Artists Anita Fontaine and Geoffrey Lillemon first met fifteen years ago at a hot spring in Canada. “We’ve been inseparable ever since,” Fontaine tells me. And fittingly, the two have worked together countless times in the decade plus they’ve known one another. From working together in a research context, at videogame companies, doing visuals at punk shows, all the way to wacky installations. Installations—which is their bread and butter in a way—like their latest adventure Bitmap Banshees, a virtual reality project that envisions a dystopian, neon-dripping Amsterdam.
“As far as the experience itself, it’s extra special for an Amsterdam, or a Dutch, audience,” explained Lillemon of the Halloween-premiering installation, which is currently on display at W+K Amsterdam’s public gallery space. “But also, what virtual reality does is it creates an empathy that people that are not in Amsterdam can experience, an artistic perspective on what it’s like to be here and live here. The sense that you can understand the rhythm of Amsterdam through a game.” But Bitmap Banshees is no ordinary game.
In Bitmap Banshees, you’re in a race to dodge unsettling biking banshees that are out to get you, trying desperately to survive its “psychedelic science fiction, b-grade horror Frogger reality.” The enemies aren’t familiar to games, at least not in any games that I can personally recall. They aren’t zombies, not ghosts, not monsters. But true banshees, a typically-female spirit with roots in Irish mythology, known for shrieking and being generally unnerving. And in Bitmap Banshees’ distorted view of a hyper-reality Amsterdam, Fontaine and Lillemon found their inspirations embedded in the community itself.
“the seductive candy of death”
The self-described “techno-glitter thriller” straddles two worlds. There’s the virtual world of banshees, and the real one with “Dutch middle-aged fashion,” the latter being the core inspiration for the game’s character designs. “Sometimes when you’re riding your bike around Amsterdam, you find the most aggressive banshee-like women, and men, but in this case women,” Fontaine said. Lillemon chimed in, adding, “[In Bitmap Banshees] their candy-colored skin kind of lures you in,” he explained. “To make them grotesquely attractive in form and behavior you almost want to be killed by them, even though you know you shouldn’t. Like the seductive candy of death.”
The player is settled into the game from the seat of a candy-apple red, Mad Max-inspired exercise bike, outfitted with punk-y spikes and an actual bell (which initiates a protective barrier for a short amount of time in-game). From there, they’re strapped with another spike-clad item: the Oculus Rift headset, and then they’re ready to evade some banshees. Virtually, of course.
When I asked Fontaine and Lillemon why the real-life component of a physical bike, they insisted the experience wouldn’t be complete without it. “We see the people riding the bike as a performance,” explained Lillemon. “It’s a performance for the next person waiting in line, so we have to be conscious of aesthetic and attitude and intention. So putting people on that bike, you get a real sense of what’s going on in this other dimension, being brought into the world of voyeur.” In other words, you’re eased into Bitmap Banshees’ world before you’re even ushered in yourself.
With pointedly used evil motifs and homely inspirations, Bitmap Banshees blurs what it even defines as. It’s not just a game. Not solely an installation either. Instead, it exists where “virtual and real overlap,” as Fontaine herself said. “And we’re dancing a little bit in that dimensional cauldron, to create something new.”
If you’re not in Amsterdam to see Bitmap Banshees on display at W+K Amsterdam, stay tuned to its website for news of its eventual online release. All photos provided courtesy of artists.