F.U.V. with Don Hanson, Sammie Veeler and Benny Lichtner of New Art City

Off Site Project
16 min readAug 30, 2022

Adapting Roman architect Vitruvius’s three characteristics of good architecture, outlined in his treatise ‘De Architectura’ more than 2,000 years ago, the F.U.V. interview series builds discourse around online curatorial platforms and projects, addressing the experience of UX design as well as the human structures that underpin the production and maintenance of these spaces.

Firmatis (aka Durability)It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition; Utilitas (aka Utility)It should be useful and function well for the people using it; Venustatis (aka Beauty)It should delight people and raise their spirits.

Each question is marked with a F, a U, or a V to denote which of Vitruvius’s three principals it was written in relation to. Text in bold is by the interviewee. Collectively the F.U.V. series intends to explore multiple interpretations of these terms by focusing on various facets of curatorial practice online.

Landing page of New Art City, showing where to ‘Sign Up’, recent ‘Events & Openings’, how to filter ‘Recent Exhibitions’ and advertising the ‘New Art City Festival 2022’.

For the third interview of the F.U.V. series, we spoke with Don Hanson, Sammie Veeler and Benny Lichtner, three figures of the five person team who’ve grown New Art City into an essential and accessible online exhibition making toolkit. Despite being little over two years old, the platform has gained an impressive reputation thanks to its smart foundations of functionalities (such as a first-person and multiplayer 3D builder) and how it has balanced a mix of artist led projects, university degree shows and partnerships with physical galleries. In our chat we spoke to them about the origins of New Art City; how they understand and approach accessibility; to what extend partnerships have been important to their growth; and whether the platforms building-blocks contribute towards a specific aesthetic brand.

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(U) We’d like to open by asking whether you can illuminate the processes and drivers that sat behind the creation of New Art City? As a platform that permits a community of exhibition creation it’s uniquely placed and very different to many other online galleries, was it created in response to a specific set of problems or needs you’d noticed?

Don Hanson: The first prototype for New Art City was built in March of 2020, as a reaction to the immediate need for online exhibition space, especially one that could bring people together in real time. I (d0n.xyz) had been researching ways of exhibiting and indexing internet art while experimenting with 3D on the web for my own practice while working on my MFA at San Jose State University. My research track matched with the needs of the artist community, allowing a quick prototyping and feedback loop to get the first iteration of the toolkit running. The initial team was me, Benny Lichtner and Martin Bbela, designing and developing the base infrastructure and multiplayer features. The team grew later that year to include Sammie Veeler who now runs our gallery programs and residency.

The first major beta test within a month after making the prototype was with the graduating class of digital art students at my university, SJSU, who used New Art City to build and host their degree show. With around 30 artists and six connected spaces it was the first large group show, proving to us that a virtual space for collaboration and installing work together could be a fun and useful tool. That show is still online, a time capsule of what was possible in the beginning of the project.

Pivot . Point’ (2020) BFA Digital Media, San Jose State University. ft: Angelabelle Abarientos, Madison Aldaco, Guadalupe Almaguer-Vallejo, “Bryker” Bryant Baker, Antony Bui, Christian Calinawan, Mateo Campos, Jacob Cassell, Sarahi Cuevas, Ianne Racela De Leon, Krystal Alexis Deh, Yi Du, Dabria Fong, Ying Gao, Austin Glueck, Martin Guevara Jr., Eric LaMothe, Clarisse Lara, Calvin Lee, Charli Liu, Kohl Meek, Juan Moreno, “Big Cheese” Chi Nguyen, Jacqueline Regalado, Nhi Tran, Lillian Le Wang, Anna Wong, Guoxun Wu, Jasmine Zamora.

