New Forms #1: Nothing is Virtual

A sporadic log about our shifting arts landscape and the new points of convergence it is giving birth to

Nothing is really virtual. Everything is embodied, actual. At the “virtual” seder, my rabbi sat in his chair and I sat in mine. Behind him a bookcase held votive candles; their glow, captured by a pinprick of a camera lens, was translated into data packets and reassembled by the machine I held in my hand. You could call it virtual, sure, compared to the old form. But it would be missing the current point. The point is not what old seders were like—not the shared piquancy of horseradish, not Uncle David clowning and the subtle ripples of reaction around the table. We might mourn these things lost, but what we experience now is not virtual in comparison: it is the embodied, actual state in which we live.

And where we will live for some time. In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed reasonable for cultural events like book and music festivals to postpone until fall. But forecasts from scholars, science reporters, and epidemiologists are that bodies pressed near together to share an experience for the sake of that experience will be the last thing to return. When it does, perhaps the cultural world will be so remade that “return” is not apt. It is tempting to imagine ourselves in life jackets waiting to be rescued by the vessel from which we were cast. But perhaps we are on the shore of a new land we must get to know.


I was thinking about this the other night while I watched my son play Fortnite. He plays on a PS4 console attached to an eight-year-old flat-screen television (so, not so much flat as fat by today’s standards). This day he wore gray sweatpants and a navy blue shirt with no sleeves. He sat on a white, pull-out couch—not the most practical fabric for a ten-year-old who likes an ice-cream sandwich as an evening treat and who does not have the wherewithal to attend to the physicalities of the chocolate, enmeshed as he is in the conception of the island on which the gameplay takes place. He’s been leaving small stains.

For a year or so, I’ve watched my son play Fortnite with a mix of dismay and fascination. I’m dismayed by the simulated violence and the addictive elements engineered by Epic Games, the privately held company with a valuation north of $15 billion and annual profits estimated at about $2 billion. Canny and unabashed, they’ve built the perfect dopamine trigger, and they go after kids with the same unapologetic relish as Philip Morris in the 1970s.

But as Jennifer Senior has argued, these troubling elements may be more than offset by the heartening social elements. “I’m going to see my friends now,” Senior’s son tells her when he’s off to play. Senior writes, “He’s in fact joining them on his headset. Jumping into a game of Fortnite is paying a social call, the equivalent of dropping in on a cocktail party.” Fortnite is both a place for experience and the actual experience of a place. “Whether we like it or not,” writes tech writer and developer Owen Williams, “Fortnite is the new hangout. The new living room, or the better ‘third place.’ It’s like going to church, or the mall, except there’s an entire universe to mess around in together, and it doesn’t matter where in the world you are.”

As I write, my son is on with two friends.

“You did?” he says. “Okay. Wait, wait, wait—can you hold off? Hold off like two seconds. I’m coming and I have minis for you.”

He is wearing a headset, so I can’t hear what the other boys are saying.

“Okay I’m here. I’m here. Bro, there’s a henchman on me. Bro, these henchman are so annoying.”

My son’s avatar wears dark green pants, a tank-top. She’s a woman with a ponytail.

“Wait, you killed both of them? Still, it’s pretty impressive. I’ve got—actually, no, I’m sticking with my blue AR. Do you want to chop to, what’s it called, Lazy?”

My son laughs.

“No, but it’s probably open. Yeah.”

If you understand little of this, I identify. And if you don’t much care—again, same. But notice that this is speech of a particular sort, of two people actively relating around a shared experience. I think people often understate that value. Culture is not a thing that happens on a stage, transmitted to an audience. Culture is when people take in a stimulus (ideally, an artful one), process it, and build upon it into a common reality. Culture happens in exchange, and has a few key elements.

First, culture is ambient. It happens when we feel something around us, a definite atmosphere that we’re part of, though we may not immediately be able to name it. Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent New Yorker essay builds on the idea that every era has a “structure of feeling”—“its own way,” Robinson writes, “of experiencing being alive.” He’s talking about culture in a macro sense but it’s also true of any discrete cultural event.

Second, culture is simultaneous; it happens when our senses, and our sense of time, are aligned. The classic instance is being together in a room, hearing the same sounds, seeing the same images. But the time sync can be looser. If you listened to the Fiona Apple album intently in the last couple of weeks, you’ve caught a ride on the same hot air balloon as the rest of her fans. Simultaneity, done right, can also substitute for physical proximity. Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Jewish Sabbath a “sanctuary in time.”

Third, culture is distributed. The tailgate at the hockey game. The joint passed at the Lorde concert. The boy with tears in his eyes at the bookstore Q&A. Players with sticks, and singers with microphones, and writers on tour are enmeshed in constant, implicit collaborations. And we have, now, to pay keen attention to the role of those key players off-stage. What happens on-stage is obvious—often simulcast on a screen, and recorded, and pored over by critics—so we need to think less about how we adapt it. We know just what it looks like. We can draw it from memory. The thing that happens off-stage, though, is subtle, and only recorded internally, or in the references we share with our friends.

Just the way a text is made by its relation to reader, so is an arts experience made by the little things that happen along the way. Of course, you could watch a rock concert on DVD. But what about the moment when the last song plays, and you make your way through the crowd, and share a laugh with your girlfriend because what she really wants, more than life itself, is a slice of pizza larger than her face. Life (and culture) happens in these interstitial moments, not in the performance, but in the social experience of it.[1]


A few days ago I wrote The Believer’s Max Neely-Cohen that my son already has what adults really need in this moment: a platform where an organically social experience is combined with an external stimulus—things to look at, engage with and be in. “Zoom stuff is two-dimensional,” I wrote Max. “We need to be able to go on journeys with other people. We need to move into space together, and to solve problems and have experiences, etc. My son is talking to his buddies, laughing, dealing with minor conflict, moving between the sublime and the mundane, deepening relationships.”

