The artist known as KAWS has become known for his collaborations; the latest one crosses lines between the physical world of the exhibition space and the virtual world. In his first major solo museum exhibition in London, KAWS will reach a larger audience than ever before: NEW FICTION, KAWS, is opening Tuesday simultaneously at the Serpentine Gallery and on the hugely popular video game Fortnite.
The curator of the exhibition, Daniel Birnbaum, described the exhibit as conventional: “It looks just like a modernist show with paintings and sculptures, basically.” But in addition to IRL works by KAWS, with a special focus on his more recent abstract paintings, are several digital elements. Birnbaum, who is the CEO of the augmented reality production company Acute Art, has also worked with KAWS to create several AR works which will also be featured in the Fortnite digital twin. This isn’t the first time KAWS and Birnbaum have worked together; last fall they collaborated on “The Looking Glass,” a show at New York art and performance venue the Shed. That previous collaboration catalyzed the new show.
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“Before working with Acute Art I was kind of skeptical about virtual reality, augmented reality. I never wanted to make anything that seemed gimmicky or do it for the sake of technology,” said Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS. “But when I saw the opportunities that it afforded me, that I couldn’t do with traditional work, I got extremely interested. After doing AR I really wanted to work in a completely digital space that people are familiar with. Fortnite was the obvious next step.”
Fortnite had been looking to do a project with an artist, according to Kevin Durkin, the Partnerships Director of Epic Games, the company that created Fortnite. “We want to make Fortnite more than a game,” Durkin said. “Fortnite should be a destination for players to come together and express themselves and experience things together.” Collaborations with designers, athletes, and notably, musicians like Travis Scott, who staged a concert in Fortnite, are a part of this mission. Now it was time to create an activation around an artist, and who better than KAWS? “We know our users know him,” said Durkin.
Over the past six months KAWS, Birnbaum, and the team at Epic have been hard at work organizing both a physical exhibition as well as a high quality virtual one. “They’re like a mirror of each other,” said KAWS. The exhibit at the Serpentine has been recreated on a 1:1 scale on Fortnite’s creative mode, a kind of community space outside of the game where the 400 million registered Fortnite users get together and test out new features of the game. While most exhibits are planned in advance and then adjusted during the installation period, KAWS and Birnbaum had to commit to their plan without ever seeing the work in the physical space. But they believe the constraints will be well worth it.
“When I curated the Venice Biennale we had about a half a million people there,” said Birnbaum. “We’re supposed to get 20 times that in just the first day.” KAWS is similarly attracted by the scale that exhibiting in Fortnite offers him. “The idea of building the museum in that game and having literally millions of kids happen upon it is wild. It’s a very exciting way to reach a community we don’t often reach,” he said.
The exhibition comes at a time when, given the NFT boom of 2021 and the expansion of people’s digital lives due to COVID, the concept of the Metaverse is on everybody’s mind. In Birnbaum’s eyes, KAWS is poised to seize this moment. “His work reminds me of the Pop Artists, because they were interested in commodity culture and mass media,” Birnbaum said. “But the mass media today of today is no longer television or print but digital formats. And, of course, Brian is incredibly present in those worlds.”
Tracing the arc of KAWS’ career, Birnbaum noted that artist went from challenging commodity culture in his early work to collaborating with brands that, a decade ago, he might have wanted to disrupt. In the end the industry KAWS has disrupted the most may be the art world. “I think this exhibition is a kind of case study for what it means to stage a show in a virtual world in the midst of these changes towards the virtual,” said Birnbaum. “This art world, which I grew up with and am a part of, will probably not disappear, but things will change.”
For his part, KAWS isn’t so sure. Speaking by phone from London, he said, “I went to the British Museum this morning. You’ve got to think of [these digital capabilities] as an addition to the space rather than something competitive.”