Art in Focus: Alan Butler – Down and Out in Los Santos
This online project makes art out of a Grand Theft Auto video game
To take photographs in a virtual space, Butler exploits a smartphone camera facility within the game. Image: Alan Butler, Down and Out in Los Santos
What is it?
Since 2015, Alan Butler has been working on a long-term project, Down and Out in Los Santos. Los Santos is a fictional city, the setting for the video game Grand Theft Auto V, and Butler’s project involves documenting, photographically, the lives and experiences of the homeless population there. It’s perhaps surprising that there is a homeless population in an interactive game. As Butler notes, “they never intersect with the narrative”. They are just there but, “programmed to self-identify”, they seek out others like themselves, talk to each other, and get on with their lives. In some respects he finds them disturbingly similar to the homeless people he encounters in Dublin city centre.
How was it done?
To take photographs in a virtual space, Butler exploits a smartphone camera facility within the game. “Within” is the key word. Once in the world of Grand Theft Auto V, Butler can “put away the guns and knives”, explore the space and take photographs of what he chooses. This virtual photography is very like photography in the real world. He can frame the subject, opting for eye contact is it seems appropriate, and he can selectively use depth of field to highlight what interests him. It is, he says “a sort of social-realism for the software age”. Slightly disturbingly, the characters are aware of his presence even when they choose to ignore him, and they can, on occasion, react badly to being photographed.
Where can I see it?
Down and Out in Los Santos is an online project with regular postings on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. They are uploaded to a social network called the Rockstar Social Club, where the Snapmatic feature is “a simulacra of modern photo-sharing apps”. From Saturday February 3rd, Butler’s exhibition The Need to Argue in a Master’s Language is running at the Digital Galleries in VISUAL Carlow (Until May 27th, see visualcarlow.ie). Here, in sculptures, print, video and installation, he offers alternative approaches to the material that makes up Down and Out in Los Santos.
Is it a typical work by the artist?
Typically ingenious. Butler, who lectures in Fine Art Media at NCAD, is a bit like an anthropologist of digital cultures. As with people generally, many artists are drawn to new technologies. But it is one thing to be attracted by novelty, quite another to be so comfortable with it that it becomes a natural part of your language. From early on Butler has been exceptionally at home in digital, virtual worlds and interested in using them to explore questions relating to the real world. A series of cyanotypes, Virtual Botany, takes it cue from Cyanotypes of British Algae, produced by Anna Atkins in the 19th Century. Butler’s cyanotypes are based on various types of plant life that live inside video games, and virtual reality environments. His On Exactitude in Science is an uncanny, shot for shot remake of Godfrey Reggio’s celebrated 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, (with Philip Glass’s score). Remarkably, Butler’s footage is mined exclusively from Grand Theft Auto and is strangely compelling. His Deskscapes re-imagine popular desktop wallpapers as psychedelic abstractions.