Festival Report: CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE 2023

REPORT / CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE 2023 presented seventeen immersive non-fiction across VR, AR, gaming, and Interactive Storytelling.

Included in the 20th CPH:DOX, held between 15 and 26 March, a featured block of new media selections made up the festival’s INTER:ACTIVE programme. Held at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the programme’s theme was «Breaking the Code.» Artists explored beyond the traditional binary definitions of the world while probing the intersections between gaming and art. Using tools of the impending metaverse, mostly game engines and AI, the CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE selections presented were inherently subversive, giving a post-anthropocentric world without borders and primarily created by those subverting traditional visual languages. The realm of digital art is in a constant state of transformation as artists explore innovative techniques and tools to produce groundbreaking works. By utilising AI and virtual spaces, artists are expanding the limits of artistic expression, which lead programmer Mark Atkin captured at the 2023 CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE programme. “CPH:DOX is at the art end of documentary, which is an interesting place to be. There s a lot of art displayed across the festival, which carries over into the interactive exhibition,” Atkin says of CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE artistic approach to curation.

And this approach shines through with all projects holding definitive design, animation and gameplay aesthetics and processes, so much so that the more expansive exhibition was broken down into smaller, thematically cohesive collections. “The curatorial line is ultimately through seeing the kind of work people are making and the debates people are engaged in. There are two strands to it – the artist uses 1s and 0s, which are binary, to explore the messiness and nature of humanity beyond binary definitions. This allowed us to include work from many marginalised communities. These artists are all pioneering the tools from which the metaverse will be built,” Atkins explains.

Zizi: Queering the Dataset Jake Elwes
Zizi: Queering the Dataset, a Digital Video by Jake Elwes

In the duo of projects that made up «Beyond Data Driven», Two examples of artists co-creating with AI to challenge societal biases in data-driven systems were Zizi: Queering the Dataset by Jake Elwes and Jungle People by Eddie Wong. Zizi: Queering the Dataset (UK) disrupts a facial recognition system by retraining it with 1000 images of drag and gender-fluid faces found online. The result is a shift away from normative identities into a space of queerness, creating a reflection on bias in our data-driven society. On the other hand, Jungle People (Malaysia) combines neural networks with language processing models to generate images from text and create a documentary where no archive material exists. The work searches for truth and family history, blending AI technology and fiction to revive memories of their grandfather, who disappeared while fighting colonial forces and is remembered only as a «jungle person.»

The «Immersive Diversive» collection features works that explore how people experience neurological states and encourage us to slow down and listen. For example, Lauren Moffatt’s AR work Local Binaries (Germany, Spain, Denmark) invited visitors to explore a sprawling landscape constructed based on the body mapping testimonials of nine women from across the world. On the other hand, Andrew and Eden Kötting’s The Tell-Tale Rooms (UK) celebrated the life and unique experience of Eden, a visually impaired, neurodivergent artist, encouraging discussion around neurodiversity and lived experience.

«Immersive Subversive» delved into the world of VR experiences that ask us to see the world from different perspectives. One of the works featured in this section was In the Mist, (Taiwan), where Chou Tung-Yen utilises the medium of VR to immerse viewers in the secretive world of gay saunas, creating a space between dreaming and being awake, gazing at someone and being gazed at. Another, which utilised the rare horror aesthetic, I Took a Lethal Dose of Herbs (USA), was a hybrid VR documentary based on an existing Subreddit. Postpartum psychosis and DIY abortion were the topics told through the uneasy, hallucinatory experience of a former anti-abortion activist.

In the Mist Chou Tung-Yen
In the Mist, a VR installation by

«Twisted Games Arcade» showcases contemporary artists who use video games to create impactful works that subvert video games’ visual language and often-violent culture. The «Twisted Games Arcade» was, by far, the largest of the collections within the wider exhibition. “The game engine is a programming tool used to make games, but it can also be used to create immersive realities. There are two aspects to this phenomenon. Firstly, there is a generation of artists who grew up with games and find it natural to use them as a form of creative expression. Secondly, these tools are relatively inexpensive, which means that they are accessible to people who would not typically have access to such tools for creative expression due to financial constraints,” explains Atkins on the prevalence of game engine design. For example, Karen Palmer uses interactivity, AI, and parkour to explore how overreaching technologies can limit our freedoms in a programme-wide highlight Consensus Gentium (UK). In contrast, Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Matajuegos, Superflex, and Libby Heaney used digital technologies to explore humanity’s entanglement in the physical, digital, and natural universes across their respective projects. Across these projects, users could dive into the plankton lifespan, Minecratf’s Uncensored Library, and Agrentina’s Atuel River Valley, among other destinations. Akihito Taniguchi and Reporters Without Borders then descended into the realm of metaverse creativity, exploring the possibilities of creating art within digital environments, asking the question, can a virtual world without boundaries provide a platform for artistic freedom? The exhibition’s final room was dedicated to the Zizi: Queering the Dataset companion, Jake Elwes’ The Zizi Show (UK), a playful and culturally vibrant virtual space that celebrates queerness. Through these works, we can envision a world without borders, where understanding, mutual respect, and appreciation for nature are paramount.

The works making up CPH:DOX INTER:ACTIVE effectively demonstrated how contemporary artists are utilising technology to create thought-provoking art. And making art that is visually stunning in the process. Projects like Aquaphobia (USA), He Fucked the Girl Out of Me (USA), and the INTERACTIVE Special Hivemind With Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (UK, Germany) all represented top examples of this while also challenging perceptions. Through immersive experiences, each was able to see the world from different perspectives.

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Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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