Metallic Aftertaste (VCT)

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Düsseldorf exhibition space presenting the Julia Stoschek Collection, the exhibition Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age opened in June 2022. This reflects twofold: first, that more than a third of the world's population is devoted to video games, making video games "what films were to the twentieth century and novels were to the nineteenth century," as Hans Ulrich Olbrist, the curator of the aforementioned exhibition, put it; and second, that the intersection of artistic practice and the gaming environment needs more attention. The German exhibition thus asks how these two fields influence each other, and whether - or how - they build new worlds together. It is precisely the act of constructing fictional worlds (so-called "worldbuilding" or world-making) known from video games that inspires many artists to create their own new worlds, not just to inherit and live in existing ones. The understanding of video games as mere forms of passive escape is changing, and they are increasingly seen as a type of active activity that uses the peculiar aesthetics, internal logic and transformative technology of the games industry to communicate new forms of experience and engagement. An example of an artist whose work is strongly influenced by the gaming environment and "worldbuilding" is Jakub Choma, a Slovak artist based in Prague. Using staged fiction, Choma comments on the contemporary; in his work, purely digital expression becomes a means of thinking about how physical assemblage can expand in his installations, almost as if hyperlinks refer to more and more singularities.

Although Choma initially studied painting, he soon moved from 2D works to the aforementioned assemblages. These assemblages serve as building blocks for his multimedia installations, seamlessly integrating elements like video, sound, and live performances. Painting, however, continues to play an important role in his works, also in relation to his studies of applied graphic design. Drawing from this background, he not only utilizes the customary tools of that sphere, including laser engravers, CNC milling machines, and UV printers - integral to his distinctive visual approach - but also employs them in the context of thinking about the concept of the hanging image. The digital realm's absence of tangible substance is effectively substituted in the physical world through a compulsive search for it, an attempt to grasp the material nature of the immaterial digital domain (in the artist's words, we can speak of a new sensibility in relation to materiality after the digital experience). Thus, the digital or even hanging image overflows into objects sophisticatedly combining various material, technical, but also semantic origins and ways of working. This creative process draws parallels with principles observed in gaming culture, do-it-yourself practices, and sampling. A threefold layer of materiality (or signs) can be found in Jakub Choma's work:  first, the use of entirely corporeal resources including industrial fabrics, Plexiglas, plastic and metal sheets, scrap, rubble, pigments, chains, springs and nuts; second, the application of digital printing to these physical surfaces; and thirdly, the insertion (most often by lasering) of words or fragments of sentences, through which the narrative of a given work is directed. (1)

Choma's concept of world-building involves the utilization of cork granules, which the artist modifies in diverse manners. In its structure, cork resembles the pores of human skin, a layer that protects and separates the inner and outer worlds, but at the same time, its elemental nature is also reminiscent of a digital pixel, individual data that make up a whole in a digital environment. In today's post-digital thinking, however, the cork can also be seen as a carrier of ideas, among which we include land, landscape, earthiness, soil or home. Although it is often a prefabricated solid material, it is its individual grains, visible to the eye, that remind us of its fragility, which can also, or even more so, be perceived as a possibility of adaptability and resilience. In this context, Choma introduces an additional hypothetical function for these sheets crafted from discarded materials, reintegrating them into circulation. The processed cork is used to create the basic authorial unit, the game token, and it is no coincidence that it resembles both the inventory items of the aforementioned WoW game (resources gathered during gameplay) and fist wedges simultaneously. (2)

These tools, extending from the human hand or palm, stand in contrast to the palm clutching a smartphone, another integral aspect of the artist's practice (be it for documenting his work, post-production, or producing videos). A recurrent motif within Choma's self-portraits is his own palm grasping varied objects, scrutinizing their attributes and limits with nearly scientific fixation. The sensitivity to the "game" body (both real and virtual), emerges in Choma's installations through a calculated provocation of control over the observer's attention. His continual shift from the comprehensive view to intricate details, mirroring the eye's agility, parallels the consumption of digital content. Despite Choma's work being photogenic, the firsthand experience of his installations - a direct engagement unmediated by photography - offers different layers of perception. Initially, one recognizes the outlined strategy, followed by the tension Choma fosters amid the employed materials. (3)

