The last couple of decades have seen an increasing obsession with everything virtual. In particular, the virtuality of video games is becoming every day more pervasive, blending borders with reality in fascinating but often unsettling ways. Grand Theft Auto V, first released in 2013 by developing house Rockstar North, is a fundamental chapter of this prehistory of virtuality. The video game is famously set within the fictitious state of San Andreas and its city Los Santos, a fairly accurate digital imitation of Southern California and the city of Los Angeles.
Since its first appearance in 1997, the GTA saga has gained vast popularity among the younger generations, establishing itself as the paradigm for a flourishing strain of open world video games. Here the player has the freedom to explore and interact with the virtual environment as well as take on programmed missions, the latter following a pre-constructed narrative of car-theft, crime and tough life that are characteristic of this saga. With the fast advancement in digital technologies, the game has benefitted from tremendous improvements enhancing its visuals and overall gamability. To the point that it became difficult for an untrained eye to recognise the difference between what is real and what is not. A direct consequence of this is the emergence of vast communities of fans based on the appreciation of GTA’s close similarity to its physical reference. Comparative images and overall generic snaps taken from the game are shared and collected online forums, recording the rising of a new culture of virtuality that is emblematic of these times.
At some point in the GTA saga’s development the introduction of Snapmatic, a function within the game that allows the players to “photograph” and create sharable photo galleries in the same way as one would in real life, opened up an opportunity for documentation of those virtual non-existent spaces that raises interesting questions around the essence of the photographic medium itself. This, as well as the intrinsic photogenic quality of those worlds, developed with specific aesthetic standards in mind, turns any virtual experience into a photographic experience worthy of being recorded and shared. Even more so because the nature of the game is a regenerative one, meaning that no matter what happens within its scenario, it will always go back to its original shape, without keeping any record of the consequences of a player’s conduct. In a way, for how detached from the real world those virtual events are, they still happen within the players perceived reality and therefore generate memories not too dissimilar from the ones of the real world.
In West of Here, Leonardo Magrelli acknowledges the glowing liminality between the two types of documentation – the traditional one of the real and the upcoming one of the virtual – by creating an anthology of urban landscapes that can stand for a visual reference of personal memories built upon the collective experience of GTA’s world. The work gathers material selected from what is already made available online by other users (snaps as well as screenshots), manipulates it according to old-school parameters of survey-like photographic narratives and explicitly links its outcome, the book, to the black-and-white photographic tradition of the ‘60s. Image titles, geolocation, layout and style of the book are all essential elements for mimicking such artistic tradition, raising relevant questions of legitimacy for those new virtual photographic practices and their relation to the History of Photography.
The making process behind West of Here seems to resonate more with one of the historians rather than one of the photographers. Magrelli openly gives up any authorial intention of producing the images, opting for the more appropriate practice of re-contextualisation and manipulation of what is already available online. By doing so, the artist allows the work to gain further significance in its ability to connect with the very nature of the “photographed” virtual reality. Being this a collectively-built, collectively-experienced and collectively-remembered world where the individual actions can only happen within a pre-coded collective destiny. The video game, as well as the book’s recollection of it, become a loose but relevant historical documentation of a real city and its iconic landmarks at a specific moment in time, 2011. This new form of historical document retains elements of the real world that can and will be traced back in history for their closeness to its source.
West of Here also succeeds in providing the viewer with an opportunity to pay closer attention to the meticulously duplicated environment of the video game. Once the first amazement wears off, the work allows a deconstruction of the magic behind the powerful resemblance to reality. At their own pace, viewers will step back from the playing mode they might be used to when interacting with this world, and focus on the specific aspects of a duplicative representation. This is when the small details emerge out of the fictitious close-resemblance to the real world, giving themselves out for what they are and nothing more. That is a sophisticated polygonal reflection of a ludicrous universe designed to generate in its players stronger and more straightforward emotional responses than real life.
The most significant details here are the imperfections of the real world so accurately (perfectly) replicated to constitute the solid ground upon which its resemblance to the real world is being granted. Fooled by those imperfections, both the viewer and the player fall into accepting as plausible a world-within-the-world experience that has been engineered to run in full automation. A place from which they are somehow excluded, cast out from its mechanisms and laws. An alien universe where the player is not subjugated to the ties of its functioning, therefore gaining an exclusive unlimited freedom that is incomparable to the one of its characters, because absolute and beyond any judgement, as well as the responsibility-charged one experienced in the real world.
Leonardo Magrelli’s work opens up a field of visual and conceptual research that has yet to fully show its spectrum of relevance, for both present and future cultures. By raising more questions than what our times are currently able to answer – of the legitimacy of the medium, of representation, of authenticity to name just a few – West of Here invites its viewers to start looking at virtuality like a place where memory-making, visual or not, is becoming an essential and meaningful practice. From gamed virtuality to lived-virtuality the step is small, and as Garcia Marquez says: “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it”. Whatever happens in the virtual world can be salvaged from its destiny of oblivion to become another brick of every individual’s palace of Memory, of self-defining history, blending with the events of the real world like never before.
Born in Rome in 1989, Leonardo Magrelli holds a BA in Design and Architecture from “La Sapienza” university in Rome. In 2010 starts collaborating in the organization of the International Rome’s Photography Festival, and with the photography publishing house Punctum Press. From 2014 starts focusing more and more on his own personal work. In the last years his works has been published in several printed and online photography magazines, and has been displayed in collective exhibitions and festivals. Since 2017 is part of the collective Vaste Programme together with Giulia Vigna and Alessandro Tini.