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'GTA V' Sets the Stage for an Exploration of Racism, Identity, and 21st Century Youth

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy's 'FF Gaiden: Alternative' uses the virtual world of gaming to tackle the writings of lost plays of Frantz Fanon in relation to contemporary youth.


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

The virtual world of Grand Theft Auto V is the backdrop for a new work by British artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy. The work is the video piece FF Gaiden: Alternative, currently on show at The Gallery, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. It's partly inspired by the lost plays of psychiatrist and anti-colonial radical Frantz Fanon, and forms part of their ongoing Finding Fanon series, an exploration into the writings of the influential 20th century post-colonial thinker and theorist.

The work also features conversations with 16- to 19-year-olds about growing up in the 21st century—where they see themselves in the future, identity in the virtual environment, relationships—which have been turned into characters set within the GTA world. The name FF Gaiden: Alternative is also a nod to anime, another interest for the pair, as in Japanese "gaiden" refers to a side story, a spin-off narrative set within a larger fictional world.


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

"With the Finding Fanon series we wanted to think about the nature of identity in the digital age, how we reconcile a history of violence and exploitation, of colonialism and cultural appropriation, with a present day reality, a friendship between two people—one white, one black," the pair explain to The Creators Project (Achiampong is British-Ghanaian, Blandy is British). "The Grand Theft Auto environment seemed like a perfect place to explore that."

The film forms part of a trilogy, where previous parts have included using conversations with veteran criminals who have spent time in jail, a film called Control, and another, Delete, featuring conversations with paperless migrants.

For this new work, the pair again took advantage of GTA V's ability to let you create charaters and film them with all the tools of a big budget film crew at your disposal. Steady cams, cranes, drones, and dollys were used to record scenes of the characters—utilizing the landscapes of the game and distortng them into empty dystopias—which were then manipulated in GTA Editor to change camera angles, etc. 


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

"It’s a flexible system, but constrained by many of the inherent biases in the game," notes Blandy. "For example, when working with the migrants in Oslo, it became evident that there are no head-scarves as an option, and Larry could never accurately portray his hairstyle." 

The voices are those of the teens the pair conversed with to develop the characters. But these virtual characters are lost and alone in this huge open world, swimming and sinking in a vast sea, standing still in a rain-soaked city street, or running without a destination. The imagery combined with the soundtrack and voiceovers makes for haunting, melancholy scenes.


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

Achiampong is responsible for the music, creating a synth soundtrack inspired by the music from the duo's favorite dystopian sci-fi, like TerminatorBlade Runner, video games like Super Metroid, and John Carpenter movies. They note how while these soundtracks could be eerie, they often built vast soundscapes that were "alien but with a strange warmth."

There is also, albeit knowing, youthful optimism too and these expressions find equal with Fanon's humane theories and writings. "The young people are seeking ways to understand the world," the pair explains. "And Fanon offers a strong vision for a common humanity, for a way out of the cycle of oppression, exploitation and mutual hatred that we’ve been locked in for millennia." 


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

The narratives in the Finding Fanon series are also what-ifs, expressions of the three lost plays that Fanon wrote but never published or performed, and that he ordered to be destroyed. "The idea that there were these fictions, containing possible answers to the post-colonial condition, written by such a powerful theorist, led us to idea for a search for these lost plays. The Finding Fanon works are really sketches for what those plays could be."

It all informs the idea of the pair wanting to explore complicated historical and contemporary issues—racism, cultural identity, how racial prejudice impacts psychology, post-colonialism—through a vernacular they interact with on a daily basis. "Screens, music, video games. These are all part of our lives, so it makes sense to use them in our work," they say. But they also enjoy the aesthetic of the gaming environment, and the sculptural and painterly qualities filtered through the anything-is-possible pixels of the digital world.


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy. FF Gaiden: Alternative, 2016, HD Digital Video, 1920 × 1080. Image courtesy of Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

"Sculpture is all about space, manipulating and changing space, and here we're working with virtual space, a 'found object,' the found object of the GTA game world," they note. "And the vistas we find hark back to the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is a space synonymous with violence, but actually full of beauty and sublime vistas, as well as that horrendous violence. But it made sense to use an arena of violence to talk about cultural violence. And it was a space we could easily transform into a depopulated dystopia, a post-apocalyptic world, perhaps a clean state, after the end of history (an impossibility, but a seductive idea). And it's a space that many people inhabit everyday; a modern meeting place, a crucible for contemporary identity."


Larry Achiampong & David Blandy

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy's FF Gaiden: Alternative is on 4 May to 16 June at The Gallery, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle.

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