DIY Media 2010: Video and Gaming Culture (Part Three)

This is the fifth in an ongoing series of curated selections of DIY Video prepared in relation to the screening of DIY Video 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and organized by Mimi Ito, Steve Anderson, and the good folks at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The following is an interview with Matteo Bittanti, a Social Science Research Associate at Stanford Humanities Lab.

Your curator’s statement sets up the opposition between the way game videos might be seen in the traditional art world and the ways they are perceived in the fan world. Yet, one could argue that the Machinima community in particular has been developing its own art world — including festivals, exhibitions, critical authorities, and canons. What can you tell us about how this alternative art world functions and what role it plays in shaping the aesthetic evaluation of the videos you are sharing with us?

As artworlds, Machinima and Game Art have had different gestation periods. The former is actually younger – the first examples can be found in the mid-Nineties, but artists have been experimenting with games – at various levels – since the Eighties. Nevertheless, machinima – as an artworld – has reached a fascinating level of complexity. Although the vast majority of machinima productions are still self-referential – therefore primarily intended for the gaming community, i.e. the connoisseurs who possess the necessary gaming capital to recognize and appreciate the intertextual connections between the game and its visual commentary – there’s also a significant production of machinima intended for different crowds and contexts – art galleries, new media arts festivals and even film festivals (mainly because for long time, film people thought of games as “interactive cinema” – an oxymoron, obviously, a contradiction in terms, a classic example of the “rearview mirror” syndrome, that is, they could only understand/relate to those elements of games that resembled film, which became the trademarks of the medium itself – a major strengths but also its Achille’s heel (I’m just trivializing what Espen Aarseth said, much more convincingly, here).

Machinima thus represented a good trade-off since what we are dealing with here is basically (non-interactive) digital animation. If machinima is “an animated cartoon” then it can be featured – read: tolerated – alongside film festivals, media art events, retrospectives etc. That second order of machinima, the machinima that flirts with the Contemporary Art World rather than the Videogame world, includes artists like Frenchmen Benjamin Nuel and Yann Bauquesne.

Performance in Counter Strike from Foke on Vimeo.

The latter is the author of a series of performances in Counter-Strike that I find absolutely brilliant but most fans of the game would dismiss with an irreverent “Huh?/WTF?”. Incidentally, Bauquesne is the same artist who created Violent Waste (2010), a sculpture of Super Mario entirely made of cartridges – pun intended.

Not too long ago, Salman Rushdie said that the best way to free Iran is to drop gameboys and bigmacs”, basically comparing videogames and junk food to weapons of mass distraction/destruction. In this sense, Bauquesne’s scultpures acquires another layer of meaning, both literal and allegorical. Anyway…

Again, the context is everything: it’s interesting to see how the ‘same” artwork is received, for example, by the readers of Kotaku and by the readers of Flash Art/Artforum etc…

To answer your question, Henry: I am afraid that if we over-emphasize the text over the con-text and the pre-text) we risk of losing sight of the real importance of machinima. That is, although the essence of a medium cannot be considered independently of its technical aspects, the question concerning technology is not exclusively technological. I’m more interested in understanding the ways people use, think and talk about a medium.

Example. When John Hillcoat, the director of The Road (2009) created Red Dead Redemption. The Man from Blackwater, a machinima based on Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2009) he was basically legitimizing the medium (machinima) in a broader context while simultaneaously promoting the game.

There was a time when several machinima practitioners believed that machinima was going to revolutionize digital filmmaking. It was around the time Tom Pallotta directed a video for Zero 7 in machinima-form, “In The Waiting Line“. That scenario has not materialized (yet) and perhaps it does not really matter.

What matters is that right now there are many ideas of what machinima is and what machinima does – machinima as an artform per se, machinima as an inexpensive yet versatile alternative to digital filmaking, machinima as video commentary about gaming culture for gamers etc. All these ideas are competing with each other right now, but in the future one or possibly two may become dominant and redefine the perceived meaning of machinima. A Kuhnian paradigm shift, if you will.

In just a few months, MIT Press will release The Machinima Reader, edited by two scholars who have written extensively on this topic: Henry Lowood and Michael Nitsche. I believe this collection of essays will simultaneously answers many questions about the nature of the medium and raise new ones.

