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GameScenes: Art in the Age of Videogames

Editor: Matteo Bittanti, Domenico Quaranta
Publisher: Milan, Italy: Johan & Levi, 2006
Review Published: November 2007

 REVIEW 1: Claudia Costa Pederson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Domenico Quaranta

GameScenes: Art in the Age of Videogames is the four hundred and fifty-six page companion catalogue to a show by the same name on view during October 2006, at the Civic Gallery (Galleria Civica) in Monza, Italy. The catalogue, presumably the first of its kind, features two hundred illustrations of works from the last decade (1996-2006) by thirty-four game artists and collectives. Each series of illustrations is accompanied by short essays and interviews with the respective artists by ten contributors, including Rebecca Cannon, a big name in the Anglophone game art circuit. The two curators and editors, Matteo Bittanti and Domenico Quaranta, each contribute two thoughtful essays examining various definitions of GameArt and the impact of game aesthetics on contemporary art practice.

The catalogue aims at providing a snapshot of today's commercial digital gaming-inspired art. A breakdown of the artists included reveals that European artists are predominantly featured (16), followed by North Americans (11), while the remainders are Australians, Israelis, and a Russian collective. Twenty-six artists are male, and eight are women. Judging from the make-up of the artists included in the catalogue, the art gaming scene is overwhelmingly male, relatively young, and predominantly western and white.

Whereas the art game artist is narrowly defined, the scope of what counts as gaming media is broadly interpreted. Works encompass traditional media, such as oil paintings, drawings, graphic illustrations, installation and sculptural projects, and textiles. In fact, a fairly large amount of works executed in traditional media is given considerable attention in the catalogue. For instance, the third longest essay by Henry Lowood is on on Haddock's Screenshots (2004). Haddock's work consists of a series of images and figurines that draw from iconic images appropriated from the popular press, television, and the internet. The artist manipulated the images by setting them in an isometric perspective, which is by now a convention in commercial videogames. It is however unclear what defines Haddock's work as GameArt. The limitations of the print medium are likely to be the underlying motivation for the preference given to digitally manipulated photographs, rather than computer based works, though images from computer-based installations, game based visual and sound projects, and machinima (digital animations) are also featured.

The overarching theme that coheres the works in the catalogue is their conceptualization within a pop culture sensibility. Hence, appropriation, alienation, and playful intervention are concepts that recur throughout. A marked pop aesthetic is central, for instance, to the work of Cory Arcangel (US). Arcangel is well known for his appropriation and modification of old gaming systems. His pieces depicting slightly tweaked Mario games (e.g. Super Mario Clouds, 2002) are instances of retro chic that suggest a celebration of the entertainment culture of a golden era. This nostalgic bent is also shared by Nullsleep (Jeremiah Johnson, US), a New York musician and artist who uses visual elements and sounds from old games for his prints and musical compositions. The catalogue features photos of various locations in New York, on which he juxtaposes familiar pixeled characters from games for old Gameboy and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) consoles (e.g. Fireworks/Chelsea, New York, 2004). Lastly, Tobias Bernstrup (Sweden, Killing Spree, 2005) sets out to update Andy Warhol's cultivated image of the eccentric pop-artist for the digital age. Bernstrup's neo-pop artist persona is a composite of stereotypical apocalyptic digital game heroes. He is known for enacting this persona permanently, and sometimes in spectacular performances that include his entourage of living videogame characters.

