Game Art at Bildmuseet review

I made it to the opening of the ‘Game Art’ exhibition at the Bildmuseet here in Umeå last weekend and I am glad I did. Eight artists working with digital game technology are showing works at the museum until 20th January 2008. The names that I recognized in the exhibition were Gonzalo Frasca and Linda Erceg. I have been reading work by Frasca for quite a while now and make reference to several of his texts in my ongoing thesis work. The piece by Frasca in ‘Game Art’ is Sept 12, a much theorized and commented on example of his work. Erceg I witnessed at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne in 2004 when she presented some of her work, a variation on Machinima, with high resolution human avatars used in cybersex. The one I remember the most was Skin Club (2002), a naked bald man sitting in a black void with a voice-over talking about the group sexual assault of a stripper at a bachelor party the night before the narrator’s wedding. Erceg’s presentation left the room a bit stunned. I shall return to this point shortly.

The artists that were new to me were John Paul Bichard, Natalie Bookchin, Joseph Delappe, Feng Mengbo, Göran Sundqvist (an amazing insight into the early – 1960 – life of digital art) and Petra Vargova. As well a group of students from the Academy of Fine Art here at Umeå University has set up an installation around their work with computer games. The installation included the charming murder mystery game Rorschach (download from link) by Jens Andersson and Ida Raden. As well a room at the gallery is dedicated to the development of the game Yod Burrow and the mix-up of Chaste City, at this stage Yod is developing but it was interesting to see still images, listen to audio files and read descriptions of the work.

Natalie Bookchin’s piece The Intruder (1999) is based upon a story by Jorge Luis Borges, La Intrusa and this adaptive element in the work, drawing as it does on the literary excellence of Borges, gives the piece a power that can be lacking in works of digital art that restrict themselves to a self-reflective questioning of the nature of the media (i.e. the virtual-real dichotomy that, in my opinion, has been overworked as a theme). The Intruder is large scale; visually positioned on a two or three meter square screen that is three quarters up on a huge white wall, giving it a cinemagraphic aura. What is displayed on the screen are a series of retro-game hacks (Pong, Space Invaders and others), which the viewer can operate from a console on a white plinth with speakers. From manipulating the game variations (i.e Pong does not much resemble the game I remember) the story unfolds across media of a woman and the two brothers who profess to love her in a violent and cruel drama where the woman is basically abused. These speakers are quite small and it makes following the narrators voice difficult at times. The necessity of sound in most of the pieces in ‘Game Art’ challenges the gallery format for the presentation of such works of digital media. This, like the presentation of Erceg’s Punchline (2003) is something I will come to at the conclusion of this text.

The pieces by Joseph Delappe (dead in iraq – 2006), Petra Vargova (DOA 2), Feng Mengbo (ah_Q – 2003), and John Paul Bichard (Severed Hand [evidencia #003] – 2007) seem to be primarily concerned with interrogating the medium. Each takes up the inside/outside constructions around computer games; “I am in the game or the game is here with us outside the screen”. In dead in iraq by Delappe the online game world America’s Army (which most people realize is produced, funded and maintained by the United States Military) is explored for its connections with the ongoing carnage in Iraq. The upper and lower case use of iraq/Iraq used in the title should be perhaps read as signifying the iraq of America’s Army versus the Iraq of the body count that Delappe enters into the chat function of the game once he has dropped his weapon. Dellape’s avatar ‘dead-in-iraq’ types in the name, classification and date of death of American military in Iraq until the avatar is ejected from the game. The piece shown at ‘Game Art’ is a video of Delappe playing America’s Army by his own rules, with the video point of view (the shot) from over the artists shoulder from outside the screen-player arrangement.

The ongoing relationships in what has been termed the Military/Entertainment Complex is nowhere more evident than in computer games, especially when it comes to simulation. dead-in-iraq is interesting from the perspectives of propaganda and information architecture but it does not gain new ground in questioning the media, well not in this particular incarnation of it. Once again the presentation of dead-in-iraq is gallery friendly, with the video screen showing a recording of gameplay at about the same height and orientation that one would use for an oil painting. Delappe is a mixed media and performance artist who is by no means a stranger to cross media platforms. When one looks at the dead-in-iraq page on the artist’s website we gain an idea of the piece as more of a performance in the ‘America’s Army’ world than a video screen of recorded play on a wall. dead-in-iraq seems to have been an Art Action, while what is shown at the bildmuseet is an account of that action. I think this is an interesting comment on the materiality of the gallery (with its history of exhibitions, salons, public and private art and so on). Frasca’s Sept 12 is related as well to the Military/Entertainment Complex and is a Flash game in the tradition of Serious Games (“games were being developed for non-entertainment purposes”), where a small stereotypical Middle Eastern town is about to be cleansed of terrorists as the player shoots bombs and missiles into the urban living environments of men women and children (oh…and terrorists). The real world parallels are pretty clear from Frasca’s piece.

