Category Archives: Cricoterie

The art of failure

Cricoterie is a Virtual Reality program that explores aesthetics of failure, of things not working as expected, of lack of control. This was not necessarily what we intended. But art tends to happen exactly where the artist failed, where they had to fake things, or where they ran into the limitations of their medium: in the simulation, in the pretense, in the imagination, in the discrepancy between the achieved and the desired.

In the thirty years that we have been using computers creatively, they have remained promises that never delivered. The hardware never became fast enough and the software never useful enough. In fact each and every technology we have used has destroyed itself before it could even be explored. From desktop publishing and CD Roms to the world wide web, from HTML web sites to Flash to executables, from desktops to laptops to mobile devices, from to videogames and now VR.

Every technological invention seems to be destined to fail. Almost always for a single reason: profit. New technologies are created within the capitalist system. But they remain underdeveloped precisely because of the commercial context.

Cricoterie is the first project we finished after abandoning both the medium of videogames and the practice of commercial distribution, in favor of a more sincere and focused approach to artistic creation. We’re proud of Cricoterie like any parent would be. But we are also skeptical. It’s hard to not make games in an interactive medium. And it’s hard not to make contemporary art in general. We love Virtual Reality. But there will not be enough time to explore it before this one fails too.

There is nothing we can do but accept this. We have to accept that our work is in fact to a large extent about failure. Not just our own failure to live up to the artistic quality we aspire to. Not just the failure of technology and its capitalist context. But ultimately also about the fatal failure of humanity to avoid being the cause of the sixth extinction.

Working with technology becomes a very melancholic activity. We are creating beauty with things that are destined to crumble. Drawings in the sand. Only far less poetic and a million times more difficult. Never to be able to reach a goal. Always falling short. Always losing. It’s a humbling sort of work. And perhaps this humility is exactly what is needed. Maybe there is some beauty in this weakness, in this failure. Maybe there is love to be found, or at least sympathy when we can recognize that we are all massive failures, the few that win perhaps most of all.

So we connect back to the inspiration behind Cricoterie: the theater of death of the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor with its themes of war, holocaust, suffering and death and its aesthetics of poverty and misery. We did not relate to his work when we first encountered it but when we started exploring it we began to see if not beauty, then at least some kind of honesty.

Our horribly destructive era does not deserve beautiful art, art that celebrates the human spirit, the beauty of nature or grand spiritual aspirations. We get the art we deserve. The best we can do is steer away from cynicism and to seek a sort of forgiveness through art, perhaps even redemption. A new form of praying.

Solving this problem is impossible. Solving problems has caused enough trouble already, anyway. Let’s just slow down and look this monster of our own creation in the eyes. And try to forgive each other.

On errors and objects

On the eve of the premiere of Cricoterie in Warsaw.

Computers have a reputation of being sterile machines that only do what you tell them to do. But anyone who has attempted to program knows that in fact they are wild animals that stubbornly resist taming. Software runs on a computer processor in real time. It does things on its own, such as responding to a user’s input. There is a tendency in computer programming to limit the inherent potential for autonomous behavior of software in favor of streamlining the experiences that its human users have with it. But computers are wild beasts and more often than not computer programs will produce errors or bugs. It is when such errors happen that we feel some of the energy that resembles life in our machines.

Inspired by Tadeusz Kantor’s leveling of the distinctions between props and actors on the theater stage, Auriea and I created a program that attempts to demonstrate this strange form of life that takes place on the computer’s processor. After all, every object in realtime 3D is made from the same material: vertices, edges, faces and textures can take the form of a table, a chair, a machine or a person. And yet I do not think of those objects as representations of objects in the real world. Instead I consider them to be objects in the real world themselves. What happens in the computer is part of the real world that we happen in.

Virtual Reality is a technology that allows us to physically enter the realm of software. As opposed to flat screens, VR does not require any imagination. It puts you right in the middle of the virtual world. You don’t need to imagine how big something is or how far away it is. You can simply see it with your own body as reference and walk towards it.

Cricoterie confronts you with objects derived from Kantor’s theater. The behavior of these objects is subjected to the laws of physics. Or at least to a mathematical simulation of these laws, in and of itself a computer program. As a computer program, this simulation is imperfect. It is similar enough to feel familiar to a human user. But things always go wrong. Objects do not fall correctly, they seem too light or too heavy, they intersect with other objects or start shaking violently. I did not program this to happen. But I embrace these errors precisely because they make the objects seem more alive, even if it is a sort of life that may seem alien to us.


I am very proud of Cricoterie. In the way that I might be proud of a pet or a child or a friend. As a creation it approaches more than anything I have made before my feelings about art that uses the computer as its medium. Not for the display of images or the reproduction of sound, or the entertainment of users. But as the creation of a form of life. Or, perhaps, the making visible to humans of the life that exists in cyberspace (akin, perhaps, to how Michelangelo may have felt about a sculpture being contained in a raw block of marble).

All of the environments and characters that Auriea and I have created in our videogames are dear to me. I do not think of them as pictures or symbols that serve the presentation of some concept or story. They are living beings that I am eager to observe and get to know. I delight in the errors that they make, the things they decide to do in spite of my sincere programming attempts to prevent them. To see someone play with Cricoterie is always an adventure. I do not now what is going to happen. And I am immensely curious as to how my creatures will treat the user this time.

