Stories & Ideas

Tue 05 Apr 2022

HYPER//ECHO: a traveller's diary

Art Exhibition Immersive technologies Videogames
Claire Osborn-Li

Claire Osborn-Li

Writer

Get a glimpse into a traveller's mind as she explores Firepit Collective's virtual landscape over a three-month period. New entries to this journal will be added fortnightly.

April 5 | April 19 | May 3 | May 17 | May 31 | June 14 | June 28 | Epilogue

HYPER//ECHO (3 Apr – 1 Jul) is an ACMI commission for Gallery 5.


April 5

You find yourself in a city of newly-erected buildings, stoic and solid, untouched by the undergrowth that litters the floor beneath it. Marking your arrival – your spawn-point – is one lonely lighthouse. Moss and vines have crept their way up the fractured structure, and a leafy branch shoots out of a gaping wound on its head. It is debris, wreckage. But it’s also a monument to a possible future.

This is the centre of the space in HYPER//ECHO. Its mechanics are simple: using the touchscreen of your phone, or the keyboard on a computer, you enter the game as a small anonymous sprite, ready to explore, build, and maintain. At the launch event, I joined the other attendees, led by the developers, at the spawn point. We waited for others to arrive. And then we picked one direction, walking until the islands ended and became endless stretches of water, light grey and void-like. So then we built a bridge: one endless bridge stretching out into nothing. There’s a limit on how much one can build in a small window of time: a meter, representing either our energy or our materials, runs out after placing an object and replenishes over time. So when one ran out of stamina, another took over, until, many clicks later, collectively we’d had enough and decided to take root. Together we constructed a house – or perhaps a shrine – for a frog. And then we returned to the place we first spawned, starting off in a new direction.

Each player appears as the same wandering, hooded figure with blank eyes. We each have the same pitter-pattering footsteps, the same structures to forge, the same means of communication (emoticons are left on stone tablets like hieroglyphs). This means that when we build, we build together: private property has been abolished as each structure is unidentifiable from the next.

Messages, day 1 - HYPER//ECHO

There’s still room within this collective identity for individuals, however. Players have already found ways to make their mark. As I wandered across floating islands and weaved between staircases leading nowhere, I came across a message. Hooded man, shaking hands, hooded man. Messages like these feel like relics: somewhat readable, but with a deeper meaning that’s been lost to time. Had two players met here, and marked the occasion? Like on a letter, or a painting, at the bottom right of the message were two dashes followed by a frog and a forest. This unique combination of emoticons left at the end of a message conveyed a signature, or the closest thing we have to a Username. As players continue to return to HYPER//ECHO over the course of its run to mend these breaking buildings, other means of creating a history and coding the personal may surface.

The exploration of HYPER//ECHO is playful and perambulatory; it relies on an encounter, with another player or message or large expanse of nothing. The Situationist International were a group of political activists, artists and writers who called this kind of exploration dérive. When we traverse urban space, it’s normally on our way to and from work: it is driven by our labour, or by the distractions of advertisements and shop windows. Dérive is the antidote, allowing us to untether these consumerist relations. HYPER//ECHO’s dérive is quite similar. Without property, and without the ordinary quests and mission markers which normally drive videogame exploration, players are able to wander free, relating to this city or digital space directed by community and curiosity. While I often followed my group, driven by a sense of community and belonging, other times I drifted off, wandering to some other thing which piqued my interest. Another player will be led, intrigued, along our endless highway in the sea and discover a building for a frog. Perhaps they will fix it up, or maybe they’ll let it fall to ruin. And then they too will return, ready to set off again.

If we don’t maintain some kind of communal connection to this place, what will happen? The monument at the centre of the city is a peek into that future. But maybe that decay and ruin will only breed new forms of life: new ways of interacting, and new ways of collectivising.

Bye emoji - HYPER//ECHO

– bye! //traveller


April 19

The last time I was here, the buildings were held in a static state: brand-new, seemingly eternal. A new update has changed this. Now, they can crumble. Bridges fall into the sea, flames die out. A blue veil has fallen over the city now: a cyan glow rising from each ‘dead’ building. Only ghosts, only echoes.