I was confused in a pleasant sort of way by John Paul Bichard’s Severed Hand [evidencia #003] as, like dead-in-iraq, it seems to have been a performance or action based piece. Severed Hand comes closest of all the works in ‘Game Art’ to immersing the visitor in a game scenario. The blood red sprayed on the walls and the video loop of an extreme act of theatrical violence, all surrounded by the iconic police marker ribbon from the crime scene, makes the game feel a little closer.

Finally, to my point about the gallery space dictating the format of the art. When I saw Linda Erceg present her work in Melbourne it was like a performance and the audience responded strongly to what Erceg shared with us in 2004. The ‘live’ aspect of computer games makes the presentation of recorded or still content from games problematic. The concept of adaptation or translation can be applied to explain how games are re-represented in gallery shows, but then are we really getting the games as art or is it games and art?

HUMlab at the University of Tokyo

Yesterday I visited professor Shin Mizukoshi at the University of Tokyo. I also got to meet some students. It was very inspiring and I think we all felt that there were connections and similarities as well as differences. It was quite interesting to hear about the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies (and there are several interesting research groups here) – not least because of structural similarities and a common understanding of the importance of bringing the humanities, computer science, engineering together, and sometimes allowing the cultural focus be the entry point. Also we share experience – we have been involved in making this happen for some time.

Professor Shin’s early work was on the formation process of American broadcasting in the early 20th century and his work is very much contextual and rich – more recently focusing on media literacy among other things (see the MELL project for instance).  Another important project is the MoDe Project which is about socio-media studies on designing mobile media culture and literacy. They are also starting a new 5+ years project. We talked a fair bit about combining creative and critical modes as well. Shin talks about critical media production. I think there is good potential for productive collaboration between HUMlab and Shin’s research group, and we discussed some first steps. I am really happy I came to visit. There is much more to report and there also photos (the computer I am currently using does not allow me to do that). More later.

HUMlab on YouTube

Our lab is much more than a physical space. It is a way of thinking, a way of researching. And the relationship between the physical space and its inhabitants is giving and energetic. We have chosen to break out of the physical space in many ways, through a main blog, research blogs, flickr, podcasts, seminar streams (both live and archived), and now through YouTube.


Our YouTube presence is different than our streamed and archived videos. The streamed video archive is the manifestation of our research interests. Our YouTube presence is an attempt to capture the spirit of the lab candidly. What we do before the presentations and papers, where we travel, the de/re-construction of the present lab… It is a new space, but one we hope to inhabit more and more. We would like to take this opportunity to invite you into our lab space, to share a cup of coffee and talk.

Game Art at Bildmuseet in Umea

The arts collective “Dataspelsgruppen” (Computer Games Group) at the Umeå School of Fine Arts develop computer games and examine the meetings between art and game constuction. Their work will be shown at the Bildmuseet in Umea. The exhibition opens Sunday 25th November at 12:00 midday.

The games collective will show the development of the game Yod Burrow and a mix-up of Chaste City. The game is at the production stage and at the Bildmuseet visitors gain an insight into the creative work behind computer games. With screenshots, sketches, captured play sequences and animations the visitor can see how the game looks and is constructed.

The full press release is HERE (In Swedish)

Opening Bildmuseet Sunday 25 Nov, 12-17
Iin conjuction with the opening of the exhibtion Game Art.

Thursday 22 nov, 10-12.

Exhibition runs from 25 nov 2007 – 20 jan 2008

John Huntington, dataspelsgruppen
Telephone: 0704-741380

HUMlab for Science and Technology Studies Scholars

Yesterday I gave a presentation on HUMlab for a group of about 20 STS scholars and academics here in the lab. These are the slides I used in the presentation. It is my account of some of the history, aesthetics, concepts, activities and future plans for HUMlab. I was amazed when looking through 6 years of photos and the written history (in Swedish) how much has been achieved in HUMlab. Trying to compress a logical sequence of events into a one hour presentation was somewhat difficult. But I think these slides convey something of the breadth and depth of what happens in the lab.

