Fact Residency: Theo Triantafyllidis
In his exploration of social technologies and the communities they enable us to create, Theo Triantafyllidis rarely seeks to provide any answers. Instead, his work allows him to constantly consider exactly what questions he can ask.
Despite it not existing yet, Theo Triantafyllidis has been working in the metaverse for years. However, far from considering himself a pioneer, the artist is the first to point out that there are many, many others, across a multitude of online communities, that have been exploring the possibilities of three-dimensional, virtual spaces for close to two decades. “I’ve been looking at the example of VR Chat, how this exists in the legacy of Second Life, as well as more generally all these precursors to whatever insane vision of the metaverse Mark Zuckerberg has,” he explains. “These are things that have been developing for such a long time. There are communities that have been so deeply invested in these worlds for decades now and have been discovering all these things from inside.” For Triantafyllidis, these are the true pioneers of the metaverse and it is the novel forms of interaction and connectivity enabled by socially-focused game worlds, which range from the joyful and the horrendous all the way through to the chilling and the deranged, that inform and drive his work. “VR Chat was quite interesting because it gave almost total freedom for people to modify it,” he continues. “The actual game was completely open to people messing with its code. It had a tool for people to create their own character, not just a 3D model, but including all the interactions and things that the character can do, and upload it as an avatar. People started hacking that and piling up scripts and interactions and entire scenes within their character avatars as a way of Trojan horsing larger things into the world.”
“This was unfortunately hijacked by people who wanted to troll everything and they just started making horrible pop-up videos and harassing the community. It became a very toxic, strange space for a long time, which was quite an unexpected turn of events. For me, it’s interesting to see how, when given maximum freedom, the online tendency is to go for maximum trolling.” Clearly this kind of subversion, by which the very notion of representation and communications is hacked apart and retooled into something unpredictable and potentially dangerous, was not demonstrated during Zuckerberg’s Meta keynote, but this kind of mentality will become a fundamental quality to consider as the politics of the metaverse are developed over the coming years. It’s a preoccupation of Triantafyllidis’s, too, who in an upcoming project will seek to address the ways in which VR Chat’s premise was inherently corruptible, as well as ways it might be possible to incentivize kindness, as opposed to trolling. It’s also demonstrative of the interrogative mode of much of the artist’s work, “in my work I very rarely try to give any answers,” he admits. “It’s more about opening up new questions.”
This can be attributed, in part, to how important teaching has become to his art practice, something that’s clear from the layout of his website, which offers a wellspring of syllabi, lecture notes and resources to anyone that wants them. “It gives me an incentive to keep digging around and starting new lines of personal research,” he says. “A lot of these classes are things that I personally pitched and constructed the syllabus from scratch, mostly in UCLA. I was very lucky that UCLA was open to me coming up with new classes and that they have the infrastructure for these special seminars that are different every quarter.” Faced with the “never-ending orgy” of the increasingly online can be an overwhelming experience at the best of times, so for Triantafyllidis, the necessity to parse through the disparate cloud of references he draws from has helped him figure out what questions he wants to ask. “Having to do all the primary research and present that to a student group, opening this up to all the wealth of information and feedback that the students have and seeing where they take these ideas, is a very interesting conversation,” he says. “I am not trying to give any sense of authority or direct knowledge, but just trying to push them in directions that they might find interesting. It’s also helped me structure what I’m trying to say with my work by having to communicate these things more clearly.”
Theo Triantafyllidis Presents: Radicalization Pipeline
Using surreal humour and an absurdist aesthetic sensibility inspired by high fantasy, classic science fiction, MMORPGs and niche online communities, Theo Triantafyllidis carries out a sustained critique of the tech industry and the wrestling of new technologies away from the benefit of the user and user-generated communities in the interests of corporate expansion, financial growth and the commodification of information. The way he achieves this can be understood in the interplay between two central aspects of his art practice, computational humour and AI improvisation. “I like computational humor as a concept because it is a very niche research objective within computer science that’s analyzing how the human brain responds to humor,” he says, “trying to create a mathematical formula for what is funny. In my work I generally like to have a humorous aspect because I think it’s something that has the capacity to break the audience’s defenses and be a first line of approachability in the work.” This comedic drive can be traced all the way back to one of his earliest simulation works, How To Everything, in which the artist attempted to create an algorithm that could, in theory, generate an infinite number of visually funny scenarios. In a gesture that bears contemporary resonance with the conspicuous barbecue sauce bottle placed in the background of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta keynote, these scenarios throw together precarious physics and random objects within different environments with what the artist describes as “empathy, effort and failure.”
