build that wealth? I do not believe that the metaverse is a land grab. It is a space where people will come together and share each other’s passions and talents as cultural capital. And this will create an experience economy. A robust experience economy is necessary in order to create value for any real estate in the metaverse. It’s one thing if you have a beautiful home like the Mars House, but if it’s just sitting there, there’s no value proposition. There needs to be activity that’s meaningful and adds value to people’s lives. And that is exactly the same in the real world.

LL: I think you’re absolutely right, that the difference is really in what social interactions happen in those places. Going back to the Mars House — what they never tell you at architecture school is that you’re going to grow up to be, essentially, a facade builder for property development. Even in the best-case scenario, if you’re designing a Guggenheim or some kind of high art establishment, the rules of property and finite land, and therefore exploitation, still apply. I find it really fascinating that, particularly in Web3, the idea of calling yourself a builder is a highly skeuomorphic language borrowed from real-world architecture.

There’s so much talk about artificial scarcity in the metaverse, whether it’s artworks or land or NFTs. But the ultimate scarcity is people’s attention and how much time they have. In the past, if not land grabs, then let’s say attention grabs in the digital sphere have often been driven by large companies and a star ecosystem, which is an interesting thing to observe, but also poses many questions. 

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe Valley Tier 5: The Shrine (Postcard), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

KK: Artists and creators, indeed all organizations are no longer just brands, we are communities. And the question now for the artist is a spiritual question: “What is the value that I can bring to my community as I activate them through beautiful, immersive experiences?”

I just saw an announcement that Zaha Hadid Architects has created a virtual city, a utopia. I found it very literal. It looks like Dubai. When you’re creating architecture in the metaverse, why do you need a high-rise building when there are no limitations on land? It’s about imagination and understanding the metaverse as multiple dimensions of experience. If you’re building a Walmart in the metaverse, I’m sorry, you’re going to lose. 

LL: Talking about James Turrell, if we look at the trajectory of his career, which takes art out of the literal, out of the material, into the perceptual — into light and subjective experience. Fast forward 30 years, he’s creating physical, Land Art-scale architectural manifestations. Robert Irwin is of the same ethos. Part of that narrative of 1960s and ’70s California Land Art is that, instead of being trapped in the apartment, “let’s drive out into the desert and see what we find. Let’s look at the horizon instead of the skyscraper.” And I often ask myself, “what is the equivalent of that for digital native artists like us today? What is the equivalent of the permanent installation?” Maybe the blockchain can achieve this.

Part of the problem in the video game world — and any software or web developer knows this — is obsolescence, for instance if a domain name is no longer registered. And that is something I’m always thinking about. What does permanence mean in this experience economy where things are so transactional, so ephemeral, and so disposable?

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe Valley Tier 5: The Lodge (Postcard), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: It seems to me very important that Web3 doesn’t look like Web2, that we’re not simply reiterating visual archetypes, as well as political and socio-economic oppressions. One of the things I’m struck by with both of you is the optimism that you draw from Web3, because of its rejection of hierarchy and the framework of oppression that Web2 constructed, be it neocolonial or neoliberal. 

What’s fascinating to me is artists who can intuit a posthuman vision. I’m not saying that we can necessarily define a non-Euclidean metaversal ecosystem which has no gravitational principles, etc. It’s very hard to envisage that in words. But of course, that’s why we have art. I think there is something that you both get, which is that in order to construct a convincing vision for Web3, we need on some level to reject anthropocentrism whilst at the same time preserving the virtues folded into humanity, which are under threat from vertical systems. 

KK: It is the blockchain itself, the decentralized nature of it and the disintermediation of the technology, that actually supports the rise of a sovereign being. And that means that we are now in control of our own creative IP — we can monetize, we can trade, we can interact, we can create economies of scale based on our own IP. All this is possible where it wasn’t before, with gatekeepers that controlled access to markets, including the art world. I feel that the nature of blockchain itself will usher in a new civilization simply because it exists. Because if you give people the option, especially younger generations like Gen Z and Gen Alpha, who are very open and in tune with Web3, they’re collaborators and co-creators. They are creative.

I believe that it’s these generations that will choose the metaverse — to be involved with projects where they can own some equity in their activities. They see that there’s no benefit in giving away your data and your power and your IP to a company like Meta, letting them control all of these social interactions that you spend so much time investing in. So it’s just a matter of time, and a generational shift. I think that we’re still very early in the space. But the cultural paradigm is shifting. 

