The world of Grand Theft Auto might seem an unlikely arena in which to tackle social politics, but for mixed-media artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy the virtual space of gaming offers a pertinent metaphor for the structures that govern our lives and experiences IRL. Since 2013, they have collaborated on video, performance and installation work examining the pervasive influence of residual colonial attitudes on collective and individual consciousnesses, and considered the ways in which those attitudes might be disrupted and subverted – how the structure might be hacked. With their most recent exhibition, The Grid, shown across two sites at Copperfield and Seventeen in London, Larry and David collated a series of films made throughout their time working together, presenting their sustained interrogation of colonial narratives against virtual and futuristic backdrops.
With their collaborative video-based works, Larry and David explore the worlds of Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid and Skyrim, using them as a vehicle for their conversation around race relations. The Finding Fanon trilogy, the first films they made together in the digital realm, is inspired by the writings of radical humanist social philosopher Frantz Fanon. Their FF Gaiden films explore issues around migration and class. A Terrible Fiction is an exploration of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his relationship with his taxidermy teacher John Edmonstone, a freed slave. Their more recent work, The Wall and the Incongruous, examines the construction of physical and psychic borders.
“In a way, the virtual realm is such an obvious metaphor. You can tinker as a player and bash at the edges of things, but in the end the structure has a limit. In life, a lot of those barriers are more difficult to see.”
In Larry’s words: “David and I, within our individual work, have been exploring ideas regarding class, regarding race – societal conversations. I think what that does when we come together is challenge us as individuals and challenge our positions. Something that is important to consider is the fact that David and I come from different backgrounds, and how those nuances affect the way we work as individuals.” Far from shying away from the difficult, sometimes painful, often uncomfortable conversations concerning their respective experiences, Larry and David confront those conversations head-on. Larry grew up on a council estate in east London, his Ghanaian mother having fled her home country to escape the political conflict, while David comes from a white, middle-class background, with the colonial legacy of his grandfather who worked alongside the British authorities in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.
Acknowledging these disparities is key to Larry and David’s collaborative practice. In Finding Fanon 2, the second in the Finding Fanon trilogy and their first film together that takes place in the digital landscape of Grand Theft Auto 5, the voiceover states: “Their skin changes their experience of the world, their interactions, their dreams. Constructed realities that have shaped them, the virtual edifices of history, wealth, nationality, property – all fantasies that chain them to their places, mind-forged manacles.”
Inspired by Fanon’s writings on the insidious psychopathologies that uphold racist imperial values, Larry and David use the virtual realm to expose those “constructed realities” for the fictions that they are – the effects of the structure are all-too-real, but the structure itself is a lie, reliant on outdated imperialist ideologies. The point they make seems to have an ominous and growing applicability in relation to the myth of empire that has fuelled much of the drive towards Brexit – the notion of reclaiming “Great” Britain’s national identity. The question that Larry and David’s work poses is this: On whose terms are those “edifices” of nationhood and greatness built?
“In a way, the virtual realm is such an obvious metaphor,” says David. “You can tinker as a player and bash at the edges of things, but in the end the structure has a limit; if you swim too far in Grand Theft Auto 5, you will be eaten by a shark! Or, if you fly too far, you will be shot down – there’s no way around these invisible barriers. In life, a lot of those barriers are more difficult to see. In a way, the virtual space gives us license to point at these things and say, look, this is actually showing us something quite profound about the real.”
He continues: “We both come from sculptural backgrounds, so we saw these preexisting virtual realms of gaming as found objects, virtual found spaces that could be used, thought about and examined as objects. It’s not just a neutral space; there are no neutral spaces – everything has its implications and connotations.” As such, this conversation comes down to the ways in which the societal structures that perpetuate injustice and marginalisation can filter down into its products. In this way, artefacts of culture – games, films, music – might hold up mirrors to the societies in which they are produced, whether acting in alignment with that society’s structures or in opposition to them. For Larry and David’s collaborative practice, this means creating works that explore how these cultural artefacts – specifically the virtual worlds of gaming – are constructed in relation to the actual world.
“There’s this idea that the virtual realm offers almost limitless freedom in comparison with what we have IRL,” says Larry. “But in fact it just becomes a microcosm or a reflection of the same societal disparities as those that exist in the real world. You certainly come up against those problems in virtual worlds – there are video games that sexualise female characters or often there’s a limit to the character options you have as a black person or a person of colour. Of course, there are games that bring out those cultural complexities, but there are a lot of games that are very lazy or ignorant, and are racist as a result of certain issues simply being overlooked. So in the virtual space, you really have a reflection of what is going on in the real world.”
