Like all other worlds that have preceded it, the virtual is real. This is an important place to start. What is rendered out of digital material exists, constituted by a material built out of electrical impulses. Software environments lassoed by clever code-striders make tangible the immaterial possibilities lurking inside of ourselves. It is not enough to say IRL or URL. Our worlds are filtered by layers of software, and life happens everywhere —online, and off, in the virtual and the actual. If you made it, even if you can not touch it, it exists. And it matters.
Virtual Cocoons is an exhibition about incubation and extrapolation. Data points read by programmatic entities render immaterial fantasy as legible. Each of the artists in the exhibition use simulation to build worlds, shelter identities, and harbor growth. Of all of the capabilities made possible by the virtualizing tendencies of digital material, simulation is perhaps the most profound. Through simulation, we might make real impossible futures—alternative pathways, utopian probabilities. Better ways of being and better ways of being together. Perhaps this is a kiss as imagined by Paola Pinna; a new kind of hybrid being, like Webtaura; or even designer toilet paper in times of global shortage, as imagined by Combrisi. Perhaps these things are not possible now; but, one day, they might be. Even if they are not, through their virtual cocoon incubation, they exist: waiting ready to expand across material boundaries and into the world.
In the 90s, the popular personal homepage site GeoCities was modeled after actual city neighborhoods. The founders conceived of these spaces as places where their users could live and truly inhabit. While personal webpages and social media platforms have persisted and proliferated since that time, this concept of internet-as-lifeworld has fallen away as the digital has become (often invisibly) enmeshed in the fabric of the everyday.
But we still inhabit the virtual; more so than ever before. People like to think that you post a “version of yourself” to Instagram, not the “real” you. This is an illusion. Anything that comes from you is part of you—is real—no matter how closely it resembles the you that you present in physical spaces. The virtual offers near infinite opportunity for expansion and exploration—genesis and synthesis of what is and could be. You can be the you that you always were, or wanted to be, in the world that is no longer a dream but a virtual reality. How could you possibly say with certainty which “version” of you is more real?
While we have always inhabited digital spaces, the shelter-in-place conditions of the global pandemic have made it obvious that this is truly where we live—that virtual worlds are just as meaningful and just as vital for the functioning of our society as actual ones. Worldwide campaigns for racial justice using all forms of online communication and social media further demonstrate the efficacy and vitality of the virtual—circulation paradigms and information pathways have a real, tangible impact. We cannot ignore this potential.
In times of catastrophe, retreat to your virtual cocoon. Wrap yourself in a virtual lifeworld. Blanket yourself in layers of chimeric realities, to hibernate through winter and emerge transformed in spring. While we might use the virtual for action, for creation, we might also use it for new futures: new future selves, and new future worlds. Digital culture moves fast, but software can be paused, switched off, and re-booted. Freeze the frame and re-render. While there is urgency in the actual, in the virtual we can incubate in real time. There is metamorphosis through simulation. What world exists inside the digital chrysalis? And what will you be on the other side?