When I was a teenager, I threw snowballs as a pink penguin , healed guild members as a mage, kept up with 180 BPM songs as a silver-haired dancer with preternaturally large eyes, and chatted with strangers in their rooms full of gold coins and phone booth teleportation portals. In these virtual environments — Club Penguin, MapleStory, AuditonSEA and Habbo Hotel — I existed as bodies unlike my own, with which I could do things I would never do in real life. Though I’ve never ever actually subscribed to the view that my mind and body are distinct and separable, experiencing so much mental movement while my body sat sedentary hours certainly made me feel fragmented, a being in many pieces and places. That was one of my first lived, conscious sensations of Cartesian dualism and an early experience of the metaverse.
The concept of the metaverse was first introduced by Neal Stephenson in his science fiction novel titled Snow Crash (1992), where the Metaverse was a collective online space populated by user-controlled avatars which fused virtually-enhanced physical reality and physically-persistent virtual space Stephenson imagined the Metaverse to be a future iteration of the Internet. During the 90s to 2000s, a number of Metaverse-inspired virtual environments were built, such as There, a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world launched in 1998, where users took on avatars to socialise and purchase in-world items and services using therebucks, a virtual currency purchased with fiat. In 2003, Second Life, an online virtual world with “no manufactured conflict, no set objective” was launched, followed by IMVU in 2004, a social networking site for users to interact online as 3D avatars. Notably, these virtual environments — even ones which experienced periods of rapid user growth — have largely been forgotten as social media platforms came to occupy consumer consciousness. As one user of Second Life expressed, Second Life was marketed as “something it wasn’t and could never be.” These early virtual environments, limited by the technologies of their time, were not able to give users the full world experience they promised.
The metaverse is not even an overlay upon our image of the world, but is beginning to fuse so intricately that we can, in a single moment, experience a mutant, plural hybrid of multiple realities entwined.
Today, the emergence of metaverse technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), as well as the blockchain, seem to promise a more integrated experience which brings together the physical and virtual in increasingly intimate, seamless and inextricable ways. Gradually, the sense of dualism or disjunction is giving way to a sense of uncanny hybridity, where the speculative is no longer a separate experience from our physical and biological reality, which William Gibson termed “meatspace” n his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. The metaverse is not even an overlay upon our image of the world, but is beginning to fuse so intricately that we can, in a single moment, experience a mutant, plural hybrid of multiple realities entwined. We can hurtle across the sky on a plane while our Instagram personas continue to speak on our behalf; we can walk through VR horror houses which activate our adrenal glands and prompt our bodies into fight or flight mode; we can schedule appointments and locate information by speaking to Alexa, Siri, or Bixby. Though we might not fully understand the parameters of the metaverse, it could be argued that we are already metaversal beings.
Keiken, an artist collective with members based in London and Berlin, is a part of my generation who have matured within virtual environments. Their projects have been focused on inventing and animating a metaverse of their own making. They work across gaming, XR (Extended Reality) installations, performance and coding, creating speculative worlds and futures, and reflecting on the contemporary as though it is already historical. While prophecy begins with the present and extrapolates into the future, speculation begins with the future to extrapolate back towards us in the present. In this way, Keiken’s metaverse feels like a prophecy in reverse which speaks back to our present moment, asking us to pay greater attention to what we are doing and choosing now, even as the larger Web3 metaverse is being built by engineers and creatives alike.
In Keiken’s vast and branching metaverse, bodies shape-shift at will, allowing for multiple identities and consciousnesses. No experience is truly isolated or singular, but rather always shared. Any semblance of “I” quickly gives way to a “we”. What results is a boundless dreamscape with no horizon, where every entity is permeable. This world is also one of compounded cultural references, spanning figures such as the Kardashians, Grimes and Elon Musk, and organisations like Alipay. To better feel and understand Keiken’s metaverse I had a conversation with Isabel Ramos and Hana Omori, two of the collective’s core founding members, as well as academic Kathryn Lofton.
While prophecy begins with the present and extrapolates into the future, speculation begins with the future to extrapolate back towards us in the present.