In terms of the technical process of making the machinima – the practice of producing animated films through the manipulation of video-game graphics – Larry and David found themselves up against the rules and limits of the games when creating scenes and imagery. David explains the making of Finding Fanon 2, the first film they attempted within the world of Grand Theft Auto: “In order to have two playable characters in the game, you have to have two PCs and they have to be connected via a network. So we were sat with our two computers – me in Brighton and Larry in London – with our laptops set up next to us, so that we could talk to each other on Skype and arrange where to meet. We’d end up having to steal cars and things in the game in order to get to the locations, then eventually we’d meet up in the virtual space. Then we were able to record a series of actions with the two avatars interacting.”
Much of the process, in fact, involved the pair simply playing the game in order to unlock levels, as to “buy” a greater range of character options, such as the tweed suits worn by both avatars – virtual versions of the suits they wear IRL in Finding Fanon 1. As Larry puts it: “It’s a lot of running and gunning about before you can get on and do the actual acting, which is kind of hilarious in itself. You’ve got to grind. As much as we’re experienced gamers, we had to actually level up a lot to get to those options.”
David recalls that “the real complications came with things like when we wanted to get a shot of the avatars ‘arriving’ in the virtual space – the opening shot of the film is our avatars falling from the sky – and to do that, you have to fly.” The two gamers “ended up”, David tells us, “breaking into a military facility to get the helicopter. And then we had the problem that, when you jump out of a plane, the bodies fall really quickly, so if we didn’t do it at exactly the right time, the two bodies wouldn’t be together the way that we wanted for the film. We had to do it lots of times, and then finally we got it, and the computer that was capturing the action crashed!”
Beyond the in-play logistics, actually crafting the filmic imagery and recording the action makes use of add-ons that derive from the gaming community, not the makers. As David explains: “Once you have the action saved, you can go into the editor mode of Grand Theft Auto which was built in as a possibility for making machinima in the game. It didn’t exist in previous iterations; it’d been created as a hack by gamers in Grand Theft Auto 4, and so the manufacturers put it in as a legitimate part of the game in Grand Theft Auto 5. You have the recorded scenes, and then you can place cameras wherever you want – you can get the camera to follow a person or an object, you can set a field of view, and you can create quite complex camera moves – sweeping around, overhead drone shots. It was like having a suite of filmic possibilities that we hadn’t had access to before that point.”
“There’s this idea that the virtual realm offers almost limitless freedom in comparison with what we have IRL. But in fact it just becomes a microcosm or a reflection of the same societal disparities as those that exist in the real world.”
Larry and David’s use of hacker technology to create films with Grand Theft Auto and also with Skyrim, in which David created his own hack virtual camera, is also relevant to the conversation they are conducting around societal barriers. It’s about altering a given framework, tinkering with its systems. Larry is particularly invested in this notion of the maker’s tools being used to modify and rework the thing that has been built. “I’m very interested in the possibilities of hacking, or when a community takes something that’s been released into the public and uses it for something beyond what it was apparently intended for, or they create their own language within it,” he says. “And the developers, as deities or gods, become invalid, actually. Because that invisible wall has been broken.”
All this highlights the ways in which digital technologies, as well as presenting microcosms of reality, can be employed to question the legitimacy of the imposed structures on which that reality is founded, and ultimately to break them down. Just as the fabric of Skyrim’s virtual landscape in The Wall and the Incongruous begins to break down and flicker as David’s hack camera zooms further and further towards the horizon, “the virtual edifices of history, wealth, nationality, property” that form the foundations of western society begin to appear illegitimate and untenable on close examination.
The question becomes: In whose favour does the structure function – and who controls it? Speaking of the imperialist ideologies that linger in the West’s consciousness, Larry says: “There are changes that have to happen, and there are people who need to be heard. I think that is going to happen. A lot of difficult things will happen before that, maybe, but this imagined idea of the UK and empire, with regard to Brexit, is crushing and unsustainable. There is something positive in challenging the empire’s idea of itself.”
The collaborative work being made by Larry and David embraces the potential granted by emerging technologies to create tangible change. For Larry, this is vital when it comes to the realigning of hierarchies based on class, race and wealth within the creative industries and the still elitist world of fine art: “With digital technology being hackable, and the ability to get a crack copy of a piece of software that creates a space for people to get through, that’s what interests me. I’ve been using all kinds of versions of equipment and software – for music, for example – that I wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. This DIY or hacking approach is democratisation. It’s breaking down those barriers to the art world for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do this, or afford that. The economy surrounding art is certainly shifting. People can make films where, previously, they would have needed expensive equipment. It’s changed the game for future artists. It’s opened up the playing field.”
Yet the art world, and certainly the wider world, still have a long way to go if the barriers that place constrictions on certain groups of people are truly to be broken down. Digital media, and in particular social media, offers, as David says, “one of the fundamental spaces that can be manipulated to challenge different power structures”. Although greater access and democratisation of technology might allow us to question the structure, even tear at it and reconstruct it in parts, David continues: “Who holds the power, still, now? It’s still those with the wealth and the technology; they’re the ones shaping the agenda.”