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?