VRAL #28 : Radicalization Pipeline by Theo Triantafyllidis at Milan Machinima Festival, Introduced by Matteo Bittanti

VRAL #28 : Radicalization Pipeline
Milan Machinima Festival
Introduced by Matteo Bittanti
July 23 - August 5 2021

You may disagree about the root causes, but the diagnosis is clear: reality has imploded. The symptoms are everywhere. Video game fantasies, themes, characters, and narratives – which used to be confined to the imaginary – now shape our everyday life. In a world where meme presidents plan insurrections, global corporations are actively destroying the planet, social media are a toxic cesspool, a new kind of superstition – conspiracy theories, lore, false narratives – has become the dominant epistemological currency. In this uncertain, hyper violent, and chaotic scenario – complicated by metacrises, climate catastrophe, and ongoing pandemics – artists have been among the few to clearly identify the culprits and to imagine possible alternatives. In his latest work, Radicalization Pipeline, Greek artist Theo Triantafyllidis simulates the perpetual clash of two endless hordes fighting to death with large melee weapons. A wide range of characters – from citizen militias to fantastical creatures, from street protesters to hooligans – kill each other tirelessly. There’s no resolution. There’s no closure. Just mutual destruction. This is the Game over age. We now live in the world that video games made.

Matteo Bittanti: Like Miltos Manetas — another artist fascinated with gaming culture and its aesthetics — you were born in Greece and subsequently lived in several countries, including China and now, the United States. How did your upbringing – being exposed to such diverse social and cultural landscapes – influence your evolution as an artist? Also, you originally studied Architecture and then you joined the Design Media Arts MFA at UCLA. How pivotal was that decision? And what was working with Eddo Stern at the UCLA Gamelab like? I remember being floored by your 2015 project that simulates life as a banana, Bananoculus...

Theo Triantafyllidis: Studying architecture in Greece gave me some valuable foundations in critical theory and art history. Political discourse was interwoven into the social life of the school and intensified as the financial crisis hit in 2009. When I moved to Los Angeles I needed some distance from that. So for my two years at UCLA I pretended I never read books and knew nothing about politics. 

I was very lucky to work with Eddo and be introduced to using game engines as an artistic medium. Something really clicked for me when I realized you could have entire worlds come to life and interactions that affect them in real-time. The Gamelab was a very nurturing community with a culture of skill and knowledge sharing between peers and a very lively discourse around games. But perhaps the most valuable takeaway I got from the Gamelab and UCLA was a certain ethic towards working with technology as an artist, that I still aspire to. That of being deeply involved with technology, understanding it by taking it apart and reassembling all the parts in order to expose its inner workings, its human biases and social implications.

Matteo Bittanti: In your work, the digital and the organic are interwoven. After all, your home on the internet is called “slimetech.org”, which is playfully oxymoronic. Slime is a moist, soft, and slippery substance, typically regarded as repulsive, while tech, short for technology, is generally perceived as instrumental, inorganic, and hard. When did you realize that tech is slimy and slippery?

Theo Triantafyllidis: Haha, I can’t help but picture it that way. There is something in that contrast that I really enjoy. Tech aesthetics are getting sleeker and refined but humans are still these primitive beings that try to interact with it. I just started working on a new series of “ceramic devices” and experimenting with 3D printing clay and that is very much the vibe. A machine maniacally trying to follow a predetermined path while oozing sticky clay, moving, dripping, drying, being pretty much alive. And the results are often these gorgeous failures. 

Matteo Bittanti: This dualism - the intangible and the material - informs your latest exhibition at Eduardo Secci in Milan, which juxtaposes ceramic works and software with remarkable effects. On the one hand, the viewer’s attention is captured by self-generating scenes of relentless violence and destruction on the screen, on the other, the stunningly beautiful arsenal hanging on the walls evokes a completely different tradition. To me it was like visiting the Sforza Castle, which has an extensive collection of weaponry. Your artifacts allude to a historical tradition, but they are also entirely fictional. It seems to me that the common denominator of your work is the creation of alternative chronologies, counter-narratives that are both familiar and uncanny, through a variety of media, both hard and soft. Where does your interest for uchronia come from? 

