Fact Residency: Theo Triantafyllidis
By Henry Bruce-Jones
FACT Magazine 6- 11 Apr 2022

In his exploration of social technologies and the communities they enable us to create, Theo Triantafyllidis rarely seeks to provide any answers. Instead, his work allows him to constantly consider exactly what questions he can ask.

Despite it not existing yet, Theo Triantafyllidis has been working in the metaverse for years. However, far from considering himself a pioneer, the artist is the first to point out that there are many, many others, across a multitude of online communities, that have been exploring the possibilities of three-dimensional, virtual spaces for close to two decades. “I’ve been looking at the example of VR Chat, how this exists in the legacy of Second Life, as well as more generally all these precursors to whatever insane vision of the metaverse Mark Zuckerberg has,” he explains. “These are things that have been developing for such a long time. There are communities that have been so deeply invested in these worlds for decades now and have been discovering all these things from inside.” For Triantafyllidis, these are the true pioneers of the metaverse and it is the novel forms of interaction and connectivity enabled by socially-focused game worlds, which range from the joyful and the horrendous all the way through to the chilling and the deranged, that inform and drive his work. “VR Chat was quite interesting because it gave almost total freedom for people to modify it,” he continues. “The actual game was completely open to people messing with its code. It had a tool for people to create their own character, not just a 3D model, but including all the interactions and things that the character can do, and upload it as an avatar. People started hacking that and piling up scripts and interactions and entire scenes within their character avatars as a way of Trojan horsing larger things into the world.”

“This was unfortunately hijacked by people who wanted to troll everything and they just started making horrible pop-up videos and harassing the community. It became a very toxic, strange space for a long time, which was quite an unexpected turn of events. For me, it’s interesting to see how, when given maximum freedom, the online tendency is to go for maximum trolling.” Clearly this kind of subversion, by which the very notion of representation and communications is hacked apart and retooled into something unpredictable and potentially dangerous, was not demonstrated during Zuckerberg’s Meta keynote, but this kind of mentality will become a fundamental quality to consider as the politics of the metaverse are developed over the coming years. It’s a preoccupation of Triantafyllidis’s, too, who in an upcoming project will seek to address the ways in which VR Chat’s premise was inherently corruptible, as well as ways it might be possible to incentivize kindness, as opposed to trolling. It’s also demonstrative of the interrogative mode of much of the artist’s work, “in my work I very rarely try to give any answers,” he admits. “It’s more about opening up new questions.”

This can be attributed, in part, to how important teaching has become to his art practice, something that’s clear from the layout of his website, which offers a wellspring of syllabi, lecture notes and resources to anyone that wants them. “It gives me an incentive to keep digging around and starting new lines of personal research,” he says. “A lot of these classes are things that I personally pitched and constructed the syllabus from scratch, mostly in UCLA. I was very lucky that UCLA was open to me coming up with new classes and that they have the infrastructure for these special seminars that are different every quarter.” Faced with the “never-ending orgy” of the increasingly online can be an overwhelming experience at the best of times, so for Triantafyllidis, the necessity to parse through the disparate cloud of references he draws from has helped him figure out what questions he wants to ask. “Having to do all the primary research and present that to a student group, opening this up to all the wealth of information and feedback that the students have and seeing where they take these ideas, is a very interesting conversation,” he says. “I am not trying to give any sense of authority or direct knowledge, but just trying to push them in directions that they might find interesting. It’s also helped me structure what I’m trying to say with my work by having to communicate these things more clearly.”