Given these two parallel art worlds, is it possible to define an “avant garde” and “popular aesthetic” for thinking about the videos which have been produced through and about games?

I love to repeat myself, so I would simply say that the context matters more than the text. That is, the same artifact could be perceived as “avant-garde” or “popular aesthetics” depending on factors like “where”, “how”, “who”, “why” etc. Think of Cory Arcangel’s entire ouevre…

Moreover, a video distributed via YouTube prompts a certain response and attracts a certain crowd (also, for an artist to choose vimeo over YouTube as a channel of distribution has political rather than simply technical/design implications). But if I take the same exact video and show it in a physical art gallery, it will attract a vastly different feedback. Plus, cultural and social biases play a significant role as well in defining the nature of what we consume.

I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine, let’s call her D., recently told me about her experience at Leonard Cohen’s concert in Oakland. D. was born in Poland but lived in the US most of her life. Nevertheless, she still has strong ties with her home country. Once Polish always Polish, so to speak. Anyway, the Canadian singer was playing at the Oracle Arena. His first concert in NorCal after a long hiatus. He’s 77 – in great shape – but still, 77. Now, D., who practically worships Cohen, at one point took out her cellphone to take a picture of the living legend performing on stage. The man seated next to hear – yes, the audience was seated – yes, at a rock concert – tapped on her shoulder to tell her that she was “Being obnoxious and should be “Ashamed of herself”. She also got the stink eye from many other attendees around her (average age: 50-60+) and felt mortified.

When she went home, the first thing she did was opening the browser to check out the videos from previous gigs – Cohen played in Poland as well. The European Eastern crowd (which ranged from twenty-somethings to fifty-somethings) was dancing like crazy, and everybody was taking pictures and recording videos that eventually found their way on YouTube. Thus one act that was considered “disrespectful” and “blasphemous” in one context, was perceived as a heartfelt manifestation of appreciation in another: the more videos and pictures the crowd captures of a performer, the higher the level of appreciation.

The point that I am trying to make is that although Cohen performed the same songs, the reaction from the crowds, the locale, the written/unwritten rules of conduct changed the very nature of the performance. In Oakland, the concert was a religious experience, in Poland a Dionysian party.

Another example. Last Saturday I attended the screening of Mahler on the Couch (Felix Adlon, Percy Adlon, 2010), a film about the life of the famous composer. The most interesting aspect of an otherwise forgettable/predictable story of love and betrayal is a somehow minor episode, that takes place at the very end [MINOR SPOILER AHEAD], when Mahler is fired after a ten-year tenure as the director of the Vienna Opera House. The crowd is outraged by the fact that the new director immediately changed the rules of attendance, forbidding the audience to clap and chat. “Opera used to be fun,” one of the enraged spectator says, “Now it’s only art”.

One of the reasons why the new rules of conduct were imposed so abruptly has more to do with the changing media landscape of the early 20th century than with personal politics. Opera – which used to be a popular form of entertainment – was being challenged by film – a medium still in infancy, still perceived as a technical novelty, a childish, somehow juvenile pastime (Gunning’s “Cinema of attractions”), deemed “artistically” inferior to theater by the intelligentsia of the day (Pastrone’s Cabiria and Griffith’s Birth of the Nation were still a few years away).

So in order to distinguish itself from the increasingly popular new medium, opera “changed” with the introduction of new rules of engagement, new behaviors, new codes of conduct. It became “only art”. The ways we interact – or are expected to interact – with a text change the nature of the text.

Let me give you one last example: Second Life. Second Life looked like a videogame, behaved like a videogame, and yet it was not a videogame. You know why? Because gamers hated it. They found it pointless, cumbersome, boring. They checked out for about ten minutes and then left. This is exactly why the art community found it intriguing and exciting. Finally they had a playspace they could tinker with. Heck, even Chris Marker became a believer. And they did a lot of interesting things. Yet, in many cases, the kind of artists’ performances/practices in Second Life were not essentially different from gamers’ performances/practices in game-spaces. Example. Eva and Franco Mattes aka 0100101110101101’s “Synthetic Performances” (2007-) is a series of re-enactments of famous art performances (e.g. Marina Abramovic’s Imponderabilia, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, Chris Burden’s Shoot) in Second Life. How do they differ – conceptually – from gamers’ remakes in LittleBigPlanet? I’m talking about Duckhunt, Pitfall and a million of others? Yes, it’s a rhetorical question.

