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Exploring the Metaverse at the Global Art Forum with Daniel Felstead

Digital installation showing student work across multiple screens.
  • Written byJ Tilley
  • Published date 04 October 2022
Digital installation showing student work across multiple screens.
Digital installation for the LCF2021 Summer Show at Victoria House | London College of Fashion | University of Arts London | Photography by Ana Blumenkron

"There is no general definition or common understanding of what the metaverse actually is. This is both its strength and its weakness. It can be simultaneously everything and nothing and because of this, it encourages wild speculations, scams and grifts that make it even more difficult to get a handle on." - Daniel Felstead, MA Fashion Media and Communication Course Leader.

MA Fashion Media & Communication Course Leader, Daniel Felstead, joined the Global Art Forum Conference in Dubai to discuss all things Metaverse. We caught up with Daniel to find out what the Metaverse actually is, and more importantly, what can we do with it? The next forum takes place in March 2023, where we will hear from Daniel again to see how things have innovated within the virtual world.

Firstly, how was Dubai?

Dubai was incredible. It’s the first time I’ve been (outside of the airport that is). It has a bit of a reputation as being like Disney Land or Vegas, and there definitely is a glitzy surface aspect to it. However, after having the privilege of being taken around the city by people who live there I found it to be such an incredibly complex and layered place.  I got the sense that it is establishing itself as a kind of contemporary cultural epicentre of the middle east as it transitions from an oil based economy to finance, tourism and culture. Alongside this, what was quite striking about spending time there was how positive people seemed to be both about Dubai and about the future. There was a real sense that anything was possible, and they do could it.

What was the basis of discussion and who else was invited?

I was invited by the commissioner, Shumon Basar, to present as part of the 15th edition of the Global Art Forum, entitled ‘This is the Picture’ which examined the worlds of digital artefacts, crypto economies and web3. The programme was also in dialogue with the new digital section of Art Dubai which the forum is a part of.

My talk, ‘What If We Kissed In the Metaverse’ examined the hyped promises and painful realities of the metaverse and offered an alternative model for how we might understand and make use of this otherwise cringe and cursed notion. I was joined by the incredible writer and researcher Ruba Al-Sweel who brilliantly framed the metaverse in relation to the concept of the continental vibe. Other invited speakers to the forum included musicians and founders of the hyper-influential Interdependence podcast Holly Herndon, Mat Dryhurst, curator and art writer Dorian Batycka, design strategist Chris Fussner, and artist, filmmaker, and musician Lawrence Lek.

Tell us about the Metaverse – what is it and why does it exist?

There is no general definition or common understanding of what the metaverse actually is. This is both its strength and its weakness. It can be simultaneously everything and nothing and because of this, it encourages wild speculations, scams and grifts that make it even more difficult to get a handle on. However, the fact that it’s currently so underdetermined means that there is a plasticity in what it could be.

The most common definitions are given by those who have a direct financial stake in it, and/or are susceptible to badly cribbed sci-fi visions of techno utopias. For advocates and peddlers of what I call the 'Zuckerbergian metaverse', a definition goes something like:

The metaverse is the next stage of the internet and obvious successor to mobile internet, just as it was to desktop internet. It will provide a virtual 3D universe enabling you be present with other people within an “embodied” internet. It will be home of digital goods, combining aspects of social media, online gaming, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and crypto. It will be the place you go to work, play, entertain and communicate smoothly across an array of devices and media. Crucial to the metaverse (and more broadly web3) is the notion of decentralisation and interoperability. What this means is that rather than each of our multiple accounts, activities and digital assets being siloed to separate proprietary platforms (Facebook, Google, TikTok etc.) Interoperability will allow users to “own” their accounts and related activates, assets and data, independent of the platforms they are using. What this means is that a user can buy, display and transfer tokenized property — such as NFT art, currencies, skins or any other form of digital asset — from one space to another. This is done via a cryptocurrency wallet.

From this understanding, the metaverse is a vision or new frontier, with an optimistic projection of between 5 to 10 years before we will see anything resembling what is presents. Personally, and for reasons I laid out in my talk, I am very sceptical of this. Aside from the very real technical and material challenges that are near impossible to overcome, what is so striking about the Zuckerbergian metaverse is just how incredibly dull it is. Would anyone seriously want to spend any length of time there? What seems clear is that the peddlers of the metaverse are enacting a kind of speculative “performativity” or “metadiscursivity” in which what they say is used not to merely reflect the metaverse but instead manifest the metaverse into a reality. In this sense, there is no metaverse outside of its own speculative projection of what the metaverse “will be”; it’s fiction all the way down.

In my talk, I propose an alternative understanding, one that recognises the metaverse not so much as a technical solution, but more as a conceptual response to a broader condition of socio-economic change, what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “a transition from the age of objects to the age of nonobjects” and graphic designer David Rudnick calls the shift form physical to digital primacy. Using the original meaning of the prefix meta- which refers to “in the midst of” and “in-between”, I take the speculative foundation of the metaverse seriously, but redeploy it as a fictional tool in which we can use to imagine and put into practice the emerging world that we are transitioning to. Much like the novel was a tool to put to fictionalise, and thereby make sense of, an emerging industrialised world.

How can businesses utilise the capabilities of Web3, specifically within the context of fashion?

Again, this is still unclear. Much of the hype around web3 has been generated by people who have a vested financial interest in maintaining the speculative bubble.  However, the potential as I see it (and it is just potential at this stage) is principally socio-political in nature, from which business opportunities could emerge. This socio-political potential is the shift in power that web3 offers away from giant tech platforms such as Facebook, Google, Apple etc. by making key data, its organisation, and its deployment, open to “public” use. In this sense, web3 has the potential to transform the seemingly given power relations and politics in which these giant platforms have become the automatic arbitrators. This potential shift offers opportunities for new kinds of relations, organisations and values to develop.

Are there any resources that you would recommend for those that want to find out more?

Obviously, there are numerous insight reports on the metaverse by the usual suspects. All of which say pretty much the same thing: the metaverse is going to change everything… somehow. However, there are some really useful reports, articles, and book on the metaverse that offer a more critical analysis. A few that come to mind are:

Tell us the top 3 things that students can take away from studying MA Fashion Media & Communication?

Embedded criticality, confidence to intervene in the most pressing issues of our times and the intellectual, creative, and technical skills needed to help fashion the 21st century.