At the moment, Tabor Robak’s 3-D-modeled landscapes and simulated video-game interfaces seem utterly contemporary, especially in contrast to the 16mm film projectors and slide carousels that pass for “new” media in some art-world venues. Still, the 27-year-old artist’s computer-generated visuals risk coming across as overfamiliar (at least until enough time passes for nostalgia to set in). Not only is the imagery Robak employs recognizably derived from smartphone time-wasters and first-person shooters, his entire procedure also follows a script we know well. “Next-Gen Open Beta,” as the show was called, exuded a slight whiff of historical inevitability, as if the box had been checked and the glossy digital junk of the early-mid-2010s had been brought safely into the intellectual fold of the mainstream art world.
Free-to-Play (all works 2013) elevates a Candy Crush Saga–style game into a monumental homage to visual excess and distraction. Playing on four vertically stacked monitors, overlapping columns of computer-generated icons—their origins too diverse and their presence on-screen too fleeting to catalogue—collapse into glittery clouds and rainbow starbursts. 20XX, the sole single-channel piece of the exhibition’s four works, pans through a candy-colored digital cityscape made up of iconic skyscrapers, from the Willis Tower in Chicago to Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower.
Where Cory Arcangel hacks obsolete video-game consoles and exploits their glitches, Robak optimizes current technology. Many of his graphics originated as commercially available templates, which he then altered and recontextualized. The tools Robak uses theoretically allow for the creation of compelling, visionary worlds of infinite diversity, so it’s remarkable that the artist sticks to found pixels processed with standardized effects in programs like Photoshop and Cinema 4D. Although far from carrying out a “deskilled” process, Robak largely confines himself to exploring the conventional forms that have already solidified around “Next-Gen” equipment. Creativity becomes synonymous with customization, and the artist’s hand is visible mostly in exaggerated surface effects: one more layer of lush digital moisture or that extra cascade of sparkles.
The theorist Alexander Galloway makes a distinction between works of cinema and multiplayer digital games, with the former depicting worlds and the latter simulating them. Some of Robak’s most exciting pieces draw from the second tradition, exploring environments from a first-person perspective. The most promising piece here is the seven-screen installation Xenix, which could be called a depiction of a simulation. We watch as an artificial intelligence navigates an elaborate interface to select weapons, chart some sort of transnational movement (a military operation?) and check the home fridge. We may be only passive viewers, but the work’s surfeit of detail makes for a more engaging experience than most “interactive” bouts of repetitive pawing at a touchscreen. In Xenix, digital space is understood not simply as a 3-D confection separate from life but as a fluid site where virtual activities may flow seamlessly into acts of real violence, like a drone strike, or instantaneous consumption.