Is it possible to visit a fictional place? Most would say that it's impossible, but through art we are offered glimpses of unreal lands. Kcymaerxthaere is an example of this. Created by geographer-at-large Eames Demetrios, Kcymaerxthaere is an alternate reality (with its own stories and lore) that often coincides with our own reality, manifesting in sites and art installations all across the world. The completeness and complexity of the project is what amazes me-- Kcymaerxthaere even has its own encyclopedia and glossary. The name itself describes the essential concept of the project-- the Cognate word kcymaara means the true physicality of the planet, and xthaere refers to a shape of infinite dimensions, according to the Kcymaerxthaere website.
Eames has been working on Kcymaerxthaere for nearly two decades now, as the first Kcymaerxthaere marker was installed in 2003 in Athens, Georgia. Now, Kcymaerxthaere has 140 sites, all over the world, with more on the way. Kcymaerxthaere's sites blend written storytelling with visual experiences-- allowing visitors to interact with physical artifacts while also leaving room for them to imagine their own versions of Kcymaerxthaere stories. For the most part, these sites are not ephemeral, and were built in hopes that people hundreds of years from now will be able to similarly enjoy them. By doing things the old fashioned way, Eames attempts to circumvent the inevitable breakdown of more modern technologies that may offer comparable experiences, like VR headsets.
As Eames explains below, he has no desire to deceive people into thinking that Kcymaerxthaere is real in the same manner that our reality is real. The website clarifies that this is mainly a work of fiction. Visitors are free to lend as much credence to Kcymaerxthaere as they feel is right. But just because it's a story doesn't make it any less powerful. After all, human history is just a story.
Can you explain what Kcymaerxthaere is?
It is hard to describe even for me. It's two things. It's a parallel universe that I created that is, in many ways but not all, consistent with our own to some degree. And then it's a project that I have, which is telling that story of that place. A significant aspect of it is that it's installed in our physical world, and so the experience of reading the stories in those places is part of the power of it. I kept thinking, wouldn't it be beautiful if you could visit a fictional place? That's, on some level, not possible. But I really like the idea of the physicality of it. Different installations come closer or further from this particular edge. You could, in theory, build a castle and say that it's an ancient castle, somewhere where there isn't ancient castles. But we'll always be stuck with the fact that workers and people [saw it being built]. It's pretty falsifiable. You would have to spend a huge amount of energy trying to [maintain] the illusion. But I thought, when you read Lord of the Rings there is no doubt that it's fictional. Nobody is tricking you. Nobody throws it down after a hundred pages and says it's not true.
So then I thought, wouldn't it be cooler to be involved in something that's like a suspension of disbelief? I wanted to make it not matter how people framed it. It's very hard to go to the website and not realize that it's a story. But it's also pretty fun to imagine the story and project it onto the landscape. In the end, I summarized this notion by saying I wanted to do something that uses wise technology instead of smart technology. There's more of a chance that a block of concrete with some words written on it will be around for a hundred years than a virtual reality helmet plugged into something will be fully-functional in a hundred years. One of the interesting things about language is that most studies have found that people see what they read, or see the stories that they are told. What that means is that everyone is conjuring up their own version of the Kcymaerxthaere story within the parameters of the language that I put in that place. And that's a virtual reality experience that will be equally available to anyone who can read or be read to a hundred years from now.
I was curious if you had a favorite Kcymaerxthaere site?
It's certainly true that my favorite one is always the next one because I've got a lot of work to do. There are quite a few that I like. I enjoy all of them. But the one in Joshua Tree, the Krblin Jihn Cabin, that was the first time I did something really big with the story, in terms of an installation that was not primarily verbal. There's a lot you can read there, but it's also a visual experience. That was kind of a breakthrough for me. I think the one underwater in Bali I learned a lot from. I want to do more underwater. I loved seeing these very artificial shapes under the water being reclaimed by the coral, with the stories nearby. There's one in India with a story I really like, about these people who can mine this very rare spice from their mind but they can only mine it by being angry at the people in love. Slowly, after hundreds of thousands of revolutions, they get a single particle of that spice which is incredibly valuable. Since you can go insane doing that, you have to spend time relearning love. The one we did for the eclipse was pretty cool too.
