Digital Artists are Imagining Fairer Futures, and Bringing Us All Along For the Ride

Meet the new generation of digital artists. They're making imagination-bending work and bashing down barriers to the creative industries in the process – creating worlds where anything is possible.

WORDS Letty Cole
HEADER IMAGE ‘Leitiporus Mushroom’, still from ‘Neoregelia’ by Misha Notley, an interactive game that lets players cultivate flowers and learn about plant species 100 years into the future.

On my screen is an animated figure in grey overalls and rubber boots, with a glowing ball of pink light where the head should be. It’s running around a pastel-coloured dreamscape – a misty orange sky above rolling hills covered in wildflowers, peppered with futuristic buildings. The world is H.O.R.I.Z.O.N, or ‘Regenerative Interactive Zone of Nuture’, the multiplayer game created by the art collective Institute of Queer Ecology for the Guggenheim’s 2020 exhibition Countryside, The Future. At a time when we couldn’t attend exhibitions IRL, H.O.R.I.Z.O.N provided a space for visitors to attend artist talks and workshops. But it also acted as a work in its own right – inviting players to become part of an interactive ‘digital commune’, where one could explore the local wildlife, share nature-related content, and imagine, just for a while, a world where humans put the environment first.

In London, artist and RnB musician Glor1a has been collaborating with Tokyo-based VR developer Alpha Rats to build an ‘uncolonised feminist underworld’ – an audiovisual experience that accompanies her performances and lets listeners play along via Twitch. Meanwhile, art director and animator Misha Notley has been working on Neoregelia, a game that takes users forward 100 years to care for plants of the future like Blu Myrtle – an imagined genus of today’s evergreen myrtle family – or the Letiporus Mushroom – a giant descendant of today’s common chicken of the woods mushrooms.

Around the world, artists like these are imagining the alternate or future realities that could exist without colonialism or the climate crisis, providing a powerful glimpse into worlds without inequality and reckless consumption. And they’re part of a global movement of creatives exploring the potential technology has to imagine a fairer world. 

Granted, ‘fair’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind when we think of tech. Silicon Valley is busy battling for our attention, bombarding us with a constant stream of updates and upgrades that seem designed to alienate even the tech-savvy. It’s no wonder the world today can feel like a dystopia. We’re paranoid that the social media overlords are manipulating our algorithms, watching our every move. 

So much technology that we use day-to-day is “designed to be bad for us…to be addictive and to make you want to buy things and stay online”, says London-based digital artist Carola Dixon, whose work uses technology to explore the relationship between humanity, nature, and the digital. “It’s easy to see technology as an inherently bad thing, an unnatural thing.” 

As pioneering digital artist Tabita Rezaire explained in a 2018 interview, the internet, by being governed by new versions of old elites, has become a form of “electronic colonialism”. 

“Even the physical structure of the internet, the undersea fibre optic cables, is laid out onto colonial trade routes”, adds Tabita. “The architecture of the internet is based on pain.” 

But to think of digital technology as inherently bad is a mistake. Humans created it, just as we have created every tool we’ve made so far, and so humans get to decide what it becomes. The problem isn’t the tech, it’s those that control it. That’s why, for digital artists like Carola, it’s important that they’re “present in the digital space, to be a voice that says, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’.” 

‘Sacred Cradle’ by Carola Dixon, from the series “Sacred Becomings”. Carola uses technology to explore the relationship between humanity, nature, and the digital.

If there was ever a time for a tech revolution, it’s now. A year spent online has accelerated the development of technologies, and Gen Z, the first truly digital generation, is coming of age, bringing a new status quo to the fore. Blockchain (the technology behind cryptocurrencies and NFTs, which ensures transparency and security by encrypting all data that passes through it) brings with it the possibility of a “decentralised internet”, where traditional power structures are toppled, corruption is eliminated, and wealth redistributed. With brands relying on them for cultural cues, the creative community has found a unique opportunity to steer the discourse – to popularise the use of technology without a capitalist agenda, before the tech giants monopolise them completely. 

Take the NFT boom of early 2021, when artist Beeple sold an NFT work for $69 million, and digital art was catapulted into the spotlight. NFT’s, in one way, got it all wrong. They wooed the art world with sexy new technology that ended up seeing a few artists sell their works for millions, at a huge environmental expense – a model not dissimilar from the traditional art market. But, on the other hand, this started a conversation that has led to notable positive change. The digital art community has since led the popularisation of environmentally friendly NFT’s, and that, in turn, has popularised digital art.

Digital art has long been perceived as a less-glamorous, or less legitimate, art form. But given the amount of time we spend consuming the stuff (be it memes, TikToks, or enjoyably designed websites), it’s about time that it’s recognised for its influence. It was 2015 when Zaiba Jabbar founded curatorial platform Hervisions, whilst working as a director navigating a white, male-dominated industry. The opportunities that the digital world brought with it to self-shoot and self-direct offered an alternative to the need to “break a glass ceiling”. Instead, she became “aware of how social media was enabling this accessibility, allowing artists and creatives to be able to make work and publish it.” Female identifying and non-binary artists were increasingly sharing their work online, and Hervisons became a space to celebrate that through facilitating collaborations between digital artists and the likes of Tate Modern, Adidas, Chanel and Boiler Room. 