You seem drawn towards the expressive or performative dimensions of games-related videos rather than the narrative. There has been a long debate in game studies between approaches focused on narratives and approaches focused on game play. Can we see the aesthetic distinction you are making here as reflecting this larger debate about the nature of games as a medium?

I followed that debate from its inception which means that I am very old. It was a clever strategy to put game studies on the academic radar, a perfect example of agenda-setting. It worked well: the Ivory Tower discovered digital gaming, which means we could talk about games without feeling ashamed as long as we – the game scholars, another oxymoron, a lovely one – made the “right” connections with Deleuze, Guattari, Eco, Baudrillard and company. And we could also explore, and map, and colonize the new “virgin” territory, which is always fun.

And we laughed and cried and sat on the edge of our seats for years while the Scandinavian school of Ludologists fought its battles against the US Army of Digital Narratologists. I loved those conversations. (For some reason, I’m thinking of Bryan Ferry’s “More than This: “It was fun for a while/There was no way of knowing/Like a dream in the night/Who can say where we’re going?”). And we all cheered when the armistice was declared.

Although we now pretend to be looking at other issues, that seminal diatribe never really disappeared, like all major diatribes (e.g. “iconoclasts vs. iconolaters”). Mutatis mutantis.

Having said that, what I find exciting is that what we are seeing right now is the emergence of new game aesthetics, brought on by a new generation of designers and artists that use games as a form of expression, as raw material. Young, talented individuals that attended art/design schools and universities that have strong programs in digital media (both theory and practice). “Hands-on” students who read Roland Barthes alongside Judith Butler, Bill Moggridge & Andre Bazin, Michel de Certeau & Erwin Panofsky, Slavoj Zizek and Janet Murray.

Nobody is really surprised by the fact that several influential game critics awarded a tiny, independent production called Limbo, created by a Danish studio called PlayDead, as their favorite game of the year. On the surface, Limbo is a simple side-scroller action/platform game. Deep down, it is a reflection on the human condition, delivered with a black & white, sepia tone aesthetics, minimal soundtrack, etc. etc.

Equally interesting, but on the game criticism side, is the impressive work done by an art student from Washington State, Cory Schmitz, who was able to turn his school projects in some of the most exciting paper-based game/art criticism I’ve seen in a long while – EXP and The Controller. While everybody is hyping the iPad – tablets and e-reader – here we are, celebrating a cellulose-based lascivious fanzine about gaming! Ha! So, to make a long story short, the gaming as a medium is changing dramatically and it’s not really about rules vs. stories anymore. Or maybe it is. Who knows. We are just beginning a new journey into gaming. “A journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new value.”

Grassroots video making around games has, as your selection illustrates, been profoundly shaped by specific gaming platforms — from Quake to Spore and LittleBigPlanet. What can you tell us about how the videomakers represented here work within or against the constraints of those platforms?

Today more than ever, the constraints are more political than technical. That is, while the PC is (still) a (relatively) open platform, consoles (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii) are (still, relatively) closed systems, tightly controlled by the respective manufacturers, which can considerably influence/limit the creative efforts of the game community. The history of the PlayStation 3, for instance, is marked by the continuous struggle between the hackers – that jail-braking the console on a weekly basis – and the Japanese company, which is doing all it can to suppress such “illicit” operations (when the users get tough, the users get sued).

This perfectly exemplifies the dynamics between tactics and strategies described by de Certeau. And the struggles between the producers and the users, the way a company reacts to such creative/disruptive efforts, defines the very nature of that technology – the way you talk, or not talk, about a technology, a feature, etc. So, a hacker who tinkers with the Microsoft Kinect is a creative genius because Microsoft tolerates or even encourages such tinkering (within limits). A hacker who unlocks the PlayStation 3 is “a pirate” and a criminal. “Terrorists” vs. “Freedom fighters”: reality is always defined by who gets to call the shots.

