Archive: Issue No. 97, September 2005

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Digital Monkey Business
by Carine Zaayman


For young artists, one of the big attractions to working in new media is the promise of employability. Often within fine art spheres, however, the commercial applications of new media are seen as lesser products. I have two objections to such a view: the first is that it is most often through commercially inspired usage and requirements (not to mention funding) that the limits of computer and other technologies are exceeded. Fine art-located new media practitioners are thus inherently indebted to their commercial peers.

Secondly, because digital media is more integrated (than say, painting) into the daily life of regular citizens, it cannot extract itself from the public context. In other words, as soon as artists engage with the web or digital printing even, they are also on some level evoking the 'non-fine art' usages, which include things like advertising, communication, design and entertainment.

Indeed, many so-called more commercially orientated projects have a great deal of value, and deserve our attention. An outstanding example of such a project is the British animated rock/pop group Gorillaz.

They have been around since the late 90s and their self-titled début album was an international hit. Their award-winning website has been a favourite of mine for a number of years, but it has been down for a while, probably due to reconstructive work. I was thus delighted to see that with the release of their new album Demon Days (2005) they have also released the upgraded and much expanded (both visually and in terms of content) version of the website.

The new website also uses the fictional Kong studios as its organising metaphor, and here one can visit the band members' rooms, a small cinema in which their videos are shown and so on. It is, however, much more detailed than the first version, and has a number of built-in games and activities for the enthusiastic visitor. Detailed searches of the environments will reveal many a shrewdly constructed and placed object that tell you something of the personality of the individual characters. A word of warning though: as with the previous site, due to its visual opulence, this one is heavy on bandwidth.

Although most people will know the band, a very brief background could be useful here: The Gorillaz are headed by Blur frontman Daman Albarn and ex-Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett. But these two are nowhere to be seen in the band's videos, or when they perform. In fact, the band's main claim to fame is that it consists of a group of completely animated members: Noodle, 2D, Russel and Murdoc.

Being very much inspired by Japanese popular culture, including Kung Fu movies, Anime and Manga, the group has also, as some have noted, been influenced by an older virtual superstar, Chappie, created by Groovisions. For more information on the band's history, visit Wikipedia, which as always provides an extensive account:

Perhaps one of the more amusing aspects of the Gorillaz, is that Daman Albarn and Jamie Hewlett deny having any control or influence over the band's members, as this soundbite from Albarn found on the Stereoboard website (August 7, 2005) reveals: 'There are four members of Gorillaz and I'm not one of them. It's not even my big mouth that's got me into trouble. The fact of the matter is, I would never lash out at Pete Doherty like that. Are we really listening to cartoons now?' (

In this way, Albarn and Hewlett, who are assisted by a large number of very talented designers, animators, web developers and musicians, have succeeded in creating an intriguing set of characters. They cross the lines between what was traditionally considered virtual (read 'unreal') and physical (read 'real') on many occasions. For instance, no one in the band, or anyone else really, can understand a word that Noodle, the small Japanese DJ in the band, says. Their Celebrity Takedown DVD, includes a mocumentary in which the film crew try desperately to find any trace of the band.

Thus, a quick dip into the rich material of the Gorillaz reveals that this is by no means a mindless application of new media technologies. In fact, the new website takes this play between the characters and creators of the band even further. As a wry comment on the manufactured status of most pop/rock/R&B stars, the Gorillaz are themselves auditioning members of the public to join their band. People are free to send in audio and visuals (of a 'real' or 'virtual' nature) for the band's consideration. Since the Gorillaz are fundamentally cynical, one can expect the result to be the ultimate anti-Idols.

The music is great, especially on the new album, and this, together with the intriguing characters, the playful engagement with notions of virtuality and wonderful visuals mean that I am an avid collector, or rather a completist. I would that all fine art were this exciting.