Wade Wallerstein on Curating Gray Area Festival 2021

For our 7th edition, Gray Area Festival presents — a survey of interdisciplinary creators drawing upon indigenous knowledge, transhumanist philosophies, regenerative ecologies, and autonomous organizations to imagine new relational ontologies beyond utopian and fatalist worldviews. Our annual survey of culture through the lenses of technology and creative practice features artist presentations, conversations, workshops, and an exhibition — now accessible online around the world.

Wade Wallerstein is a digital anthropologist and curator whose work addresses the emotional, embodied aspects of our online experiences. Founder of and Co-director of , Wallerstein has brought his deep engagement in the internet art community to Gray Area Festival, resulting in a far-reaching roster of artists and thinkers grappling with what it means to be human in the digital age.

What kinds of conversations informed this year’s festival program?

Last year, my mentor and close colleague at TRANSFER Gallery, Kelani Nichole, curated the Gray Area Festival, which was titled Radical Simulation. I wanted to take this idea of Radical Simulation, this idea that we can use technology to create new futures, and I wanted to complicate it a little bit. I think that there’s other aspects to this story related to identity, surveillance, data policy, and all these different protocols that confine and constrict people. So this year we’re taking that idea of Radical Simulation and expanding it, complicating it, and rooting it in a way of looking at the world that takes into account a holistic approach to planetary dialogue, and that acknowledges the possibilities, but also the pitfalls.

Can you talk more about WORLDING PROTOCOL? What was its genesis? What do those words mean to you?

“Worlding” is about taking an expansive and a holistic approach to what a world is. It’s about creating a universe that incorporates all the different pieces, all of the living and nonliving beings all together. It’s looking at all of the pieces of what makes a world and incorporating them in all their complicated, contradictory, paradoxical ways. Amidst all of that, I’ve been fascinated with this idea of protocols. One of the speakers at this year’s Gray Area Festival, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, wrote a book in 2006 called , which took a realist approach to the current technological dystopia that we live in. I don’t even really like the word dystopia because I think it’s reductive and counter to this idea of holistic, expansive worlding. The crux of Chun’s book is that the Internet is neither a total control state nor a utopia. It’s not this Jeremy Bentham-esque panopticon, but neither is it this free territory where we can do whatever we want. The internet is controlled by a physical protocol — the fibers, the cables, and the data packet switching that makes it all possible. All those different pieces of infrastructure have politics and social dynamics that are embedded into them and how they function. At the same time, the internet is too big and too diffuse to be a total control state, so we’re in this interesting place between control and freedom.

I’ve always been interested in worldbuilding and the capacity for technology to imagine alternative pathways, but I’m also really interested in this idea of protocol. Protocol isn’t just a technological term. Protocol refers to social protocols that we’re not even conscious of, to physical protocols like gravity, to all of these things that define how we live and operate and move through the world. I wanted to kind of bring these two together, and think about how we can work within the protocols around us to think through new ways of worlding, to imagine different possibilities, and to conceptualize who we are as a planet of human and non-human beings. Thenmozhi Soundarajan is giving a talk about the “metaverse,” which has been a prominent buzzword over the past year, and how ridiculous it is that people are investing in a metaverse when Black and Brown people are still persecuted all around the physical world. Her talk is really going to pose a lot of questions about why we can’t just leave physical reality behind. That’s the perfect encapsulation of Worlding Protocol — we have the possibilities to create an alternative metaverse, but we also can’t disavow what’s happening to our bodies. We as human beings have to breathe, have social interaction and be loved in order to function properly. We have to work with that, or we have to figure out a way to rewrite those protocols.

Tell me more about DIORAMA, the festival exhibition in New Art City.

DIORAMA is the immersive virtual exhibition that accompanies Gray Area Festival. It exists in the multi-user, online, three-dimensional environment of , which was founded by , and is now led by , who’s the Gallery Director. I invited Don and Sammie because I’ve always been impressed with their ability to create tools that allow artists to build their own worlds.

The idea of diorama came out of thinking through the possibilities and the restrictions of a web environment where people can be together in a three dimensional immersive online space. It’s not totally possible to build an entire world because there are file and bandwidth restrictions and other technological barriers. There’s a reason companies like Blizzard Entertainment or Riot Games or any of these other huge companies employ thousands of people to build their immersive game environments; it’s very complicated. So in New Art City, what we can do really well is create a diorama. I’ve been working with online display environments my entire career, and what I’ve noticed is that many times what we create isn’t necessarily an entire world, but it’s a diorama of something much larger. Most of the artists I work with are thinking about entire universes, entire cosmologies in their practices. How do you present that? Maybe on paper, maybe in someone’s mind, maybe in writing, maybe through pictures that give you windows into it — we get all these kinds of fragments of the world. But when we put those fragments together, it creates a dialogue or a sketch of something much bigger. All the artists in Gray Area Festival are doing just that — they are engaged in their own practices and worldbuilding, and what they’ve created are ultimately small dioramas, small windows or scenes that give you the sense of what the world is, but it’s not the full world. It creates a really interesting dynamic between the possible and the not possible, the possible worlds and the restrictions that are put in place by the tools we have available.

