👃📓

Xzone and D.I.T. Virtual Autonomous Zones

13 Sep 2020

Eight-minute read

Today I co-presented Xzone, a project and presentation I organized with Daniel Lichtman for the Our Networks 2020 conference.

D.I.Y. and Do-It-Together Spaces

Xzone is a prototype of an online DIY space. Visually, the aesthetics are simple. When you visit the website, a prompt asks you for a nickname, to choose an avatar, and then you pop into a 2d room. You can see other people in the space. You can walk around. And you can talk. When you chat, everyone hears a chat sound, and sees the text appear on the screen in a bubble above the character that speaks. As you continue to chat, your text bubbles up above you, similar to how we are used to texting with past messages appearing and scrolling up and away, and here fading away after a number of seconds. You can also walk over to other rooms as there are doorways/portals to other rooms. Some of these characteristics of the virtual space are constraints of the code, a (permitted! encouraged!) derivative of Likelike, which I’ll detail further.

Xzone prototype

In its default state, Xzone is intended as a starter DIY virtual autonomous space. This is admittedly a metaphor, as I do not believe in a single true 1-to-1 translation from DIY spaces to online space.

For the past 15 years I’ve been involved in a number of artist-run Do It Yourself spaces, even while working “professionally” at more traditional art institutions such as museums. There is a tendency to use the term D.I.T. or “Do It Together” in the past ten years, and I adopt this term as well as it better describes how we consider our community and space.

I’ve worked with low-power radio stations, artist-organized alternative spaces, collectives, DIY galleries, and other groups of similar bearing and ethos. Most recently I’ve been involved with organizing at Babycastles. I was also an organizer/curator at Little Berlin, KCHUNG Radio, a resident artist and organizer at Flux Factory, and co-organizer/co-founder of Processing Community Day NYC. Each of these organizations have their own systems in place, but they are aligned in that the organizers attempt to work from positions of anti-hierarchy. We have collective group organizing systems, like weekly meetings, procedures for decision-making, shared values, and a goal of providing space and community for an identified larger public. With the exception of Flux, these orgs are volunteer-led, meaning we are coming together to work collaboratively and there are no fulltime paid staff members.

These organizational notes are background for thinking about some of the goals I have for building experimenting virtual DIY spaces. Most of these organizations, as well as others I am a part of, make choices as to what platforms to use for organizing and communication prior to and during Covid-19. That’s heated up under the virus, and its accelerated the need for discussion of platform politics. Most of us involved in DIY spaces I think are motivated by a desire of working in smaller groups, practicing prefigurative politics, or creating the world we wish to live in by enacting it in the here and now, and making changes along the way.

Responding in a moment of urgency with Covid, many of these groups accelerated their use of chatroom platforms such as Discord and Slack and virtual video conferencing with Zoom for example. These corporate platforms are the virtual equivalent of using a Starbucks a for a group meeting. You have to buy a coffee, fit into the space and structure, and you don’t have much say over the overall system you’re being permitted to use. If you don’t like the politics of the company, or have alternative needs that don’t match their economic goals, you have limited means to request or enact changes.

Xzone prototype
Virtual Flux

Xzone grows out of a desire to build our own virtual spaces. For the same reason artists and other community groups like to make their own physical spaces, by building or renting spaces of their own, an intentional creative community may want to have their own virtual space made for their own needs. These needs could be a space for conversation, informal hanging out and cameraderie. There could be other needs like a place to save information, discuss important topics, or share creative work.

The Technical Instracture

Xzone is a fork (or remix) of Likelike, a virtual space built by Paolo Pedercini, an online manifestation of the DIY videogame artspace also called Likelike hosted out of his garage in Pittsburgh, PA. Likelike the virtual space hosts exhibitions of interactive artworks and games. One joins, chooses a name and one of a number of available avatars, then enters the 2d space. You can walk around and walk between rooms. You can chat. And you can walk up to games and signs and interactive artworks. The games and interactive works launch in your own separate browser window. They are not networked. Though Paolo has built some rooms in Likelike as interactive experiences.

Likelike’s code is open source and it is easy to remix the work on glitch.com, which provides web server space that permits networking, essentially allowing simultaneous shared virtual space, not usually provided on other free web services. And glitch lets one view the underlying code infrastructure and even make edits.

Xzone builds on Paolo’s Likelike code as well as a remix by Everest Pipkin for their spring university final exhibition Steam Tunnels and my own spring New Directions in Virtual Space Arcade to display student games and artwork.

Virtual Autonomous Zones

The concept of Xzone is to consider what a virtual autonomous zone could be and how it would function. Autonomous zones are a socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces to evade formal structures of control ref. We consider the limitations of corporate platforms beholden to shareholders, governments, regressive regimes and their claims of neutrality that maintain the status quo or embolden its bullies.

What would a virtual autonomous space look like? How can it serve non-hierarchical goals? Inspired by the squat, community space, campsite, social house and occupations - we consider and prototype how we may begin to think through a way to build new spaces for smaller intentional and ad hoc communities.

Xzone Workshop

During the workshop we presented Xzone in a minimal starter state. We had 10 participants, a perfect amount for a small intentional community, and we spoke about our previous experiences in autonomous spaces both IRL and virtually.

I shared experiences from Occupy, The People’s Library, various squats, communes, and temporary autonomous zones. We mentioned the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or Capital Hill Organized Protest, [free universities] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_Free_University), and other non-traditional and experimental zones as possible references.

Some reference slide images are in a PDF.

There was also discussion of earlier virtual spaces as references including The Palace, a 90s chatroom that bears resemblance to Likelike/Xzone. To my mind there is some resemblance to NeoHabitat as well, which I’ve written about on this blog previously. One of my favorite anecdotes that was shared was about SWGBBO, a virtual space by a group of Finnish musicians who hacked Habbo hotel and made their own version of it. One can make their own rooms and characters and chat and there are online concerts.

For half the workshop participants created their own avatars that we imported into the virtual space of Xzone. When joining, anyone could select any avatar, their own or someone else. We imported images of IRL spaces, specifically the semi-preserved ruins of Teufelsberg listening post in Berlin.

Using the Xzone, with our own and other avatars is a funny experience. This was more of a prototype. We were indeed temporary and autonomous and a zone. It functioned in ways like IRC, the internet relay chat, as a temporary group of semi-autonomous visitors, with nothing logged and no conversation recoverable later.

The goal of the space is to be usable and customizable by small intentional communities, and to be adaptable over time, with new functionality added to the space or linked to as needed.

I’m excited about other folks working in this space, including by Alice Yuan Zhang and her work with the Virtual Care Lab that grows out of an ASSEMBLY she organized at Navel.

References

We’ve placed some information and resources online for prototyping your own virtual zone. At this point, some previous knowledge of code is most helpful, though the longterm intention is to build an interface to allow one to upload new items, avatars, music and scenes for readily without that requirement.

I built a prototype Virtual Autonomous Zone for use by Flux Factory during Flux Thursdays in May. Short video documentation can be found in a video on Vimeo.

Other projects at Our Networks are making use of the Likelike infrastructure including Eigengrau and the Doomsday Supper Club.

There are other 2d networked social spaces such as Mozilla BrowserQuest and Gather.Town.

The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space: A Study of The Palace is online on the Wayback Machine.

Tools

Image

Audio