Memories of Myst: Substrata, a new artist-run virtual exhibition, is like entering a magical afterlife

Our expert panel of artists and storytellers review extended reality exhibitions and events

The pavilion, home to the VR experience Substrata, and built by Alice Könitz, founder of Los Angeles Museum of Art, is placed in a snowy landscape

The pavilion, home to the VR experience Substrata, and built by Alice Könitz, founder of Los Angeles Museum of Art, is placed in a snowy landscape

What is it?

Substrata is a virtual reality art exhibition hosted by Epoch gallery, an artist-run virtual experiment. The project is shown in collaboration with the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA), an artist-run space founded in 2012 by Alice Könitz, in a pavilion built by Könitz with context created by Peter Wu+ of Epoch. It includes works by: Patricia Fernández, Nikita Gale, Won Ju Lim, Gina Osterloh, Paul Pescador, Kristin Posehn, Gabie Strong, Sterling Wells, Haena Yoo.

Curator’s Note

Gretchen Andrew: I never figured much out in Myst, the 1993 computer game by Rand and Robyn Miller, but I loved virtually dwelling in its world. I’m no expert in video games, in fact Myst is probably the last video game I "played". That’s why I’m so glad to have Eron Rauch lead this review. For both better and worse I found myself more interested in the snowy white trees and landscape than the work in Substrata. I had a similar experience in Hauser & Wirth’s virtual Menorca gallery. As excited as we are to be reviewing works in invented worlds, I am also reminded that the white cube, virtually as well as physically, can serve an essential purpose. 

They Say:

Epoch ... seeks to create a new critical context to experience art while positioning itself as an artwork wherein the art world becomes its medium

“Epoch invites established and emerging artists working in both digital and analog mediums to participate. The gallery seeks to create a new critical context to experience art while positioning itself as an artwork wherein the art world becomes its medium. With each exhibition, EPOCH’s driving mission is to react to current socio-political situations while providing artists with a critical space for people to engage their works.

"The inability of museums and galleries to adapt to an online world was rendered evident upon the arrival of Covid-19. With myriad institutions attempting to recreate a physical engagement with art through online viewing, questions concerning the role of curation, materiality, and the museum itself in critical spectatorship have been raised. Epoch seeks to address each of these by bridging reality with the virtual; a format increasingly necessitated by our shared remote state. The environments featured throughout Epoch exhibitions strive to reflect IRL [in real life] movements and moments rather than act as a portal for fantasy or escapism.”

We say:

The meticulously staged CG environment is palpably imbued with mystery and wonder as you transit “context” and see the artworks in the fullest use of VR I’ve seen in the art world thus far.
Eron Rauch

Gabie Strong, Life Drone, 2020, a 3D sculpture animated with sound. In the main pavilion of Substrata

Eron Rauch: “Afterlife”. That’s the one-word system popup that appears if you hesitate and hover your mouse on the small image of a snowy scene used as a link to enter Substrata, Epoch’s collaborative VR show with the Los Angeles Museum of Art. Cardboard headset on—and you absolutely should experience this show in VR—you find yourself in a 3D rendered space, peering uphill at a wooden structure, the warm late-afternoon sunlight sliding across the surrounding vacant valley’s snow-covered trees and iced-over hills. Is it an alpine ski retreat? A James Bond villain’s lair? Heaven? Purgatory? A lost zone from the classic video game Myst?

Tucked in a snowdrift is an info pin, explaining that the pavilion housing the works by the show’s nine artists was built by Alice Könitz, the eighth, but first virtual, version of her Display System series. This pin also notes that the theme is “artists whose work engages in specific relationships with ecological, built, and socially constructed environments”. Intriguingly ambiguous in phrasing, the website also credits “Peter Wu+” with creating the “context”.

Pushing aside this past year’s throbbing habituation toward cynicism, the sheer experience of exploration in Substrata is magical. Yes, the format is familiar, as you move from one static 360-degree view marker to another, but the meticulously staged CG environment is palpably imbued with mystery and wonder as you transit “context” and see the artworks in the fullest use of VR I’ve seen in the art world thus far. At first, you’re in a pleasant Danish-modern-adjacent place, all glossy-finished (simulated) wood with traditional gallery display modes. But soon, you are meandering through the hills—then literally “through” a hill. Then you go down that spiral staircase you missed earlier, and down a rope ladder as the world grows damp and jagged, but glows like a cyberpunk remix of Novalis’ Novices of Sias.

