In the last two months, museums have spent much time and energy on attempts to simulate the experience of being in a gallery and appreciating (or despising) art. Explore the Guggenheim Museum in New York, for example, or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with Google Arts & Culture. Tune into guided tours on Instagram TV and YouTube. Or immerse yourself in meticulous virtual-reality reproductions of galleries, like the one of Hauser & Wirth’s sun-filled new venue on the Mediterranean island of Menorca. And yet wandering through these digital rooms only seems to prove how different they are from the real thing. The glitchy paths around the space often offer a single angle on a work, and they zoom past the placards an embodied viewer would slow down to read. They fail to capture sensory impressions, like the texture of a stippled canvas.
The Online Museum of Multiplayer Art (oMoMA) launched April 3 as a lo-fi virtual filial of LikeLike, a physical venue for experimental games. LikeLike hosts shows once a month in a converted garage in Pittsburgh, but its new online arcade-meets-gallery is open around the clock as an interactive environment. Where many art museums have opted for photogrammetric digital products, LikeLike’s aesthetic is charmingly, cartoonishly simple, and the “Multiplayer” in its name indicates that it is conceived as a game rather than a document. It has the scrolling, 2D view of early computer games rather than the first-person-shooter perspective that pervades Google’s museum tours.
After picking a blocky avatar, visitors can go inside and play a games from a curated selection, which changes on a monthly basis. The current iteration, which debuted May 1, features games made with the retro-styled PICO-8 engine. In Josh Millar’s Ennuigi (2015), you take the role of Super Mario’s brother and wander around a dilapidated Mushroom Kingdom, thinking angsty thoughts triggered by pressing a button. The backyard has a pixelated version of Harvey, the dog who lives at the Pittsburgh venue; you can pet him with a click. There’s also an arcade cabinet that sends you to a Twitter feed of looping animations whose code takes fewer than 280 characters.
But click on a doorway at the back of the garage, and LikeLike gives way to its fictional, virtual extension, oMoMA. While the LikeLike arcade is bathed in a red glow, oMoMA is a brightly lit series of white cubes. To interact with oMoMA, you must type lines of text that appear as your avatar’s speech bubbles. Each gallery of the museum has a conceptual work that uses your words as material. In cnsnnt rm, for example, you can only use one vowel at a time (sometimes none at all). In the VIP room at the museum’s apex, everything you type is transliterated into a phonetic rendering of posh British locution, and clicking on the windows produces tongue-in-cheek remarks (“gentrification is beautiful”). The top level also has a dark room (18+ only) that edits your words to make them comically pornographic.
This manipulation of text underscores the digital museum’s function as a social space. It’s effectively a chat room where you can interact not only with the installations but with other visitors. LikeLike’s founder Paolo Pedercini programmed and curated the oMoMA. He told me in an email that it’s best to visit during openings or other events, to maximize interactions. In the entrance hall, I asked an avatar named rona if she has visited oMoMA before. She replied: “like twenty times!” Confetticrab belonged to a computer science student from western Canada who was visiting for the first time. A woman in a pink wide-brimmed hat asked me if I’m real, in the mirror room. “YES/SEY,” I said. She replied, “cool/looc,” and hurried out. Each time, the privilege of being incognito among other people made me unexpectedly giddy with delight. “That sort of chance encounter between anonymous people doesn’t happen anymore in the age of social media, with its followers and followed, and carefully curated circles of friends,” Pedercini wrote. None of the Zoom calls and virtual hangouts on my calendar replicate this simple feeling of being alongside strangers who happen to be taking in the same work at the same time.
LikeLike’s project isn’t the only attempt to re-create the art-viewing experience in a video game. Players of the phenomenally popular Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons have found creative approaches to sharing and making art. Users can visit each other’s islands on the game’s network, and some have jury-rigged their virtual homes to host art exhibitions. But every island belongs to someone. And while there’s a museum on each island, it functions as a sticker book that individual players fill in. There are no impersonal, institutional spaces like oMoMA, where we, the audience, share feelings of surprise, confusion, or fascination. That communal framing is what makes a museum socially significant.
Why do we go to museums? To see art, to understand the world, sure, but also to be with others. As Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote recently for The Believer: “Life (and culture) happens in these interstitial moments, not in the performance, but in the social experience of it.” Museums were never meant to be experienced alone. The joy of the visit comes from the awareness that one object can be seen from multiple perspectives, and from the possibility of finding connections in chance meetings. While museums stay closed around the world, oMoMA maintains the dynamic of encountering art among others.