Growing the project meant deciding on our values and what our guiding principles are. Instead of positioning New Art City as a tech platform, we always wanted to be seen as a gallery and toolkit first, with the goal of solving problems for digital artists working online. Unlike a large corporate platform, we wanted the website to operate more like an artist-run DIY space that’s equipped with the best technology to show digital artworks. By addressing the limitations we as digital artists routinely encounter in physical space (lack of accessible space for experimental work, barriers with technology, reaching an audience, immutable physical setting) we aim to make a space that is truly welcoming and exciting to show work in.

Since we started there have been over 140 public exhibitions, and works uploaded by over 3800 individual artists.

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(F) Amongst many things, what’s really interesting in the origin story of New Art City is that it developed in the context of a university collaboration — or at least was tested in relation to an institution and the idea of a degree show. Can you talk a little about that process, whether it was readily accepted as how the graduating class would show their work that year or whether there was any hesitancy?

DH: It was a very natural progression. Before the project started I had been working on an independent study to create an internet art database, overseen by my professor and academic advisor Rhonda Holberton. Once the focus of my independent study shifted from that project onto the prototype for New Art City, professor Holberton was there to connect the project with the undergraduate students who she was also working with to produce their degree show. The students were excited about it and enabled us to quickly learn and build for their needs.

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‘It was a Roadside Picnic (Beyond Balck Orientalism)’ (2021) by Salma Noor, w. Megan Broadmeadow, Brandon Covington Sam-Sumana, Nicholas Delap, Ben Hall, Nayu Kim, Kinnari Saraiya.

(U) You’ve described New Art City as an “accessible toolkit for building virtual installations,” one that has been designed with those “disadvantaged by structural injustice” in mind. Could you describe the iterative development and what steps or models of engagement you’ve used to ensure people’s views and opinions are factored into your decision making?

Sammie Veeler: One of our core vision points is the idea that accessibility is intersectional; so in the context of showing art online and accessing online art experiences, geography, socioeconomic status, technological proficiency, and physical perceptual ability intersect with one another to advantage some and disadvantage others. Unlike physical galleries, space is an infinite resource for us and the finite resource is time. Building a curatorial framework around accessibility and redistribution was a way to prioritize our effort and ground our decision making in simple principles. The goal is to avoid reproducing the inequities of the physical art world as we develop a space for born-digital art.

To better develop accessible experiences and authoring tools specifically for people with disabilities, we formed an accessibility panel with four experts in the field of disability arts. The purpose of this panel is to create a body to help us set goals, to which we are accountable as we work towards achieving them. They also will help distribute a commission budget specifically to artists with disabilities. This is a first step toward involving more community governance in our decision making process as we grow. Engaging the expertise of communities we aim to serve is an important part of our approach. We cannot nor are we expected to do this alone.

‘Origins’ (2021) curated by Black Beyond. ft: Zainab Aliyu, Vitoria Cribb, Mika Gadsden, Asha Hassan Nooli, JAZSALYN, Kiara Kalinda, Amirah, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Mputu, Maliyamungu Muhande, Olivia M. Ross, Terri Wright and Akeema Zane

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(D) In terms of ensuring New Art City has reached the intersectional and disadvantaged communities you mention, what tools have you relied on? For example is there a specific social media that has been particularly important in ensuring your reach isn’t limited or doesn’t end up being clustered.

SV: Word of mouth has been our main way of reaching audiences. The majority of people who inquired with New Art City over the past two years spoke to one of us personally. Opening this space has created fertile ground for acts of solidarity and discovery of shared purpose. We are forthright about our mission both with institutions and individuals, and our collaborators always share our vision of a gatebroken art world. Funding work by artists in the communities we want to serve is an authentic way to attract others in those communities. We exist in response to tools which are used by artists, but not developed for them. While Discord is where we gather to support users and Instagram has gained us awareness, neither tool feels integrated in our work. We dream of a future where synchronous and asynchronous communication can happen on New Art City itself.

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(U) Of all the tools and clever user-interface applications featured within New Aart City, are there any that you’re particularly proud of or that you’ve seen become more important than you expected them to be?

