Interview: Theo Triantafyllidis

The digital artist on how Mark Zuckerberg’s sterile vision of the metaverse inspired his latest online multiplayer game.

Theo Triantafyllidis’s latest project is an online multiplayer game called Feral Metaverse. Still in the early stages of development, the game takes place in a bare and strange environment, where players must work together to solve an undisclosed goal that reveals itself over time. There’s no text or speaking functions, and the map is intentionally disorientating. “I’m trying to get players to develop their own ways of communicating based on choreography and body movement,” says Triantafyllidis. “I want to give them enough tools to develop their avatars’ body language and try to communicate in that way.”

With nods to high fantasy, sci-fi and MMORPGs, Feral Metaverse is a continuation of Triantafyllidis’s previous works, which typically consist of absurd and immersive environments, and double as humorous social commentary on the neoliberal forces shaping the internet today. From the URL theatricality of his hybrid performance Anti-Gone (2019) to the metaverse mundanity of live simulation Ork Haus (2022), these parallel universes dig deep into the trenches of online memery, featuring a surreal cohort of characters—hench lady-orcs, frog kingpins and radicalised furries—each plunging the viewer into increasingly bizarre states of digital disarray.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

Harking back to a primordial, pre-language state of existence, Feral Metaverse is Triantafyllidis’s attempt to reimagine Facebook’s dull and widely-mocked vision of the metaverse as outlined in Mark Zuckerberg’s 2021 keynote. “I’ve watched it so many times and been trying to decode the implications of what’s being presented,” Triantafyllidis confesses. “It’s so funny because there’s already been so many iterations of this idea, with World of Warcraft and Second Life, but what they want to offer is really dystopian, the most horrible version of it.” He points to the ways in which communication on these platforms is reduced to text-based exchanges, which seems cold and reductive, whereas choosing to omit verbal communication allows for a deeper, more embodied virtual experience. “I want to imagine what happens if we strip away all these interactions and focus on this strange and embodied experience,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily a game but rather a tool for creating more interesting online communication.”

The friction between digital art and the corporate motives behind the technology used to create it informs much of Triantafyllidis’s practice. A stark contrast to early internet days of joyfully cluttered forums and maximalist Geocities sites, the Web2-ifcation of internet culture has homogenised online spaces, rendering them flat and boring. At the same time, we’re seeing tech companies pedal new products at dizzying rates, and corporate-sponsored digital environments made for maximum profit and minimal fun. “These companies are so ahead of the game that it feels like artists are always one step behind,” agrees Triantafyllidis. “I position myself in the lineage of post-internet art, but I very often refer to early net art projects and how there was a certain optimism about the internet, and how extremely banal and ugly Web2’s version of the internet has become.”

Triantafyllidis uses the language of internet culture to tackle these nuanced ideas, adopting an Extremely Online approach that combines the language of tech accelerationism with memetic identity and gaming culture. A nightmarish take on Marshall McLuhan’s vision of the internet as a global village, his live simulation Radicalisation Pipeline (2021), for example, is an RPG-inspired battle royale where Furries and fantastical creatures, crypto anarchists and capital insurrectionists are all pitted against each other in an ultra-violent free-for-all, eventually sinking their bodies into a muddy landscape. It harks back to the pandemic when online mania reached a fever pitch, and consensus reality dissolved as people turned away from official news sources and society became increasingly polarised. “It is quite funny how all these global events snowballed at this particular moment. It felt like the pandemic plus the Capitol attack was somehow a turning point for internet culture as well,” he says. “It had been building up with the whole Pepe conversation, and Gamergate was an important moment for the gaming community that almost foresaw a lot of these things to come.”

Now based between Athens and LA, Triantafyllidis graduated from architecture school in Athens in 2012 at the height of the global recession. It was during a time when post-internet art and net collectives such as Jogging and DIS magazine were gaining momentum, and Triantafyllidis immersed himself in the Tumblr community and early memescape. “I did spend quite some time making memes and just being online, but now I’m mostly just following the gaming community,” he reveals. “I’m pretty antisocial in general, even online.” He claims to have distanced himself from online discourse in recent years. “We are in a very bizarre limbo zone right now,” he asserts. “I definitely feel less inclined to spend time online.”

But one conversation that does excite him is the growing role of AI within art. “I have spent some time messing around with DALL-E and I do feel like this hybrid melty nonsensical output that these AIs are giving are also somehow very, very much in tune with our society and culture right now,” he confirms. “I keep thinking about this as a moment, that is the death of the image. Once these AIs have been so successful in image-making, does it make sense to make images as an artist? There is a major shift happening somehow, but it’s still very unclear where this is going.”

In his latest exhibition, Pheromone Spa, Triantafyllidis explores the possibilities of AI, not only in shaping virtual environments, but also how these emerging technologies can be harnessed to create IRL objects that draw on the uncanny. Using text-to-image AI programme Midjourney, he created the blueprint for a series of ork-themed tapestries and a sculptural sofa, their garbled appearance feeling deeply unreal in their physical surroundings. “It was an exercise in letting go and letting the AI take over the whole process,” he explains. “There’s something very uncanny about the objects, but it’s very hard to pin down exactly what.” Yet the process of transforming digital inputs into physical objects is at the core of his work—a recent FW22 collection sees Triantafyllidis use the warped language of AI to create a set of ork inspired athleisure. “I am very interested in this process of taking artistic ideas back and forth between the virtual and physical worlds and finding materials that I like to make sculptures with, and then trying to replicate them in 3D,” he adds. “For me, it’s a way of really filtering ideas and seeing what their core is through this permutation.”

Similarly, an accompanying artwork titled BugSim sees the digital worlds bleed out into the real, combining elements of AI and an actual aroma in collaboration with Athens artist Labrilena Konstantellou. Inspired by Holly Jean Buck’s 2019 book After Geoengineering, which explores possible methods for human interventions in combating the climate crisis, the central work is a live simulation featuring an artificial ecosystem of virtual ants and robot bees going about their daily cycles under the watchful eye of a shadowy anthropogenic figure. “The ants are caught in this loop where they are constantly trying to repair this ecosystem that’s crumbling,” he explains.

BugSim (2022) evokes the cybernetic model that argues for self-regulating systems, and which laid the groundwork for both ideas surrounding the Anthropocene and online communication. But reducing these unpredictable and complex systems into 0s and 1s is something that Triantafyllidis maintains we should be wary of—that is the point of the artwork. “There’s always this weird sensation looking at works of digital art that are replicating nature. There’s a dystopian feeling that comes with using these resources to recreate representations of nature that are by default never going to be anywhere close to as interesting or complex as actual natural systems,” he agrees. “It was very humbling to see how infinitely simplified what I was trying to do is compared to a real ecosystem, and how fragile all these connections are. By increasing the speed of the ants by 0.001 per cent, everything completely changes.”

Looking ahead, Triantafyllidis wants to use AI to explore the relationship between technology and the natural world in greater depth, but he insists there’sa long way to go before we understand its true potential. “With a lot of these emerging technologies, there’s a big discrepancy between the fantasy of what machines can do, and the reality, which might be shitty,” he concludes. “But we’ve still got a long way to go until then.”

WORDS: Günseli Yalcinkaya

All images taken from Radicalisation Pipeline (2021)

This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

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