Occupy White Walls Does Doctor Who (part one)

Today, gentle reader, and after a protracted absence – hey, it’s sunny and we’re allowed out now! – we delve deep into the heady realms of art, and how it’s displayed. And yes, there is a definite Doctor Who link, but you’ll have to read on (or casually scroll to the bottom; it’s bad manners but I’ll be none the wiser) to find out exactly what it is.

It’s a strange name for a video game, but then Occupy White Walls is a strange sort of game. That’s if you can call it a game at all. It’s more of a virtual art curator / gallery-building experience. Broadly speaking you’re given a sea of blank space (literally: the game opens on a pleasant oceanic backdrop and an island of floating white floor in the middle of it) and encouraged to build your own gallery. You do this by placing blocks – different floors, different walls, ceilings, lighting, architecture – wherever you want them. You’re free to redesign your space at will, change colours, move and even delete structures entirely: some objects will snap into place, but as a general rule nothing is off limits. When you’re ready, you hang artwork on the walls. Well, it’s a gallery, right?

Said art can be aquired from DAISY, the in-house virtual AI, who lists paintings seemingly at random and then learns over time to filter them according to the sort of stuff you like. This never really seemed to work in practice for me – I’d find renaissance art and dull Victorian portraits all over the place, despite concentrating almost exclusively on modern art and photography – although I gather things have improved since I stopped buying new art. Paintings vary in size and scale, from small photos that you have to squint to examine to the likes of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, which is so big it required me to build a new room (well, outside platform) in which to house it. Artists range in scope – traditional landscape painters, religious artworks and surrealist masterpieces are all represented, and anything has the potential to be included provided they’ve either struck a deal or it’s in the public domain (so there is, alas, no Dali as of yet).

Expanding your gallery space costs money – which takes place in the form of virtual currency known simply as ‘cubes’ – and you earn more of these by opening your viewing space to the public in thirty-minute sessions, whereupon it may be visited either by anyone who happens to be logged in, or a collection of bots who phase in and out of the gallery space, nod appreciatively at whatever you happen to have hanging there and perform the occasional backflip. Opening and closing repeatedly is the quickest way to level up, which means there’s a certain amount of grinding early on, but once you reach level 30 you unlock all the assets in the range and things really start to get interesting.

If you want the gist of how the whole thing works, you could do a lot worse than read this, but the biggest selling point of OWW is that it’s got no selling point at all – it’s available at no cost, bar a supplementary soundtrack album (which you are under no compulsion to buy, although I did) and the option to upload your own artwork at $9 a pop. And if it seems a little silly, having your own space on which to buy and hang virtual art, it’s worth bearing in mind that the game came out not long before Covid hit, and given that we spent much of last year stuck indoors, its presence on Steam couldn’t have been any more timely. Certainly the nature of the experience – log on, do a little world-building, casually and graduallly expanding your rooms, changing the sky, re-imagining the floors, filling a room with statues, perhaps adding an extra wing when you’re particularly flush…there’s something vastly therapeutic about it. It’s not a substitute for the Tate, but it’s a good start.

I’ve seen a fair bit in OWW – celestial glass-walled viewing areas looking out onto the wilds of the universe; vast Nordic-themed lakeside galleries; underwater treasure troves; homages to the London underground where Monet and Renoir jostle for space next to the ‘MIND THE GAP’ signs; even a recreation of the space station from 2001, with a door that leads into the hotel room that Keir Dullea reaches at the film’s conclusion. But it doesn’t really do a lot when it’s written down. Walking round a virtual gallery or two really is the best way to fire up your imagination, and it was only when I’d seen what other people had achieved that I started to come up with a creative vision of what I could do with a workspace limited only by funds and my ageing computer’s memory.

Scroll up a bit. That overhead shot you can see? The one with the chess board in the middle? That’s my gallery. Well, a part of it. The waterfront theme didn’t really kick into gear until I built the pier you can see just above. It takes its cue from the one at Boscombe: long and minimalist, and there’s a copy of The Scream hanging on one of the glass walls at the end. From its edge, you can see the corners of the bricked industrial area and the large installation space where I hung a Mondrian and then built an enormous replica out of coloured walls to go alongside it. The whole space grew organically, and owes quite a lot to Frank Lloyd Wright, but I didn’t realise this when I was expanding – it was all about just adding rooms to offset the tedium of lockdown.

But why stop at one gallery? Why just one, when you can do this?

The Highway is perhaps the work I’m most proud of. I’d already made the Chapel – a church interior designed as a place of reflection and remembrance – but wondered what would happen if I built a long, straight road that stretched off into the distance, as far as I could, and just put things alongside it. There is an abandoned, crumbling warehouse and an electrical substation. There is a gaudy sixties bridge and a tunnel that leads to nowhere. Halfway up there is a memorial garden. And there is a vast slab of grey stretching off to the right, all tall oppressive corridors, that opens out into a large open plaza where I built a mosaic on the walls.

But there was another reason to build the Highway, and this, oh faithful reader, is where the Doctor Who connection kicks in. Because if you wander up, you’ll notice that the Angel of the North overlooks a nondescript-looking building that might be just a wee bit familiar.

Designing the interior required a certain amount of improvisation, but after a bit of jiggery pokery I managed to get the counter area more or less the way I wanted it. The seats were trickier, because of what’s available – what you see here is a second draft, and it’s still not quite got the booth feel I really wanted, but it’s not a bad estimate. While it was impossible to recreate all the art they had in the original, I managed to at least capture the feel – and another mosaic on the back wall served as a decent substitute for the stars-and-stripes flag.

But the best bit? There’s a door at the back, and – well…

All right. It’s a disaster. You have no idea how difficult it was to build a convincing hexagonal structure that looked like it might pass for a console. What you can see is a collection of metal desks, awkwardly grouped together into something that looks vaguely right until you get too close. Oh, and there’s a single column of light stretching upwards; it doesn’t move but perhaps we could just say it’s parked? The round things are good, anyway. Even if I don’t know what they’re for.

It wasn’t the only TARDIS I built – but you’ll have to wait until next time to see that one, as it’s a whopper and it’s going to take us some time to walk around it properly. In the meantime, here’s a little post-credit scene. It takes place at Mr Webley’s World of Colour (yes, that is a ‘Nightmare in Silver’ reference). Unlike many of my other creations, this was always envisaged as a definitive place with a beginning and an end – a large, multi-storeyed building in which each room deals with aspects of a different slice of the rainbow, with lighting, decor and artwork to match.

You get the idea. It’s a one-way system (which was disturbingly prophetic) but there is a place of respite halfway along, taking the form of a rooftop garden of which I’m reasonably proud.

In case you’re wondering how I managed black and white, the black is a small dark room with a projector broadcasting looped footage from Un Chien Andalou – something a number of people have done. Although I’m pretty sure none of them have did what I did in the white room.

“And that,” says the First Doctor, “is a chair with a frog on it.”

Coming up next time: swimming pools that are not in the library, and a never-before-seen shot of the TARDIS toilet. Speaking of which, I’ll just leave this here…

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