SV: From the beginning we decided not to behave as a feature-forward space. Close contact with the community means that the features we do develop are a response to observations of what is needed. Student projects and our residency program are great ways to get specific feedback on how to expand features.

We’re proud of the way artists work within the constraints of our system– there is enough there to be creative, but not so much that it is overwhelming. We diverge from game engines like Unity or Unreal because we are designed to perform well on the web and on mobile, so it forces exhibition designers to think like game designers in the 90s and find creative ways to make their exhibitions perform well. This returns to the idea that accessibility is intersectional; developing for gaming computers or VR headsets more or less forecloses the possibility that people in the Global South need to see your exhibition.

Screen-recording of the New Art City Info Center ‘How-To Guides: How to Improve Performance’ page.

Benny Lichtner: I think the lack of collision detection is worth mentioning here. It’s more a lack of a feature than a feature, but it’s kind of rare to find this particular hole in virtual spaces. People often ask for collisions, so it will probably become a feature, but it’s been pretty interesting and eye-opening to see what happens when you can always move anywhere — inside of, through, and behind anything. There’s a lot of surprises there.

One feature that isn’t quite released yet that I’m very excited about is the ability to export and download your show as a directory of HTML, CSS, Javascript, and assets. As an artist, I can’t stand the idea of working in a medium that could evaporate at any minute. Yes, ephemerality is great, but so is object permanence, history, and archiving. The economic world of the web is so fucked up these days, it’s practically the norm now that things you do online don’t really belong to you, and can’t be easily transferred anywhere else. I’m happy we can be doing something that resists this trend.

SV: We often repeat this idea that “culture > code.” The goal is not to teach people how to use New Art City. Using our toolkit should be the easiest part of making a virtual exhibition. We try to provide documentation that helps users build general skills in spatial practice and find strategies of bringing the multimedia files on their computers online in an authentic way. Our documentation includes basic guides on architecture and texturing in free software like Blender alongside virtual curation strategies which link to examples of those strategies in practice. The skills artists might develop to make something on New Art City should be transferable outside of our ecosystem.

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‘Indeterminate Delineation’ (2020) curated by Maya Alam, UPenn. ft: Merrick E Castillo, Gordon Cheng, Nicholas Grant Houser, Lauren Heidi Hunter, Shiqi Liu, Joseph Robert Mathews, Sharvari Arvind, Mhatre, Danny Ortega, Nengjie Qu, Sami Samawi, Nahye Shin, Bhavana Shyamsunder, Katharine Elizabeth Vavilov, Congqi Wang, Tianshuo Wang, Hanqing Yao, Xiaoran Zhang and Yuan Zheng.

(V) When loading an image or video file into the toolkit’s software, a number of pre-set shape types (panel/box/sphere) help build a world without the user needing to know how to sculpt their own obj. files. Do you consider these pre-sets to have given New Art City its own unique aesthetic? And after two years do you still see the community employing them in innovative or unexpected ways?

BL: I think you will probably find at least one sphere textured with a simple rectangular image in almost every New Art City show (someone should figure out if this is really true). I think the early show Indeterminate Delineations (2020) took this to an extreme. This is one of the oldest features, and it’s often one of the first things people try when they start building a space. I love how surprising it is — even if you are painfully familiar with your 2D image, you never know what it’s going to look like warped onto a sphere. It becomes immediately new and unfamiliar. It’s kind of like a ‘Hello World’ for this medium. It’s really important to know how easy it is to surprise yourself. And approaching a blob, watching it get bigger and bigger as you get closer and it occupies more and more of your visual field, and then finally entering the blob, being immersed in it — that’s a very specific narrative experience.

SV: The unifying feature of our aesthetic that I appreciate the most is that these are virtual worlds that tend to look like they were created with human hands. I view AAA game worlds somewhat like European academic painting — these worlds don’t show their brush strokes. By contrast, New Art City has a feeling of virtual impressionism. Place-making is possible and often more resonant without the hyper-realistic approach.

