The video game that is also an art museum
On the Zium Society’s itch.io page, the word Zium is given two definitions. “A virtual gallery game, made up of eclectic and wonderful things,” it reads. “Kind of like a zine, but the video game version of the museum,” reads the other. In other words, in the middle of the Venn diagram between Galleries, Museums, and Games, you might find a Zium.
Curator Michael Berto released the first Zium, the Zium Museum, in 2017. “I really like art galleries,” he says, almost immediately when we start talking. A fairly simple inspiration, but many others also overlapped. “I was definitely inspired by what was happening in games, especially things [game designer] Pippin Barr was doing. Really deconstruct what an art gallery is. For example, Barr had recently released a virtual gallery that displayed dozens of water textures culled from other games and Unity game engine asset packs.
Other games also toyed with the concept of museums as part of a larger whole. In a late 2011 Stanley’s parable, the player can find a museum that showcases the game itself, giving it a meta twist. “It just blew my mind,” Berto says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I would love to do something like that.'”
And he did. With the freedom to create his own digital gallery, he was also able to tap into the inspirations he saw every day. “One of the main motivations was just looking on Twitter and seeing [artwork] which I was very much in love with. … They would show a gif of a 3D model, and I would say, I want to look at this in all its facets. the Zium Museum was a way to achieve this, with players able to walk around in space and view these digital works of art from any angle.
Since MuseumBerto and dozens of collaborators released two more Ziums, the Garden and the Gallery. The basic principle has remained the same — in the Gallery, for example, there are huge 3D figures created by Joost Eggermont. Players can walk out of the gallery entirely, into the great void beyond to get a better look at them. “The gallery sort of disappears, and suddenly you’re almost looking at a picture or a painting…I like that you’re just still, there’s your artwork, and it’s your own personal context,” says Berto.
To learn more about being allowed to roam the void, I called the gallery exit a “secret,” knowing that there are some hidden in the Ziums. Berto pointed out that it doesn’t really count as one, given that there are signs explicitly telling you that you can exit. But, he said, addressing my own feelings much more specifically, “I really like that you feel like you’re not supposed to do this because you’re kind of breaking the rules. .”
In other words, the Ziums feel close enough to a physical gallery that when something plays with the format, it adds an intriguing new layer. But Berto leaves it all to the contributing artists, especially in newer releases. “In Zium Museum, I was like, ‘Oh, the thing is, it’s in the video game engine, so you should be able to interact with everything,’ he said. Now he just puts paintings on the wall – and there are a lot of great ones in the Gallery. But most artists choose to do something with the format, which leads to a wide variety of artistic styles.
Two of my favorite exhibits in the Zium Gallery play with the digital-physical divide in a very different way. Graffam’s Cat object permanence is a series of polaroids, painted in acrylic. They exist, physically, separate from Zium, and usually their physicality is part of the statement. Graffam lives with ADHD and cluster headaches, both of which impact his memory. “I collect stuff as overcompensation for my lack of ability to remember important moments, saving them as trigger objects so I can retain at least a slice of my past,” reads their description of the series.
“So it’s kind of funny that it exists in a virtual space,” they tell me. “While this may seem at odds with the physical nature of Polaroids and paintings, I believe they can still effectively exist in a digital realm.” They worked with Berto to incorporate both an effective reflection of how the pieces might appear in a physical gallery and additional aspects for the digital version, such as how the centerpiece extends outward into the room, creating an optical illusion that wouldn’t hold the same. power in real life. The combination seems to me to be one of Zium Gallerythe best representations of its potential.
The other is that of Julián Palacios I hope to see you again. Walking down a hallway GalleryI walked into a room that was essentially a whole other game. Described by Palacios as an “immersive music video”, I hope to see you again is a trance exploration of a song, a train station and a goodbye. It is one of the aspects of the Gallery which could not be physically recreated at all. But it is also somehow elevated by the feeling of going from a building close to the ordinary to a surreal dreamscape.
Palacios, which has published other games that simulate the haze of memory and dreams like Promised, sees Zium as a great opportunity for artists to “try out new ideas”. He points to another mostly complete game within the Zium as his favorite example, Arcadia under constructionwhich is a prequel to a separately released game, Even in Arcadia.
Digital exhibits have grown in popularity in recent years, and not just because museums have been looking for ways to deal with the pandemic. Other game developers have made them, art collectors have made them, and even fortnite tried the format. But there is still plenty of room for experimentation.
One of Berto’s favorite contributions to the Gallery is the work of LaumeB, where a room of mostly ordinary paintings also opens, at right angles, onto a second space that projects the work into a room in its own right. Between exploring myself and talking with the various artists involved, I feel like Zium only scratched the surface of how they could blend the physicality of their inspirations with their digital reality. Berto is working on a VR version of the Gallery – to start, add another layer to what the Ziums already achieve by mixing the two. “It’s not quite like being in a real gallery and not quite a computer game gallery – it’s like this other weird thing,” he says.
And this mix adds another layer to what Berto loves about galleries in the first place. “A gallery is like a supermarket of ideas,” he says. “One moment you’re immersed in a vision of the French Revolution, and the next you’re in front of a box of laundry soap with a teddy bear inside. Dalí The Metamorphosis of Narcissus one floor below Andy Warhol Cow Wallpaper.” Or, in the Zium Gallerya misty, interpretive walking simulator one story up from a painting that extends into a room of its own, where giant sculptures peer through the windows.
“In a gallery you so often find a kind of variety that really excites the imagination – and the consciousness – in a pure way,” says Berto. In the Ziums, this strain takes on a whole new format.