Keiken

Towards new collective belief through CGI cinema

October 2, 2020 / Interview by Jamin Warren | Photography courtesy of Keiken Collective

‘What body would you like today?’ This is the question—and seeming freedom—that confronts the characters in Feel My Metaverse. This new CGI cinema work was conceptualized, written, and built by cross-disciplinary art collective, Keiken. Based between Berlin, London, and Falmouth, Keiken was founded in 2015 by Hana Omori, Isabel Ramos, and Tanya Cruz. Working across filmmaking, VR, AR, and installation, Keiken utilizes magical realist narratives and aesthetics to imagine speculative futures that address today’s most pressing political and philosophical issues. 

Commissioned for Jerwood Arts and built in the game design system Unreal Engine, Feel My Metaverse touches on everything from ancestral mother-child relationships to Kylie Jenner’s beauty empire, from critiquing the overwhelming hold of capitalism on society to the impending doom of climate change. Above all, the film reorients our understanding of reality—the idea that we can forge new future collective belief. 

We sat down with Cruz, Omori, and Ramos—who collaborated with George Jasper Stone, Charlotte Oppenheim, Sakeema Crook, Linda Rocco, and Khidja on the film—to discuss the Metaverse they’ve created, the possibilities of being self-taught techies, and finding humanity in design systems.

Still from Feel My Metaverse, Keiken + George Jasper Stone.

Consciousness as experience

Can you talk about your origin story—how you met and started creating things with each other?

Hana Omori (HO): Me and Tanny (Tanya Cruz) grew up in Cornwall, and there’s not much diversity there. Tanny’s half Mexican, I’m half Japanese. We were the only people who are mixed in all of Cornwall [laughter].

Tanya Cruz (TC): Then we went to university in Falmouth. We met Issy [Isabel Ramos] when we were studying for our Foundation course, and Hana was doing a degree program. We all became good friends there.

Isabel Ramos (IR): Deciding to start a collective was quite random. We were all in my bedroom, which had pink flamingo wallpaper, trying to figure out what connects our practice. We created a spider diagram that centered the and we all thought: word experience. That’s how Keiken was born—‘keiken’ means experience in Japanese. So we began experimenting together and trying to bring our friends into it, too. and we also were trying to bring in our friends into it. HO: George [Jasper Stone] went to uni with us as well. He’s an ongoing collaborator. One year we shared a studio, and the next year George and Issy and Tanny shared a studio. Since then, we haven’t stopped—the collaboration has continued to grow and transform.

That word, keiken, means experience, but as is often the case with language, experience is a broad word. Is there anything else that textures that word?

HO: We realized that all of us were trying to push the boundaries of experience in our artwork. How do you create experiential artworks? Also, experience means consciousness. In all our work, we say that we are creating meta-concepts. It always relates back to this big overarching idea on how we assign consciousness.

Stills from Feel My Metaverse, Keiken + George Jasper Stone.

Were you all working in both the physical and digital realms? 

TC: I really enjoy learning about how things are done. We’ve been teaching ourselves a lot of 3D skills. We don’t really have any background in it essentially other than just being self-taught. That’s been anything from figuring out how to do things with augmented reality through this software called Spark AR or working in Unreal—for which there’s still so much room for improvement.

Often, we don’t stay confined to a medium. We think about what we want to do and then try and learn the medium that feels appropriate for delivering that.

IR: We see the physical and digital really influence each other. They’re not separate entities at all. We were teenagers when social media was happening, which has likely affected the way we think about technology. 

HO: I don’t have a hand; I have a phone.

Digital selves

You’re part of the first generation of digital creators working in a medium that you grew up with. How has growing up using a medium that you were very comfortable with influenced what you all create together, or the topics you decide to explore?

HO: Quite a lot of our works that we get commissioned to do is now through augmented reality, but that software is made by Facebook. It’s a weird thing because Facebook contacts us, and we talk to them! How weird is that? We are so influenced by social and technology that we literally end up going there [laughter].  

IR: Having grown up with social media is very much integrated into our lives. It’s allowed us to be very multi-platform in the way that we approach and create work. Alongside our conceptual ideas, it’s allowed us to think about creating an eternal network as well. We’re really interested in this idea of creating a ‘Metaverse‘: a space where you can use the network you’ve collectively built, one that would encompass all these different levels of experience. 

HO: Even in Feel My Metaverse, everyone who lives in the Metaverse feels it as real as the earth. But on a cognitive level, people feel so interconnected to the internet, to their digital selves—their profile, their phone. On that premise, we are living in a Metaverse. Throughout this pandemic, it has started to feel as though people are living in a Metaverse. How are we contacting other people? 

