The Chicago-based artist’s transgressive new media exhibition opened April 1, and runs through early autumn in MMoCA’s second-floor Imprint Gallery.
Sertraline Dolls (2021-2022) gives new meaning to “personal experience.” Ava Wanbli’s new multimedia exhibit, up in the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art (MMoCA)’s Imprint Gallery since April 1, is an uninhibited, interactive performance-art game that binds the Chicago-based artist’s lifelong passion for gaming with commentary on her own gender transition, fascination with 3D modeling of her own body, and history in sex work. Before the experimental exhibition concludes on October 8, Wanbli is planning a return to Madison in late summer with a presentation/art performance, TBA.
While the inward-probing, adult-oriented psychological intensity of its subject matter is inescapable, the tone of the exploration in the game’s four levels—publicly playable here for the second time since its debut this past February at Chicago’s Roots And Culture Contemporary Art Gallery—is offset by some humorous upending of collectible tropes, dialogue trees, and the expectation of control in the medium of video games. Developed with the Unity game engine, Sertraline Dolls is as twisted as it is liberating, a body of work about the body that both emphasizes and subverts traditional exploration that many first-person walking simulators of the past few decades have—from the “riddle world” of Myst (1993), as Wanbli calls it, to the more contemporary memoir Dear Esther (2012), and the surrealistic, dialogue-free puzzlebox Virginia (2016), which interrogates memory and identity through nonlinear structure.
A neon lavender cube-seat, backlit keyboard, and mouse help illuminate the darkened room on the second floor of MMoCA, setting the mood for the game’s introduction into the fluorescent pulse of its virtual in-body and out-of-body queer space. The title screen awaits players with a vibrant color palette and customized candy-striped lettering, with a simple instruction for movement on the left side of the screen—directional movement assigned to keys WASD, hold ⬆ Shift to run, tap the spacebar to jump, and press E to interact.
As Wanbli’s surrogate character of Ava_Angel touches the mirrored floor of an aqueous, yet mountainous nightclub, the violet luminescence of “HEY THERE ♡” suspended in the environment itself serves as a formal greeting, a cheeky invitation into a world of ecstatic perversity and celebratory kink. The pulsating electro-industrial beat of Special Interest’s “A Depravity Such As This” evokes those very tangled qualities, propelling the character through the abstract ravespace to interact with various transfemme dancers and suggestively posed bodies in bondagewear (all motion-captured by Wanbli).
“I’ve always been a video gamer and world-builder since I was young,” Wanbli explains, as she demos the meta-space, positioning the mouse cursor (which is shaped like open lips) to move and collect spinning dominatrix boots and “neon riches” (piles of crystallized sedative) on the floor, further nodding to the medication of the game’s title, lifted from a line of Wanbli’s poetry. These in-game items are drawn from her experience as a domme and icon within the Chicago nightlife scene, a “home” for many trans people. In this first level, the design choice is a dissection of the fundamental capitalistic incentives that drive the risk-reward algorithm. Often collectible items are conditioned as currency, providing dopamine hits every time the player hears a sparkling sound effect, like when Link absorbs many a rupee in any of the past 35 years of Legend Of Zelda releases.
Given the gaming content censorship and crackdown by Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) since its inception in the mid-1990s, witnessing the erotic dancing and sexually positioned bodies in Sertraline Dolls‘ hallucinatory nightclub, pleasurably enraptured, feels daring. It also incidentally functions as a strikingly ironic comment on one of the most iconically misogynistic gimmicks of first-person shooter (FPS) Duke Nukem 3D (1996). In that game’s second level, the machismo pastiche of a title character takes a detour from his alien carnage to visit a strip club as a treat; and the player, as Nukem, simply has to tap a key in front of the dancers for them to undo their tops to flash their pastie-covered breasts. “Shake it, baby” is one of a few one-liners Nukem croaks. By contrast, Sertraline Dolls frees itself of that baggage; its energy is more “eviscerate me, daddy”—or, more seriously, it’s an experience that turns objectification inside-out in depicting acts of self-pleasure, associating them with self-actualization.