Like “afterparty” or “afterglow”, there is a chronological demarking included in the word “afterlife”. This is why I’ve been a bit vague about the experience of Substrata on purpose, as there are a number of spatial-chronological-cinematic reveals which feel like they would violate the Universal Law of Internet Spoilers if I told you instead of letting you experience them.

Perhaps the show’s richness of environmental storytelling is the reason I gravitate back to Myst, since it was a game designed “as a way of exploring a world”, to quote one of its creators, Robyn Miller. In the 1993 game, you explore an island, transiting to different “Ages”, which is the in-fiction name for the game’s other zones. All the while, you complete subtle puzzles in the landscape. Substrata feels so similar to Myst—if the puzzles were replaced by artworks, always unsolvable, always transportive.

One core tension that grows while viewing the show is that, ultimately, the impact of the environmental narrative experience vastly overshadows that of the individual artworks. They can feel like pieces of a set. In some part, this is a byproduct of the limited functionality of the marker style of VR navigation system. Unlike fluid 3-D navigation in New Art City’s platform, in Epoch’s (and all the other similar platforms’) fixed marker navigation system, you can’t really *look* at the artworks as we would in real life (IRL): instead you’re too far, too close, have a bad angle, the resolution is too low, can’t duck, can’t walk around the sculptures etc. In pure resource terms, the artworks make up a minimal amount of any measure of the environment: data, pixels, required processing power.

It may be easy to accuse video-gamification as responsible for this supposed ruination of the individual artwork, invoking comments like Hito Steyerl made at her recent lecture for Dramaturgies of Resistance, “gamification is ubiquitous... and has entered society on every level” as a way to explain why she is so invested in trying to pull apart gamification’s capitalist grammar.

But instead of gnashing teeth at some sanctity of the artwork being breached—because, let’s be real, paintings hung on walls aren’t going anywhere—the sense that Substrata’s effect is a collective experience built up by moving through the environment is a perfect moment to study the mounting dissonance between the traditional models of art display and the new modes of thinking created by virtual artworks and artwork display. Some works do get a bit lost, while others bombastically punctuate the theatrical flow, and yet others find a way to create moments of reflection on the digital world itself.

In this way, it is vital to note that gamification is hardly the sole modality possible in video games and virtual world platforms, and is itself very contentious amongst game creators. In her essay for the show catalog for Rainbow Arcade, Naomi Clark expands on Avery Alder’s notion of “Fruitful Void” in games: “One of the ideas with the most potential for queerness in games is that of undesignated space. Distinct from the negative space of unavailable agency. These are the moments where the game falls silent and leaves an opening for players—not simply for them to make a choice or plan a strategy but to take responsibility and push their own capacity for pleasure or interpretation further.”

So yes, the artworks may elide into set-piece puzzles to ponder, while the reveal from turning a corner becomes the emotional highpoint, but “pleasure” and “interpretation” combining together was the overwhelming feeling I found walking the paths of Substrata, whether having seen an artwork or struggling to comprehend the rumbling below-ground. It’s perhaps most telling that I did not close the browser window when I reached the end. I wandered the full path back, emerging from the glowing deeps and shimmering hallways, up a stairwell, the sun rendered across the endless pixels of snow. A sense of wonder returning life to me, just a little bit.

Is it accessible? Consider to whom

Carole Chainon: Substrata is accessible to anyone equipped with the URL. A VR icon allows visitors to explore the gallery with a Google Cardboard headset, in 360 degrees.

Seol Park: Accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a VR headset in terms of the device. The content, while strong as an art experience, can be disturbing to some.

What medium-specific qualities of VR/AR does it employ? What is gained by enjoying this in VR/AR rather than In Real Life?

From the very first steps, lost in the middle of nowhere, in front of a wooden architectural structure, we follow along the virtual path intuitively, unsure where we're led to.
Carole Chainon

Carole Chainon: It’s a pleasure to wander through a gallery that makes full use of the visual power of VR. From the very first steps, lost in the middle of nowhere, in front of a wooden architectural structure, we follow along the virtual path intuitively, unsure where we're led to. The space feels comforting and safe however, and down through multiple revolving stairs we’re rewarded by the sight of a magical cave with various installations. The experience feels modern, mesmerising and captivating. A full spectrum of 3D installations, photos, artworks, videos and audio is available all throughout the visit. The only downside to this virtual exhibit is the inability to get closer to the works.