I revisit an old haunt: an island with a shrine to a frog that I built with other players. The island itself is shaped like an anthropomorphic frog. Its arms splay out like shattered bones and its eyes glow like the hottest part of a flame. It was lighthearted and fun, then. But I feel like it’s dying. The paths that once reached it have come apart. My virtual body can no longer make the long journey there without building an entirely new bridge. I reach it instantly with the click of my finger now, through a link I had saved.

April 19 - Hyper-Echo 1

HYPER//ECHO is asking us to preserve this digital space, but more broadly it asks, ‘how do we preserve the Internet and its artefacts?’ This has been asked before by curators and artists in the field of New Media art, a field encompassing any artwork that must be mediated through technology (a category which, I would argue, HYPER//ECHO falls into). The time-based, non-linear and interactive nature of these works provide different challenges to curation. Ben Vickers, previously a curator of Digital Art at Serpentine Gallery, says in an interview with curator and writer Melanie Bühler that the curator and the digital have become part of the lives of everyone using the internet [1]. We see this democratisation of the curator in HYPER//ECHO as the developers divest maintenance of this digital space to its players. The devs will still fix bugs in its updates, but for the most part, these updates do not ‘fix’ the zone but reassert our, the players’, role as a collective of curators. We decide what is to be fixed and what is to decompose. We choose which artefacts to display. We write the accompanying text on a tilted plaque like a museum didactic.

Hyper-echo messages gif

Vickers also sees the New Media curator mostly as a mediator and interpreter, arguing that there has been a departure of ‘caring, stewardship or custodianship’ from this role. But the digital is more delicate and needing of care than we think. The Internet is rife with the deterioration of web links, old software, and Tumblr blogs with custom HTML. As technology progresses, old .word files become illegible (letters replaced with Wingdings), and MySpace profile embeds break down. The Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss or CRUMB, an online archive dedicated to presenting New Media art, is itself in need of care. Updated last in 2015, at the centre of its homepage is a broken embed: Flash is no longer supported.

CRUMB homepage

Sometimes we work to preserve as much of these fleeting digital objects as we can. I have a barely working Macbook which I’ve kept from updating so I can still play 32-bit video games. Archive.org preserved thousands of Flash games before Adobe discontinued support last year. Its Wayback Machine provides a view into deactivated websites and long-gone social media startups. But what gets to live past its expiration date is chosen like an artefact by a curator. My link to Frog Island is a file in an archive, allowing me to reach an unreachable past.

Hyper-echo - April 19 sign off

– buildings decay, buildings die //traveller

  1. No Internet, No Art — A Lunch Bytes Anthology, edited by Melanie Bühler

May 3

I’ve been thinking more about HYPER//ECHO and its use of dérive as well as its choice of colour, so I made a game about it. I used Chia Amisola’s wonderful game maker, engine, to make this.

Use the arrow keys to move. The light grey bars around the frame are indicators of where you can go next.

Be wary of bright colours and sudden colour changes, as well as overlapping text and images within the game. A more accessible version, for people with low vision or sensory sensitivities, can be played here.

May 3 signature - HYPER-ECHO- a traveller's diary

– wandering … //traveller


May 17

In 2013, artist Thomas Hirschhorn constructed a counter-monument. Cobbled together from unfinished wood, spray-paint, duct-tape and tarp, it was not only precarious in its potential to fall apart at any moment, but in its impermanence. For Hirschhorn, this lent a certain power to the structure: “I am for time-limited monuments. I am for the precarious moments, where every moment … should be important.” [1]

Before it was dismantled five months after its construction, Hirschhorn employed the residents of Forest Houses – the local housing project in the South Bronx – to build and maintain the monument, but also to hold workshops, run a radio station, and publish a newspaper. There were theatre performances, poetry sessions, field trips, open mics and art classes. [2] The precarity of Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument as a structure “where every moment should be important” emphasised its existence as a prolonged event and activated an ongoing relationship with its audience.

View of Gramsci MView of Gramsci Monument, Thomas Hirschhorn (2013).

