Rapidly evolving digital technologies offer unprecedented creative opportunities for digital artists, alongside the promise to disrupt strongly-held ideas about art ownership and collection. This month we are bringing you a unique collector’s perspective on innovative forms of patronage.

Alexandra Busila  |  Ed Peter Traynor | 5 February 2020

DSLcollection, 30 XXL artwork in the first VR Museum (2017) © Courtesy of the artist.

Karen Levy is co-owner of the DSLcollection – a Chinese contemporary art collection that is perfectly poised for the age of digital recombination. Paris-based collectors Sylvain and Dominique Levy founded the collection in 2005 and they were later joined in the adventure by their daughter Karen. Even in the New Media art economy, collectors who thrive online are a rare breed. However, the Levys have built their collection from the beginning as an online shared generative knowledge system in which audiences are encouraged to keep expanding the stories attached to the objects. They seemed to have figured out the apparent conflict between owning and sharing. As Sylvain has put it: “We are first a collection of ideas, and second a collection of objects.”

The Levys also seem to have mastered what most museums are struggling with these days: how to design online experiences around art to generate increasingly more intense levels of engagement, especially for a younger audience. This is one of our main areas of interest at Agora, so we invited Karen Levy to give our next talk at which she will expand on this subject in the context of the DSLcollection’s most recent collaborations: the indie video game The Forgetter (created by game designers Alan Kwan and Yang Jing) and the DSL VR Art Village developed on VRChat, a new social virtual reality platform. Both projects make a strong case that collections require dynamic, open, and compelling discourse and reinterpretation to stay alive, relevant and vibrant

DSLcollection in The Forgetter, Portratit of Virginia Wolf (2020) © Courtesy of the DSLcollection.

Being particularly sensitive to emerging art forms, the DSLcollection could not ignore the medium of serious video games, arguably the most vital emergent cultural form today. Video games have an audience of almost 1.5 billion gamers in the Asia Pacific region alone. The carefully mapped meta-reality of the Forgetter game has at its core a surprising mythology: the modernist myth that artists and writers are tortured societal outliers whose struggles are a symptom of their genius. In the game you are hired by Mindjob, a high-tech company that recycles the creative minds of deceased artists, to free them of their burdens and reuse their gifts. After all, to quote from Cao Fei’s RMB City (2007) one of the artworks in the collection, “to go virtual is the only way to forget the real darkness.” 

Forgetter allows you to explore artists’ memory lanes, destroy the people who hurt them in the past, smash objects (or the so-called “traumatic memory units”) while also interacting along the way with artworks from the DSLcollection. As the description on its Steam page goes, you will “be exposed to real ‘contemporary art’ (a school in human-art history) and enjoy its aura”. Looking at screenshots with the digitally recombined artworks from the collection does feel like a return of what Walter Benjamin famously termed aura. Perhaps this is because in the context of the game, the works seem to regain something of their ritual dimension. Even if you are not into gaming, it is intriguing to witness how New Media artworks can be such tremendous sources of knowledge for their collectors, to the point at which their collections embody their contemporary ways of thinking.

Zhao Zhao, Ping Pong (2011)
Zhao Zhao, Ping Pong (2011) © Courtesy of the artist.

In pursuit of an interactive and participatory approach to collecting, the DSLcollection has built a sizable social network around the collection: “It’s a collection with Chinese blood, it’s all about sharing and the elusive practice of guanxi” as Karen told us. She has a keen understanding of how the value and meaning of artworks are ultimately connected to their capacity to travel into new contexts and expand a network’s connections (as digital curators Doreen Rios and Patricia Siller explained in a previous Agora Talk).

Since technology seems to have finally become “boring enough to be socially interesting”, as Clay Shirky put it, the DSLcollection’s next challenge is to bring audiences inside the artworks for a socially shared VR experience. For that, they are building the DSL VR Art Village, designed as a cosmopolitan global village in cyberspace. Here, visitors will encounter each other and the artworks of the collection in a series of virtual buildings designed with distinctive styles. Viewers will also enjoy game-like experiences as they walk through the village. We can’t wait to learn more about this project from Karen herself on February 10th.

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