Dirt: PSL Arcology Q&A 🎃
Alex Marraccini and Sarah Moosvi discuss Marraccini's new permanent web exhibition.
Alex Marraccini previously reviewed The Sims Dream Interior Decorator and Cottage Living expansion packs for Dirt. This week marks the opening of her NFT-based digital gallery show Pumpkin Spice Launch Arcology with Sarah Moosvi (an early Dirt supporter) and Tara Digital Collective. All works will be available for purchase on OpenSea. I interviewed Alex and Sarah in the Dirt Discord to find out how this all came together.
Daisy Alioto: How did you first connect with one another?
Alex Marraccini: Sarah had seen my first Sims piece in Dirt and we connected on Twitter. I was posting pictures of builds and making architecture jokes, and she asked me if I had ever considered the NFT space for that sort of work. These were sort of quick and dirty (well, not in the mascot sense) screenshots, not the rendered scenes I compose much more carefully with builds now.
Sarah Moosvi: Yes, I am a big fan and backer of Dirt; I hopped in the Discord immediately after Kyle created it. My first exchange on the server was with Alex, since her PFP is my favorite painting by Cy Twombly. The Sims piece in Dirt caught my attention because I had recently created a Mirror account for Tara Digital Collective and saw an opportunity to create an on-chain artist collective with that platform. TDC creates exhibitions in virtual environments that are restricted by the limitations of current blockchain-based worlds. Alex's use of The Sims and its gameplay restrictions in her work resonated immediately.
DA: Alex, how does a build go from your computer to being something people can experience and purchase?
AM: It actually doesn’t start on my computer— it starts in my notebook! Embarrassingly, I’ve carried a blank pocket sized Moleskine around with me everywhere since I was 17, living in the Miami suburbs, trying desperately to be an intellectual sophisticate. The one I have right now is neon yellow, but I still use them to sketch and write down initial ideas for buildings and frame stories. I like to do so in ridiculous imported Japanese pens with very precise tips.
Anyway, that aside, I play around with the initial build exterior and broad structure first. I usually zone out to Netherlands Bach Society videos on YouTube while I do so, THEN I look through the build catalogues and debug objects (objects used by the game designers to build the in-game worlds that Sims can’t interact with) to decide which things will be central to the aesthetic conceit I’m working with. Lighting is also crucial. You can only adjust light color and intensity in “live” mode of The Sims, so I have to constantly toggle back and forth to my test Sim when placing and adjusting lights. I make decisions based on my own immersion in the world I’m building. It’s pretty painstaking to adjust each individual object in a render so I have a lot of time to ruminate as I work. I use so many objects and so much material the game isn’t intended to handle it. Invariably this will crash the game at some point!
What you will ultimately see as NFTs are still .png images I capture with the in-game camera after I’ve built the whole space. I want people who buy the NFTs and everyone who just sees them to see them in this careful, immersive context. Sarah and TDC have made this possible, by launching a permanent web exhibition that’s essentially a walk-through with the frame text.
We’re also putting my more theoretical artist’s statement out on Mirror for context. Right now, auction platforms for NFTs don’t natively support this kind of exhibition, one where text and image work together to form a world — and as an art historian I know galleries are great at curating not only pieces, but experiences of whole sets of work.
DA: How did you come up with the Pumpkin Spice Launch Arcology name?
AM: I wanted it to sound like Pumpkin Spice Latte, so I called it the Pumpkin Spice LAUNCH Arcology. I was thinking about Arcosanti and self contained city projects in architectural and space history.
The NFT image bundles will be listed on OpenSea alongside the website TDC is building for the Pumpkin Spice Launch Arcology. Each image is a 1/1 edition. This reflects the ontology of this project as a world, a built environment that exists as a token and a theoretical, imagined space. Being able to show someone architecture and world building has always been difficult, from the scale model to the speculative fiction novel. This is just a new way of letting people see and buy those worlds, feel involved in them.
DA: Do you have a formal background in architecture, Alex? This feels like a professional blueprint process....