Left: ‘The Last of Us 2’ (2020) Naughty Dog; Right: ‘Seven Hills: An American Landscape’ (1818) Joshua Shaw.

Before I knew how to 3D model, the sphere and cube primitives were a helpful starting point to convert the media files already on my computer into architecture. It is pretty common to see folks without a 3D background using these affordances in the same way. I am inspired by the fact that each show is extremely different from every other one — the work hasn’t gotten stale or repetitive despite the constraints.

Since last year I’ve also maintained a world called Miss Sammie’s Shape Garden (2021) where visitors can click any shape to download it — it started mostly as plants and assets I made for client projects, but I’ve also added galleries, flashlights, TVs, and landscapes. It’s a delight to see those shapes in new exhibitions and we’re advancing this idea further by creating a public shape library where any artist can choose to make their 3D models accessible to others.

‘Miss Sammie’s Shape Garden’ (2021) curated by Sammie Veeler.

One thing I realized early on is that every local machine is an archive; no matter whether an artist is digital or analog, art must be digitized in order to be posted about. New Art City provides a way to organize this information spatially.

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Left: ‘Piazza d’Italia’ (1913) Giorgio de Chirico; Right: ‘Part of a spacious and magnificent Harbor for the use of the ancient Romans opening onto a large market square…’ (ca 1749–50) Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

(V) That idea of New Art City as an archive or spatially arranged assets oddly triggers some recollections of the imagined architecture of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (an Italian architect and archaeologist from the 18th century who composed a body of terrifyingly vast and surreal mediaeval interiors) as well as Giorgio de Chirico (who two centuries later spread architectural components out across expansive deserts). Do you ever consider New Art City as a collective body of imagining? Separate spaces but ones that co-exist in the creation of a larger, cavernous and incompletable world.

BL: “A collective body of imagining” sounds like a fantastic description of New Art City to me :). I also think of Arakawa and Madeline Gins’ architectures for prolonging life, as well as some of their sketches of impossible architectures. I really hope someone reimagines or archives their impossible sketches in NAC. (There is a channel in our discord named impossible-space-ideas that doesn’t get nearly enough traffic.)

Your phrase “Architectural components spread out across expansive deserts” reminds me of the time we discovered a bug where some uploaded artworks just didn’t make it anywhere. They were in the system, but they didn’t belong to anybody’s world — they were just in the void. I think it was Don who spun up a lost + found space so we could take a look at what was floating out there.

The vastness of New Art City, in terms of both the number of shows, as well as the virtual space occupied by each show, causes me some anxiety. We need to work towards making the vastness of the totality of exhibitions much more accessible. Libraries and other archives have been doing this kind of thing for centuries though, so we’re lucky to have some people to lean on there. But we also need to make the vastness of each individual show much more navigable. Surprisingly few exhibitions have anything resembling a linear structure. Alice Yuan Zhang’s eat me (2021) is one of the few exceptions. We started with world-building tools. Now we need story-telling tools.

Left: ‘Bioscleave House, East Hampton’ (2008) Arakawa and Madeline Gins; Right: ‘eat me’ (2021) by Alice Yuan Zhang.

SV: The act of spatializing certainly imparts a specific flavor to information archived in New Art City. To quote Annet Dekker, “the shape of an archive constrains and enables the content it encloses.”

I love these contrasting metaphors of dense and dispersed architectures in your example, which touches on the impact of infinite scale in New Art City worlds. These infinities are recursive; not only is an individual space infinite, the number of possible spaces is infinite as well. Unlimited space tends to invite speculation on concepts of utopia and spiritual transits. We see a lot of altars and shrines.

Left: ‘RENDERING REAL’ (2022) curated by the Asian American International Film Festival. ft: Close Isn’t Home, Think!Chinatown, Macro Waves, Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong, Yun Hye, Self Evident, Debbie Ding, Tif Ng, Yuge Zhou, Hwa-Jeen Na, Blair Kanghyuk Naujok, Qianqian YE, Broad Target, the Korean Image Archive, Kenji Kojima, David Han, Christina Ong, Mark Ramos and Alice Yuan Zhang; Right: ‘Leymusoom Digital Shrine’ (2021) by Heesoo Leymusoom Kwon.