Meanwhile, London-based collective Digigxl – a global community for womxn, intersex, trans folk, and non-binary people specialising in digital design, 3D & XR – was founded by Catty Taylor. They shared in an interview in Dazed that Digigxl was established “as a response to the lack of representation for womxn working in 3D and animation.” Digigxl now operates largely via Discord, allowing members to share resources and opportunities, and lets members share their work to a collective Instagram. The resulting page, @digi.gxl, is a showcase of mind-bending, reality-altering works. For example, Polina Zinziver’s ‘Face Positivity’ series, which rallies against the way technology (face filters, that’s you) reinforces traditional beauty standards; or intersex artist Dani Coyle’s recent animation for the Menstruation Project, which shows the metamorphosis of a sexual organ, exploring the potential ambiguity of biological sex. 

The internet “makes it really easy to have these systems that don’t have a central leader”, explains Carola, who is a Digigxl member. And by providing the space for democratic communities to flourish, it’s very existence is helping to empower some marginalised communities, in spite of the tech giants. Zaiba describes how, as a working-class woman of colour, the internet has broadened the opportunities available to her. There’s something “nurturing” about meeting like-minded people from opposite sides of the world, but it’s also been helpful in “widening our perspectives”, helping to make communities of like-minded people stronger. 

By creating spaces to celebrate these artists, groups like Hervisions and Digigxl have been able to platform the work of this new generation of creatives, turbo-charge access to opportunities, and help to legitimise the work that they’re doing. As Zaiba points out, “young designers or animators maybe now have the courage to call themselves artists”, a title which once felt like a privilege confined to the elitist art world. 

‘Wax Gourd’, still from ‘Neoregelia’ by Misha Notley, an interactive game that lets players cultivate flowers and learn about plant species 100 years into the future.

But what about the art itself? Zaiba says she’s noticed a shift in the topics that digital artists are exploring. Whilst the past year has seen us spending increasing amounts of time online, we “have been looking at the outside world so much more”. With that, social and environmental issues like the climate emergency have found themselves unlikely stars of the digital art world. On one hand, digital art – with its separation from the physical world – doesn’t feel like the obvious choice for, say, environmental activism. But, in reality, technology can “enrich our understanding of the material world”, says Carola. And, with that, strengthen our connection to nature.

Take plant identifier apps, like PictureThis – which can tell you if a plant is poisonous or help nurture a houseplant back to life – and constellation spotters, like StarView. These apps break down barriers to access for those without prior knowledge of stargazing or foraging, enabling and encouraging people to be more engaged with the world around them. The same goes for games like Misha’s Neoregelia (and even old favourites like Farmville and Animal Crossing) which offer safe spaces to explore looking after other living things. As Misha says, “unless you’re a plant lover, especially if you live in a city, there are not many opportunities to nurture something for yourself.” 

When she founded Hervisions, Zaiba never predicted she’d be working with technology to encourage movement and growth in the soil beneath your feet, like in her current project Based on a Tree Story, which was created in partnership with artist Ayesha Tan Jones. The piece, commissioned by Furtherfeild Gallery in Finsbury Park, is an augmented reality app that brings to life a large plane tree – locally known as the Trunk Triplets Tree – that shares with visitors stories of the past, present and future. The work is designed to explore “how new technologies can reconnect humans to their natural surroundings and allows us to imagine all other forms of life at their core.” 

It is this – the way that world-building, or world extending, can spark people’s imaginations – that makes digital art such a powerful tool. “I can kind of envision a world, and then create that world, and then get others to participate within it”, explains Misha. Then suddenly, we’re all “within this space, living under the same rules.” 

Carola agrees: “Technology is a place to do things that you can’t do in the real world.” By creating these “controlled environments”, we can have “certain types of discussions”, or “explore hypothetical questions”, in a way that feels really safe.  Through showing people things they may not encounter in their day-to-day lives, digital art can “enrich people’s understanding of the material world.”

Are these works having a content impact on the environment? Perhaps not – but maybe they don’t have to. What these artists are doing isn’t exciting because of the conversations they’re having, but rather because of the ways they’re having them. The digital art community is breaking down access for creatives, and creating work that can engage people in difficult conversations in completely new ways. This is why Lee Pinnick founded the Institute of Queer Ecology. As an artist, his work had long been centred around environmentalism, but he realised that to try and create the “paradigm shift”, making his practice collaborative was the only way forward. A quote from his boss sticks with him – and rings true across the digital art movement: the role of being an artist within a community is that “when a door opens for you, you jam your foot in and get as many people in with you as you can.” 

It’s clear that by creating digital art, these artists are building communities for creatives where everyone is welcome. And by imagining worlds where anything is possible, they’re inviting us all to do the same.

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