Glitchscapes are a series of large-scale photographic prints of screenshots made while exploring the landscape of the massive multiplayer online videogame World of Warcraft. This digital realm of Azeroth is the setting for millions of people to come together to slay dragons, collect treasure, dance in castle courtyards, and engage in all the other tropes of the epic fantasy genre. WoW’s landscape is an endless layering of the art of a phantasmagoric past, built on pastiches of brooding Romantic painting, sweeping cinema melees, bulging comics heroes, and historical landscape photography’s grand vistas, all seamlessly rendered to produce a realistic sense of space for players to explore. It is also a place undergirded by the most sophisticated networking and graphics technology money can buy—technology desperate to hide itself behind crumbling castles and haunted forests.
My initial forays into photographing in World of Warcraft (a project that would expand to a six chapter series, including Glitchscapes, under the overarching title Travels: A Photographic Landscape Show) was inspired by Micael Nerlich via Alan Sekula’s observation that “adventure” and “venture capital” share the same root in the activity of Medieval merchants and their guards. The photographs in initial chapters mimic traditional photography to reveal the echoes of colonialist imagery’s tropes in early landscape photography and the most sparkling future-forward renderings of place in the technology industry, videogames. From Timothy O’Sulivan’s albumen prints made lugging gear through the hills on donkey-back on military surveys into the American West in the 1860s straight through to a screenshot of Hillsbrad Foothills in 2006, there is a shared visual vocabulary of bounty, adventure, fertility, glory, and profit—that these places are yours for the taking.
But as I alluded to above, all of this assumes that the technology is working perfectly, which as anyone who has spent more than a few moments with sophisticated technology can tell you, is rare. The computer graphics card I was using to make my screenshots was especially prone to profound disagreements with the code of the early versions of World of Warcraft. One moment I’d be pretending that my mouse and keyboard was basically an 8x10” camera on a tripod, the next the world would shatter into shards of stained glass textures and slabs of geometry. Like the facade falling off Disneyland’s Matterhorn, the punctuating moment of the glitch, owing to its sudden glimpse at the frantic infrastructure required to simulated the real, can be more awe-inspiring or uproariously disarming than the most perfectly rendered magic spell or wittiest dialogue. The images in Glitchscapes exist in this disarming moment. Each broken landscape calls attention to the fact that realism in computer games is a thin illusion primarily constructed from complex permutations of polygons. By photographically documenting these moments of accidental fracture, of dissonance between code and hardware, between instructions and performance, the Glitchscapes highlight the amazingly intricate (and labor intensive) systems on which the facade of videogames’ whimsical realms is hung.