tabitha nikolai's virtual worlds explore trans identity and social isolation
The artist creates immersive digital environments where rules — and gender norms — don't exist.
Still from 'Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court'
A house burns in the distance. Crystals sprout from the ground and a cherry hangs in the sky. Suddenly the music changes and the ground is grassland, a tree on the horizon. It grows nearer but the music changes again and glaciers swallow the asteroid onscreen.
Tabitha Nikolai’s video game Utopia Without You, as exhibited in its ersatz bedroom space, is as much a jab at complacent liberals hiding away while marginalized communities suffer as it is an homage to a safe space Nikolai once knew. In her bedroom she could disappear into anime, comics, and video games. Depressed, withdrawn, experiencing gender dysphoria without a map, she couldn’t see her place in the conservative suburbs of Salt Lake City, so she found a home inside digital worlds.
“I would just play Pilotwings but not even in a competitive way,” says Nikolai at her home in Portland, Oregon, where she moved after college. “I just wanted to float around the island. I would land in the amusement park zone of that first nice island and let the ferris wheel go, and watch the waves go and listen to the music. I still listen to the music from Pilotwings and some of those [other games] to this day because they’re so soothing to me.”
Today Nikolai is creating digital worlds for others to inhabit, immersive environments more true to her artistic vision than physical installations. But her spaces are haunted. Sick Trans-sex Gloria — a standalone game exhibited alongside life-sized costumes it inspired—is an eerie and desolate place, its backstory pieced together through ghostly diary entries found among the broken concrete and torn rebar of a crumbling tower.
Despite its bleak veneer, there’s a happier message underneath. “After this apocalypse there’s these trans women and they can only get their estrogen through phytoestrogens in soy, and so they cultivate it,” Nikolai says. “The video game is the afterlife of this soy milk farm. It felt trans-futurist in a positive sense: What are future possibilities for weathering a cataclysm and developing a solidarity among trans people?”
Optimism is hard to find in her worlds. In Shrine Maidens of the Unseelie Court, a stained mattress, piles of trash bags, and basement clutter make up the home of a trans woman whose only connection to others is online because she’s isolated herself from the hostile world outside. Nikolai learned to accept herself as trans by watching the nascent Bronie scene coalesce in the usually venomous boards of 4Chan. Some people get lost in the internet, while some people find themselves on the internet, or, in Unseelie Court, by diving through a bathtub into the underwater lair of a giant, burning vulva.
Hardcore gamers dismiss Nikolai’s games because they don’t fit the standard definition. There’s no mission, there are no points, you can’t even shoot the giant spiders prowling the streets of Unseelie Court. The only controls are directional and there are no defined rules. Art crowds are excited by the spectacle of a novel medium but flounder when interacting with it.
“I like to do things that are accessible to people, but a lot of people that I care about communicating to, like other trans women, are not going to go to the Tate Modern, they’re going to sit at home and play on their computers,” she says. “At the same time I also acknowledge that other audiences are really alienated by digital stuff so I like to do things that bridge physical media with digital stuff.”
Her early experiments integrating video games into her installations included the Adyton Nail Salon, an updated Oracle of Delphi. While she read fortunes in the swirls of the water marble nails she was applying, her guests could scroll through a hacked level of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, an adaptation of a role playing game Nikolai grew up playing.
Nikolai loved the intimacy of holding hands and telling fortunes, but her art needed more freedom than traditional installation pieces could afford. “I’m really attracted to immersiveness as a strategy of situating people in the fantasy worlds I’m making,” she says, “and it just got to the point where it was not financially viable.”
One risk of enriching her exhibitions through technology is that the audience can be distracted. Ineffable Glossolalia is posh manor libraries and art collections, ransacked filing cabinets, lonely blue screen-lit bedrooms, and cold server rooms infected with bit rot. It’s an amalgam of Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel and the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, location of the world’s first sex-reassignment surgery, raided in 1933 by Nazis who burned its records in the street.
Nikolai wanted to talk about the lack of language to describe the trans experience, and how that language had been intentionally destroyed. “I did this VR piece that was about feeling the reverberations of archival loss over time, how you have to invent language or steal language from porn or the internet or hentai or whatever to learn to talk about yourself and make yourself,” she says. “But it’s hard because nobody really got to that content because the novelty of virtual reality is crashing over them.”
Novel or not, technology paves the path forward. As the 2019 New Media Fellow of Portland’s Open Signal arts center Nikolai will be designing a 3D environment, one which can be shared by multiple users or to serve as a virtual theater. “I want to stage this production of Lord of the Flies in a digitally reconstructed version of a dead shopping mall from the town I grew up in,” she says. “That will all happen in VRChat — which is a social VR web platform — so it’s like Second Life but people can be in it with VR or they can just be on their computers.”
It will be a fitting homecoming for the artist who once traded in her real world self for a video game avatar, more comfortable as pixels than flesh and blood. But this time Nikolai, embodied as her true self, has digitized the suburbs of Salt Lake City to better suit her world.
“I like to work in modes that feel honest to me, which is stuff that sustained me growing up. I grew up playing tons of video games. I want to be able to produce those things because that speaks to the audience that I care about. People like me, I guess.”
Tabitha Nikolai’s video games are available for download on itch.io