View of Gramsci Monument, Thomas Hirschhorn (2013)

James E. Young, a Professor of Judaic Studies, sees the counter-monument as a direct challenge to conventions of monuments and the memory of the past that they represent through the active participation of its viewers. He uses Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s “disappearing” Monument Against Fascism as an example. Built in post-WWII Germany, this pillar, coated with soft lead, permitted visitors to inscribe facets of the structure with graffiti. The more visitors wrote on the work, the more the monument would disappear into the ground, before all that was left was a black square marking its absence. The purpose, Young argues, is “...not to be ignored by its passer-by but to demand interaction … not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to throw it back at the town’s feet.” [3]

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, Monument Against Fascism (1986)

In the first entry of this diary, I referred to HYPER//ECHO’s structures as monuments. Initially, players could create buildings, but beyond that were unable to interact with them. They appeared permanent and unchanging, standing solid in greys and whites, like marble.

Monuments are supposed to last. But HYPER//ECHO is a work that declares its temporality and invites interaction. Due to end 1 July, it deteriorates in real-time. From the moment that the buildings begin cracking and darkening with age, players become caretakers as well as builders. Like Gramsci Monument, HYPER//ECHO is not only temporary, but establishes an ongoing, active relationship with its audience throughout its limited life-span. The changing natures of Gramsci Monument and HYPER//ECHO enact an invitation to return, recommune and rebuild.

HYPER//ECHO - fading spiral stairwell

Perhaps it seems strange to compare HYPER//ECHO, which doesn’t appear to have an overt political message, to an anti-fascist memorial in Germany and a monument to Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. But the political is not just found in their content: it’s also within the form. As counter-monument, the form defines our interaction with the work, making the interaction political. In a statement on their monument, Gerz and Shalev-Gerz said, “In the long run, it is only we ourselves who can stand up to injustice.” [4] In demanding activity over passivity, we gain agency, and thus, responsibility. Monument Against Fascism and Gramsci Monument may have a clear political message; however, its position is an invitation, not an order. We become critical, thinking beings, asking questions rather than being given answers.

Hirschhorn asks, “Is art independent from politics?” His answer is most likely a resounding “no”. HYPER//ECHO is no different. On April 19 of this diary, I wrote that the Internet is in need of care. As counter-monument, HYPER//ECHO activates that responsibility in us.

I question, I care - sign off HYPER//ECHO

– I question, I care //traveller

Reference

[1] Thomas Hirschhorn Symposium, dieAngewandte

[2] Dia Art, Gramsci Monument

[3] James E. Young, ‘Memory/Monument’ in Critical Terms for Art History, 2003, p. 241

[4] Esther Shalev-Gerz, The Monument Against Fascism


May 31

HYPER//ECHO is vast. I have travelled from corner to corner, edge to edge, and ambling between ruins and crossing newly-built bridges, I am eventually met with an endless sea of void. I can plant more ground to walk on, but all I will be stepping into is an even greater abyss. More emptiness.

I scroll, zooming out. I hold down ‘Ctrl’ and tap, tap, tap at the minus key, until my little triangular body is indistinguishable from the rest of the debris. This is not the developers’ intended experience, perhaps, but floating from up here I can see that there is so much. I can also sense that there’s so much more, beyond the border of the screen.

Like a penny placed next to an item auctioned on eBay, the hooded figure we play as gives us a relational starting point, a means of comparing the size of our body to the world it inhabits. And like a penny, we are very, very small.

Our size in relation to the vastness of this place may inspire in us feelings of insignificance, of existentialism. We build, but what’s the point? It will all turn to dust. We make a mark, but it becomes lost in a sea of others.

A full width view of Hyper//Echo

In the film First Reformed (2017), a priest meets with an environmental activist. Deeply depressed at the rapid decline of the liveability of the planet at the hands of corporations – who dump toxic waste and cut down whole forests – the activist wants his wife to have an abortion, to save their child from the world to come. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the priest, advises him that true wisdom is holding two contradictory truths inside us all at once: despair and hope.

Throughout the film, the despair of ecological destruction opens itself up to Toller. In an intimacy ritual with the activist’s wife – nicknamed the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ where the wife lies directly on top of Toller, their arms outstretched and their hands clasped together – Toller sees visions. They appear to float above these visions. Lush mountains and rushing waterfalls, and then: traffic jams, piles upon piles of discarded rubber tyres, factories billowing with smoke and abandoned oil rigs, left to rot in the middle of the ocean. This profoundly personal experience of closeness with another human being becomes insignificant in comparison to the plastic, burning debris that spreads across the surface of the planet. Despair continues to build, until a penultimate radical act. And yet, ultimately Toller re-embraces hope.