It’s obvious that if I want to create something using LittleBigPlanet as my plaftorm/canvas I need to be aware that my creation could be erased overnight without any warning, that I might be censored by Sony for “copyright infringement”, “offensive content” etc etc. whereas if I mod/hack a PC game, I can have multiple outlets for displaying my creations. I can do interesting and potentially controversial things like a first-person shooter starring Jesus Christ or simulate the battle in Waco, Texas and play a deathmatch game at the MoMa and elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are several levels of LittleBigPlanet that really pushed the boundaries – from the Little Big Cremaster cycle to the re-enactment of 9/11 – that are just waiting to be “discovered” by the Artworld.

Much of the early Machiniema content was focused specifically on the concerns of the gaming community. Yet, many of your examples here connect games-based videoing to larger internet “memes”. What does this suggest about the relative porousness of the cultural communities represented here? What points of contact exists between these games-based video-makers and other kinds of grassroots cultural production in the era of YouTube?

There is a high degree of porousness between mainstream pop culture and the gaming community because today (almost) everything is one click away, instantly accessible 24/7, and content migrates easily from one platform to another, from one screen to the next. In the age of television flow, channel hopping, “500-channels and nothing to watch” etc., writers and artists invented cut-ups and similar techniques. Today such production is not limited to niches anymore.

In the era of convergence, media literacy has expanded considerably. Finally, thanks to Windows and Facebook geeks became powerful and respected within our society – their fashion, language, and idiosyncrasies/inferiority complexes migrated to the mainstream. Steve Jobs is a rockstar. Julian Assange is the man of the year…

To quote Jen from the I.T. Crowd (S01, e01), “Ideas are coming, things are happening here”. To answer your question, we could certainly come up with a taxonomy of memes – scholars fetishize taxonomies – or a series of case studies – economists love case studies – to get a sense on how digital gaming is influencing other grassroots cultural productions.

Example:

Case one. All Your Base Are Belong to Us (1998). A game-based video that becomes an internet meme. By game-based I mean that its “materiality”, i.e. the phrase “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” and game footage used came from a videogame, namely the the 1989 side-scrolling arcade shooter Zero Wing, itself rather niche within the game community dare I say.

Case two. The Downfall/Hitler Meme (2006). In this case, a Spanish game player appropriates a sequence of a film, namely Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), to express his disappointment about a videogame, Flight Simulator X by Microsoft. The video spreads first within the game community – spawning other game-related spoofs/parodies/responses (my favorite, “Hitler Gets Banned from Xbox Live“), then goes “global”, and, bingo!, next thing you know is that The New York Times is writing about it.

Case three. The Fail meme (2003?). Like “All Your Base Are Belong to Us”, here’s an example of a game-based term, “fail” (from the Engrish line “YOU FAIL IT” from the 1998 Neo Geo video game Blazing Star -also very niche) which was used – right from the inception – to illustrate, visually, examples of failures – failures tout court, not necessarily game-based.

…But we should also remember that there are memes in the Game Art world as well, but they are not necessarily called memes, but “homages”. One recurrent theme among Game Artists to is to recreate a gallery or a museum in a game space with the explicit goal of destroying a) the space itself, b) the artworks it contains, c) eventually, the artists/curators/spectators. The origin of this meme, pardon, theme, can be traced back to ArsDoom (1995), Created in 1995 by Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban, 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.

Others point to Palle Torsson and Tobias Bernstrup’s Museum Meltdown (1996) as the main culprit. These two enfants terribles – at that time art students in Scandinavia – created a mod of Duke Nuke’m 3D that allowed the “player” to destroy everything that moved – and did not move, like paintings – on the screen. This idea spread like fire in the Game Art community, and became an almost required practice. A playful subversion the rules of the Artworld by using videogames became a rite of passage among art students… Among the others: Chris Reilly’s Everything I Do is Art, But Nothing I Do Makes Any Difference, Part II Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gallery(2006), Michiel Van Der Zanden’s Museum Killer (2008) and Christopher Wyant’s Team Fortress 2 Ceramics (2011).

In short, endless fun.

Matteo Bittanti is an Adjunct Professor in the Visual Studies Program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland. He writes about technology, film, games, and popular culture for various publications (WIRED, Rolling Stone, LINK, Duellanti). His online projects include GameScenes, a blog about game-based art.

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