Fermynwoods Focus – Ama Dogbe & David John Scarborough

Ama Dogbe and David John Scarborough’s Underlands is an explorative and experimental non-linear video game, digitally simulating the dark woods above and below, and the deep atavistic dreams and fears that emerge. Commissioned as part of Xylophobia, a programme conceived at the end of 2021 to address the increased need and desire for outdoor activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It may be tempting (or impossible) to forget how we slowly and painfully emerged from the pandemic. Where there has been something of a return to the physical participation in the arts and the woods, Underlands exists in the hyperreal online world that we were forced to become familiar with. Where much has changed, losses persist and as the artists eloquently express “living in times such as these requires us to imagine possible futures even as loss and grief present us with changes we are yet to fully respond to”, inviting participants to examine the things we are afraid of in a virtual space at a safe distance.

The work can only tentatively be described as a video game, with Ama intending to “reframe how we use this medium of ‘games'”. Having played lots of role-playing games David notes the typical “illusion of choice”. However with Underlands there is no clear intention of how a player wins or loses. Instead participants can explore the digital forest and “circle in and out of thoughts”, exploring the woods like we might our minds.

Where there remains an obvious ambiguity David describes the work as part-autobiographical, referring to a specific autumn a few years ago and “a season of loss”. Aided by the suggestive and emotive soundtrack with a tempo set to the pace of walking in a forest, the stylised trees, totems and spirits offer a space to project our own thoughts onto. Is the moving scene of figures gathering around a coffin rather a crib or cot? With no point of completion endings can also be beginnings. The soundtrack mirrors this non-linear approach, gleaned from a collection of voice notes and phone recordings taken in spaces at what David refers to as “points of change”.

Another possibility of “living in times such as these” is that the work functions as a lament for the natural world. Amelia Seren Roberts described a previous exhibition featuring work by Ama and David at Modern Painters, New Decorators in 2021 as “not quite a foundry of new worlds, but a rebuilding of our own.” Similarly with Underlands the work is part recognisable as a version of our world, but shifted through an alien colour palette where the artists preparatory watercolours and crayon drawings have been pushed to extremes – perhaps an avatar of a future yet to be lived and an opportunity to engage with climate grief. As co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Dr Gail Bradbrook notes, “The price of love is grief, and grief opens the space for love. And I think that’s what’s happening right now, we’re facing what we’ve been doing to our home.”

James Steventon

This work took 28kg of carbon to produce, according to The Networked Condition carbon calculator tool.

Ama Dogbe is a British-Ghanaian artist whose work engages with a range of personal and societal themes through digital mediums including experimental film, animation and video games. Her recent work used interactive virtual world building as a tool to explore modern challenges and dilemmas. As a 2022 Virtual Bodies Resident Artist for BOM, Ama explored ideas of societal pressure and assimilation in diasporic communities.

David John Scarborough is a British-Australian artist, curator and Co-Founder of Modern Painters, New Decorators (MPND). David creates projects to think through his relationships with materials, place and heritage. He makes exhibitions, publications, videos and music. Previous work has included an interest in the fantasy notion of imagined universes and hopeful worlds as sustenance during Covid-19 restrictions.

Underlands was commissioned by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art for Xylophobia: Online – an exhibition of digitally based work which takes its name from the fear of wooden objects, forests, or wooded areas. Responding to the increased needs and fears of outdoor activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the featured work presents explorative, experimental and conceptual spaces at this intersection, whilst inquisitive and mindful of the environmental impact of creating and presenting artworks using digital technology. Funded by Arts Council England.