As a historian of religion, Lofton’s work centres upon how our embrace of popular and consumer culture defines new territories of religious expression and inquiry. Her book Consuming Religion considers capitalist consumption within the logics and gestures of religion: “legible rituals, schematics, and habits” that “demarcate ourselves as certain kinds of dreamers and makers”. Indeed, relevant to Lofton’s research, there is also a sense of the sacred or mythic in the visual, temporal and sonic design of Keiken’s metaverse. However, their space is not a standalone fiction or fantasy. Its speculations extrapolate upon our present crises and systems while weaving in ancestral wisdoms of non-duality and shared consciousness. Built upon collaboration, Keiken’s work dismisses the figure of a single prophet, yielding to a mythic world which arises out of negotiation between collective and individual desires. On a meta-level, then, their projects are also answers to the questions: what worlds and futures become possible when we truly spend time, talking with, and listening to one another? In “rituals, schematics, and habits” that involve choosing one another, what “kinds of dreamers and makers” can we become?
KYA: To begin, what is the metaverse?
HO: In this physical world, we can’t truly be the architects of our future, since we don’t have the qualifications or practical knowledge to do so. On the other hand, the metaverse is a role-playing cyberspace where we have the power to change the rules and explore the future and fictitious consequences with a lot of freedom. We can change how we operate as a group of individuals and collaborators not only in the physical, biologically-tangible world, but also in the imagined space that we’re creating with one another.
KL: Do you think that the world you’re building — the metaverse — is a better world you want to occupy, in response to the world you already occupy? How would you describe its nature — its existence relative to yours?
HO: We’re often reflecting on the contemporary, so the metaverse has a lot of cultural references, usually in the form of subversions that allow you to have distance. We’re really interested in this bird’s eye view of reality, but also going beyond that to question reality, especially because we don’t actually see what is real. To Donald Hoffman, for example, even objective reality is not what it seems, but it is an icon — a simplified version of what we see that makes the world easier to inhabit.
Though we might not fully understand the parameters of the metaverse, it could be argued that we are already metaversal beings.
Following this, a lot of the metaverse we’re building is about how we live and exist in a space-time that is fluid, where transformation is possible via metamorphosis.
KYA: Many speculative artworks convey warnings or predictions about what the future and our trajectory toward it might entail. Is your metaverse a kind of prophecy?
HO: We’re not trying to tell people what to believe in or what anything means. None of the work tells you that; it’s too abstracted. It’s more like a cinematic journey of an experience with a symbolic language centred on beliefs which prompt deeper questioning.
IR: In a time where Web3 is bubbling to the surface, the metaverse asks: how do we imagine a future we want? How do we critique the present direction we’re taking towards the future? Who are the people proposing this direction? We hope to activate our audience to imagine the world they might want to see. To this end, we create these immersive worlds and emancipatory spaces. We try to imagine and design what emancipatory technology might look like.
KYA: A lot of the world-building you do involves inventing and representing speculative technologies that transform or transcend the human body.
HO: In Feel My Metaverse, we created this technology that enables you to role-play for a short and immersive period of time to understand more perspectives and make actively interesting connections based on a simulated experience. We were exploring the concept of the substrate autonomous body, where a person can route their identity to conform to their environment, whether that's physically in the biosphere or virtually in the Metaverse. The technology in the work is more about learning through different senses, physics and elements of all kinds of beings.
It starts off with the characters talking about how they don’t understand what it’s like to be blind. They proceed to mute their sense of sight to explore that state of being. One character goes on to say that sharks cannot see, but they can smell electricity, so they metamorphise into non-human shark creatures and try to find each other’s energy. It’s about learning through immersive experiences and embodiment, but in a way that’s very much beyond human consciousness and the realms of our physical experience.
Another technology we’ve been thinking about is an ancestor tool. How can an AI identify and record wisdom from your ancestors so that you can see your lineage patterns across generations? We’re thinking that the technology would require you to listen to the whispers; you would have to be conscientious for it to activate. In this way, the mutual exchange of technology is activated in a more organic way.
Is your metaverse a kind of prophecy?
