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A JOURNEY INTO THE VIRTUAL WORLD #1
Exploring lost landscapes and fading memories within the digital world.
For around a decade, starting in about 2005, I embarked on a photographic journey into the world of fashion editorial and portraiture. This was fruitful for a time, but as my interest in this began to decline, I enrolled on the BA Photography course at the university of Brighton in 2015 and it was then that my focus shifted towards the digital world. For my first post, as a way of introduction to the work I did then, I will present a project which began towards the tail end of my first year. The virtual world, having been a visitor to the various incarnations of it since around 1995, has always intrigued me and with the frame of academia, I began to delve deeper into the meaning it held. The most important virtual world to me was that of Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided. My first foray into an MMO, and by far the most important video game I have ever played.
As a brief aside, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) was released around 2003, and I first set my digital feet upon its worlds around a year later, playing almost daily for several years and rather sporadically until it was eventually shut down in 2011. Since then, I have dabbled in the various emulated servers that exist today, and have experimented with running the server myself using the incredible work of those on the SWG Source website and Discord. Each incarnation of the game is different in many ways – some better – some worse, but all of them have something special in common. That something special is hard to pinpoint, and it was likely cemented in my mind through the interactions I had with the community on my starting server of FarStar. Suffice to say, the game holds many years of memories and when the servers shut down, it took with it friends and a digital life lived in a galaxy far, far away. This loss was the impetus that triggered my desire to create work from it, and when given a rather open brief about landscapes, I turned to those once travelled and now lost to me.
As I began the project, I was faced with the aforementioned problem. The servers that I had originally played on were shut down – all my memories lost with it. This led me first to the most prominent emulated server at the time. SWGemu remains online at the time of writing this and was my first stop. I had played it briefly prior to the project and made a special effort to revisit. The server might have been different, and the people different too, but the world was largely the same, at least in scape and this suited me nicely as it was the landscape that drew me there.
The basic premise of the project at the time was to recreate a typical set of snapshot images that one might take throughout their travels. However, rather than just shooting landscapes, these would, as suggested, be digital in nature. My initial thought was to trawl through the vast folder of screenshots that I had taken during my time playing the game. These held much of the memories for me but were (for the most part at least) ultimately of little use. Much of the on screen detritus associated with a video game, the chat box, the user interface, and the special effects from combat and the like made most of what I had useless. While they held the memories, they were aesthetically in opposition to the creation of an artistic project. Despite this, I was able to use them as a starting point as when I finally logged back into the world I had been so used to, I was able to use the screenshots as a sort of map of memories, and they led me to the now deserted locations of former houses, cities, and events that had meant so much.
Revisiting the world with a rather fresh character had its challenges and through enforced mechanics, I was compelled to trudge across vast lands in order to recapture the images I required. Starting off on my former home planet of Lok, I unpacked my rather slow land speeder and pointed myself in a north-easterly direction, crossing the toxic and barren lands, following the yellow rivers towards the site of my former city of Old Blighty, of which my lost avatar was Mayor. Years spent there along with my old guild and friends meant that this was the most evocative of locations and as I finally reached the spot, I was met with nothing my sand. Digital devastation had wrecked the place. In actuality I wasn’t at my former home, I was in an alternative dimension, and it felt strange beyond belief. Names of my former comrades flashed through my mind, but none could reply to the messages (or /tells) I might send – they existed there only in my memories. It was as though they were dead, and I alone in the entire galaxy still yet lived. Time to get to work.
The first problem to solve, other than trying to find the exact locations from my ever fogging memories of the time was the figure out how to capture the images. I wanted at first to capture the scenes using a real-world camera, to use film to photograph the scenes in as a tactile and physical way as possible, contrasting the digital nature of the source material. My second issue then was that the monitor of my computer was too small to capture the details. I needed to take screenshots in situ and figure out the photographing of them at a later date. Once again, although to a lesser extent, the user interface was in the way. A simple pressing of Shift+Control+H removed most of the issues, but some small graphical oddities remained. This was when the screenshots were brought into Photoshop and slightly spruced up with various curve and level adjustments in order to make the details more visible. Once this was done, the imagers were ready to be captured in their final form.
My initial thoughts were drawn to 35mm film, which I had in abundance, and which most of the cameras in my collection used. I quickly dismissed this however as I felt it a little too pedestrian and opted for 120 film instead. This yielded decent results for my initial experimentations but as I further developed the project, I felt as though it was important to create a unique set of objects from the images, to fully bring the work into the physical world. To this end, I was led to instant film, and the dwindling stock of Fuji FP-100c that remained available online at the time. So, I had the film and I just so happened to have wasted a good chunk of my grant on the rather absurd FujiFilm GX680 III. This was, and still is one of the most versatile film cameras in my collection, and as luck would have it, along with a 120 film back, I also managed to find an instant back compatible with FP-100c.
Having already ruled out my monitor as a suitable display to photograph from, I decided to use my parents television, it being the biggest screen I had access to. After loading the images onto a USB drive, setting up the tripod and camera in front of the telly, and waiting for nightfall, I was ready. Cue up the slideshow function and press pause. Now the tricky bit begins. Photographing a screen can be difficult, and not possessing a suitable light meter at the time, I used my old workhorse 5DMkII to figure out the setting, not wanting to waste my precious and limited stock of FP-100c (which at the time was costing over £2 per sheet, and at the time of writing this has skyrocketed to about £10 per sheet). Carefully I adjusted the camera, set the focus, and stepped back, delicately pressing the shutter release cable. Fast-forward a few minutes, perhaps a little longer as the room was cold, and I peel the film apart, revealing a rather dull image. Better try again…
This process of fine tuning ended up consuming more film than I would have liked, but the end result was worth it. A collection of unique objects, each evocative of a time that had long since been lost. And from what was lost, I now had tangible memories. And I had taken the first few steps on a path that would sustain me creatively through the rest of my time at university and beyond.
[VR]ography was born!
Canon EOS 5D mark II (2023) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_EOS_5D_Mark_II (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Fuji GX680 (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuji_GX680 (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Instant film (2023) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_film (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Star wars galaxies (2023) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars_Galaxies (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
SWG Emu (no date) SWGEmu Forums - SWGEmu Announcements. Available at: https://www.swgemu.com/forums/index.php (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
SWGSource (no date) SWG Source. Available at: https://swg-source.github.io/ (Accessed: February 26, 2023).
Thank you for reading, and embaring on the journey into the virtual with me More to come soon. If you would like to contribute monetarily, you can, if you are feeling particularly generous, support the blog for as little as £1.11 per month over on Patreon. Any money raised there will be put back into the blog, either to buy books for research, to buy games to talk about, or to fund whatever else might improve the content here. And if you enjoyed this, please do consider subscribing yourself, if you haven’t already and sharing or referring a friend - buttons below! Thank you!