Published on January 10th, 2000
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The exhibition Over_Spel (Over_Game) shows installations, video works and internet/cd-rom projects by artists who have found inspiration in the games culture. In their work they investigate narrative structures, interactivity, visual language and representations from the game world, producing humorous, poetic or critical commentaries on the genre.
‘Human civilisation arises and unfolds in play, as play.’
As no other before him, the historian Johan Huizinga saw the unity of play and culture. According to Huizinga, the origin of culture is found in play. To accompany homo sapiens (thinking man) and homo faber (creative man), he introduced homo ludens, playing man. Although a major proponent of the integration of play and culture, Huizinga however saw no connection between the visual arts and play. According to him, the visual arts were a matter of craftsmanship, and one could not speak of any ‘aesthetic activation in their realization.’ While he accepted the relation between play and music or dance as self-evident, because the immediate action performed could be play, the characteristics of ‘creative labor, of diligent craftsmanship and of industry’ in the visual arts stood in the way of the play factor. The presentation of art also stood in the way of any connection with the element of play: ‘its display is only secondarily included in the forms of feast, amusement and social events.’
With the arrival of the computer and, with it, the possibilities for artists to create interactive work, it would appear that Huizinga’s view can no longer be maintained. Artists make increasing use of strategies from the game world. Visitors at exhibitions must often undertake various acts in order to view art works. At last the playing man seems to have been united with the visual arts.
It is clear that the world as Huizinga knew and described it no longer exists. The integration of the visual arts with play, a combination which Huizinga did not think was possible, has occurred. Stimulated by the rise and popularity of digital media, homo ludens has come to occupy a permanent place in all corners of society. It remains to be seen if and how this trend will develop further. Various sceptics already speak of our ‘entertainment-based society’ and the ‘infantilization of society,’ in which adults can only acquire information through ‘play.’ What role will the visual arts fulfil in this perspective? Will the making and presentation of art become the umpteenth form of entertainment? Must we prepare ourselves for a future in which Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel and the newest version of Playstation stand side by side? Such question are not new, but the answers are not yet at hand. Probably viewers are the ones who will determine the direction things go.
In Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback (USA) and Romy Achituv (I), the viewer is literally the performer. In the installation coloured letters, coming from the poem Talk, You by Evan Zimroth, fall downward like raindrops. The letters lodge on the dark, projected contours of the viewers. In Text Rain Utterback and Achituv wanted to reveal how important the role of the body is in communication. For the artists, the poem Talk, You reflects the essence of the installation. In Talk, You, someone is telling about his relation to someone else. It describes the relation as a form of communication which makes use of the body as well of words. Text Rain plays with our instinctive feeling for language. During a conversation we make use of both vocal and body language. This is no new discovery. Text Rain, however, shows how easily we accept a physical action, even if this is transferred into the virtual world. In this transition the relation between body and falling objects changes into a physical dialogue between a real and a virtual space. By catching letters the player in Text Rain tries to make abstract symbols tangible; some people have even claimed to feel the letters as these touch their projection. Text Rain manipulates the symbolic value of language, both physically and mentally.
The work of Jochem van der Spek (NL) is characterized by his curiosity about the way patterns and characters arise. Two tables are set up in the game hall of the exhibition. A checkerboard lies on one table, but on further examination you can do little else than move around the black and white blocks which, moreover, are hemmed in and must be shifted one space at a time. Van der Spek’s intention with Conversation (1997) is to offer the possibilities for play. As he himself says, ‘I provide tools, people can here do something themselves. The interesting thing about the game is to see how combinations arise and what patterns are created.’ This goes right to the core of the work. On the other table the visitor is confronted with 64 black and white cards. The cards are black and white details of visual noise, half of which are in fact details of the details. As its title suggests, in Order I (1997) the visitor is challenged to search out and complete the pairs. In a world where only random ‘noise’ exists, this can not succeed. Yet instinctively people still search for a something to hold on to, and try to discover a pattern. In this effort, each detail can be a signal from which thought and work can proceed. Here Van der Spek reaches back to the essential. In Open Enclosure (Open Insluiting, 2000), a rectangle falls almost straight onto a beam that divides an open square space down the middle. As the simulation is repeated, it sometimes falls into the left-hand compartment, and sometimes in the right. No energy is lost on impact, so the rectangle always continues in motion and sometimes, if it gains enough height, lands in the other compartment. Open Enclosure plays with the expectations the viewer has about a moving object in a delimited space. You hope that it finds a way out, either by ‘jumping’ into the other compartment, or entirely out of the space.
Over_Spel also presents artists who use elements from the games culture in more conventional ways. The work of Annika Larsson (S) is characterised by suggestivity. In the video work Perfect Game (1999) three men are playing life-size jackstraws. Depicted as caricatures of the typical Western male in three-piece suits, Larsson has taken the three from their work situation and plunked them down in the middle of her own ‘non-narrative’ performance. The rules of the game and the wooden sticks, which move like the wires in a puppet theatre, reinforce the total control that Larsson has over ‘her’ men. The probing and detailed way in which she delineates her players, backed up by the monotonous house beat, promotes a claustrophobic feeling. Still, it does not appear the men find it unpleasant. That is also what is arresting in the work: the perfect game touches the part of pleasure that boarders on unconscious fantasy that can be unintelligible and oppressive.