Triantafyllidis’s work with live simulations comes to its most complete expression with Radicalization Pipeline, a RPG-inspired battle royale which renders online social platforms as literal zones of conflict whilst demonstrating the artist’s improvisational approach to A.I. “I feel the most interesting aspect of these live simulation works is the connection to theater and live performance, how you have these very simplistic AIs, that are usually used in games for enemies or player interactions, that can be directed in the same way a theater director would direct actors,” he explains. “By giving them simple instructions you can create a performance score that is producing an infinite variation of some specific situations and you are able to produce humorous results out of that.” Across a flat expanse of concrete, Triantafyllidis whips between different perspectives, flitting between a top down, god’s eye view reminiscent of table top strategy games and the shaky, NPC-locked perspective of a first-person action game. Under a sky burning orange, MAGA cap wearers brandishing claw hammers fight alongside hulking orks dragging battle clubs and flails. Special Ops teams in riot gear wield sci-fi swords and shields, sprinting into the fray while dodging Antifa super soldiers and independent militia members holding fascist presenting flags high above their heads. Furries batter Proud Boys, cyberpunk elves band together with crypto anarchists, each with their own intricately rendered weapons and armour.
Theo Triantafyllidis Presents: Ork Haus
“Imagine if you could be at the office without the commute,” enthused Mark Zuckerberg in the 2021 keynote announcing his company’s leap into the metaverse. “You would still have that sense of presence, shared physical space, those chance interactions that make your day, all accessible from anywhere.” In this vision of the future, virtual reality has been transformed into a fresh vector for data commodification and online shopping, a means of transcending the pesky limitations of physical objects and our corporeal forms from Meta’s infinite expansion into every facet of our lives. “The metaverse will remove many of the physical constraints we see on commerce today and make entirely new businesses possible,” he promises. Ork Haus is artist Theo Triantafyllidis‘s response to this promise, a nightmarish vision of the metaverse in which the truly monstrous aspects of working from home and the technology that continues to enable us to do so are the subject of a work that is part live simulation, part experimental theatre, drawing as much from The Sims as it does Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. “Whether we like it or not, being in the new media art scene you are very, very close to Silicon Valley culture,” asserts Triantafyllidis. “In some ways we are doomed as artists to be running behind whatever new platform Facebook decides to roll out. I’m trying to be critical of these technologies and expose both the nonsensicality and complete impracticality of some of these ideas. Being familiar with this technology for a few years now it was very transparent to me that a lot of the things that Mark Zuckerberg was presenting in the Meta presentation were very, very far from being realized, even with their resources.”
In Ork Haus, the titular ork family struggle through a Web3-enabled purgatory of their own making, driving each other mad in an eternal work-from-home nightmare that evokes all the pandemic neuroses and anxieties of the last two years. “The whole simulation is based on the logic of a Sims game,” explains Triantafyllidis. “Each of the characters has their own needs, like hunger, fun and bladder, that they have to respond to over time, but depending on which of the characters are next to them when they are doing these actions, the actions will be affected and they have to interact with the other characters. At the same time, conceptually this whole thing is a very horrifying version of the metaverse, where this entire family is working from home, in a forever locked-down situation. The dad is dabbling in some crypto investments and trying to run a small crypto rig in their bedroom, that’s also used for heating. They’re caught up in this hustler, entrepreneur, Web3 family life.” Randomly generated vignettes convey the comic tragedy of the ork family’s precarious situation, resulting in chance encounters from which it is possible to piece together a rough narrative. The Y-front sporting patriarch delivers brutal corporal punishment to an orkling as we see familiar weapons from Radicalization Pipeline hanging on a wall of the family home, a sly nod to the multi-platform gaming applications many cite as the primary use case for NFTs. The ork father warms himself by the flames of his overheating crypto rig as one of his orklings teaches themselves to code; the ork matriarch desperately attempts to meditate as her husband snores beside her; daddy ork gets lost in his VR headset as another orkling tries on a dress in the bathroom where, moments later, daddy ork sits weeping as the tap drips next to him.
Theo Triantafyllidis Presents: Anti-Gone
A playful strain of theatricality runs through all of Theo Triantafyllidis‘s work. Even his earliest works have the quality of carefully directed vignettes or sketches, turns of phrase, jokes and metaphors manifested visually within the design aesthetic of his complex interplay of objects and systems. As part of his 2018 series Role Play, he assumed the virtual costume of a gender bending, blue haired ork avatar to highlight the inherent performativity of his work both in and for digital spaces. In Radicalization Pipeline and Ork Haus, Triantafyllidis casts himself as both actor and dramaturge, using machine learning to enable an improvisational approach to live simulation while at the same time painstakingly designing and implementing intricate virtual stages upon which his simulations can run. Anti-Gone is the result of the artist bringing together all these aspects of his art practice on a physical, IRL stage. “I was already thinking a lot about performativity in VR and the relationship to avatars in my ork avatar series,” he explains. “All of that project was based on recording, rather than real time performance. I was starting to understand that there is so much potential in doing this in real time and having a game engine that allows for a world that is performing in real time and having performers that are interacting with it.” Based on Connor Willumsen’s graphic novel of the same name, Anti-Gone is a hybrid theatrical performance in which one actor wearing a motion capture suit faces out into the physical world, while the other stays in VR for the entire duration. A technicolor, post climate collapse, video game engine-generated world is projected on the stage behind and beneath them, a living, breathing ecosystem, brimming with apathetic people and toxic, tropical plant life which reacts and changes in response to Triantafyllidis’s prompts.