Beyond the spectacular gloss surface lurk the images of the dark side of consumer culture. For example, the work of John Paul Bichard (UK, The White Room-Evidencia #002, 2004), which consists of photorealistic images taken from games such as Max Payne 2 (Rockstar Games, 2003), are reminiscent of the eerie aura of Warhol's accident and mass-murderers series. These images exude the pathetic violence of crime scenes, usually set in cheap motels in old detective movies. A sense of alienation that is conveyed by human absence is what lends Bichard's photos their unsettling effect. The suggestion of alienation is also central to Marco Cadioli's photos (Italy, Arenae, 2005). These photos depict "casualties" of real simulated combat between online gamers in poses reminiscent of Robert Capa's photos of real-war soldiers, and as such striking for their evocation of old notions of heroism in the context of simulated battles. The installations of Aram Barholl (Germany, Computer Game Objects, 2004-present) achieve an equally alienating effect through playful juxtapositions. Barholl's installations consist of transposing conventional elements in popular realistic combat games, such as big wooden crates, unto the real-world urban space. In city streets these crates appear bizarrely misplaced, but also eerily disconcerting in their positioning as mysterious objects.

Whereas many works in the catalogue nostalgize the material culture of the so-called golden years of the videogame-age, or otherwise seek to reveal the latent violence underlying its culture, other works are concerned with employing videogames as tools for exploring the medium itself. For instance, the appropriation of videogames for expressive ends is at the core of Jodi's modifications (mods) (Netherlands and Belgium, Jet Set Willy Variations, 2002). Jodi's works are by now widely known for their sophistication as stunning conceptual jumbles of existing visuals and sounds taken from commercial games, which recall the long forgotten film projects of the letterists and the situationists. These works suggest non-functional interactions with games and as such insinuate a conceptualization of play that is defined by pure delight in experimentation. A similar concept of play lies at the root of Joan Leandre's mods (Spain, Retroyou Nostal(G), 2003-06). Leandre's mods are interrogations of the immersive function of realism in commercial games. In Leandre's games, play operates at the level of the code, which he modifies in order to deconstruct the underlying parameters that are usually hidden behind the high-definition surface.

The atavistic tendencies implicit in commercial game-play are salient in Dave Beck's (US) performances. His work, The Highest Score (2006), consists of a clip from the Warriors (Rockstar Games, 2005), which shows a game character stomping on the body of a dead woman. Beck looped the clip "to play continuously and randomly" (70), and added a score display that keeps track of the number of kicks. He then sent an e-mail to several media outlets to announce the project. The motivation behind the project was the desire to contest the meaninglessness of the act, which as the artist points out, "is something that occurs in the game, but does not help you solve puzzles or learn lessons-it exists for pure entertainment" (Ibid). The work was on view on Beck's website for six days, when he was ordered to remove it by a lawyer of Take-Two (Rockstar Games is a Take-Two's subsidiary), who made it clear that non-compliance would result in a court case on the basis that the material in the art installation was copyrighted. Unwilling to fight the company, the artist wielded and the piece was taken down. However, his point was made: art gaming is at its best when the medium is appropriated and used to criticize and encourage alternative visions of play.

The tension that comes through in the works selected for the catalogue is perhaps due to the two parallel strands of interpretation vis--vis art gaming. The first strand shares the ambiguous sensibility of pop art that favors pleasurable evasion as a form of resistance. The second strand is rooted in oppositional art that is interested in contesting dominant culture meanings through playful resistance. These artistic currents are intertwined through common means, such as the appropriation of signs of popular culture, delight in subversion, and an interest in the dark side of consumer culture. However, whereas pop art takes the exploration of popular culture as an end in itself, critical art sees it as a means to critique and posit alternative modalities of play that are based on cooperation and discussion. If the intention of the editors of the catalogue was to define the "new aesthetic paradigm" of art in the age of videogames as a composite of these two strands, then they have succeeded in doing so. GameScenes: Art in the Age of Videogames is an important catalogue for those interested in art gaming and its intersections with commercial entertainment.

Claudia Costa Pederson:
Claudia Costa Pederson is a PhD candidate at the History of Art and Visual Studies Department, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. She is in the preliminary stages of tackling a dissertation that explores how digital play reconfigures the technical, formal, and social in relation to the politics of everyday life. Her research examines the convergence of the fields of art, entertainment, the military, and medicine, through experimental game design.  <ccp9@cornell.edu>

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