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe Valley Tier 5: The Treehouse (Postcard), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

LL: This idea that you own yourself, you own your identity, you own these things that are part of you. I think the political intersection of this identity with the figure of the adventurer, or the wanderer, or the player of the first-person game is really strong. Let’s take the example of Singapore. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by an employee of the East India Company. This person was the ultimate example, in that 19th century version, of the sovereign individual — free to sail their ship to another place, to found a trading port and call it a country. The amount of power and privilege to be a sovereign individual or wanderer in that age was so rare and so exclusive. Of course, we still live now with borders, passports, visas, economic incentives, and so on. The lack of true sovereignty of the self is just as strong and just as unequal as ever.

I do totally agree with Krista that, of course, the political utopian potential is for people to be a sovereign being, so that they are free to choose their own adventure. And as Krista says, for younger people, different generations, that’s twice as important. And not only twice as important, it’s the only alternative. I find it so ironic that in so-called “Generation Rent” virtual real estate is a compelling option, rather than putting money in the bank in a rapidly inflationary economy. 

And it really ties back to this idea that I originally had with open-world games — that having this wandering first-person perspective is a privilege that you simply don’t have in the real world because often the doors are closed, the gates are locked, or it costs money to get in somewhere. So from my point of view, the utopian thing is not even to do with a Zaha Hadid kind of cityscape — it doesn’t look like utopia — but it’s the kind of agency and ability to move that might come with it. 

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe Valley Tier 5: The Spring (Postcard), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

KK: I love how you referenced being a first-person player and being your own protagonist. When you think about NFTs and DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations], how sovereign beings come together to create governments, to create economies with initiatives to solve problems around the world, where the Industrial Age has really failed us and is only creating more kleptocracy and wealth imbalance. I think everyone understands that the economic system of Web2 is flawed and unfair.

In the metaverse, with greater awareness and personal empowerment through NFTs, people will pay attention to the places where they gain, both in the investment of their human capital, their time, their enjoyment, their social network. They want to have a part ownership and they want to actually enrich their minds, souls, and their wallets in Web3. And that’s the future.

AE: Both of your practices are emancipatory, but they’re also immersive. And of course immersion is also capable of being appropriated for totalitarian ends. How can we guard against the politics of the past as we embrace immersive experiences?

LL: Who loves worldbuilding? Totalitarian governments. I’m interested in the utopian idea of the city as a fresh shining ideal, but also in its post-city state, in its state as a ruin and a place after everybody has left. In both art and life, when you encounter an empty city — the decaying building, the old factory, the disused airport — you confront the time of humanity in a way that you don’t when you are confronted with a social situation. 

KK: I believe that we are entering into a transcendent culture globally, and that metaverse-native generations will transcend all of the limitations and divisions of our current situation. Race, religion, geography, sexuality, gender, all of these fall away. When you’re in the metaverse, you can be whoever you want to be. And you’re an avatar. So most likely, people want to express the best ideals of themselves, who they want to be, and who they aspire to be. And they act accordingly. It’s just human-to-human interaction in the metaverse. That’s good. That’s transcendent.

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Krista Kim is a metaverse artist and founder of the Techism movement. Her work explores digital technology’s effects on human perception, media, and social structures, as well as the use of technology as an instrument of well-being. In 2014, she founded Techism, a philosophy that encourages artists to promote digital humanism for digital culture. Her 2021 creation, Mars House was the first metaverse home for sale as an NFT in history. Kim was chosen by Louis Vuitton as a #Louis200 visionary in 2021, and is a contributing Metaverse Editor for Vogue Singapore. She was named one of the “Top 30 Most Influential People of the Metaverse” by Read and Write Magazine.

Lawrence Lek (陆明龙) is a London-based artist who combines his background in architecture and electronic music to build CGI films and immersive virtual worlds. Set within an ongoing Sinofuturist cinematic universe, his work explores worldbuilding as a form of collage, incorporating historical and imaginary elements to develop speculative fictions based on the perspective of the Other. In 2021, he received the LACMA Art + Technology Lab Grant and the 4th VH Award Grand Prix. Lek holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art, and is represented by Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.