TC: One of the main reasons that people feel so immersed in their technology—whether that’s anything online, WhatsApp, or social media—is having communities, all those connections with other people online. That’s how you absorb yourself into it. For most people, that’s what makes it so attractive—especially in our current situation, where there’s not much choice [laughter]. 

Unreal is a commercial tool used both by big-budget game studios but also by independent creators. What were some of the biases that were built into that tool when you were working on Feel My Metaverse, and some of the things that surprised you as a creator? 

TC: When we were building Feel My Metaverse, we also worked with several other softwares to bridge certain elements. For example, when we were doing character animation, we worked with a free software called DAZ. One thing that we found is that it’s very difficult to build a body from scratch if you don’t have so much experience—but then there’s a lot of assets that are available online. The problem that we run into is that all of those characters’ bodies which you could buy initially and then adjust the features, all of them were so whitewashed or overly sexualized—[It was] kind of gross.

That was something that we found quite challenging. One of the reasons why we also chose to work with facial scanning of the two main characters is because we wanted to represent them correctly.

IR: Represent real people.

Mind, Body and Screen, Sakeema Crook + Keiken.

You weren’t naturally finding humanity in some of the premade assets in software, so you had to create them yourself. Is that right?

IR: Yes. Exactly.

HO: It didn’t make conceptual sense to use. It also didn’t make sense conceptually. If you think of film compared to gaming, it’s almost like films are always really called out for not representing people properly. But games are also equally behind in some ways—or they do the representation really poorly, and they lose the meaning of the game. 

Self-taught techies

From a process standpoint, which piece led? Was it plotting the narrative, or was it the possibility of what you could create with the tools?

IR: We actually wrote the narrative as a short story. We spent ages thinking about what these worlds were. The piece was then commissioned through the proposal we wrote, but we’d never actually used Unreal. We’d done a bit of filmmaking before, but this was the first time we were going to really make a full, narrative, fictional CGI film. We were learning to use Unreal through the process. The tools definitely shaped how the film was made, especially because there were certain limitations with being self-taught. 

Game engines are not simple things! You have to figure out along the way what’s possible? There must have been many limitations, but also a lot of possibilities.

IR: We were lucky to work with George Jasper Stone. Before this project, he was experienced in Cinema 4D—however, he was quite new to Unreal as well. To develop the piece, it was a lot of trial and error. What’s amazing about Unreal is that you can build this world, and then you can go into gameplay mode, and then you can test out your scenarios and see does this part of the script work? Does this character work

HO: We also spent a long time thinking about the characters. We worked with Sakeema Crook, a dance artist and a trans activist, and Linda Rocco, a curator. In the film, they both have their own stories. They also understand the movement of their bodies so well. 

HO: Linda had a very successful career from a very young age as a contemporary dancer. But one day when she was 19, she woke up and she couldn’t move, which meant that she couldn’t dance anymore.

Since then, she’s had some really interesting sensorial experiences. So if she closes her eyes, even if she touches her body, she can’t sense where anything is. We learned about different ways of seeing and feeling on a very sensorial level with her. Through motion capture, she danced for the first time since. So it was this whole journey that was also so tied to reality in the way we worked with these artists.

TC: Our relationships and collaborations with Sakeema and Linda contributed a lot to the narrative. Even though we’d designed the narrative beforehand, they really influenced a lot of the outcomes—whether that was to do with those smaller sensorial details, character development, or visual outputs.

HO: We were also interested in the design concept of the ‘platform-diverse body’ from Natasha Vita-More, who is a transhumanist

IR: A platform-diverse body can live like a future body in both the biosphere and the Metaverse—an upgraded human body. When we were creating Feel My Metaverse, it was the idea that you could inhabit different bodies. But you would still have a base body which would be on earth—what we called ‘Base Reality’ in the film—as well.

HO: You’d have a body on earth and a body in the Metaverse, and they would both be alive at the same time. Basically, one of the protagonists, C, transforms from the generic CGI human avatar to Kylie Jenner. 

One of the film’s main settings is a reality called ‘Pome Sector,’ which is a corporate wellness world. The idea is that to feel connected to other people when you go to get dressed in the morning, rather than trying on different clothes, you’d have ‘themed’ days. That way, you get to try on different bodies, and everyone would wear the same body to feel connected to one another. For example, there is a ‘Dalai Lama’ day, and everyone in that world would feel really wise that day because they were all Dalai Lama. [laughter]

We were thinking about Kylie Jenner because of how she sells the idea of herself. How she makes money is for people to look like her…if they bought her product.