KL: Lofton: I’m fascinated by these emancipatory technologies you’re describing, because in my world — the study of religion — we’re rightfully in a strong moment of critique regarding our participation in a colonial history of comparative religions. It’s kind of an empire with a high-ground that draws on a variety of symbols to conclude things about the universal nature of things. This inevitably creates hierarchies where certain traditions and symbols are valued over others.
KYA: This is something you’ve addressed in your own research as well.
KL: Lofton: Yes, I did this ethnography of Goldman Sachs, and one of the things that struck me when I was interacting with these guys — all men — was that they had this very world-seeing or dominating way of being that I recognised from the idiom of intellectual life I occupied, which is to see the world from on high and say, “Here are the things you should be selecting out.”
The difference for Keiken, based on what Hana and Isabel have described, is that you’re not telling people what to buy or sell. There isn’t a decision, but there is this idiom of seeing, of the collective, of creating a sense of, “This is a space that we are the wizards of, but I want to invite you to be a wizard too.” That’s what the experience of the metaverse seems to be — learning how to join and create rather than to dominate, identify and own.
KYA: Earlier, you spoke about changing how you operate as a group of individuals and collaborators not just in this physical world, but also in the imagined world you’re building together. Could you tell us about how the collaborative practice of Keiken operates here, in the physical world?
KL: The thing that seems so challenging to me is the making of a mutual space. The very work of collaboration and creativity that you find in common has a more abundant past; a harder past is how collective movements have to find a way to continue to work together beyond their particularity. What are the practices you have in place to make your work mutual, equitable, inclusive and recognising of the differences amongst you?
We hope to activate our audience to imagine the kind of world they might want to see
IR: It’s always a work in progress, but because we keep a very fluid and open approach, it means that we can be very malleable. We can do things on a case-by-case basis.
HO: One of the things we had to come to understand was that we, as the co-founders, are the main people. Previously, we just wanted to have equity between every collaborator, but that didn’t work. We realised that not everyone who works with us is going to feel like the project is theirs, because ultimately, it’s ours — we were the ones to co-found Keiken.
That’s why when we work with people, we need to make sure that they have a separate goal of their own, besides the goal we share together. When they go away, we also need to be open to the fact that they might take a part of what we’ve been building, and vice versa.
IR: What’s great about world-building is that we can go in almost any direction. We are building an environment and a space-time which allows for both an individual and a collective, which therefore allows for respective degrees of individual and collective freedom and influence.
KL: I love the idea that world-building leads to a more ecumenical relationship to creation than if you’re trying to make a single object. But what happens just amongst the co-founders? Has there ever been a disagreement about where you’ve taken a world, and how do you intervene?
HO: Omori: All the time. We’re bound to argue, because we’re different people from different backgrounds. Whenever there’s conflict, we’re deeply hurt, and if we were to break away from one another, we know we would go through the same mourning — the same way it would be in any close relationship. What we have to remember is that there are more similarities than differences between us. The overriding thing is that we’ve spent so much time together and we love and care for each other tremendously.
The overriding thing is that we've spent so much time together and we love and care for each other tremendously.
One thing that was helpful when we started off was that we wanted to do everything together. There was a mutual feeling that we were all willing to sacrifice our personal practice to work with one another, and we gained a lot of strength from that.
KYA: It sounds like the collaborative practice of Keiken is also closely mapped upon your personal relationships with one another. There’s both strength and a kind of fragility in that.
KL: I occupy a part of the culture for which there’s a lot of praise for a good argument, but a fear of fighting. There is the desire to create a genteel space in the academy, which reflects corporate interest in maintaining the facade of friendliness. Conflict is considered a problem.
I’m interested in how you’ve made conflict a practice that doesn’t rip apart, but one that finds you returning to work together. What does meaningful, loving fighting look like? How can we see that it’s essential — not exceptional — to relational building?
IR: We live in a system and culture where conflict can cause you to be shamed or punished, and we don’t get taught how to fight with dignity. We recognised that we had to learn to have conflicts in a healthy way, retaining dignity and empathy, because when you’re in a state of emotion or reactivity, it’s very difficult to be able to see beyond your viewpoint. That’s where things like mediation can be incredibly helpful, but those are not prevalent belief systems that we’re placed within.