What projects are you hoping to work on in the future related to Kcymaerxthaere?
Right now we have a big project, which is to make a shape that is about 1200 miles across, off the coast of Portugal. That would just be the seven points of the shape, so it's not continuous in that sense. It was starting to get underway when the pandemic started, so it will be exciting to get back to that. We have a trail that we're working on in Nepal. We've got three of the installations there, and we've got six more to go. Those are pretty exciting. There's a number of things in India that we're working on, but obviously that's going to have to wait a while. We're working with some art groups that have pretty remarkable folks. We're doing some fundraising for them. We're also thinking about doing more writing around it, so that's going to take a while, doing a bigger book. Before any book came out, I wanted there to be so many sites that it was almost an aesthetic experience, knowing the connective tissue, and knowing that you don't know all of it.
What's the most surprising thing that you've learned through Kcymaerxthaere?
I don't know if it's surprising but it's been powerful to realize how much people around the world enjoy story, and how that can be a connector, and that we all have ways we learn about people and places, whether it's through politics or money, which is what's in the news, or family or friends. There's faith that connects people, and then there's fear that connects people. So it's interesting to see so many people of so many different backgrounds respond to a story, or a piece of a story. That enjoyment of being connected by stories has been a really powerful experience that I hoped would happen.
What's your fondest memory related to Kcymaerxthaere?
There are a lot. In London for the dedication of three markers, we rented a double-decker bus and gave a bus tour of the Kcymaerxthaere history of London. And I wrote a Kcymaerxthaere song to the tune of a British hymn. In one of the churches that's mentioned specifically in Dickens, a guy who was on the tour bus played the song on his guitar. When we did the one in Wyoming, the population of Wyoming tripled or quadrupled during the eclipse. The site was designed so that at the moment of the eclipse, the constellations from the parallel universe would appear on the ground. During the eclipse, the small holes, including the gaps between leaves, act as cameras, in the old sense of the word. They cast an image, not a shadow, so you can actually see the sun being covered by the moon on the ground. So we did this, and it was a great experience. As people were leaving, this couple brought over their kids, their teenage daughter and her best friend. The mom did what I would have done, and said "Oh, you can talk to the artist-- he's over there!" The teenage daughter said "He had his chance." And it's true. It was like an arrow in the heart. Once I leave, I have to have done a good enough job that people can figure it out.
Who were your inspirations for this?
The inspiration came from certain things that have always fascinated me. I'll give you two examples.
One is that there are three major ancient Greek dramatists, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. What's interesting is that for Sophocles and Aeschylus, there are basically seven plays that we could read. We have the whole script of all of them. When I was in school, there was this set of books, two volumes of Aeschylus, two volumes of Sophocles, and five or seven books of Euripides. I thought it was so wacky. They are all equally famous, all equally regarded. So why, two thousand years later, did Euripides have twenty-two plays published. The other thing I thought was strange is that there are an awful lot of plays that start with the letter H or I, which I just thought was weird but figured it didn't really mean anything. So later in life, I returned to this. What I discovered is that the way plays survived from two thousand years ago was that every few hundred years some poor monk would have to copy them other. All three of these playwrights had seven plays that were kind of their classics that everybody knew. In a Christian monastery, it takes months to copy over these things. How many points are you going to get for copying a play? You're going to get more points for copying verses from the Bible, or the lives of the saints and things. But in terms of the continuity of knowledge, there was still some value to that. Those seven plays for each of those playwrights were copied. But in the case of Euripides, in some library somewhere, somebody found volume H-I of the collected works of Euripides. In a funny way, we know more about Euripides as a creator than the other two, because we see all these other works. And it's totally arbitrary, and it fed this idea in me about what gets through the test of time.
The other thing that's interesting to me is the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book was written in 1070 A.D. William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, and he won. So, he wanted to know what he owned. He did a census in grinding detail of the lands that he now owned. Because he was king, if you were his subject, everything you owned was his. What's interesting about the book is that it's actually one of our best lenses into the life of poor people of that era, because nobody wrote about them. We don't have that kind of specific info for most cultures and most time periods. So that idea of why are we so confident about certain things reemerged. I'm not saying this from a "science is made up" perspective at all. I just wanted to invite myself to imagine other possibilities.