First Reformed (2017) - flying over mountains
Ethan Hawke and Victoria Hill in First Reformed (2017)

First Reformed (2017)

Our experience of the world of HYPER//ECHO is tinged with sublime, meaning it holds similar contradictions. The sublime is the feeling brought on by an experience of a natural landscape of vast size or power. Its contradictions are best described by philosopher Immanuel Kant, who saw the sublime specifically as a feeling of displeasure turned into pleasure, of insignificance turned into mastery. Kant believed that upon seeing a volcano spurting with lava or an endless, roiling ocean, we are unable to completely process the extent of the vastness before us, causing us to experience a feeling of inadequacy. However, in recognising this inadequacy, we are empowered: being able to realise the limits of our own imagination is itself a demonstration of our power. [1]

Powerlessness is turned into power. Despair transforms into hope. In Romantic paintings, we can draw further parallels between HYPER//ECHO and the contradictions of the sublime:

Claude Lorrain, River landscape with Tiburtine Temple at Tivoli (c.1635)

Ruins sit precariously on crumbling cliffs. We have outlived these solid structures, which now age and decay, and we walk and play and live amongst them. [2]

Caspar David Friedrich, Sunset (1830-1835)

Wanderers reach a shore, and stare into the vastness of space. [3]

Caspar David Friedrich,  Monk by the Sea (1808-1810)

I am overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. My insignificance is undercut with awe as the sky and sea stretch far beyond my vision, beyond the frame and beyond the screen. [4]

We are small but many, and in the few weeks that the Firepit Collective has inhabited Gallery 5, we have spread across this void. The scale of HYPER//ECHO can feel overwhelming, but even in scale we hold power. I can zoom out and make myself insignificant, but I hold the agency to zoom back in again, to let the world become small and let my body take up the whole screen. HYPER//ECHO is tinged with the sublime, and it is tinged with an ecological message, too, as our impulse to build and conquer and take up space in this map outweighs our ability to conserve. In HYPER//ECHO we see buildings fall, turned to blue embers. “And yet we keep on building…” We carry hope and despair as we cross this wasteland. But in the end we choose hope.

HYPER-ECHO - May 31 sign off - a traveller's diary

– Zoom out! //traveller

Reference

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790), 5:259.

[2] Claude Lorrain, River landscape with Tiburtine Temple at Tivoli (c.1635)

[3] Caspar David Friedrich, Sunset (1830–35)

[4] Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea (1808–10)


June 14

There are eight structures that recur across the floating islands of HYPER//ECHO. I can’t say what they really are – but they are familiar. I see a house, a beacon, a shopfront, a bridge, a lamp. I see a staircase, a campfire and a well.

Part of the trouble of interpretation is that these familiar links have been made unfamiliar. The house has a door I can’t enter. The staircase leads to nowhere. The beacon, lamp and campfire emit no light. These mundane objects of functionality no longer have function. They are beyond design, beyond art: they are ‘Thomassons’.

Different types of structures in HYPER//ECHO

Within the first few hours of HYPER//ECHO being live on the ACMI website, a winding staircase had formed, appearing to stretch into the sky. I say “appearing” because it’s an illusion: it’s multiple staircases, carefully spaced apart from one another to seem like one cohesive, spiralling structure. Because I perceive the staircases (forgetting each time that it’s illusory) as one staircase, I always attempt to cross behind it, only to find my character trying to find another way around.

It’s one of the only structures in HYPER//ECHO that has been carefully maintained from the beginning. You can still visit it – make sure to zoom out to see it in its entirety.

I love this tower of stairs because of its absurdity. Each time I attempt to cross behind it, forgetting what it is, a slippage occurs between the character who walks across the screen and my limited perspective, looking down on this isometric plane. I’m reminded that we are two different bodies, coalescing for a while and separating for just a moment.

But it’s absurd too because it’s so recognisable as an object that necessitates function– a staircase – but completely functionless. I can’t climb up these stairs: I can only gaze at its form, swirling upwards.

Cécile Richard – responsible for the art and design for HYPER//ECHO [1] – said that in designing these structures they were inspired by ‘Hyperart Thomasson’, a concept developed by Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa. Hyperart Thomassons are usually leftover architectural elements that once served a clear purpose which has since fallen away. An eave that once protected a doorway from rain. A window that has been bricked up. A staircase that leads nowhere. For Akasegawa, these objects are hyperart because they exceed art. When Marcel Duchamp took a factory-made urinal and placed it inside a gallery, he altered its purpose: from functional to conceptual – from design object to art piece. But the vestigial staircase has no meaning at all. It has become ‘pure’ art: a Hyperart Thomasson.

I’ve described HYPER//ECHO before in terms of spirits, hauntings, and ghosts: the afterimages of ruins. But the ruins of HYPER//ECHO are not age-old ruins – they are Thomassons, products of recency. Discovered by Akasegawa as he undertook studies in kōgengaku (or ‘modernology’ in English) [2], Thomassons are artefacts of the moment of right now. Like the experiments of the flâneur of the boulevards of Paris, or a member of the Situationist International in a game of dérive, Hyperart Thomassons are investigations into the urban landscape and (inadvertently) a reflection of the human psyche that permeates it.

When we see these vestiges, we feel a presence. No, not ghosts, not afterimages of people who passed through here long ago, but echoes: echoes of footsteps as they climb that staircase and the hot breath of someone sheltering from rain under that eave. Seeing the mossy monuments of HYPER//ECHO, we know that someone was just here – someone like us, triangular and small. Repairing, leaving messages or just passing through.

HYPER//ECHO’s evocation of Hyperart Thomasson is, then, a call to presence. The things we build which then fall to ruin – no longer able to be repaired and losing completely its original function – are products of now. We don’t have the distance to eschew responsibility. It was us that built this place and then neglected to care for it. It is we who will try to build it back up again.

Jun 14 sign off for HYPER//ECHO

– Now! //traveller

Reference

[1] Cécile Richard is one of eight members of the FIREPIT collective responsible for creating HYPER//ECHO:

Cécile Richard – Art & Design
Andrew Gleeson – Art & Programming
Brandon Hare – Engineering
Krystal McDonald - Web Design & Programming
Jae Stuart – Web Design & Programming
Jonathon Tree - Music & Sound Design
Marc Pagliuca – Music & Additional Art
Andrew Karalis – Community Management

[2] Stein Farstadvoll, “Vesitigal Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and Hyperart”, in Norwegian Archaeological Review, 2019, Vol. 52, No. 1, pg. 5.


June 28

HYPER//ECHO is coming to an end on Friday 1 July. The traveller who has been wandering its spaces for these last three months – her digital body is becoming worn now, like these buildings – has built a 'museum' to honour it. Combing through her diary and the archives of her desktop computer, she makes full use of the democratisation of curation on the Internet in an attempt to preserve HYPER//ECHO's memory ⁠— before it's wiped from the internet forever.

Enter HYPER//ECHO: A Retrospective

Desktop | Mobile

Sign off - 28 June - Hyper//Echo - A traveller's diary

– Goodbye //traveller


Epilogue

When we gathered for the last time in HYPER//ECHO, we built without abandon. Even with minutes to spare before midnight, before it would all wash away in an instant, hooded figures continued to leave messages and erect monuments. Pathways sprawled endlessly outwards. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to see it, does it still make a sound? For these passers-by, the answer is a resounding yes. HYPER//ECHO brought out our impulse to create and communicate in the face of futility.

Long exposure screenshot from Hyper//Echo

Long-exposure screenshot of HYPER//ECHO taken using Open World Shutter. [https://jwhop.itch.io/open-world-shutter]

Pathways in Hyper//Echo

We gathered at the end of the world and discovered a player had built themselves a prison, encasing themselves in a square of monuments with no way out. According to Firepit Collective’s records, this player had kept their HYPER//ECHO session open for three straight days. We gathered at the end of the world, in its final minutes, leaving torches of light and offerings at the walls of this prison. We gathered and waited and watched as the world switched to black.

A tomb in Hyper//Echo

I am writing in the past tense now because the work is dead. It is barely buried beneath a webpage which reads:

Hyper//Echo offline message

Brandon Hare, in charge of engineering HYPER//ECHO, tweeted that the server was still running behind this landing page, as of a couple days after its close. When it left, it left a trace, like the structures within it. It echoes even now.


Meet the team behind HYPER//ECHO at ACMI and online


Learn more about the work