While many digital archiving techniques enable near instant recall of specific information, New Art City returns the ability to get lost in an archive. On the way to visit one piece you are almost certain to pass another that you may not have been directly looking for. This seems truer to the natural state of born-digital artifacts; they exist and thrive in ecologies with one another. All states of their being are temporary.

New Art City is likely not the final resting place of most of these objects. They exist along a continuum and their installation in New Art City is likely one state in a stream of many information contexts. I think this circles back to your metaphor which may aptly describe the internet itself: a discontinuous fabric of hyperlinked infinities.

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(F) Earlier on you mentioned that New Art City was beta tested with a graduate show. Now across two pandemic years, the platform has managed to open doors to a range of universities and art organisations, offering space to build degree shows and exhibitions when lockdowns and restrictions made physical space inaccessible. How do these partnerships fit into your long term strategy and to what extent do you see institutional recognition as being important for digital spaces?

SV: I’ll separate the education and institutional recognition questions because they intersect but don’t totally overlap. Working with educational institutions benefits us in a lot of ways. Undergrads are typically digitally native, so they can quickly ascertain the constraints of the toolkit and be creative within those constraints. These group shows with 10, 20, or even more students are hotbeds of experimentation and we are always pleasantly surprised at the creative approaches students take to exhibiting their work. We view New Art City as a powerful teaching tool for spatial practice and a gentle onramp to more technical tools like p5.js, three.js, and game engines. Students don’t need to adopt a complicated proprietary technology to learn how to work with the component parts of it.

Screenshot of the New Art City ‘Current & Past Supporters’ listing on the ‘Join’ page.

Institutional recognition came somewhat naturally — lockdowns forced institutions to think more creatively about ways to bring their programming online and we are one of many options for doing this, so we achieved wide visibility very quickly. Gray Area led to Bitforms led to Format Festival led to New Inc and so on. A more satisfying social proof is when artists list work they showed on New Art City on their CVs alongside physical exhibitions — it shows that they view the exhibition experience on the same level.

I’ve observed an odd preciousness with museums and their digitized archives. Photographs of paintings are not the same as paintings, but institutions are reticent to publish these artifacts in more creative or interactive ways. The museum is proficient at preserving discrete objects — indeed, this is one of its foremost cultural responsibilities. When works are networked, interactive, fungible, and built on technologies which can be ephemeral, this challenges the traditional views of preservation. Obviously many museums are trying to change this and their sustained learning will influence the way artists create art with a view toward future preservation, but of course this requires museums to validate the importance of digital art by choosing to preserve it.

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(F) Finally, for users to make an exhibition on New Art City they have to submit an application. How essential is this layer of management to ensuring the site stays operable?

SV: This process has changed somewhat since the question was written. We have added ways for individual artists to support us as monthly members in exchange for space. That said, the arrangement has always been redistributive — the proposal process allowed us to identify individuals and institutions with resources to contribute, while also identifying artists to whom we can redistribute those resources. This was a direct reaction to the Silicon Valley ethos of “get big fast” — rather than prioritizing user acquisition, we aim to add members to our community who understand and support the mission.

Image of the Apple HQ in Silicon Valley.

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Many thanks to Sammie, Benny and Don for generously taking the time to talk to us about the history of New Art City and the platform’s multi-faceted approach to accessibility. Off Site Project is taking a short break from the F.U.V. series to get a head start on the next three interviews, we hope to begin publishing again in late 2022 with more features addressing interface design, 3D exhibition worlds, and how artists and curators can ensure the longevity of these spaces.



Off Site Project

Online gallery founded by Pita Arreola-Burns & Elliott Burns. Research blog exploring the ideologies, systems, architecture and design of digital art spaces.