Theo Triantafyllidis: The forms of these ceramic weapons are inspired by game design principles. I have always been fascinated by objects in video games and the sort of rules that they need to obey, that are very different from real world constraints. They are often designed with screen visibility and readability in mind but also made to be desirable by players, for example in the whole DLC Weapon Skins craze. Once these objects are made physically, all the paradoxical decisions in their design are exposed. There is an entire genre of youtube videos where medieval weapon experts make practical tests and critique game swords or try to fight with them. This fluid boundary between fiction and reality is exciting. I would love to see these fragile ceramic weapons next to their historical counterparts in an armory one day. 

Matteo Bittanti: Hyper-polarization in the United States of America has reached unprecedented levels, culminating with the storm of the Capitol Building on January 6 2021. However, many fear that the failed attempt at kidnapping and executing lawmakers may be just the beginning of a broader and wider phase of civil disorder and domestic terrorism. Your latest work, Radicalization Pipeline makes explicit the connection between gaming culture, the imaginary, social media, and violence. Along with fellow artists like Ed Fornieles and Simon Denny, you specifically address the weaponization of play. In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle describes the so-called Alt-Right, one of the key catalysts of this permanent insurrection, as “a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers, and meme-making trolls.” If anybody would have told you that, back in 2014, Gamergame could eventually trigger an armed insurrection in the United States of America, what would you have said? Can you describe the origins of Radicalization Pipeline

Theo Triantafyllidis: This is exactly the framework of ideas that I have been trying to process through making this work. My experience in the States has coincided with Trump’s election campaign and four year presidency. Arriving in the US in late 2014, I was very confused by the political climate. Internet and gaming communities were already showing signs of this growing tension that later snowballed. The 2016 elections came as a huge shock, as for many people, and I became more aware of how the Trump campaign was based on further polarizing a deep political chasm. And in an unprecedented move, how that campaign co-opted the irony, humor and nihilism of internet culture and weaponized memes to flip the script. The role of algorithms in this course of events has been thoroughly researched since. This is where this idea of the “Radicalization Pipeline” comes from. I was introduced to it through the artistic research of Joshua Citarella. It is essentially the algorithmic bias towards extreme content that threw a large number of people down a rabbit hole of political radicalization on YouTube and various social media platforms. 

The storming of the Capitol was the season finale of all this, and watching it from a distance was such a bizarre dissociative experience. There were clear signs that something like this was going to happen, but that was way beyond the wildest imagination. After the events unfolded, I spent a lot of time watching the videos that participants had posted on their social media, collected in Faces of The Riot. Of course there were the highlights that were broadcasted in the news, the carnivalesque outfits, viral content and iconic moments. But I was more interested in the people that just decided to be there. I wanted to understand where this otherworldly trance, that these people seemed to be in, was coming from. It seemed to me like a newly discovered mental state that I didn't know humans were capable of. This turned out to be overwhelming and this new work was my only way to process it. 

Matteo Bittanti: Although extremism is not a side effect of the internet, the general consensus is that social media have accelerated and exacerbated the phenomenon. Tribalism and hooliganism have replaced previous forms of political activism. Big Tech edgelords de facto control all forms of communications that matter - they decide who speaks and who is silenced - and mainstream media have generally lost their gatekeeping privileges although still exert significant influence in normieland. Are conspiracy theories a new kind of folklore - or, to use a video game term - the true lore of the 21c? If so, how can an artist compete with such a rich narrative, one that encompasses text, images,  symbols, game mechanics, and more? Readiness - The LARP (2020) is a complex multimedia project comprising a performance element, maps, a strategy guide and more. In a world in which memes become presidents and gamification has become the OS of society, are artists necessarily turning into game designers to stay relevant?

Theo Triantafyllidis: Indeed, as an artist it is very hard to compete with the depths of the lore of QAnon for example, which has been described as an Alternate Reality Game. Conspiracy theories seem to function as an escapist way to cope with the complexity and contradictions of the world around us and are similar to games in that sense. The premise of the Qdrops needing to be interpreted was particularly effective in getting people to do “their own research”. That was totally gamified as a process and very open to new believers. They collectively weaved a deep and complex web that by the end of it was encompassing nearly every niche pre-existing conspiracy theory, plus a ton of new ideas like the mole children. A lot to learn from that, in terms of game design. And yes, game theory seems more relevant than ever and an important tool for artists. 