In The Last Roadtrip (2000) Arno Coenen (NL) takes the audience with him to the United States. The video work is a hallucinatory journey through ‘real virtuality,’ with references to the game of Monopoly and the hyper-real landscapes of the ‘Far West.’ At one and the same time tasteless and colourful, the virtual camera crowds its way among the symbols of America’s ‘white trash.’ We encounter the pleasurably heavy atmosphere of Larsson’s work in another form here. To the left, the journey proceeds along the expressways through American landscapes, teeming with their inventiveness; to the right viewers are confronted with the negative shadow of the American Dream. In Coenen’s case, this could indeed turn into a nightmare.
‘the human of the future is a playing one’
The explosive development of the computer industry appears to confirm Zuper.com’s dictum. The World Wide Web, CD-ROMS and other digital media spur the user on in a playful search for information in an environment of moving animations and sound. The popularity of computer games is typical of this. Since the introduction of the first computer game nearly 40 years ago, the game industry has expanded exponentially. Its annual income is estimated in the billions. At the beginning of the 21st century the computer game has acquired a permanent place in our society. The influence of games, played by young and old alike, can also be found in the work of many artists. In the visual arts the specific structure and aesthetics of games have given rise to the development of different story lines, visual language and animations. Various artists in the exhibition take over elements from the commercial games culture in order to demonstrate that these strategies can also tell other stories.
In her filmic CD-ROM SOB (Son of a Bitch), multimedia DIVE into MEN’S WORLD (1999), Marita Liulia (FIN) sends the player on a quest to investigate the secret life of the psychoanalyst and expert on males, Dr. Jack L. Froid. The man himself has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but has left behind an apartment full of information about the male of the species. Liulia leads the audience through the mysterious rooms in the house where, each time, still other ‘clues’ are to be found. During this multimedia search the user learns all about the patriarchy and psychoanalysis. In her other work, Ambitious Bitch, she shed light on the position of women at the end of the last century; in SOB she turns her attention to men. In her installations, video works and interactive projects, Liulia offers a commentary on the conception of masculinity and femininity in our culture, and particularly popular culture. Much has changed in sex roles in recent years. Liulia’s interest extends to the manner in which people are dealing with these changes.
The aesthetic of science fiction and animation is central in the work of Andy Best (GB) and Merja Puustinen (FIN). In their interactive environment Iceborg (2000) they present a science fiction world in which traditional sex roles for men and women belong to the past. The players of the game are passengers on the vacation ship ‘Princess Gabriela.’ On their way to an ideal vacation paradise the ship is stranded on an asteroid, an illegal dumping place for industrial waste. Iceborg is a humorous commentary on charged subjects like stereotyping and environmental pollution.
Environmental pollution also plays a large role in the work of Josephine Starrs (AUS) and Leon Cmielewski (AUS). With Bio-Tek Kitchen, they offer us their vision of biotechnology. Through the activities of an overactive biotechnician, gigantic tomatoes and ears of corn grow with deadly bacteria in a kitchen. The player’s assignment is to purify the world of these. By taking over the format of the well-known computer game Marathon Man and changing it into Bio-Tek Kitchen, they also offer their critique of the violent macho man who appears so often in games.
In their ‘interactive stop-motion animation’ Dream Kitchen (1999), they once again use the kitchen as a setting. This time it is no threatening biotope, but hidden behind the kitchen cabinets, electric plugs and gas stove the player lands in a Dadaistic underworld, a place for fantasy and imagination, a place in which objects can satisfy their basic needs on each other. As the player gets deeper into the game, the sparkling appearance of the kitchen turns into an obscene chemistry experiment.
The Intruder (1999), the internet game by Natalie Bookchin (US), is based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges, in which two brothers compete with each other for the same woman. The plot unfolds over ten different levels. Each level consists of a new game. The majority of the games have the form of familiar games such as the classic Pong. Bookchin invites the player to destroy space ships, play football and take part in a Wild West showdown; each time, a woman is what is at stake. While working through the various levels, Bookchin seeks to arose empathy for the position of the woman on the part of the gamer.
In SiSSYFIGHT 2000 the player must also compete, but this time as ‘one of the girls.’ The atmosphere on the playground is vindictive. The girls compete with one another for popularity. In this multiplayer environment, Eric Zimmerman (US) challenges the payer to take part in this physical and emotional combat. Unlike many internet games, the world of SiSSYFIGHT does not turn on action and visual spectacle. Here social strategies and manipulation are important; only the player who masters social ‘gameplay’ has any chance of survival.
Over_Spel, an exhibition of the Netherlands Media Art Institute, in co-operation with Axis, foundation for Art and Gender, is the first exhibition in the series Over_. The themes of the exhibitions will each time examine the relation of the visual arts with mass culture, and vice versa. Over_ consists of exhibitions and related programmes; the length and duration, and the co-operating sponsors, will differ each time.
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