Exploring MetaWhat?

The latest offering of Media Majlis at Northwestern University Qatar (NUQatar) which is ongoing till December 7, 2023 has touched the sensibilities of the public in Doha, going by the buzz around it. The wide mysterious world of Meta, is explored, dissected, and researched in great detail using games and quizzes. The showstopper being the touring artwork Gaia by British artist Luke Jerram, on public display at the NUQatar Forum as part of the exhibition. MetaWhat? we ask and Jack Taylor, Associate Curator, and Interim Director Manager of Exhibition Planning at NUQatar tells us…

Media Majlis at Northwestern University in Qatar is a museum dedicated to exploring journalism, communication, and media. Through exhibitions, publications, programmes and online resources, the Museum engage with themes that connect audiences to an ever-changing media landscape.

“As a university museum with distinctive capacities, The Media Majlis at Northwestern Qatar is best suited to explore the concept of the metaverse with its ambitions and audacity. And to explain how the emerging virtual world is transforming our lives,” said Marwan M. Kraidy, Dean and CEO of Northwestern Qatar.

“As we become enmeshed in ever more immersive digital spaces and cultures, we need a guide that cuts through the chatter and offers new ways of grasping the mergers of social reality and virtual world. Our fall 2023 exhibition does exactly that,” he continued.

Visitors attending the exhibition were introduced to five specially created avatar personalities who took them on a journey through the online landscape using digital screens, hologram NFT displays, and virtual and augmented reality across five thematic installations.

This includes MetaWorld, which unpacks the seven distinct layers that make up the metaverse, and MetaExperience, a captivating data visualisation offering a glimpse of the growth and development of virtual land sales. Also, among the installations is MetaCreate, where visitors are encouraged to participate, build and create in a dedicated space, from playing Fortnite to learning how to (low)code.

The Sheraton Slide by Nyla Al Mulla, Courtesy Qatar Museums. A Game that takes it origins from nostalgia.

Also, on show throughout the exhibition are more than 100 nostalgic physical collectibles and several rare and valuable items on loan from international, regional, and local lenders, such as Ooredoo, Qatar Museums, Qatar National Library, and I Love Qatar Founder Khalifa Al Haroon.

Objects on display include an early print of Super Mario Bros, the highest graded open-copy, with only one sealed copy existing with an estimated value of more than $2 million. For a more local flavour, there is an Aladdins Kingdom token used in the 1990s as a form of currency in the popular theme park.

Digital Spirituality from the collection of Amr Alngmah

An art installation that we loved within the exhibition is Digital Spirituality from the collection of Amr Alngmah which looks at the spiritual influence of the Kaaba in Mecca, where over a billion of Muslims turn towards to pray multiple times throughout the day. Alngmah’s use of digital hardware as material for his installation is a direct reflection of the modern technological era. The work ultimately presents the functions of power of electronics to the ritualistic behaviour of human spirituality.

We talk to Jack Taylor to know more about the exhibition.

SCALE: How did the idea behind the exhibition come about?

Taylor: This exhibition has been years in the making, born amid the global pandemic. The world went still and we began to question the future. About what it would look like, how we would interact with each other and whether things would ever go back to the way they were before. How we communicated essentially changed overnight. Zoom became a household name. WhatsApp groups replaced family gatherings. Roblox was the classroom and Facebook changed its name to Meta.

MetaWhat? The metaverse, even though no one can agree on what it is, what it means, or settle on a unified understanding of it, has since become one of the biggest topics of today, a major factor in the next iteration of the internet and the future potential of technology. The exhibition was originally planned to be in 2024, however we made the conscious decision to bring it forward so that we could nudge debate on this topic.

SCALE: What are the various facets within MetaWhat? How did it grow to become such an interactive and engaging exhibition?

Taylor: The answer to that lies in how multi-faceted the idea of the metaverse is. Its definition is in constant flux. Many refer to it as a shared, persistent digital space for meetings, games and socialising. Others see it as a layer on top of the existing internet, a set of expanding protocols enabling interconnection between apps and platforms. Some are unclear if there will be a single metaverse or multiple metaverses. For me, I like to think of the metaverse as an attitude or a mindset—the ability to continuously develop, iterate, imagine, connect, and be more decentralised. I also don’t believe it’s an all or nothing. People will have different experiences based on their comfort level. However, it is easier to determine what the metaverse is not: it is not just gaming; it is not confined to one prevailing technology; it is not a movie; it is not Ready Player One.

But, thinking in that way is a good starting point. I remember losing hours of my life as a child playing video games that assimilated real life in some way, such as Theme Hospital or Sims. Looking back makes me wonder: were my early online interactions versions of the metaverse? Have we always had moments like this?

This is how we came to merge the idea of nostalgia with displays of present and future technologies. We wanted it to give a sense of how limitless this idea of the metaverse, or metaverses, could be, but also how we can be a part of it, helping to shape this virtual universe so that it reflects everybody’s realities and not just a few Western tech giants. After all, this is a dialogue, and so to achieve this our presentation needed to be interactive and engaging throughout.

Right now, the metaverse is being imagined, designed and constructed by technologists in a relatively shallow way, with retail, gaming and entertainment experiences dominating usage. But who are the people developing our new world? How can we be involved? What is the true meaning and potential of the ‘verse?

SCALE: Which was the most challenging aspect of MetaWhat? How did you work around it? 

Taylor: Currently, scholarly inquiry into the metaverse is slim, mainly due to its nascent nature and the rate at which it is evolving. Writers have described it to be a parallel world, a virtual land, and an environment where users will escape from daily reality. Others have discussed that this will be the virtual world where we live, work and play.

