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Life in the Metaverse: Decentralising Art

Metaverse art can be beautiful, and also, a bit broken.

Given the vain bubble of art-based NFTs, one would assume that an NFT art gallery, being held in the metaverse would be absolutely vibing; with digital champagne, an artist conjured within a 3D avatar and each faux wall bedecked in vibrant and diverse art. That’s what I thought too when I logged into Spatial, another virtual reality (VR) hybrid metaverse which borders a meetings app for those working from home, and quiet bubbles devoted to a singular idea.

I started off venturing into an exhibition by Ali Sabet, who uses large, expressive brushstrokes and mixed media to create anything from cute pop art to cartoonish portraits dripping in colour. The space in which I found myself was portioned off into neat sections, some focused on Sabet’s real-world art, some on his NFT offerings through OpenSea. 

I used the Meta Quest 2 controllers to teleport myself around, jumping from painting to painting. Sometimes I got up close, quietly laughing from all the times I’ve gotten too close to a velvet rope in reality. Other times I stood back allowing the artwork to sit within its clean borders of negative space.

This isn’t a blog about the quality of the art, which is, after all, entirely subjective. This is about opportunity and how those opportunities are failing. Because I spent just shy of two hours hopping between galleries and I saw: no other soul, walls with broken JPEG symbols, thumbnails for .MP4 files which weren’t loading and plenty of Discord links. If this is the future of art in the metaverse, then it’s dead on arrival.

This artistic jaunt was in no way comparable to my previous, which took place within Fortnite. Of course that had the money and creative control of a billion-dollar game company backing it, whereas these spaces are smaller in scope. Art is supposed to energise and invigorate the mind while creating debate and societal impact.

In defence of much of the art I saw, the vast majority was, for me, brilliant. Some pieces had the bold work of a comic strip; some were laborious digital works recreating the image of a person or object in stark detail; a few were what I would call ‘true surrealism’; while others leaned towards the PFPs we mostly see with NFTs, but they were unique and genuinely appealing.

But it was all quite a sad landscape of digital markers, which made for a bleak experience. Many of the exhibitions were held within the same cookie-cutter building, so each gallery I saw had the same layout. One was full to bursting, with every wall holding a creation, while others were practically empty. One was literally just a hall with broken JPEG logos dotted around, for a moment I thought it was satire before realisation dawned.

The thing is, I want this to work. During the many (many) months of the pandemic, one of the things I missed was visiting galleries with friends. I’m open to the idea of digital spaces holding art to be viewed, because with so much of today’s art being digital, as long as the resolution of my screen or VR headset is decent, then I’m not missing that much from reality.

This venture provides more opportunities for artists coming up from different backgrounds or cultures. Especially as they needn’t dance around a curator who may overlook them. Digital galleries can provide wider levels of education for children or hold open forums to discuss with other artists. Plus, the potential for different media is limitless as artists can experiment with 3D space, video and even spectator interaction.

As with so many other metaverse ideas, these need to be brought to one place. That’s not a plea for centralisation, but for a place that can be kept by a team of moderators, artists and community members to save us from broken thumbnails and empty walls. Spatial gets close; Decentraland is even closer with their art district, but these are still disparate collections in far-flung places.

We don’t want art to be contained within walled gardens like Fortnite which, despite its wide audience, is still a centralised and controlled entity, but what we have right now in the metaverse doesn’t quite cut it. I ended up exiting Spatial and using my laptop to find the artists and their work, usually ending up on OpenSea or an Instagram page which, let’s be honest, is not very Web3.

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