February 05, 2004

Collision Detection – [musings]

Notes on Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California.

"[This exhibition] has been put together neither in a spirit of adoration nor vilification, the two most common forms for taking games seriously."

(Revised: February 7, 2004 8:30 PM)

i. Adoration

It is hard not to see some spirit of adoration in a 650 polygon foam sculpture of game programmer John Carmack (by Brody Condon). It is also hard not to see adoration in the vector-style portraits of "Game People" and "Game Musicians" at the entrance to this exhibit (Mauro Ceolin). I suppose the adoration of game people is of a different nature than the adoration of the games themselves. That leads to some confusion about the subject of this exhibition: if we are here to "bang the machine" surely we're talking about the game machine, and not the flesh machine of the artists who work in the medium.

ii. Vilification

It is hard to say what might have been vilified here. In the curatorial process, the easiest way to pass a negative judgement on something is to leave it out of the show.

One can speculate. If this exhibition were held five years ago, Alphaworlds would have been in the place of The Sim Gallery Project (Katherine Isbister with Rainey Straus). The Neverhood would have filled the corner where Waco Resurrection (C-Level) was found. And some previous generation of broken installation art would have taken the place of the broken installation of Budaechigae (Paul Johnson and Sunny Kim).

Ten years ago, LambdaMOO would antedate Alphawolds. Myst would replace The Neverhood. And some previous generation of broken installation art would have taken the place of the broken art that didn't work in 1999.

Fifteen years ago, Habitat would replace LambdaMOO, Neuromancer Myst, and there would be a working neon sculpture by Bruce Nauman in the corner.

Here we have the vilification of the out-of-date.

iii. Taking Games Seriously

If this is not the first, then this must surely be one of the first exhibitions to take games seriously. In fifty years that claim will have some merit. I just wish it were clear where the "serious" part comes into play.

No doubt there was some serious organizational effort put into this show, from getting the space to selecting the work, the kind of serious work that goes into any exhibition. But here, "taking games seriously" translates into little more than "locating games in a museum environment". What will people do when confronted by a computer game in an art gallery? Certainly that is an interesting and serious question to ask, but it hinges on there being some critical discussion on what you present as a computer game. In Bang the Machine, there is no question that these artifacts have definite connections to games, and as a result there is no real challenge to the accepted definition of games.

This is a confusion of seriousness with reverence.

iv. Taking Machinema Seriously

Watching machinema on a large projection screen is like watching movies on a television screen. Machinema is a small screen format.

v. "This computer is not for playing."

In the gallery there are several computer kiosks set up to display the beautiful photorealism of the America's Army computer game. (America's Army is a self-acknowledged work of propaganda promoting the US Army.) Some of the kiosks are running slideshows of elements from the game. Other kiosks are configured to allow the user to explore the lush and remarkably detailed virtual environments included in the game. Signs above the kiosks inform users that these computers are "not for playing."

Serious games indeed.

vi. Handicapping Interactive Art

Interactive art is a curator's nightmare. Curators have had a tough time ever since installation art came along, with all of the confusing restrictions about what visitors can touch, where they can walk, what needs to be turned on and off, what time the performances are scheduled for today, and so on.

Interactive art, or media art, has gone to the next level: crashed computers, buggy applications, broken mice and keyboards, missing files, faulty networks. If it looks like it might be broken, it must be media art.

At least two of the installations (of twelve) were non-functional on my visit. A third piece, fur's Painstation, requires supervision. There was also a Sims related piece in the washroom, which wasn't working.

Upstairs was the Game Commons supplement gallery, organized by Kingdom of Piracy. One of the works in that gallery, some sort of 3D global politics visualization, crashed while I was trying to explore it.

It is unfortuate but true: if the machine doesn't work, and the machine is the artifact for show, then you have nothing to show.

vii. Games in an art gallery

So, what do people do when you put games in an museum? Well, how are games located in the gallery? How have you translated the game-playing environment into the gallery? Do people stand or sit? In arcades, people stand. In front of computers, people sit. When playing games with the monitor placed at table height, I prefer to sit, but only some of the game stations had chairs. (Two projects, Waco Resurrection and The Sim Gallery Project, had chairs. Both of those pieces had at least one malfunctioning workstation.) The America's Army kiosks had keyboards at a good level for a standing player, though of course you weren't supposed to play the game.

The collision between the body and the game, now there is an idea worthy of an exhibition.

viii. Rules of Play

In Carpet Invaders (Janek Simon), the viewer plays a stylized rendition of Space Invaders projected onto the floor. While the game was playable, one of the key strategic components of the game -- when you eliminate an end column, the formation takes longer to move across the screen -- was elided. Otherwise, the presentation of the work was rather stark; there were no exotic objects scattered about to suggest that this was anything more than a game you played on the floor. While standing.

viii. Serious games

Only one piece in the exhibition had both a place to sit and something serious to say, though it isn't much of a game: Shelley Eshkar's (with Paul Kaiser) Arrival. Well executed, though in essense little more than a screen saver or film loop, this piece is a spatial and temporal puzzle about a man carrying a briefcase full of documents.

The only other work of note was a set of prints by Jon Haddock. His Screenshots are a collection of famous scenes, such as the beating of Rodney King, rendered in third-person isomorphic perspective. These images are certain to become more popularly known in the years to come, whether they deserve it or not.

ix. Milled foam

Foam is such a cheap material that the cheapness of the material tends to outweigh the preciousness of objects created with it. What artist, after all, would sculpt a masterpiece out of styrofoam?

I think it is a valid reading of 650 Polygon John Carmack to say that the idol worship of Carmack is the worship of a styrofoam god. But while the devout are busy strewing flowers at his feet (and perhaps hoping to "bang his machine"), those of us who take games seriously are casting our eyes at the elaborate architectures of Quake. Here is a culture full of fantastic labyrinths that continue to go unheralded. Why are we making statues of Carmack, and not recreating the elements of the games themselves?

Posted by B Rickman at February 5, 2004 11:59 PM | TrackBack