Technologists have shared their insights on how identities offline and online will cross physical and virtual boundaries, giving users the chance to design their reality. So, while the metaverse concept is hazy, the certainty of living with one is inevitable.

With such a fast-moving topic its natural that there is little in-depth academic research around it, which is how MetaWhat? ended up being such a creative show.

While we referenced many past works that have discussed the subject, we had to fill in many gaps. We have to remember that the metaverse is not a new concept, but it is predominantly accessed and enjoyed by younger users from the Global North in a relatively superficial way.

Therefore, it was important for us to explore this subject and unpack from local and regional lenses so that users from the Global South can be part of the metaverse narrative and development. Who better to do explore this than the first museum in the Arab world dedicated to exploring journalism, communication and media — The Media Majlis.

Does the fact that the metaverse is still a concept people are trying to figure out mean that attempting to define it is an empty intellectual exercise? I don’t think so. The next iteration of the internet will have a profound impact on our world and so defining it will fundamentally shape design, policy, profit, community and the digital future.

For me, the exhibition was a wakeup call for the content creators from the region. We must remember that unfortunately colonial attitudes and behaviors are still present in our everyday life, and its likely these will be replicated in virtual worlds if people do not get involved now. By taking an active role in the metaverse, building a virtual world that is representative of identities, cultures, languages, religions and politics, perhaps we can be more effective in creating a better and better-informed world in which to live.

SCALE: Which according to you is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition, that truly was most interesting for you as a curator? Which was the most engaging part according to onsite interactions by students and others who visited?

Taylor: I love the fact that the exhibition brings together so many different subjects and disciplines but unites people through memory and nostalgia. This is really interesting to me and it’s been refreshing to see audiences of all ages, genders and backgrounds interact, enjoy, and find connections with the content.

It almost feels like we have piloted a different way of making an exhibition. Curatorially, my values as a curator: ensuring content is open, transparent, non-chronological, non-linear, and non-binary exist, however, the making—remembering that creating and curating are not synonymous—has been completely different.

Usually, exhibitions don’t give visitors any motivation to stay. The visitor journey trails the exhibition, but then audiences have no choice but to ‘finish’ and that means rushing through to get to the gift shop or café. We, however, have tried to give audiences several reasons not just to stay, but also to engage and participate in this important, universal dialogue. The exhibition is disruptive, relatable, but academically robust. I believe this is important for a university museum in today’s world.

SCALE: Most of Media Majlis’s exhibitions is research based and what were the conclusion of the researches undertaken, is the Metaverse the most intriguing link that keeps everyone interested?

Taylor: This exhibition was curated to be a place for audiences to learn about the many opportunities the metaverse can bring to how people communicate, from an Arab world perspective. This doesn’t mean just including Arab content, its much deeper. It’s about including content that will make audiences relate, it will trigger their memory, it will get people excited. Its content that develops interest, and allows audiences to feel seen and heard. It is not a simple simplification.

My aim was to show that the metaverse is rapidly evolving, how a new way of life is being enjoyed, and help people understand their roles, purpose and rights within the metaverse. Indeed, to help shape the metaverse one must first be part of it.

This exhibition space was designed to make sure audiences feel emotionally connected to how the metaverse is all encompassing, enhancing and more profound than meets the eye. Thus far, audiences feel pleasantly surprised, and make the leap to engage and immerse, and see the metaverse as a way to enhance the way they communicate.

The perspectives from the Global South are what have been most interesting for audiences. The links are for the audience to make; they need to be able to relate to things. To achieve this, we use the concept of head, heart, and hands to ensure people feel truly connected.

Our ultimate aim was to create a safe and fun place, while turning the notion of a museum exhibition on its head, starting from scratch.

Of course, we are not rejecting the years of museum and exhibition disciplinary research, but after the pandemic we feel this process should be challenged and updated. We will use this exhibition as case study to learn from and see how we can create deep impact with our audience.

Gaia, a touring artwork by artist Luke Jerram.

SCALE: What is the role of the Earth installation by the British artist in this exhibition?

Taylor: In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of the earth. Meta is a Greek prefix that means beyond. The verse is apheresis of the universe. Metaverse can be loosely translated into meaning: beyond the universe.

Gaia, a touring artwork by artist Luke Jerram, is a pre and post cursor to the exhibition. Created from 120dpi detailed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) imagery of the earth’s surface, compiled from the Visible Earth series, the artwork provides audiences the opportunity to see planet earth floating in a three-dimensional form. Jerram’s inspiration for this piece was from the 1987 book The Overview Effect by author Frank White.

In it, he reflects on the human condition when viewing the Earth from afar, an experience that’s characterised for astronauts by feelings of awe, an understanding of the interconnectivity of all life and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

For me, I believe this juxtaposition of presenting a replica of planet Earth in an exhibition about our digital landscape emphasises several ideas and questions underpinning the themes of MetaWhat?

Regardless of thought, religion, background, creed, likes and dislikes, we all have something in common—we live on this planet. Gaia is our world, our planet, our land. And while disparity on this planet continues as a daily result of politics, this installation brings a new dimension to the exhibition and allows audiences to appreciate the planet we live on while also having a gateway to discuss matters of concern.

When talking about alternative worlds and the imaginations of infrastructure, it’s essential to ground visitors on and to the planet they live on.

While the metaverse is hyped with excitement and opportunities, one aspect that is not often discussed is the impact of this virtual world on our real-world environment. While advancements are still being made in the development of cryptocurrencies, the carbon footprint of the infrastructure of the metaverse is profound. So, while people might think a metaverse is a place where you can escape the realities of the real world, one thing you cannot hide from is climate change.

A couple of questions audiences should leave with are: How can we talk about virtual worlds when we can’t see our own planet? In today’s society, why are virtual worlds more preferable to so many people than our current reality?