A Creative Arts Campus

klicka på bilden för större bild
The proposed new Arts Campus (Click for enlarged image)

Last Sunday the Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University Göran Sandberg gave a presentation at the School of Design on the proposed ‘Arts Campus’ that will be built along the bank of the Umeå River that runs through the middle of the city. HUMlab will have a role to play in the creative environment that is in the final planning stages now and should be open to students in two or three years. The architecture school will be open next year.
A video (in Swedish) of the Vice Chancellor speaking about the Arts Campus can be seen on the web, and in it he describes HUMlab as a “world class environment for meetings in Information Technology, Humanities and other subjects”. HUMlab will be connected to the Art Gallery and Art School with a possible presence on the campus itself as well. As the Vice-Chancellor describes in the video, one can never administer creative work, but rather one can administer good places for creative meetings and work. The new Arts Campus is planned to be a place for creative people to meet and work. It sounds to me a lot like the ideas that have made HUMlab what it is today.

Sjökor och stekare

Last night I went to the premier of Sjökor och stekare (seacows and cool guys), the blog opera created from 100 word blog entries by 400 students in Umeå. It was fabulous! A really wonderful and professional production! The story line was one of teen-age angst, love and snow mobile racing. And while the story was simple, and the singing occasionally flat, the scenography was fantastic! There were multiple layers of storytelling explored through dance, light, simple props and digital screens. Below I have attached a series of clips from the premier. The clips were taken with a digital camera, and fairly far back in the crowd. The point of the clips, however, is to show the different ways in which they used the scene space. The use of light and simple props was VERY effective – not least in the way the simple props were juxtaposed with multiple screens highlighting the technological origins (the blog + computers in the classroom) of the opera.

Some of my favorite scenes really mixed the use of light, rhythm and technology well. During the scenes in which the students were seated and working, screens highlighted their faces and transparent keyboards with students seen typing above them were projected onto three large screens which encased the action. The rhythm of the students typing helped framed the stress, boredom and anticipation sung about in the libretto. Light was used effectively in these scenes to push the chorus into the background, but also very effectively in scenes with no props by defining boundaries in the otherwise traditional blackbox.

There was one part that, even though the idea was great, really did not work so well. There was a small bit of audience participation in the middle of the opera where the audience sent in sms’s to the four main characters. It was during a bit in the opera in which the characters were expressing a lot of anger and chaos anyway. It was a cute idea, and fun to see your suggestions projected onto a big screen and then acted out, but the overall effect was distracting to the storyline. I love improv, and try to use it often as a teaching tool, but in this particular case, I just don’t think it worked well.

As wonderful as the finished product was – and it was! – the idea behind the opera is just as inspiring. ‘Let the kids tell the professionals how it should be done‘. Well, professionals. I hope you were taking notes. The house was packed. The crowd excited. And the ovation, standing. it was a great production!

Oil 21 Perpectives on Intellectual Property

For three days this week I have been attending a workshop and seminar series at the Umeå Academy of Art with the title Oil 21: Beyond Intellectual Property From File-Sharing to Distributed Archiving. It is part of the larger Oil 21 event which recently took place in Berlin:

A project by Bootlab, based on a concept by Partner gegen Berlin, produced in cooperation with Sarai, The Thing and Waag Society, and funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

The leaders of the workshop are Jan Gerber and Sebastian Luetgert from Berlin. Jan is a digital code artist and programmer, video artist and software developer. Sebastian is described as

Lives in Berlin, works as an author, programmer and artist. Co- founder of
Bootlab, an independent space for old and new media in Berlin. Various
projects dealing with Intellectual Property, like and Pirate
Cinema. Recent publications include “Introduction to a True History of the
Internet”, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction” and “The
Society of Intellectual Property”.

The third member of the panel today has been Rasmus Fleischer, a founder of the Swedish Piratbyrån (Bureau of Piracy) and researching at the Institute of Contemporary History in Södertörn (southern Stockholm), about music and its shifting conditions in the age of its technical reproduction.

The title ‘Oil 21’ comes from the quote “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century” – by Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, one of the world’s largest Intellectual Proprietors. This is seen by the Oil 21 organizers as offering

a unique perspective on the current conflicts around copyrights, patents and trademarks. Not only does it open up the complete panorama of conceptual confusion that surrounds this relatively new and rather hallucinatory form of property – it must also be understood as a direct declaration of war.