Magical space: the subterranean levels of Substrata are intriguing to navigate

Dhiren Dasu: A standard VR navigational interface is deployed here. The CG-rendered nature of the entire experience can only be had in VR. The subterranean levels were excellent to navigate through and view the works “in situ”, so to speak! I felt that this space added value by taking the viewer into an environment that is otherwise not available to us in real life. A good use of VR in creating a magical space that invites exploration as opposed to recreating a white cube gallery facsimile. Won Ju Lim's and Kristen Posehn's works stood out to me for their fitting use of the medium.

Seol Park: Before Covid-19 hit, I was lucky to enjoy clear water diving inside the cenotes in Tulum, Mexico. I would liken Epoch's Substrata to that experience but in artistic terms. Among the presented works, certain pieces such as Kristin Posehn's Cloud Flippening (2020) and Won Ju Lim's Kiss T4 (2020) defy gravity, making the virtual context well worthwhile.  

Does it break new ground technically?

The soundscape, the aesthetically pleasing and calming nature of the environment go a long way in delivering an experience to the viewer.
Dhiren Dasu

Carole Chainon: The hotspot feature is something we've grown accustomed to by now and it works very well. The sophisticated design of the virtual space is what sets this gallery apart from others, as it successfully conveys the joy of curious discovery, while taking you on a journey where you end up wanting even more.

Dhiren Dasu: No technical leaps here. There are only a handful of ways to map or hyperlink a navigational experience or display a 2D or 3D work, so there is no real need for novelty on that count. However the overall experience was well-executed and cohesive. The soundscape, the aesthetically pleasing and calming nature of the environment go a long way in delivering an experience to the viewer. One that took me out of where I was into a soothing alpine modernist art gallery with an extensive underground habitat for art. So in a nutshell, success. 

Seol Park: Though this production doesn't necessarily debut a new technology that breaks new ground, it successfully brings together what is available in VR production today in a highly compelling and imaginative way. I enjoyed this experience very much. A great charcoal drawing does not necessarily require the most technologically advanced piece of charcoal.

The XR panel's ratings

Eron Rauch gave a rating of 5/5 stars.

Gretchen Andrew gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Dhiren Dasu gave a rating of 3/5 stars.

Carole Chainon gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Seol Park gave a rating of 5/5 stars.

Giving an overall panel rating of 4/5 stars.

Briefly noted: Berlin, Berlin

We recommend checking out Berlin, Berlin as a much stronger alternative to Acute Art’s technically similar Unreal City, reviewed earlier this month.

BERLIN, AUGMENTED BERLIN is an immersive group exhibition with AR art, curated by Anika Meier and Highsnobiety. The show is part of Highsnobiety's BERLIN, BERLIN program for Berlin Fashion Week. Visitors are invited to use a smartphone or tablet to place the eight sculptures by Berlin artists in public spaces or within their own four walls. In this manner, visitors are able to experience art on the border between the real and the virtual world and refashion their own immediate environment.

The Art Newspaper’s XR Panel

Gretchen Andrew is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist who manipulates the artworld, big tech, and political systems with art and desire. Her next exhibition is with Annka Kultys in April 2021.  

Carole Chainon is the co-founder of JYC, an XR development and production studio based in LA with a presence in Europe, creating XR experiences for the entertainment and enterprise sector. She is also a Spark AR Creator.

Dhiren Dasu is a digital media creator and consultant. His areas of speciality include photography, film, virtual space, graphic design, visual effects, animation, and audio production. Dasu, in his fine art persona as Shapeshifter7, makes artworks that echo and recompose the architectural spaces he photographs, turning them into immersive spaces while exploring the nexus of photography, collage, symbols, and perception.

Seol Park bridges technology, art, and branding. After working with Microsoft and INTEL, she now guides global branding at LG with emphasis on digital and cultural engagement. Her past work in XR have appeared in Media-N, ABC TV (Australia), The Southern Star (Ireland), and more. She was named in Sotheby's Institute's "4 Under 40" in 2019, and currently serves on the Board of Trustees for The American Folk Art Museum.

Eron Rauch is an artist, writer, and curator whose projects explore the infrastructure of imagination, with a focus on subcultures, video games, and photography history.


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