Crochet eyeballs, anyone?
A naked, mostly armless woman with neon pink hair lurches towards me, supported by a single hand emerging from her mouth. In another corner, another woman stares at me with bleeding eye sockets containing not eyes but faces, blue and pink, projecting from her body at skewed angles. Elsewhere yet another figure kneels, an arm where their head should be, dangling a rose in front of a body dripping with blood. It is unsettling. I am unsettled.
I’m walking around “Not Alone”, a gallery devoted to Rosa Francesca’s work, designed by “Frogbeat2” and recommended to me by Rosa herself.
She also told me about how her art wound up hanging on OWW’s walls, the merits of presenting art in a virtual space, and how her fascination with vision took her from crocheted eyeballs to surreal digital portraits.
Rosa started off as a regular OWW player, “after randomly coming across it in an ad”.
“At the time I was dealing with some really bad chronic pain and needed a new game to obsess over whilst cooped up in bed, and it was the perfect antidote! I became artistically involved after I found the art of Jessica Ballantyne in the game and reached out to her to buy some prints. She connected me to the creators of OWW who asked me to add some of my art into the game - as an avid player at this point, I was super excited about the opportunity!”
For Rosa, it wasn’t just a chance to see her work hung around the game - it was also the first time her 3D visual art had made it to any walls, virtual or otherwise.
Nowadays she’s one of the game’s most celebrated artists, and I seem to find her digital eyeballs peering at me from every other gallery I visit. It’s not hard to see why. Rosa’s work is undeniably striking and often plays with your perceptions of the human form. Limbs are mismatched or elongated, bodies are drenched in vibrant colours and eyes crop up where they oughtn’t.
When I asked Rosa why women and eyeballs dominate so much of her art, she told me it had to do with self-expression: “I love including femininity in my work as an expression of my identity as a woman and a lesbian”, she said, as well as “a celebration of my own body in general.” She also draws inspiration from medical illustration and anatomical art, which fascinate her - but nothing can top a good eyeball.
“I'm not sure how they came to be such a big part of my work! I've been fascinated by eyes even before I became an artist (I used to make crocheted clothes with crochet eyes as embellishments), so it makes sense that it's worked its way into my art too. I want to look more critically at the imagery of eyeballs and vision in my future work, and am particularly interested in optical illusions and how our brains trick us into seeing the 'wrong' things.”
A few steps around the Not Alone gallery are all you need to appreciate Rosa’s interest in physiological trickery. Another common motif sees arms plunge into bodies and come out the other side, protruding from backs, sides, and mouths. In Not Alone, those images come paired with Frogbeat’s own additions, a practice which Rosa cites as one of the most surprising things about having her work included in the game. That figure with the multicolored faces-instead-of-eyes, for instance, has an Egyptian statue crouched right next to it with blue and pink toilet rolls where its own eyes should be.
They’re playful reflections of the world inside the artwork, which Rosa sees as “almost creating installations around it”.
I was curious about whether seeing her work in the virtual world and how players interact with it, might have changed Rosa’s artistic approach. How do you create for an audience with a creative bent of its own?
“Since the pandemic, I haven't been able to take part in many physical exhibitions, so I'm continuously considering how to present my work in virtual spaces, and Occupy White Walls has definitely helped me explore. In terms of the art itself, in the past, I've mainly made visual art for myself, and the game has encouraged me to think about how others might view and experience it. I don't know if my art has changed that much, but I definitely think more about the motivations behind each piece.”
The pandemic might have taken away many traditional display spaces, but it’s also pushed artists towards a virtual sphere where they’ve got a direct line to their audience. It’s intriguing to think about the advantages that interconnectivity brings to creativity - but connectedness can be its own reward, too. Rosa isn’t just an artist who plays OWW. She’s also an active member of the community, from sharing secrets in the tips and tricks Discord channel to chatting about her art.
“I've loved being a part of the OWW community! In the past, I've been put off joining gaming communities because of hearing how toxic they can be, particularly towards women, but what I love about OWW is that typically everyone is so welcome and there's no cliques or hierarchies.”
As someone who covers games for a living, I’ve jumped into my fair share of Discord servers where toxicity does indeed run rife. OWW isn’t the only oasis in the swamp of rude (and yep, often sexist) gamers, but it is a particularly lush one. Largely, I think, because it’s explicitly built around people making cool stuff and sharing it with each other. As Rosa puts it: “everybody wants to help out their fellow players and collaborate!”.
If you haven’t already, why not join them?