HO: You need to understand that each person that you encounter does not know you in your entirety. We’re all diasporic, and we really understand this. For example, I’m never going to find somebody who grew five miles away from the tip of England, is half Japanese, and went through the experiences of living in a very isolated space-time. So I learnt how to relate to people beyond their identity.
What does meaningful, loving fighting look like? How can we see that it's essential — not exceptional — to relational building?
KL: We can see this philosophy in the biological and social logic of your metaverse, too, where our most fundamental markers of identity can be altered, because the body is malleable, transformable. In a way, your metaverse also prompts us to consider who we are beyond our identities and physical bodies, which feeds into what you’ve said about human consciousness.
KYA: We can see this philosophy in the biological and social logic of your metaverse, too, where our most fundamental markers of identity can be altered, because the body is malleable, transformable. In a way, your metaverse also prompts us to consider who we are beyond our identities and physical bodies, which feeds into what you’ve said about human consciousness.
KL: You guys are building the world I want to be in. I want to enter this space.
IR: One day, you can have full immersivity where you can just walk into the virtual world. We want to eventually let the metaverse just become spaces that grow on their own, where we can leave them and people can just enter. But that’s going to take quite a while.
KL: The fear of that kind of sci-fi possibility has always been: what if it’s taken over by an evil force? If you leave it to grow, will it grow in the direction of the inspiration that began it, or will it take a left turn as somebody sees other forms? How could such a space maintain the values of this particular collective?
HO: Ultimately, it has to be organic. If you think of nature, it has its explosions and its heartache, but it is also so slow. That’s why so much of nature still survives so well. A tree in the city grows so lusciously because it really exists in a different time.
That’s one of the technologies that we’re going to have to really learn how to create: a way of stretching time. That will enable us to heighten our consciousness to levels that we cannot imagine, which we urgently need. We can’t even imagine the next 50 years at the moment because things are moving at such an accelerated pace, but we need to be able to see the next 1000 years. I think a tree can see the next 1000 years. We need to think about and embody that kind of time-scale.
All of these websites were “virtual worlds”, where users could create avatars and use them to roam and interact within these worlds. They were most popular during the early- to mid-noughties.
Cartesian dualism argues that we have two foundations: the mental and the physical. According to this philosophy, the mental is able to exist outside the body, while the physical body itself is incapable of thought.
Metaverse Roadmap, Pathways to the 3D Web: http://metaverseroadmap.org/inputs4.html#glossary
Kalning Kristin, NBC News, “If Second Life Isn’t A Game, What Is It?”, March 12 2007, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna17538999#.U9uyeEi49yw
Samuel Axon, Arts Technica, “Returning to Second Life”, October 24 2017, http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/10/returning-to-second-life/
Neuromancer by William Gibson. This term has also been adopted by Crypto Twitter to connote the physical or AFK world.
While Web2 was defined by increased interactivity through social networks and user-driven content production, as well as greater ubiquity of information, Web3 is meant to make the Internet “accessible to everyone anywhere, at any time” through new technologies and Artificial Intelligence which blur the distinctions between physical and digital space. See https://coinmarketcap.com/alexandria/article/what-is-web-3-0.
Most recently, Facebook rebranded itself as Meta in its bid to lead the way into the metaverse, only to meet with increased backlash that builds upon existing distrust and anger after the release of the “Facebook Papers”. https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-name-change-rebrand-metaverse-backlash-leaked-papers-whistleblower-2021-10
Kathryn Lofton teaches religious studies and American studies at Yale University, where she also serves as the Dean of Humanities: https://religiousstudies.yale.edu/people/kathryn-lofton
Lofton, K., 2017, Consuming Religion, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Gefter, A. and Quanta Magazine, The Atlantic, “The Case Against Reality”, April 5 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/
Feel My Metaverse, Keiken: https://vimeo.com/364746736
Lofton, K., 2017, Consuming Religion, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Available at: https://www.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.7208/chicago/9780226482125.001.0001/upso-9780226481937-chapter-012