Install of Feel My Metaverse, Keiken + George Jasper Stone. Photo by Luca Girardini.

Cyber self-care

Right—in the past, if the desire is that people would look like you or try to adopt your style, but you didn’t usually have a brand that was associated with it. 

HO: Kylie is the youngest billionaire, according to Forbes, but Kylie is also much richer than the rest of the Kardashians and Jenners. She had lip surgery when she was really young, and because she looked so different suddenly, it was this huge transformation. People thought that they could be like that too.

In the film, the last scene that you see of Pome Sector is just a load of Kylie Jenners running on water. The whole point is you can only either walk in a straight line, or you can go in a circle. In that world, that’s actually all you can physically do. You can imagine the water in the scenes as a conveyor belt. It’s almost like you’re living in this capitalist space where you are constantly in acceleration, but then you’re fed this wellness of feeling at peace.

IR: I guess it’s a critique of capitalist accelerationism. It’s like, Oh, we just need to do self-care and wellness, and then we’ll be okay. We’ll be fine, it’s not our responsibility.

Keiken + George Jasper Stone, Install view of Feel My Metaverse at Frankfurter Kunstverein. Photo by Norbert Miguletz.

You’ve also worked with creating face filters. What is your approach to working with AR on the face? What kind of possibilities do you see there, and what kind of limitations as well? It seems like a unique place to play.

TC: The feasibility to easily deploy an effect without building your own app—that cuts out a lot of struggle, I suppose. That in itself is a great thing. There’s also something quite nice about them being a ‘short-form’ thing. You can create a piece of work that you can just easily share with everyone around the world, and it can be really accessible. We’ve done performances where we’ve invited the audience to experience the performance through the filter. It adds this layer to the actual experience.

It’s a nice way to make an interactive piece as well. In terms of making a piece of work, you basically make something that places the user or the audience directly in there. They can have a very engaging experience.

HO: When we made the film, we also presented three filters for each of the main characters along with the film. You can put AR on top of the film if you would like, or you could walk away and become a character, which is the substrate of this body. We also staged a performance in which Sakeema performed in the space where we first presented the film. She also choreographed and performed a piece as her character, and everyone could become her fantastical creature in AR. 

IR: So even though this is a speculative future, that character actually exists in real life. She is a role model, and you can experience her amazing dance practice in the physical, in reality, now. We recently did a performance where Sakeema Crook performed and the audience activated AR from special temporary tattoo targets on her. 

HO: We’re doing a program with Fact, and we have this website called augmentedempathy.live, and each week has secret filters released. Then we do a short video piece with it. Last week it was an augmented makeup tutorial. We wanted to explore the subversion Instagram filters- and how social media can be used as a space for exchange and artistic creation. 

TC: We made an elaborate video where we basically pretended that I was putting my makeup on, but through each stage of building the filter. The new exhibition also includes a multi-channel video installation called ALL WATER IS ONE WATER. 

Pando AR filters by Keiken + George Jasper Stone. Photo by Hydar Dewachi.

Ecological magical realism

Can you talk more about the environmental undercurrents that run through the narrative of Feel My Metaverse?

HO: Sakeema played Pando, the name Pando comes from the oldest, known largest living organism.

IR: They are trees, but they have a shared root system.

TC: It’s a colony. Every tree that’s part of the colony is a clone of the mother tree; they’re not isolated, they’re genetically identical individuals. 

HO: Pando is Latin for “I spread out.” That’s why in the film, there’s a coded phrase saying, “I spread out, and I come back.” It’s the idea that because we live in such an individualized society, it’s so human-centric.

We think of plants dying when climate change happens; we don’t think about humans in the same way. Instead, we always think of ourselves as the superior hierarchical at the top. The Pando subtext reflects our perception, our reality of how we understand how the earth works. Pando is also supposed to represent Mother Nature, the mother tree. 

Certainly, the next stage of problems humans face is not local in nature, but global. They require you to acknowledge things happening on the other side of the earth and require collective action. You need more coordination between people who don’t share the same background or ethnicity or nationality, to fix them—but everybody will be impacted equally because it’s our planet. 

HO: You can’t really have empathy for nature. You can be compassionate, or you have a great passion or interest in the environment. With a human, you attach yourself to that because you think of yourself. So Pando represents nature, but she also allows you to feel compassion towards and empathy or this strong connection to our roots. 

HO: We also use a lot of magic realism techniques symbols to represent what’s happening. 

IR: We like to question the belief systems in our own realities. What things exist because we collectively believe in them? It’s hard to recognize that you can actually change your reality. 

Stills from Feel My Metaverse, Keiken + George Jasper Stone.