When I wrote to Max, I had the vision that some game designer could work with the MoMA, say, to make the perfect museum-going experience. I never expected Max’s reply, that these experiments were already underway—building on Minecraft of all things. “For example,” Max wrote me, “the music club Elsewhere recreated their entire venue there and had a rave this past weekend, complete with a VIP room and a full lineup.” He also told me about the Uncensored Library, which replicates the physical experience of a library as an act of dissent—making censored work available in countries where its banned.

Following this thread led me to a Philadelphia band called Courier Club. They had planned—for April and May—to spend evenings at The Smiling Moose Upstairs in Pittsburgh, the Rumba Café in Columbus, and High Watt in Nashville. They were going to feel the sweat of ambience; the beat of simultaneity; and the collective glow of a distributed experience, all activated by their presence. They were going to tour.

Then history intervened. As many artists turned on Zoom and began to stream living room shows, these guys had a different idea. They grew up playing Halo 3 on their Xbox 360s, and relishing the world their fellow gamers made. “They actually gave players very little to work with,” Tim Waldron, the band’s lead singer, told me of Halo 3. “But players pushed that capacity to its edge. They took these simple bare-bone mechanics and they built very complex mini-games, things that were not supposed to exist. Growing up during that—it was just this sense of, I know this isn’t built do to this, and that’s what I most love.”

So they turned to Minecraft. “Coalchella”, a Minecraft music festival in 2018, deftly simulated the basic feel of Coachella itself—the stages, the art. But Courier Club honed in on a different aspect: not the novelty of a pixel venue but the experiences that bands of friends had navigating it. “Seventy five percent of a show is not what happens on stage,” Waldron said. “It’s being with like-minded people and being around others in general. And what’s interesting now is that you can maybe have that experience without geographical restrictions, monetary restrictions, or even language restrictions.”

Block by Blockwest, produced by Courier Club and featuring Cherry Glazerr and Pussy Riot, happens May 16th.

So much suffers when we neglect to translate from intention to manifestation, and back again. For example, what’s going on when we clap, or stomp up and down at a show, or crowd-surf? What’s the point of a towering stage, or a light show? What I appreciate most about Courier Club’s work is that they are asking these questions, and then trying to frame beta solutions in the new vernacular. BXBW’s “stages” will be in pixel volcanos and castles. And each stage will have its own group romp (you can ski the mountain stage, for example). This is deft translation. What we most want at a show is convergence between reception and action, between being consumed by something larger than ourselves and making that something. “I cannot promise you life everlasting,” Bruce Springsteen said from stage in his reunion tour with the E Street Band in 1999. “But I can promise you life right now.”


Culture is always running simulations. Literature simulates a conversation our brains are built to receive orally. Stories themselves are a simulation of need, action, resolution. Impactful live experiences, as we know them, are constructed to simulate, to model—and to offer a glimpse—of awe. They are meant to connect our bodies (our deeply actual selves) and our imaginations (what we can most audaciously conceive).

“This weekend’s coolest concert is happening in Fortnite,” Vox reported on April 24. Certainly it was the best attended—a total of 27.7 million people experienced the Travis Scott concert live. Rolling Stone sent a reporter, and he wrote a classic grumpy piece about how hard it was to get into the game and find the show. I didn’t have this problem, because my son took me. This felt right. The best culture has person-to-person initiation; this’s one reason we love record stores and independent bookstores.

Of course, Fortnite is the opposite of indie. Where Courier Club is making a sort of digital Bowery Ballroom for bands like Sleater-Kinney-circa-2000, Fortnite is more like a digital stadium tour with corporate sponsors. Much of the stuff that’s genuinely new and compelling in the coming months will flow from the edges of culture, and the highly pixelated look of Minecraft nicely announces what’s happening: We’re playing, here. We’re making worlds. LikeLike, a moving and unnerving online art experience, has that same wonderful beta aesthetic, like a digital sandbox, as opposed to the highly-determined and manipulated world of Fortnite.

But maybe this isn’t the time to harp on distinctions. After all, we only just washed up on this shore, and need help from all directions to figure out where we are. Rolling Stone said the Travis Scott show was more of an animated short film than a concert. Not for my son. He and his friends swam around the floating stage, held flaming mike stands above their heads, and goofed with each other throughout.

I sat there listening to the songs, and thought of seeing The Who in 1980 (I was nine; my father had questionable judgment) and Lana Del Rey at Coachella in 2014, when so many people surged forward that I worried people might die like at that Who show. I watched the young woman next to me—turned, not to the stage, but to her boyfriend, pressed right up against him because there was no space at all. She looked in his eyes and sang along as loud as she could, and cried so hard her head was like a fountain. I thought of the first Believer Festival and I thought of a Moth show at the Player’s Club in New York when an old woman so hunched over that her face was at the level of her belly, told a story so quietly that everyone in the room sat still like lizards caught in the open. I thought of the people in the room with me that night. We were there together—like kids in a cabin at summer camp—and so is my son watching Travis Scott with his friends. They surprised themselves at what they could do in the space. (“I’m climbing up on his shoe,” my son shouted with joy.) They looked up at the Travis Scott avatar who was—compared to them—the size of a small mountain, only lithe and bending up and down to the rhythm of his beats. He rode into the island on a comet, and he glided through the neighborhoods with feet the size of houses. At the end, everyone got sucked up behind him into space and I have to say, it was awesome.

NOTE: Block by Block West is fundraiser for the CDC Foundation, and you can give here.

[1] This is reminiscent of How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, whose animating paradox is that moments that seem like “nothing” from the vantage of the attention economy are in fact where we actually live.

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