Choma's display at the Vienna Contemporary stems from his expansive project, Metallic Aftertaste, which also constitutes his thesis. The current installation mimics an urban construction site, yet it also resembles a junkyard or landfill. Within this setting lie remnants of human and mechanical labor, jute bags (printed by the artist), excavations, dirt, but also a contextually diverse network of references and references in the form of cables, which are frequently concealed beneath the concrete's surface - parallel unseen body organs or a computer's hardware. Upon closer inspection, this seemingly disorderly aesthetic unveils a meticulously structured system. This system, in turn, is characterized by methodical procedures and ingenious manipulation of materials. A dump or junkyard, after all, serves as a reservoir of materials that engender fresh possibilities. Here, the appearance of decay questions techno-optimism - a metallic aftertaste, reminiscent of health issues, symbolizes dysfunctional systems masked by their outward functionality. (4)

The booth exhibit consists of five primary components, showcased against the backdrop of the aforementioned set design. These include two short videos played on smartphones, the Reagent Bank hanging assemblage - as the core of the project with two semi-figurative systems on the sides - and the Teeth assemblage. A tank filled with bubbling water, Yesterday's Fewer, then emerges into the space in front of the hanging core. The short videos are a polemic over the ownership and economy of game bodies. One of these videos unveils the artist's endeavor to integrate performance, a facet that has progressively gained significance in his recent works. Notably, in the 2020 Gears of Life exhibition for the Czech Jindřich Chalupecký Award (a prize awarded annually to young visual artists under the age of 35, of which Choma was a laureate), Choma employed digital prints of his body parts on cork boards, activating them through live performance, effectively transforming these artifacts into props. The Reagent Bank (the name is again borrowed from WoW, whose graphic grid is used to visually display the accumulated raw materials, items) assemblage assumes the form of an altar, featuring a central repository of raw materials. Here, the game body becomes a mere shell devoid of developmental potential, prompting the artist to touch upon prevailing phenomena like hyperproductivity and exhaustion inherent in contemporary neoliberal society. The Teeth assemblage ultimately connects the entire installation from within: within the oral cavity, the photographic thread transitions to 3D aluminum wires and network cables. This intricate network extends from the two-dimensional surface into the spatial realm. The installation culminates in the excavation site – a tank housing fragments of fossils atop the water's surface, with cork imprinted with personal and shared online content.

In addition to these five main sections, other smaller works on the walls appear in the installation: a series of engraved self-portraits, whose "playground" in the form of the scalp is played out by alopecia, which is gradually overgrown by a scab in the form of inorganic elements; a token as one of the research fragments in a tank adjusted behind museum glass; hanging objects (akin to machine parts) multiplying one particular movement in its various stages on the wings of the stand; and finally, nearby smaller works resembling frozen gyroscopes about the size of a human palm - devices used in navigation. This fictional terrain is complemented by subtle details such as the grille of the air conditioning system or the naval windows, as well as a single Fighting Fatigue made of burnt („exhausted“) cork lying on the floor, which can be seen as a relic of an event that has not yet taken place, a reminder of possible future today. A paper bracelet from a fun visit printed with the words "temporary bliss state" closes the scene. As Jakub sums it up: "The visual alternates with the haptic, the sonic, the digital meets the material, reality meets its representation, fiction meets reality, and autobiography meets alter ego, all of which become parallel considerations".

When writer Gabrielle Zevin borrows the title of her book Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow from Shakespeare's Macbeth, she answers not only the question of what a video game is today, but also what the shape of contemporary life is: "It's the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever." This answer perhaps also brings to mind the hybrid conception of tomorrows in Jakub Choma's work.

Eva Slabá, 2023

(1, 2, 3, 4) The text draws information from Jakub Choma's profile for Artlist — Center for Contemporary Arts Prague.