The problem is that it can often feel overwhelming for an artist or small team to create such expansive lore, worlds, characters, rules etc. But that's where it's been really fun to work with a bigger team and open up the process of creating the work. In Readiness - The LARP, together with my collaborator Kostis Stafylakis, we thought about the format of the Live Action Role Playing game as a simulation tool. Like a social experiment that allows a group of players to temporarily align with different ideologies and play out different scenarios of political conflict. After the events on Jan 6 we started describing it as a pre-enactment. I think LARPing has a lot of potential as a medium for playtesting possible futures but also re-defining our relationship to the past, like in Dread Scott’s recent re-enactment of the 1811 Louisiana Slave Uprising.

Matteo Bittanti: Sometimes I feel that the most deranged and violent video games cannot approximate the sheer madness of the so-called reality. Such a theme is central in your oeuvre, which is, in many ways, an elaborate premediation of social collapse. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan predicted that the US would eventually break apart. McLuhan also famously suggested that artists are the first to sense imminent seismic societal changes, while the so-called experts are de facto blind. What role does the artist play in a society whose citizens do not share the same reality, as Whitney Phillips suggested when discussing the impact of QAnon on the political discourse? Is the artist a tragic figure like Cassandra?

Theo Triantafyllidis: I do agree with McLuhan's suggestion on the artist’s potentially tragic role in society. With conflicting realities and the political divide this role becomes even tougher. I always think about it as a non verbal response to things around us, like communicating something that is too early or too elusive to put into words. In this case it's interesting to take a step back and try to look at the big picture, to reveal patterns and tendencies of human behaviour and how these are affected by systems that we created but are at this point larger than us.

On the other hand, with this work, I was simultaneously role playing the historical painter that was commissioned to paint a vivid portrait of the events that took place. But trying to portray the emotional impact of the moment rather than the specifics of it. In the beginning of the pandemic I started researching the Black Death and Bruegel's paintings. So I guess Radicalization Pipeline can also be read as a 21st century Hellscape painting. Like a snapshot of the nightmarish mental state that we talked about earlier. 

Matteo Bittanti: So, we have established that the video game imaginary has fully penetrated into the so-called lived reality and the consequences are dire. Radicalization Pipeline is a live simulation running on a PC showing hordes of violent characters — both realistic and fantastic — fighting each other with swinging large melee weapons. This work seems to suggest that lived reality has turned into a video game. As I watched your installation at Eduardo Secci, I felt like it is becoming increasingly hard to discern the two. Angela Nagle, via Antonio Gramsci, famously argued that the political descends from the cultural, meaning that our movies, games, memes, and comics shape our understanding of the world much more than we realize. Why did you choose the medium of live simulation to address this process? How does a viewer “consume” an artwork that, by definition, is not only endless, but constantly regenerates itself?

Theo Triantafyllidis: I do think a lot about this merging of our online lives, the cultural and political sphere and our sense of reality. That was perhaps the reason that Capitolians are thrown into that battlefield to fight with LARPers and High Fantasy characters; these boundaries are hard to discern nowadays. The medium of the Live Simulation I think brings a certain weight to this battle. The infinite duration makes the viewing experience of these dumb NPCs suddenly become heavier and more “real” as you see their struggle and realize how trapped they are in that world. They fight until they die, sink into the ground, as is typical in video games, and then respawn and repeat again and again. For the audience there isn't this looping moment when they can take a breath and say: oh it's just starting again. 

I was also thinking a lot about this as a large choreography. I am using the logic of a crowd simulation but tweaking the parameters to a point where the crowd can stay dynamic and surprise you constantly. There are a lot of weird realizations about how the human mind works when trying to script these behaviors. As for the audience interpretation, I want it to be as open as possible. There are recognizable characters and references we mentioned but I hope that from a certain distance it becomes more universal. 

Matteo Bittanti: Live simulation recurs in a previous work of yours, How to Everything. In that case, you created an algorithm that visualizes objects and actions, over and over again. That work reminded me of the opaque logic of doom scrolling and algorithm-based recommendation, where connections are inscrutable, if not inintelligible, and meaning is largely absent. In the best case scenario, one can only recognize patterns. Is live simulation the most effective metaphor of the contemporary moment? The algorithm as a black box, the deferral of cause and effect, the general sense of randomness, unpredictability, and endlessness but also utter boredom... Also — and here I’m thinking like a curator —, how do you archive and preserve a live simulation for posterity?