The workshop began on Monday with introductions and hearing from the audience in regards to what they expect or desire from the coming week. The majority of the group here has been art students and they seem to understand the relevance of copyright and Intellectual Property (IP) to artistic practice. Considerations of authorship, distribution, rights to material, archiving, the role of institutions (museums, galleries, libraries, education ‘facilities’ and so on) have formed the backbone for the discussions. The readings suggested for the workshop are all online and can be accessed here.

I was absent for Tuesday and Wednesday from Oil 21 as I had to attend classes (on technology in the classroom). I returned to Oil 21 yesterday to watch the film Good Copy Bad Copy (online streamed and download) A Danish film that was funded by the government television network and is distributed with a Creative Commons license. I found this film an interesting gestalt to questions on art and ownership, power and the rights of poorer countries to control content and access cultural markets. The remainder of the day was spent looking at access to digital ‘raw materials’ for the construction of art works and commentary. Although not a technician myself I appreciate literacy in terms of code and I would like to spend more time studying this ‘other’ language.

Today the focus of Oil 21 has been the knowledge and experiences of Rasmus Fleischer as one of the founders of the Bureau of Piracy (BP). I have been following the activities of the Bureau of Piracy since 2003. Something that emerged as interesting from Rasmus’ talk was that the Pirate Bay, the large torrent tracker that is run by associates of the BP, actually began as a server “in a shoe box in Mexico” as a small torrent tracker in late 2003. In 2004 the shoe box with tracker came home to Sweden and from there you can use Google to get the details, as it is all fairly well known.

At the moment the BP is not going away and has adopted more surrealist or situationist tactics to bring some alternative approaches to the discussion around who owns culture and who has access to its products.

silver, frames and the first personal computer

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with David Silver. I know David’s work mainly from the book he co-edited with Adrienne Massanari: Critical Cyberculture Studies and, of course, from the Resource Center for Cyberculture Stuides (RCCS). He is also the co-organizer of the September Project:

The September Project is a grassroots effort to foster public events in all libraries in all countries in September. September Project events explore issues that matter–like peace, or freedom–and can include book displays, panel discussions, civic deliberations, film screenings, theatrical performances, community book readings, murals, kids’ art projects, and so much more. September Project events are free and organized locally.

How can you participate? Organize an event at your library, and tell us about it! We’ll post all events on this site as they develop around the world.

The September Project began in 2004 and continues to grow. Last year, there were over 500 September Project events in libraries in 30 countries.

We talked about activism and about big projects such us a lab or a resource center – and how these help you identify what it is all about (possibly ‘the territory’). I use some of David’s work on the field in my article on digital humanities, and I learnt more about internet research in our discussion. He also gave me several really interesting references/pointers for a conference we are planning, and a concrete suggestion for encouraging visitors to he lab leave digital imprints.

I spent the afternoon attending a FrameNet Project meeting. It was great getting an update on the project (which I have followed for many years). It was also good to see so many students and researchers involved – I think this is something we could do better in Sweden – involving students, visitors, Ph.D. students etc. in projects. I have noticed this kind of collective energy many times here,  and we have a fair bit of that in the lab but not with this kind of focus. Here is a description of FrameNet:

The Berkeley FrameNet project is creating an on-line lexical resource for English, based on frame semantics and supported by corpus evidence. The aim is to document the range of semantic and syntactic combinatory possibilities (valences) of each word in each of its senses, through computer-assisted annotation of example sentences and automatic tabulation and display of the annotation results. The major product of this work, the FrameNet lexical database, currently contains more than 10,000 lexical units (defined below), more than 6,100 of which are fully annotated, in more than 825 semantic frames, exemplified in more than 135,000 annotated sentences.

At the meeting we discussed collaboration and I hope we will be able to do more together in the future. In particular, I think we may be able to give input in regards to interface, presentation and maybe also participatory media aspects.

Because of time constraints I cannot meet with HUMlab friends and project partners Bruce Damer and Galen Brandt on this trip, but I had a long skype conversation with Bruce yesterday evening. We are planning ahead for the Virtual Worlds Timeline Project among other things. Also, Bruce told me about the 45th anniversary of LINC that occurred this past weekend – supposedly the first personal computer. See here and here for additional coverage.