This is not to say that there is no vital role to play for the human user. Cricoterie presents objects to you, objects often filled with cultural and social meaning, and lets you manipulate them however you see fit. It is in the confrontation with these objects and specifically in observing your own response to them that the art happens.


While I was creating Cricoterie, I was introduced to Object-Oriented Ontology. OOO is a philosophical school of thought that calls itself realist. By this is meant that, as strangely opposed to a lot of philosophy, it holds that objects exist even when humans are not interacting with them. And everything is an object. Thoughts are objects as much as cans of beer and rocks are. Even feelings, relationships and events are objects. Crucial to OOO is the rejection of the possibility to actually know all there is to know about these objects. Since that would reduce them to an existence that depends on human consideration. This stubborn existence of objects beyond our control demands respect.

Encountering these ideas explained a lot to me about how I feel about the software I create and the virtual objects in it. And also about why I consider this attitude a worthy aspect of art making. Apparently my ideas about software can be expanded to include the world outside of the computer as well. I have always considered the virtual and the real to exist in the same universe. But OOO helped my realize that this is not because the virtual resembles the real but in fact because, on closer inspection, the real resembles the virtual. To understand that this is not a degradation (from life to computer simulation) but rather an opening up to a much broader field of experience (somewhat reminding me of my brief encounter with Buddhism earlier this year) has been eye-opening.

The philosophers in the OOO school will probably scoff at this, but I very much enjoy the mystical qualities that even banal objects acquire in my eyes by existing beyond the grasp of humans. There’s a certain spirituality in this stubborn objecthood of things, a certain peace. If only because it allows God himself to return to our existence in the form of an object, next to all the other objects. Hello, God, how have you been?


―Michaël Samyn.


Cricoterie: a virtual theater of death

Virtual Reality is bound to die. We don’t believe that the technology can survive in the current sociopolitical context. That’s why it provides a perfect medium for a project inspired by theater of Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990). He referred to his work as Theater of Death. Is there a better way of describing Virtual Reality?

Cricoterie is named after Kantor’s theater company Cricot 2. It does not aim to reproduce any particular play or represent Kantor’s work in some way. But it is inspired by his spirit. And many elements are directly taken from stage props and characters that recur in his plays.

It is especially the license to be completely sincere that excites us. A sincerity that exposes its fragility in the absurd and the ridiculous (“cricot” is the reverse of “it’s a circus” in Polish). Kantor’s work is haunted by death and explores the ambiguity offered by the stage between living actors, static characters and limp mannequins. This haunting was illustrated acutely by the director’s persistent presence on the stage during each play. He seemed to surround himself with spectacles from his memories and dreams, a sort of self torture in an desire for catharsis, perhaps.

In Cricoterie the VR user performs the role of the director. Objects and characters are moved and manipulated by virtual hands to create dramatic scenes on a simulated theater stage. A wardrobe supplies a never ending stream of props. Every time you open its doors, a new element appears. Some of these are inanimate objects, others life-size ball-jointed dolls whose life-like eyes stare directly at you, all inspired by Kantor’s world.

Cricoterie in its current state

In computer simulations such as those presented in Virtual Reality objects are neither alive nor dead. The wooden cross is as alive as the marching soldier. We emphasize this in Cricoterie by driving all animation with physics simulation. The awkwardness of the motions and the many errors this produces greatly intensify the tragedy.

Art residency in Kantor’s former summer residence in southern Poland

The initial prototype for Cricoterie was created during a residency in Kantor’s former summer home in Hucisko, near Krakòw. This VR prototype consisted of a wardrobe on stage from which the user, equipped with VR motion controllers, could grab objects such as a cross, a chair, the bride and a soldier, and move them around on stage. Over the past few weeks, we have added a cage, gallows and a horse skeleton in a wheeled frame (all directly taken from original stage props). A major addition to the interaction in the piece is scaling. By holding a button on the VR controller the scale of the world is increased or reduced. This allows the user to move around with giant steps. And when holding an object while releasing the button, the object retains its relative scale and becomes either tiny or gigantic. The effect is astoundingly dramatic in virtual reality, and almost imperceptible in screenshots.

Tadeusz Kantor: Impossible Monuments (1970)

Cricoterie is an incredibly satisfying project for us. Not only because of the subject matter and the technology but also because of the way we are approaching production. We work more slowly now than we did when we were making videogames (a necessity for our health). This provides a real boost for both motivation and inspiration. We also work “without a script”. Rather than breaking our heads over a grand master plan and then producing many little puzzle pieces towards a glorious end result, we allow the prototype to inspire us and we work in collaboration with the actors and props on the virtual stage. There’s a certain mood that we do strive for, certain rhythms and flows that we want to implement, and long lists of ideas. But we’re not forcing anything. And ideally, for us, this project would never end, and we would just present different stages in its evolution to the public. This permanent state of unfinishedness seems highly appropriate for interactive art, where it is the spectator who creates the spectacle. In this sense, Cricoterie is merely a toolbox, a playset. It’s a stage with props and actors. And you have to make the play.