Theo Triantafyllidis: Yes, the algorithm as a black box was at the heart of that work. I was again thinking of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and a specific style of video editing (saturated shots, fast cuts, dialectical montage) that seemed to have won the algorithm. With How To Everything, I wanted to make a work that would do that in perpetuity. And see if that would also game the viewers’ attention or feed our urge for dopamine microdosing. I ended up hand picking objects and behaviours and drawing connections between them that would require the viewer to constantly try to assert meaning where there is none.

The preservation of these works, like with all software, is tricky. Between the source code, the build/executable and long screen recordings, there are some preservation possibilities. But I am also curious about future iterations of the work. I am often thinking of these simulations in theatrical terms or as performance scores that could potentially be reinterpreted in other mediums or formats in the future. 

Matteo Bittanti: The extreme violence depicted in Radicalization Pipeline is accompanied by ironic covers of familiar pop songs. This contrast creates a powerful cognitive dissonance, but also reminds the viewer that we are indeed living in the new dark ages, or in a “new dark age”, as James Bridle suggests: the bastard child of neoliberalism is neofeudalism. Can you describe your collaboration with composer and sound designer Diego Navarro in creating the soundtrack of the 21c? 

Theo Triantafyllidis: Bridle’s New Dark Age has been a great read and an important reference. But this year has felt extra medieval. This pandemic has mentally connected us to people that went through similar situations in human history. The Bubonic Plague seems to somehow be deeply scarred into the collective memory and these memories resurfaced. Diego introduced me to the Medieval Covers genre that peaked in popularity during the pandemic for this reason. We had a lot of discussions about setting the tone of the work’s soundscape and Diego did an amazing job with it. There’s a very eclectic mix of musical references in there, from LOTR to Taylor Swift and some original tracks that Diego composed. Then there is the ambient layer where we went for a mix of LARP field recordings and some phrases and primal screams from the Capitol videos. They have that deranged, funny and scary energy that is impossible to reproduce. Then Diego picked some audio for a Pokimane’s stream and Pewdiepie’s infamous cancel moment that can be heard sometimes. These are placed spatially and triggered from the simulation so that the soundscape is constantly in flux. 

Matteo Bittanti: The online cultural wars introduced a brand new language peppered with now commonplace expressions like cuck, snowflake, social justice warrior, fake news, alternative facts, and many more. But in Radicalization Pipeline, any semblance of “conversation” has been completely replaced by fighting. The characters’ distorted voices make their messages unintelligible. This situation seems to be an effect of our own choices. We deliberately designed media that suppress any kind of meaningful conversation - think about the function of the #hashtag or the vacuity of emojis. As Jia Tolentino argues in Trick Mirror, online communication sucks because it was specifically designed to suck. She writes:

What’s amazing is that things like hashtag design—these essentially ad hoc experiments in digital architecture—have shaped so much of our political discourse. Our world would be different if Anonymous hadn’t been the default username on 4chan, or if every social media platform didn’t center on the personal profile, or if YouTube algorithms didn’t show viewers increasingly extreme content to retain their attention, or if hashtags and retweets simply didn’t exist. It’s because of the hashtag, the retweet, and the profile that solidarity on the internet gets inextricably tangled up with visibility, identity, and self-promotion. It’s telling that the most mainstream gestures of solidarity are pure representation, like viral reposts or avatar photos with cause-related filters, and meanwhile the actual mechanisms through which political solidarity is enacted, like strikes and boycotts, still exist on the fringe.

In short, according to Tolentino, the very architecture of social media, with its rewarding system and monetization schemes, de facto excludes worthwhile interactions. In many ways, your artist practice is a comment on this intrinsic paradox. In your previous life, you were an architect. What is your take on the architecture of the web in 2021?

Theo Triantafyllidis: The Web 2.0 era is coming to an end. Certain platforms have monopolized huge territories of the internet but now feel stiff. With policies being formed against extremist content there is also a witch hunt against other types of edgy content that is making these platforms feel sterile and empty. I think there is a potential for new online communities that can combine the freedom of the early internet wilderness with the conveniences of social media and a touch of intimacy. This discussion is actively happening on New Models. Patreon and Discord are used to host paywalled artist-run online spaces, which seem to be a required intermediate step towards Web 3.0 .  

Matteo Bittanti: Finally, what is your relationship to digital gaming? Peter Krapp famously argued that gamers play games, while artists play with (or against) games. Do you consider yourself an artist who loves video games, a gamer who makes art, or an artist, period?

Theo Triantafyllidis: That was one of the in-jokes of the UCLA GameLab: “The community space for people who hate games”. I think that’s probably my category ;)