For Brian Donnelly – known as Kaws since his graffiti beginnings in 1990s New York – art has always been a communication tool. From street art to vast public commissions, he says, “it’s a chance to create a dialogue”. His desire to bring art to the masses is partly why his work spans collectable toys and streetwear collaborations, as well as paintings and sculptures that sell for millions. His new exhibition will allow him to connect with a large number of eyeballs in, he says, “a new and massive way”. The show, New Fiction, is at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and simultaneously on two free online platforms: the gaming behemoth Fortnite and the augmented-reality (AR) app Acute Art.
With more than 400m player accounts, Fortnite is massive, especially when compared with the estimated footfall of an average Serpentine show (around 35,000). While the uninitiated might dismiss Fortnite as just another shooting extravaganza, players are increasingly spending time in its more peaceful zones, such as creative mode, where they can mooch about the Fortnite metaverse without fear of elimination. “You can hang out with your friends and explore new features,” says Fortnite’s partnerships director, Kevin Durkin. This could mean honing your dance moves but also watching a film or an Ariana Grande concert (as players did in August 2021), or, as of today, visiting an art gallery.
In April 2020, rapper Travis Scott wowed an audience of 12 million with a show on Fortnite. It was like a stadium concert, only with a lower carbon footprint and rendered in Fortnite graphics (the costume changes were stunning). Donnelly, who had produced the artwork for one of Scott’s tracks, says: “That was the first time that I was, like, ‘Wow, this is such a bigger thing than your impression of what a video game is.’”
On a much smaller scale, Donnelly went on to partner with Fortnite for Halloween 2021, enabling players to buy a Kaws “skeleton companion” outfit (or skin). Kaws’ companions are what he’s best known for: a group of characters he created in the 90s that are part cuddly, part cool, with Xs for eyes, each one conveying a very different theme or emotion.
Numerous companions can be encountered at the Serpentine show (with yet more to discover in the Fortnite version), alongside vivid abstract paintings. As you enter the physical gallery, the first plinth appears to be empty. To see what’s hovering magically above it, Acute Art’s smartphone app can reveal an AR rendering of a floating companion figure that first appeared in balloon form, as a commission for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 2012. “It’s a work just like any other in the show,” says Donnelly. “Like a bronze sculpture, you want to view it, walk around it, understand the volume.”
But you don’t have to go to the gallery to see it. I try the app in my living room and marvel as I view it from all angles, along with a David Shrigley worm.
Donnelly first teamed up with Acute Art in 2020 to produce a series of AR public art pieces. It was fortuitous, he says, that it launched just as the world locked down. “Being able to create works,” he says, “and the version that I’m viewing in Brooklyn is the version you could be viewing in India, I just started to get really obsessed with the opportunities within that.”
For non-digital natives, enjoying online artworks can require a shift in mindset. The cliched cultural question of modern times used to be, “But is it art?” Now, in the age of virtual shows and NFTs it has become, “But is it real?” Donnelly concedes: “There’s no comparison when standing in front of a painting or a piece of sculpture. So I was sceptical, thinking about digital versions. But when I started working with Acute, [I realised that] working with them is the same back and forth as when I work with the bronze foundry, or the factory that I make toys in. And the quality they achieve, it seems very real.”
Donnelly is yet to make an NFT. “I haven’t felt the piece or [had] the thought that made me think, ‘This is the right thing to make one for,’ ” he says. Even so, the unfakeable element of NFTs appeals: “Thinking about my toys, and how many counterfeits are made in the world … Is this a possible way of navigating around that? I don’t know. I’m learning as much as I can.
“Being born in 74,” he continues, “you’re witnessing all these things that are new to you. And you can’t assume that the way you’re perceiving something is the way your children will perceive it. And if an NFT is real to the next generation, who’s to say it’s not?” Donnelly’s children are five and seven and, he says: “I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in 10 years, when they’re into screens. I started doing work on the street before social media, before the internet.”
And yet Donnelly is living the generation X dream of still being cool to kids today, including my 11-year-old son. “I always think of what reached me in my bedroom in Jersey City, when I was a kid,” he says. “Like, what got me interested in art? It was magazines and skateboard graphics. They got me out of my room and exploring.”
He imagines that for many Fortnite players, his exhibition will be “the first time they walk around a space like that, experiencing painting and sculpture in the video game that they’re completely comfortable in and used to.” Just as buying fabric patches from Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in the 1980s helped the young Donnelly feel comfortable walking into galleries, he says: “I’d love to throw bridges to a new generation.”