Paper doll books and language games

Yesterday I had some meetings at MIT and I also attended two events. The first talk was titled “Harlequin leaps the Digital Divide!, or early media in transition”. The speaker was Jacqueline Reid-Walsh and a fair part of the talk was devoted to looking at “paper engineering”: flap books, paper doll books, toy theaters etc from about 1770 to 1860. Reid-Walsh is interested in creating an interactive archive of this kind of artifacts and stories (for research, educational use etc.), and she also made reference to virtual dolls and games such as Sims 2. She stressed that these paper texts were made to be engaged with in a multi-modal way requiring multiple literacies and active engagement.


It was a very interesting seminar and these artifacts really are interesting in their own right. They also show many traits that we associate with new media. For instance, Reid-Walsh made the point that you can see convergence culture in the late 18th century and early 19th century in different material circumstances with recurring elements in different genres. What was described is partly a planned project based on her research. There was a discussion of what a digital version could look like, but obviously this is something that we could have spent hours discussing. One important question is what you actually choose to bring over into a digital version and what not. Jacqueline stressed the importance of overcoming the fragility of the paper artifacts and their inaccessibility (in archives where you are not even allowed to take photographs). In the discussion, someone pointed out the that fragility is an integral part of the stories and the “feeling” of this medium. This was not brought up, but I imagine that you could simulate fragility in a digital environment. I think the materiality and the ‘interface’ (as well as the underlying design concept) would be extremely important in this kind of project, but regardless, it would obviously not be the same thing. And as she pointed out, you can use things like magnification (making things bigger on the screen) to carry over some pantomime effects in a non-obvious way.

The other event was a pedagogy and technology forum titled “Game-Based Language Learning: Key Issues for Effective Design and Deployment Around the Globe”. Here people from the foreign language departments attended as well as education arcade people and some others, and the format was open discussion rather than a talk-talk. I quite enjoyed it – not least because the language teachers present were both engaged and critical – some of them (maybe even most of them) with experience from earlier projects. Also, I have been thinking about games and language learning for some time in relation to my book. In most other areas (virtual worlds, blogging, web 2.0 etc.) I have no problem coming up with applications in relation to language education, but somehow games are more difficult for me. In a Swedish context (with modern languages including linguistics, literature and cultural studies), one obvious ‘use’ of games is as study objects. As Ravi Purushotma pointed out yesterday, game worlds with native speakers become representations of the target (and other) cultures. From a literary perspective it might be interesting to look at narratives while a linguistic angle may be looking at language production and conventions. Also, games can be arenas – places where you can communicate, collaborate and create – in similar ways as we have used virtual worlds in HUMlab-supported work. Simulations, roleplays and situated learning can be carried out here (game-specific or constructed). Some of the earlier MIT experiences seemed to indicate that using popular mainstream full-scale games had not worked optimally, and there is now more interest (as elsewhere) in light-weight, web-based solutions. This makes sense I think. Also, this probably makes it easier to relate to and integrate content from a wide variety of sources (such as newsfeeds, Flickr pictures, google map data, online radio/tv etc.).

As far as game-like games are concerned, they often tend to be focused on areas such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (from my experience), and it will be interesting to see if it is possible to come up with more integrative games such as Labyrinth for language learning (that are not over-didactic). Several times during the forum, drill exercises were mentioned in contexts such as “not just drills”, and it is obvious that this is not what is most interesting. My experience from talking to language teachers is that drills are seen as important and that even fairly decontextualized drill exercises can have their use in a language learning context (together with many other things). Of course, making such drills/games adaptive and dynamic (maybe drawing on corpus data or imagery from Flickr) may help. I also think that there now probably are i-call applications that could fruitfully be integrated in web-based applications – talking heads, pronunciation analysis, visualization etc.

Other issues discussed were augmented reality-like games and situations, immersion, realism, exploration and time spent on other things than language learning (whatever that is). I believe that it is important to stress that realism and simulation happen in our heads, and that we do not always need photo realism to achieve convincing and immersive situations. Sometimes non-photo realistic representations may leave more room for interpretation. As far as time spent on non-language learning is concerned, I believe that we need to take digital literacy and broadened sense of ‘text’ into consideration. Games, virtual arenas, mediated language and non-textual representation are also part of language. I also made the point that it is very important to allow students to create and express themselves in game (and other) worlds. Someone else made a related point -that students (e.g. teacher trainees) can create games rather than us creating games for them. There is much more to be said about all this, and I am looking forward to following the work going on in this area at MIT.