2020 was a challenging year for the art industry. With museums and galleries shutting down and events such as Black Rock City getting cancelled, art enthusiasts could feel the lack of creative experiences around them. However, this crisis renewed a lost interest in digital art. Our technological devices became the means to enter alternate realities, constructed using pixels. These digitally sculpted environments provided an interactive and immersive landscape to experience art in a safe and social atmosphere again.
One such world, which was exclusively created for the first virtual burn as part of BRCvr is called “Timekeepers”. It’s a social virtual reality art installation hosted within the AltspaceVR ecosystem and dictated by traditional symbols of timekeeping. Here, I will break down the process of conceiving this virtual world, which has been joined by more than 3,000 unique visitors since it was first exhibited in September of 2020.
Time is elusive. It trickles like the grains of sand from a clenched hand. Even though I am so conditioned by the mechanics of time, it is a phenomenon I constantly take for granted. My mind is acclimatized to an external representation of time that is grounded in clocks — a timekeeping artifact that measures the passing of time but doesn’t really indicate what time is. Perhaps “what is time?” is a difficult question. However, it’s provocative enough.
The pandemic became a point of departure to question my quasi-perception of time. The entanglement of fear, anxiety, anticipation, doubts, and uncertainty further desynchronized my internal and external perception of time. From my point-of-view, lockdown drastically changed the way I occupied space, which slowed my experience of time as well. I think of it as a moment of enigma — a mysterious encounter with space and time that left me grappling for something more than just the lived experience.
During my new media residency at Mana Contemporary, I excavated an ancient Roman figure Janus — a two-faced God, considered a guardian of doorways, transitions, and time. Its one head looks back in the past and the other looks into the future. They are glued together at a point of transition, which defines the present moment. Revered as a Timekeeper by the Greeks, Romans, and several other cultures worldwide, Janus is one of the oldest symbols associated with the temporal nature of our universe. A digitally constructed, computer-aided study of Janus became my instrument to critique the phenomenon of temporality and to face the mysterious nature of time
In collaboration with Chicago-based artist Phil Mulliken, we proposed a reinterpretation of Janus as a digital sculpture, where the two heads were drawn apart and faced each other to confront the past with the future. The present moment was exaggerated with a twisted entanglement of the two heads to denote the unending drag created by the breakdown of social, political, and cultural structures during the pandemic. Situated in a concrete room and presented as a silent video work, this reimagined Janus sculpture transcended into a corporeal form when it became the inspiration for “Timekeepers”.
DESIGN & EXECUTION
“Timekeepers” was designed keeping in mind the duality resonated by the phenomenon of temporality. On top resided the mammoth Janus sculpture held in place by an architectural scaffolding, where participants could rest and socialize. This allowed them to intimately experience the digital sculpture in a social atmosphere that led to a discovery of new meanings behind the original work. Also, avatars could fly between the entangled heads, while witnessing a psychedelic myriad of colors and light. On the bottom existed an underground bunker with 360 degree viewing rooms that immersed participants into infinite timescapes developed using custom algorithms, which manipulated digital pixels in real time.
An hourglass is a timekeeper and also a metaphor for Janus. It was placed in the main virtual playa as a representation of this art installation and provided a portal to this world. Multiple hourglasses were placed along with similar three dimensional geometry throughout “Timekeepers” to draw symbolic connections with time. This created a chain of metaphors that all referenced the notion of temporality through the age old traditions of timekeeping. By utilizing the assets provided in the BRCvr toolkit, this art installation could be aesthetically situated in the middle of a desert.
Consequently, “Timekeepers” became a site to program a number of public events ranging from artist talks, discursive meditations, and music events to create a highly interactive, social, and engaging environment. This is where I met Andreas Berlind, an Astrophysicist from Vanderbilt University, who was visiting Burning Man through the comfort of his VR headset. Since then, he has become my scientific mentor in real life, and has continued to guide me on my creative inquiries on space and time.
In conclusion, “Timekeepers” has been transformed into a technological relic that is permanently stored on the AltspaceVR servers. Occasionally it gets restored and updated with the affordances of the medium it was created with, and opens its doors for special events and programs in coordination with BRCvr. For me, it’s a social space to provoke and share conversations about deconstructing our everyday understanding of time.
Watch this video to get a glimpse into the virtual reality experience of “Timekeepers” from Amay Kataria on Vimeo.
Cover image of “Timekeepers” (with Phil Mulliken), 2020, Interactive Virtual Reality