On top of that, the diorama is a museological technology that has been utilized for hundreds of years to impart information, to tell stories, and to ultimately preserve and disseminate knowledge. It’s a really complicated and problematic device. Dioramas have roots in colonial, patriarchal, and racist practices that are damaging to communities and the environment. Each artist is presenting a diorama of their worlds and in doing so, is both critiquing and experimenting with this much longer narrative of what the diorama has been in our museological environments.

Still from Keiken’s Wisdoms for Love 3.o from TRANSFER Gallery’s Pieces of Me exhibition.

The work is an idea, the art is the idea, and the artwork is a diorama of that idea. In order to fully engage with DIORAMA, you can’t just go to the exhibition, you have to see the diorama and then enter the full world of the artist. I think a great example of this comes from , which is a collective that will be presenting a work called , a metaverse game piece. It comes from their larger practice of worldbuilding where they’ve created an entire universe and this game is only one piece of that universe. We have created a diorama that represents objects and moments from within that game world, so you get this glimpse of the Wisdoms for Love 3.0 universe and you have the opportunity of clicking through and actually entering that game universe. We’ve tried to provide all of these different windows into these worlds, so that the show is a small representation, but then you can click past and click through and actually go to some of these places.

I love this idea of glitching or re-mixing the “protocol” that is the museological diorama format. It also reminds me of your anthropological background, this glimpse into the artist’s world. Is that academic training something that informs your curation of the exhibition?

I went to UCL in London and studied digital anthropology. It gave me this perspective where I want to look at artworks not for their monetary value, for their rareness, or even for the technical skill required to produce it. I’m much more interested in what the artwork is doing, how it affects people, how it moves through our society, and what that means on a much broader, sociological level. The core tenet of my curatorial practice is rooted in the word phenomenology, which is a totally academic word, but it’s really meaningful. According to , who I studied under at UCL, phenomenology is the relationship between being and being in the world. Phenomenology happens in the distance between the subject and the other, so there’s this difference, or alterity, that exists in between. I think that is one of the richest ways that we can think through art, society, politics, and the kind of problems that we face. It’s thinking about our relationship to this thing, as a subject, as a viewer. Oftentimes, when we look at curated shows, it’s more about what it’s teaching us and not about what it’s doing to us, not about how we are being transformed by what we’re looking at. If we root our curatorial endeavors in this idea of experience, we can connect more deeply to how it’s going to impact the viewer.

How do you and the artists create meaningful, emotional experiences with virtual art?

Embodied is the key word here. We experience the world through our bodies, there’s no way around that, no matter what ability you have, you still experience the world through your body. That is our entry point into everything. Even if we’re looking at a virtual experience as an avatar or cursor, our bodies are engaged, our eyes are looking at the screen, we’re sitting in a chair, we’re moving a mouse, and we’re touching something in order to make something happen. All of those embodied experiences are what make understanding and learning happen. Something else that is really important to consider here is that everything that we do, from the way that we pick up a spoon to the way that we open our laptops and send an email, it’s all socially constructed. It’s all learned behavior, and nothing is natural. There are certain protocols for our behavior, but those protocols are determined by how other people have decided to use their bodies. It all comes back to this kind of constellation of experience, social construction, and the world around us. And I think by kind of plumbing those depths, we can reach a richer connection to the artworks and ultimately be able to investigate them and put them into practice in ways that are more tangible and more effective.

The framing for the festival wrestles with the tension between utopian and fatalist approaches to technology. Can you talk a bit about how/whether you see technology as a tool humans can wield to enact the futures we want?

As a curator, I come up with a hypothesis, and then I ask a bunch of artists to think about that hypothesis, and then we figure it out together. Sometimes we find answers, sometimes we don’t. And that’s kind of the fun of all of it. There are so many conversations around topics like gaming, net neutrality, and technology addiction, and we’re barraged by either ultra-utopian or ultra-fatalistic views, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of stuff in the middle. Not to be corny, but I wanted to explore the gray area between these two worldviews. Worlding Protocol tells us it’s a little more complicated than that. Everything is interconnected, and there isn’t one answer. But I hope that by embracing complexity and taking a holistic approach, we can think through problems in more useful ways that are more encompassing of what is possible. That’s where we find richness. That’s where we find meaning. And that’s how we can look at these problems in ways that will be more ultimately beneficial to everyone.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that this show was only possible because of the contributions of every single artist and producer involved. I don’t really work as a solo curator, I’m always thinking collectively. As much as my name is coming up as the curator for this show, I’m just one of a number of people who have been exploring this idea. I can’t say enough about how amazing Sammie Veeler is and how she’s helped me think through this idea of the diorama. This idea of Worlding Protocol got really personal really fast for everyone involved. We have a number of artists whose pieces I had selected, but they decided to make entirely new pieces in response to the theme because they felt they needed to deal with the questions in a different way. But again, what we’re presenting is just a tiny slice. They’re small windows into much larger worlds with much bigger questions. I hope that, more than anything, this program is generative for the audience members and helps them develop a set of skills to analyze the protocols that govern the world around them.

Tune in October 20–26 for the 2021 Gray Area Festival at .

This interview was conducted by Hannah Scott, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 Nonprofit applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode