An extended and addled meditation on ‘gangcrafting,’ community-driven building projects within multiplayer online games, MUSH is equal parts film essay, cursed ASMR and weird fiction.
Most Dismal Swamp is both a place and a practice. Emerging out of the curatorial experiments of Dane Sutherland, who’s focus had previously centered around gallery exhibitions, distributive sonic fiction, club nights and other live events, Most Dismal Swamp is described by its creator as “an art project, a curatorial MMORPG, a fiction, a party, and a mixed-reality biome.” Launching the project back in 2019 with Swamp Protocol at arebyte gallery and Whale Fall at Gossamer Fog, two of London’s leading audiovisual art spaces, Most Dismal Swamp gestures towards a new kind of group show, one that exists contiguously between physical space and localised virtual worlds built with the express purpose of exploring the connections between interdependent mixed-media art practices. “Most Dismal Swamp invokes the swamp as a conceptual model for understanding and navigating our present mixed reality paradigm,” explains Sutherland. “Simultaneously solid land and fluid water, yet also neither, swamps embody a topology of muddy indistinction, and the horizonless territory of context collapse. They engender a taxonomic heresy that disallows easy separation and parsing of solid forms. This is significant for understanding a contemporary condition that has supplanted the teleology of modernity and the fragmentation of postmodernity with the entangled simultaneity of multiple, nested logics.” Presenting experimental choreography, digital artwork, physical sculpture and esoteric craft as symbiotic features of the all-consuming swamp, Sutherland has settled on a model that easily allows for the permeation of the borders between discipline and medium, redefining the exhibition as an organism that curates as it is curated, spewing forth fresh significance from its fecund ooze.
MUSH is the latest iteration of this process, an immersive world build adapted from a site-specific installation at the 2021 edition of Mira Festival in Barcelona, that blurs the lines between film essay, cursed ASMR and weird fiction. At once a an extended and addled meditation on ‘gangcrafting,’ community-driven building projects within multiplayer online games, and a statement of intent from Most Dismal Swamp more generally, MUSH, which stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination, probes at the stress-points of virtual worlds built both for online communities and by online communities. “I wanted to invite people deeper into the dank k-hole of dissociative reality-modeling and world-building of our present platform-mediated sociality, intentionally opaque and with the feeling of traversing an abysmal swamp,” says Sutherland. “I started the project from a position of reflecting on the potential future of post-pandemic social balkanization: the term MUSH is derived from the field of online text-based role-playing games. It refers to the communal investment in and social codification of a shared gamespace: the rules, tacit protocols, ethos, and other invented elements which allow it to be an effectively immersive space distinct from an ‘outside’ world.” The work constantly toys with this distinction, as exquisitely rendered detritus houses crooked sculptures that phase shift between the virtual and the physical, cold wastelands of discarded monitors and slick mud present stylised footage of human performers misshapen with silicon garments, meme sweatshirts, silver jewelry and algorithmically-induced glitch, as hollowed-out avatars, far-future shells of the community shown crafting, and crafted by, the world of MUSH, drift by oblivious.
“MUSH is interested in the arcane, encrypted cultures flourishing among the recesses of an online megalopolis and reinforced by offline organisation and social balkanization,” continues Sutherland. “Maintaining fragile communities in platform-mediated circumstances means navigating fluidly draconian terms and conditions, gamified feedcrafting algorithms, algorithmic populism, misinformation, reality entrepreneurs, meme inception and punitive control such as shadow-banning. While offline, the closure of many struggling urban venues as apparatuses of diverse community-building and public discourse, as well as the emergence of phenomena such as ‘astroturfing’, means that many communities seek and embrace alternative, private, or ‘off-grid’ spaces. From trust-based cryptoraves to sub rosa chat servers. The combined hardwiring of possessive individualism and tacit online communication protocols has mutated popular discourse: militantly aggressive filter bubbles vying to signal-boost their home baked ‘truths’ and jury-rigged reality-models. The result is a swamp-like, inextricably entangled, adversarial Mixed Reality system: a bazaar of amateur heresies, microworld-building protocols, and dog-whistle memetics. Systemic ideological segregation and quarantine thus ferments a long-tail of forking realities.” Real-world dramaturgy sparks up against digital sigils and mutant glyphs that gesture towards the new kinds of consciousness born in the mixed-media sludge, as the disembodied narrators declaim, “a deep fried conlang of survival and of cheat-code elementalism.” Tattooed flesh dissolves in crude acrylic and harsh light, each a new texture within the same ecosystem.
What emerges from the swamp are world-specific exchanges, gestures developing into rituals developing into group practices, the back-and-forth of the group chat manifested in mixed reality, slurred together in the dissociative logic of a k-hole. Within their shared hallucination, the borders between environment and organism, between intimate gesture and implicit protocol, dissolve within shared space, self-contained artworks are opened out into the malleable, fertile density of the world, which in turn is defined by the oscillation between presence and withdrawal of these artworks experienced as a result of Sutherland’s direction and curation. The film’s climactic image embodies both the distance and the resonances his practice has from and with the history of curation: a GAN-altered, post-apocalyptic Ophelia, laid out in sludge and draped in sheet plastic, heaving shallow breaths, Sir John Everett Millais reimagined as a cyber goth. It’s in this way that the graphics of Stephen McLaughlin, the digital installations and world design of Joey Holder and Samuel Capps, the collages of Lou Shafer, the Blender animations and design of Aquabubz and Tissue Hunter, the graphics and typography of Post Cyberparamo, the 3D character design of Oliva Svetlanova, the silicon garments of vvxxii and Johanna Invrea, the apparel of Iain Ball and Timothy Gasparro, the sculpture of Hannah Rose Stewart, Agnieszka Szostek, Yiming Yang, Sian Fan and Laura Costas, the illustration of Matt Cangiano, the choreography of Laila Majid, the performance of V Shetsova, Luke Magill, Furi, Lora Angelova and Susanna Husebø, the camera of Julia Brown, the writing of Dane Sutherland and the music of FRKTL fills out and terraforms the world as one entity, a shared hallucination, a most dismal swamp.
Curated and Directed – Most Dismal Swamp
Edit and FX – Most Dismal Swamp, Stephen McLaughlin
‘Semelparous’ Installation – Joey Holder
Unreal Engine 5 World and ‘Exudater’ Installation – Samuel Capps
MUSH Collages – Lou Shafer
Blender Animations – Aquabubz
Blender Wall Decal – Tissue Hunter
Additional 2D Graphics and Animated Typography – Post Cyberparamo
3D Animated Figures – Olia Svetlanova
Silicone Garments – vvxxii, Johanna Invrea
DOOBIE WEB 2009 Sweatshirts – Iain Ball
Jewellery – Timothy Gasbarro
Sculptures – Hannah Rose Stewart, Agnieszka Szostek, Yiming Yang, Sian Fan, Laura Costas
‘Spirit’s Gravity’ Illustration – Matt Cangiano
Choreography – Most Dismal Swamp, Laila Majid
Performers – V Shetsova, Luke Magill, Furi, Lora Angelova, Susanna Husebø
Camera – Julia Brown
Words – Most Dismal Swamp
Music – FRKTL