Yesterday I had the pleasure to (remotely) participate in a panel at ISEA 2015, the 21st symposium on electronic art, in Vancouver, Canada entitled "The Gallery at Play: On the Histories and Politics of Exhibiting Digital Games and Game Art" with Isabelle Arvers, skot deeming, Lynn Hughes, Eddo Stern, and Martin Zeilinger.
Below is the abstract:
Over the past decade, digital games and their cultures have emerged as a dominant cultural form in popular culture. As such, large scale museums and institutions have begun to collect, archive and exhibit digital game. These ‘blockbuster’ initiatives, reinforce historical ludo-industrial narratives with gaming history, and have done little to discuss games in the contexts of new media art practices. However both prior to and running parallel to such institutional initiatives, exhibitions, festivals and events worldwide have emerged addressing the role of digital games in contexts beyond linear industrial narratives. This round table discussion, comprised of curators and practitioners both in games and new media, will critically address the histories, politics and ideologies of exhibiting games across a spectrum of exhibitions, festivals and events; noting their contributions to the disruption and maintenance of discourses in games, art and new media.
What are the implications of placing games under the larger umbrella of New Media Art? What curatorial methodologies are employed in the field? What are the consequences of the disciplinary siloing that has emerged within game curation, and how do we address critical questions of interdisciplinarity within the field? How do we unpack and detangle the problematic categories of ‘game art’, ‘art games’ and ‘indie games’? What examples can we draw from in order to create critical historiographical investigations as to the various roles games occupy within gallery cultures, blockbuster exhibitions, festivals and alternative spaces? What future contexts are possible in light of these histories?
Drawing upon their own practices, perspectives and roles within the historical context of game and game art curation, panelists will be asked to participate in an open, guided conversation through past and present contexts. These include: historical gaming exhibitions, early avant-garde game modification practices, the rise of the new arcade and ‘indie game’ cultures, the establishment of the practice of machinima, the emergence of appropriative practices under the banner of ‘game art’, and the use of game-like interfaces in new media installations.
Here is my (short) contribution:
In 1995, Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban's ArsDoom, was unleashed in a museum. Widely regarded as one of the first examples of artistic modifications of videogames, ArsDoom was shown at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz the same year. Using the Doom II engine and Autodesk AutoCAD software, Kipcak and Urban created a virtual copy of the Brucknerhaus' exhibition hall and invited artists to create or submit virtual artworks that could be displayed in the new map. Armed with a shooting cross, a chainsaw or a brush, the player could kill the artists and destroy all the artworks on display.
One might argue that Game Art was born as a form of institutional critique.
More recently, Tale of Tales' founders Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn reacted with understandable skepticism when the New York Museum of Modern Art acquired fourteen games for their collection.
On November 30, 2012, following Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli's hyperbolic announcement, they tweeted:
Video games have gone a long way since Kipcak and Urban's intervention.
Back then, they were confined to the periphery of the Artworld. Today, they are closer to the center.
It was not just the MoMa's falling for the artcade craze that swept institutions across the world.
Around the same time, the Smithsonian - another shrine of high-brow culture - declared that Games were officially "Art" with a blockbuster, itinerant exhibition meant to educate the philistines and convert the non-believers.
Functioning as catalysts, the MoMa and the Smithsonian were quickly joined by hundreds of other institutions around the world.
Early enthusiasts and late comers both agree that Game Art has become a thing, i.e. a subset, a genre of Contemporary Art.
Heck, in 2011, Game Art even reached the cover of ArtNews:
But what does that mean? What is Contemporary Art, exactly?
Here is a useful definition:
Today, Contemporary Art is regarded more as a cultural and political site of engagement than an aesthetic domain. Some, including Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, optimistically see Contemporary Art as a space of possibilities, of ideological resistance, of open dissent.
As you may know, Goodman has been enthusiastically covering the latest Venice Biennale, titled All The World's Futures, the first curated by an African-born curator, Okwui Enwezor.
This is somehow ironic, considering the history of the Biennale itself and its relationship with the ideologies it is purposely criticizing. For instance, it is amusing to see that among the 2015 art exhibition's main sponsors is the Japan Tobacco International, a leading tobacco product manufacturer that owns, among others, such brands as Winston Cigarettes, Camel Cigarettes, and Silk Cut.
The message is clear: The World's Future is lung cancer.
This should not come as a surprise. Flirting with Big Business is not new. The Artworld's Recent Past was also affected by the harmful effects of tobacco. For example, one of the most seminal exhibitions of the Twentieth Century, Harold Szeeman's "When Attitudes Became Form" (1969), was proudly sponsored by Philip Morris.
A landmark show for Post-Minimalist American artists in 1969 at the Kunsthalle Bern, in Switzerland, "When Attitudes Became Form" received substantial funding from Philip Morris, an American Tobacco Company, and Rudder and Finn, a Public Relations Firm.
As David Balzer explains in his book Curationism (2014), John H. Murphy, then President of Philip Morris Europe, corporations nimbly co-opted Contemporary Art - especially, its more advanced and avant-garde manifestations - to sell their products.
In a quote included in Balzer's book, Murphy explicitly compares Post-Minimalist's aesthetic revolution to Philip Morris's "innovative" sale strategy.
"When Attitudes Became Form" is not the exception but the rule.
And if the relationship between Big Business and Contemporary Art has been well documented, let's not forget the liaison between contemporary art and politics. Frances Stones Saunders does not credit the CIA for inventing Abstract Expressionism, but in The Cultural Cold War (2000) the author convincingly illustrates how the American secret agency fostered and promoted the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning as part of special program aimed at promoting American ideals abroad during the Cold War.
In one case, Contemporary Art becomes advertising.
In another, propaganda.
What the verdict? Ben Davis reminds us that:
Why am I bringing this up?
Well, going back to the questions posed by the curator of this panel, I wonder about the meaning and function of Game Art in today's world.
Now that Game Art is sitting at the adults' table, what can we expect?
A Cory Arcangel's retrospective sponsored by Exxon, perhaps?
In other words, I ask myself:
The meaning and function of Game Art cannot be separated by the meaning and function of Art tout court. Argentinian artist Léon Ferrari provides a useful definition of the latter in a 1968 manifesto, which also includes a simple criterion for evaluating the importance of an artwork:
Ferrari was writing in a country, Argentina, where state-mandated kidnappings, murders, and torture were ordinary. In this context, "artistic terrorism" was considered a valid strategy against the persistent abuse and violations of basic human rights. Ferrari compared works of art to political action. Meaningful art could raise the citizens' awareness, awakening them from torpor and/or submission to the status quo.
In desperate times, he said, art must be disquieting, not reassuring.
Sadly, the current regime of American and European Neoliberalism we live in, is no less toxic and lethal than South-American dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s.
Can today's Game Art be a "shock to the system" in a context where the Art World has been entirely subsumed by Capital?
Is Game Art's destiny to be collected by the Masters of the Universe, the 1%, the financiers?
What are the value systems at play?
Can Game Art be something else than advertising and propaganda?