Artist Markus Selg: ‘We’re further in the metaverse than most of us think’

In Markus Selg’s production of Einstein on the Beach, the four-hour-long opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, we find neither Einstein nor a beach (nor anything resembling a plot). What the audience at the Theater Basel in mid-June did get, however, were singers in a prehistoric yet sci-fi landscape chanting the numbers one to eight; video screens where trees mutated into other trees, houses melted into other houses; ticket-holders crowding around an ancient temple on the revolving stage. So far, so Selg.

Normally it’s bad form for the audience to tramp about the stage, but such engagement is all part of the German artist’s plan for the production, which he co-conceived with his (work and life) partner, director Susanne Kennedy. The concept, he says the following morning, is for the audience to “really immerse yourself in this thing”, doing physically what Glass does audibly, swallowing you with near-endless, yet always subtly varying, stretches of minimalist music. “There are performances when the whole revolving stage is crowded with people, all packed, all there and totally dedicated,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

These performances were during the busy week of the Art Basel fair and the audience for Einstein, conducted with fiendish brilliance by André de Ridder, was somewhat less dedicated — there were about 400 at the start and probably only 90 by the end. “There was in the beginning this fomo vibe,” he says laughingly, “people came in and they knew they’d have to go to the next dinner or something, which is OK too.” But for the performers, who have to concentrate on counting their repetitions almost as much as on their singing, “it’s quite tough, if people come in, do a round with the phone and go out”.

Close-up of a man's head in front of a yellow cellular carpet with a white leg bone above his head
Selg’s selfie © Markus Selg

Immersion in real and virtual worlds — and questions about whether there’s actually a difference between the two — are at the heart of Selg’s work and have been since he started making digital art in the 1990s, a Photoshop pioneer who drew pictures pixel by pixel. Born in an industrial city in southern Germany in 1974, Selg lights up as he talks about “the sacred corner” where he made his work on his computer, often using digital images in collage, and about the first time he went online, the beauty of having access to a world of images. It created “the feeling that the world doesn’t end here any more in this corner”, but it also engendered a fear, the double edge of all technology.

Since then, a strong strand of Selg’s work has been those vivid digital collages, manipulated with painterly effects, and he has developed installations — “operas or stagings”, he calls them — where the viewer can enter a physical manifestation of the artist’s mind. For the Art Basel booth of his gallery by him, Guido W Baudach, he designed a carpet where molten gold swirls over bleached bones; objects shaped like rocks, covered in digitally printed rocklike fabric, sat beside the artworks for sale.

An open square in a convention center with white walls and a bright yellow digitally designed carpet
The Art Basel 2022 booth of Selg’s gallery, Guido W Baudach, is a sort of physical manifestation of the artist’s mind © Markus Selg

As real as that physical world is, though, to Selg what’s equally real — or possibly more real — is virtual reality. He and Kennedy, in collaboration with virtual designer Rodrik Biersteker, have created a theatrical experience called I AM (VR), where participants don a headset and emerge into a world visualized by Selg, all antique tombs, hovering drones and purple swirling skies. (When Einstein travels to Berlin, audience members will be able to use I AM (VR) on another stage.) Selg argues that by distancing ourselves from our bodies, society, circumstances, VR allows us to reflect all the more clearly on them, on reality itself — the same as meditation, he says. And indeed the same as the trance Glass’s music puts some into.

He sees genuine artistic and philosophical possibilities in what has often been a gimmick. “With new technologies like VR, I think it’s like cave painting of our time. . . Cave paintings were the first time that the imagination people had in their heads, they could materialize it outside, in a room, on walls, to share it with others. That was such a big leap, like language occurring, and I think there is something like this now too, with the internet and also with virtual reality. We are just doing our first strokes on this big wall we’re creating, which many people call the metaverse or whatever.”

A digital rendering of a courtyard next to a glass building under a pink-purple sky
Selg and Susanne Kennedy’s theatrical experience of ‘I AM (VR)’, in collaboration with Rodrik Biersteker © Markus Selg and Rodrik Biersteker, courtesy the artists

His conjunction of cave painting and VR neatly captures an important part of his practice: his blend of prehistory and sci-fi in printed as well as stage work is not purely an aesthetic choice. Rather, it strips away everything we might identify, defamiliarizing the world in the same way as his use of VR itself. He wants us to lose ourselves to understand ourselves.

But perhaps we’re already lost. “I think we’re further in the metaverse or virtual reality than most of us think. We’re so connected with our phones it’s like a part of us, we can look everything up. I think I live in a virtual reality all the time.”

Today’s most-discussed technology, from teenagers’ bedrooms to Basel’s art fairs, is the non-fungible token (NFT), a virtual certificate of ownership for a digital work, so it’s not surprising Selg is considering working with it, probably making “micro -dramas” involving virtual rooms. But the idea of ​​data as art is nothing new to him. “Twenty years ago when a collector bought a piece, like a print, I always said, ‘The data, this is the real piece.’ In the beginning I gave them a CD for the piece — nobody was interested!” If the core of his work is the data, then technology is finally catching up with Selg, not vice versa.

Digital illustration of large red butterflies with human eyes on their wings

‘Transformation I’ (2017) by Markus Selg © Galerie Guido W Baudach

He wants to take time to reflect on Einsteinbut he and Kennedy have already had another offer to produce an opera: Wagner’s Parsifal in Antwerp in 2025. It’s probably the other piece best suited to their interests, since it explicitly deals with space, time and the nature of reality, albeit while telling the story of the Holy Grail. But for today, Selg is happy in his version of the real. Thanks to technology, “what I can do now was always my dream. I live in this dreamworld now.”

‘Einstein on the Beach’ runs June 30-July 3 at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin, berlinerfestspiele.de

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