AM: Yes! I have a PhD in art history and I am currently doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, based at the Warburg Institute, where I write about the nature of English baroque city churches and do some comparative work with Japanese postwar stuff, which you can absolutely see in my work! I learned to sketch very unprofessionally all throughout my life, but when I was doing my MA and PhD on mostly rare scientific books and structures of knowledge, manuscript and book photos had to be made by libraries and cost a FORTUNE. So as a result I can do a pretty great life of Christ like in a 15thC Flemish Book of Hours! But that said, I’ve always been much better at objects and spaces than figures. I also had the experience last year of advising critical studies BA Fine Art dissertations for Central Saint Martins students on the 4D pathway, and they kept asking me about my practice! Mostly I’m a literary and art critic and theoretical alongside my art historical work, but they pushed me to think of projects like this as legitimate art making.
DA: How many different expansion packs went into this one?
AM: I actually couldn’t afford all the expansion packs from EA for the Sims 4 when I started this project, so I was missing a few, but none that I felt were aesthetically crucial. BUT I’m finally going to get a laptop with enough memory and all the expansions for future builds using the money from the sale. Since I’m interested in constraint in digital architecture and world building beyond just The Sims, I’m going to partition my old laptop and run emulators so I can use really early versions of architecture, landscape, and simulation software (including the Sims 1) from the 90’s though about 2004. I’ve been eyeballing very old interior design software you used to get on CD at places like Office Depot to redo your home kitchen and wondering what crazy space I can build with it that subverts its purpose. I don’t own a home or a kitchen! (The Sims takes up more than 25 GB of space with this build and the expansions I have alone, it’s crazy!!!)
DA: I would love to hear from both of you how the metaverse enables these kind of works and future predictions for what's possible. Or aspirations!
AM: I’m hesitant to use the word metaverse because that’s being applied to types of gaming, virtual land plots, and buy-to-play NFTs that my work doesn’t really fit into, but maybe it will become more expansive and I will use it in the future. Anyway, my next project is a queer love story (!), between a mermaid and a vampire (because the Sims LOVES occult types with weird building needs and I love restrictions and vampire jokes!!), set in a modernist lighthouse with Gehry-esque roof curvature to make up for the total lack of wall curves in the game’s tools (!!!). In the future I’m very interested in exploring ideas of mass and texture, because technically mass doesn’t really exist in the game and texture— well the Sims themselves don’t react to its nominal, illusive existence. So that’s a fun paradox! In a broader sense I want to use the Sims and other restrictive architectural media, both current and media-historical, to do deeper conceptual work about how structures can provoke narrative forms and other ideas about conditions for existence.
SM: Like Alex, I also choose to use the term virtual environment whenever possible (though I sometimes default to metaverse on social because that's in common parlance). I also work with animated films and have seen firsthand how animation occupies an uneasy space in the film world. As a digital strategist, I have been focused on the implications of AR and VR in reifying our online social experiences. With theaters closed during most of 2020, I began putting together small group shows of NFTs, mainly in online viewing rooms and then expanding out into time-based installations in Decentraland and Cryptovoxels.
DA: What do you want people to feel when they look at it?
AM: My critical and art historical self knows that reactions to work can be anything at all and be interesting and intellectually fun to think about. My irrational self just wants everyone to want to chase a Pumpkin Droid around their living room and drink sweet autumnal chemicals while enjoying a world I’ve been making and living in for a while now. They need to decide whether they’d join the Summer Rebellion!
I think work like mine can be enjoyed on conceptual and theoretical levels and also just be fun. I hope people are surprised and giggle at the confluences of the unexpected from an ordinary game space made speculative and new.
SM: In some ways, the perception of born-digital art in the traditional art world parallels that of animation in the film industry. Digital art installation is an art in and of itself and I often find IRL exhibitions of NFTs miss the mark because the work is not approached on its own terms. Thus, TDC exhibitions are purposefully online only and presented in virtual environments whenever it makes sense for the pieces on display. I'm currently working on distribution strategy for Mamoru Hosoda's new film, Belle, which explores the connecting power of art in a world where immersive portable digital identity is possible. I see TDC as being built for that world, and work like Alex's is a portal through which we can explore and recreate identity and narratives for the online world.
AM: I’ll also be taking commissions because I enjoy that aspect of architectural practice and the ideas it generates as well. Some of my new builds will be more residential, even isometric rooms and tiny houses, because those spaces can be accessible to people who feel overwhelmed with a lot of material. And they have their own stories and aesthetic concerns I’d love to explore.