“I’m fascinated with theatre as a medium and the theatrical language,” says the artist. “In theatre there is this magical thing where a performer can say, ‘here’s a pen,’ and you don’t need to see the pen, you just know it’s there. It’s all based on make believe, theoretically you can create entire worlds with an empty stage and a few performers, asking the audience to imagine everything. There’s a big paradox in this entire project, whereby working with the game engine is this tedious process of planting every single tree and every single object in a very precise place in space, constructing this illusion in the exact opposite way, being very literal and very precise and having to construct everything from scratch.” Working live alongside a musician, a third performer, who performs and controls a host of secondary characters, both physically and with a controller and microphone, Triantafyllidis has complete control of the environment of the play using a game engine, with the ability to change the weather, the time of day, the traffic of the boats that navigate the flooded city where the play takes place, as well as behaviour of the NPCs that populate the world. “All together we are performing the world in real time,” he describes poetically. “I was very optimistic at the beginning of the project,” he continues. “The comic book has two characters and a few scenes so it seemed pretty manageable to make this game engine with the tools I had at the time, but this slowly snowballed into an entire long term theatrical production with a full video game production team working alongside and trying to have the two constantly in dialogue, making huge changes in one another. I felt like we were trying to discover a new language for performing and a new way of building a game world that is able to accommodate this type of situation.”
Theo Triantafyllidis Presents: Still Life With Platypus
Though Still Life With Platypus marks the first time artist Theo Triantafyllidis and Slugabed have collaborated, the London-based producer’s singular sound has influenced Triantafyllidis’s work from the beginning. “I love Slugabed’s music,” says Triantafyllidis, “it’s been a major influence for me that has in some ways made it into some of my works, even though we hadn’t collaborated before.” The multi-faceted work is the latest iteration of the artist’s ongoing experiments with real-time reactive visuals, as part of which he has collaborated with Sun Araw on Velocity Holomatrix Warp 7, a fully playable, interactive experience, as well as with Giant Claw, on the video for ‘Until Mirror’. “I had been developing this system for live audiovisual performances where I could have these scenes built in a game engine, as well as a MIDI input and an audio input that gets plugged into the engine, that can then control all these graphics,” he explains. “Together with some real time triggers and keys, I could be performing the graphics together with a musician. There is something interesting about making both these audiovisual performances and also stand alone videos where I don’t have complete control of how things are going, but it’s more like a collaboration with a system where we are both performing and the end result is more of a performance than it is a pre-recorded, very carefully timelined thing.” This newly commissioned version of Still Life With Platypus sees Triantafyllidis and Slugabed navigating a series of increasingly complex and surreal vanitases, ultra high detail assemblages of crab legs, apricot halves, intricate knight’s helmets, glowing mesh nets, ghostly arthropods, as well as the titular Platypus, revolving and reacting to Slugabed’s atmospheric score.
Triantafyllidis’s preoccupation with the vanitas can be traced back to a much earlier work, How To Everything, with which Still Life With Platypus shares some playful DNA. In that work the artist attempted to create an algorithm that could generate a theoretically infinite sequence of visually amusing arrangements, a technological inversion of an artistic form historically associated with more existential themes. “Traditionally used to refer to a type of still life painting popular in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, the term ‘vanitas’ now describes art that meditates on the ephemeral character of earthly pleasures and worldly accomplishments, and highlights the fragility of our desires in the face of the inevitability of death,” writes Triantafyllidis in a text accompanying How To Everything. Rather than a sombre monument to the transience of life, How To Everything and Still Life With Platypus both represent the artist’s darkly funny vision of the flattened, technologically mediated, eternal expanse of the now, what he describes as “devices, animals and plants all connected. Always on, always augmented.” A constantly evolving contradiction made manifest, Still Life With Platypus subverts the traditional function of the vanitas and still life painting, eschewing the loaded symbolism of everyday objects contrasted with skulls and gold coins and instead demonstrating that, thought possibilities of computational art might be infinite, the freedom to create everything doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. “Fragments of today’s internet culture are treated as archeological finds that are repurposed to fit the needs of artificial life,” writes Triantafyllidis. “YouTube ‘How To’ videos, trompe-l’œil, video game artifacts and computer graphic demos inform this new language of painting, hopping around the uncanny valley. The result is a never-ending orgy. Just like in real life.”