By Sertraline Dolls‘ second stage (which can be entered through an orifice, by the way), the body has become more inert sculpture and imposing architecture. The Ava_Angel character, now with three visible hands, floats across platforms amidst a firmament of white that swirls into a mutant pink horizon. In the third level, the camera pans over more oversized models of Wanbli’s body through the phases of her transition, monuments to queer life more personally sizable than Mount Rushmore. While the game was in development for two and a half years as Wanbli became acclimated to working with Unity in conjunction with her job as a virtual reality trainer at School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago (SAIC), she had been collecting various 3D body model scans for six years. The new-media idea of digitizing oneself within the increasingly mainstream landscape of 3D printing fascinatingly folds into the chronology of physical change as a transgender person.
It would follow, then, that the final level of the game is the most celestial, in the rendering of a trans afterlife. It borrows from the Puritanical images of Western Christianity, but veers closer to the exploded psychedelia in a game like El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron (2011) with hints of the freak-friendly framework of Neon White (2022). Beyond gaming comparison, Wanbli confesses how this final level is heavily inspired by the late hyperpop pioneer SOPHIE, the story of her death in a January 2021 accident, and the art that accompanied her final record, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (2018). “I thought about death a lot and what our afterlife might be like [as a trans woman], and so I made this [one]. But it’s also about regeneration and rebirth, too,” Wanbli says soberly, guiding the Ava_Angel character to ascend mirrored staircases that refract the soft pinks and blues of the trans pride flag.
The distorted musical clash of Arera (ashanti Owusu-Brafi)’s ambient textures and Jocelyn Bade‘s choral samples still lend an ill-at-ease feeling here. Yet a sense of self-possession pervades an in-game video “cutscene” of two trans bodies commingling, erotically dancing for one another, surrounded by detached wings and arms revolving in midair. It’s literally reflected in the liquid silver surfaces throughout the game, but further in the poetry text the game incorporates about “a body that is a shimmering mirage to be reborn,” fiery gold rays of light illuminating this trans heaven, which then transfer onto the wings as the camera pulls away, plummeting into and through a waterfall.
Analyzing this level or sequence or any other in the game forces the player to grapple with an overload of visualization. But this is to compliment Wanbli’s intention in designing and programming the layered, abstract environment that speaks true to her journey as a human, and one that can’t be fully absorbed in one playthrough. For as much of the experience that is visually confrontational in its sexual expressions, toys, and fetish objects, the text and spoken-word elements Wanbli adds are equally transgressive.
“I was once the consumer, now I am the consumed,” Wanbli’s voiceover repeats aloud multiple times in two of the levels. When interacting with a particular text prompt at a precipice between the second and third levels, the player is asked, “What more do you want to consume?” Three choices appear: “Me,” “You,” and “Take Me Back.” The player might expect any of these options to trigger a consequence or advance the game to the next level, but the wording of the choices is also rhetorical—a meditation on Wanbli’s experiences as a gamer, the development of an experience about herself, as well as an interrogation of the player’s psychology and desire. The game’s themes of consumption invert the demands that a player might bring to it.
Increasingly, video games and interactive media have served to uniquely convey and empower, through narrative and interactivity, the humanistic journeys of trans people. They can be seen in anything from a widely known precision platformer like Celeste (2018) to a more obscure visual novel like Ascension: Transition And Silver (2021). Distinguishing itself between the boundaries of game and video performance art, Ava Wanbli’s Sertraline Dolls is distinctively strange and mesmerizing, existing in a personal space of trans liberation in all its glitchy manifestations of sexuality, security, and transcendence. As Wanbli writes in a press release, “The trans body is a glitch to a broken system of gender and sex that is in need of reworking.”