Rear Left


Posted in DigiCult, The Society for the Appreciation of Audio-Visual Culture by rearleft on December 27, 2011


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I have scarcely begun to make you understand that I don’t intend to play the game.” – Guy Debord, Critique of Separation (1961: film)

It’s been about six weeks since I submitted my dissertation, and I think I’m almost ready to read through it and begin thinking about making revisions to spruce it up for submission to publications.

Writing this piece was difficult for a number of reasons. I work. I have a young child. I also don’t find the act of writing easy. The ideas are there, and I enjoy research, but putting sentences together is hard. Let alone 5-figure word counts. I blame television. And videogames. So I write about videogames as television.

From the outset I was pretty sure that I’d be writing something about machinima, but it took me a good 6 months to nail down a topic. Just when I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, the academic-publishing complex went and dropped a bunch of new publications on machinima in the last month I was writing. In the end I settled on using one video as a case study of the form’s potential to disrupt the immersive spectator-position of videogames.

Paolo Pedercini(of Molleindustria)’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real is far from representative. Not of machinima. Not of Molleindustria’s other work. That said, I argue that this piece demonstrates the capacity of machinima to promote a critical spectatorship position by disrupting the immersive characteristics of its videogame source, America’s Army.

The thrust of my argument is that machinima can be read in film/video studies terms, but that the spectator mode triggered in a game-literate audience by the low grade 3D animation of videogames and other visual cues demands a syncretic analysis that incorporates both film and videogame studies. Moreover, this piece speaks to both Alexander Galloway‘s notion of countergaming, and the concept to which it refers, Peter Wollen‘s description of Jean-Luc Godard‘s later work as countercinema. Amidst clamour for the gamification of everything, this instance of machinima offers the possibility of speaking within games against the dominant and oppressive logic of gaming.

I’m going to revise it and send it out to some journals. If it’s not accepted anywhere I’ll post it here and elsewhere. Hit me if you really want a look.

Swipe/Wipe – Tilt/Cut

Across its 100+ year history, cinema has developed a lexicon of edits – meaning laden codes built around the visual representation of temporal progression from one image to the next. As screen-based media migrates onto handheld devices that add the element of touch to the existing audio-visual interface connecting text and reader, a new language of image transition that incorporates physical gesture is emerging. Unlike the conventions of visual edits, gestural interface has not yet developed as a shared set of conventions, and experimental texts proliferate on the iPhone and similar devices. Swipe, tilt, shake, and tap are becoming related to cut, wipe, mix, and fade, but the conventions that shape their meanings for audiences are still up for grabs.

Ruben and Lullaby (2009) is an interactive fiction for iPhone. Drawing on Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) analysis of new media’s incorporation of pre-existing forms, Ruben and Lullaby can be seen as remediating the shot sequencing of a conventional cinematic dialogue scene between two characters. Ruben and Lullaby adds a gestural twist to a readily recognisable scenario by empowering the viewer to determine when edits occur. By tilting the screen to one side or the other, the program cuts to another shot and an audio cue on the soundtrack is triggered. Building on the conventions of audio-visual editing in cinema, these cuts produce an affect in the viewer which may suggest a range of readings, primarily related to the tempo of the cuts. For example, rapid tilting from side to side produces an equally rapid series of cuts, resulting in a sense of narrative conflict for the user-viewer. Adding levels of complexity to the interaction, the user can produce affects in the characters on screen by either stroking the screen to soothe or shaking it to agitate them. The scenario is algorithmically played through, combining the user’s input and the two character’s affective relationships to each other to produce an outcome that fits within a conventional narrative structure.

The physicality (one might even go so far as to say the violence) of this interaction with the screen can be read as an attempt to break with the traditional fixity of the viewer’s body in relation to the screen (as noted by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, 2001), although it is important to note that although the viewer is able to affect the narrative discourse with their body, in order to view the screen a degree of fixity is still required between the eye and the image.

A century after the montage experiments of Lev Kuleshov, algorithmic media is developing a new language of embodied interaction with the text. Gestural human-computer interface adds significant new spatial dimensions to narrative works, as montage forced a reconceptualisation of the relationship of spatiality and temporality of images. For critical media theorists the next step is to dig into how this embodiment of the user-reader opens political possibilities in art, just as montage offered great opportunities for the exploration of a productive liberatory discourse.



Videos are now available online of presentations and panel discussions from the Art History of Games Conference, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in February of this year. By locating video games in the discourse of art history, the conference’s gathering of a distinguished line-up of media theorists and game designers take on the stubborn critique of video games as being merely toys, crude entertainment, distractions, cultural forms that are something other than art. A key tension that runs throughout the presentations is the need to on one hand balance the desire to promote games and game studies as having attained a degree of maturity as a legitimate fields within the elite academic and art worlds, and on the other to recognise and account what makes a game a game and how this sets games apart from other cultural forms that are elevated to the status of art.

Two main tactics for arguing this point can be seen in the presentations:

  1. The location of video game aesthetics in a history of other artistic forms (painting, cinema, theatre, etc).
  2. The development and identification of “art-games”, cultural artifacts that function both as games and as works of art.

What is perhaps most valuable about this conversation is not the rehabilitation of video games as a “legitimate” “high” “art”, but the tricky challenges that describing the conditions under which a video game would qualify as a work of art pose to art criticism itself.

Using the analogy of cinema, much of what seems to qualify any particular game as a work of art is the signature style of an auteur. In games commissioned for the conference, Jason Rohrer, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, and design team Tale of Tales each demonstrate their particular authorial voice in game-form. Jason Rohrer’s 2003 game Passage is often held up as an exemplar of an art game that is both beautiful and efficient in its ludic meditation on life and death. We see the themes of death and memory appearing again in Tale of Tales’ Vanitas, while Pozzi and Zimmerman’s 16 Tons seems to contribute to current conversations around play and labor, and Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is a sort of meta-game, a story-building environment.

The emergence of the art-game auteur can be compared to directors of the European New Wave and later to iconoclast film directors in the US and elsewhere. Art games play with the conventions and audience expectations of the form in much the same way as art-house cinema played with the conventional narrative and production modes of films produced under the studio system. Taking this analogy a step further, one might consider the possibility of future gaming movements equivalent to Third Cinema, the explicitly anti-colonial mode of filmmaking that emerged in the Americas in the 1960s. To revolutionise art is one thing, the art of revolution is quite another. It would be foolish to attempt to transpose the history of cinema or any other cultural form onto video games directly, but in the search for ways in which cultural work can be incorporated into social justice struggles, the experience of prior movements which have sought to do such work may be instructive.

Fifty years into its history, auteurism instituted a particular approach to artistry for a cultural form that was often seen as being mere entertainment. Video games seem to be entering a similar era. Those concerned with the political impact of the video game form should already be looking forward to what’s coming next.

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Cute Cats in the Age of Digital Reproduction

The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism (Ethan Zuckerman) goes something like this:

  1. Web 1.0 was designed for the exchange of scholarly research papers. Web 2.0 is designed for the exchange of pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  2. Repressive governments face massive backlash from broad segments of their population if attempts to control online activism impinge on access to pictures of cute kitty-cats.
  3. Therefore, platforms that facilitate the publishing and access to cute kitty-cats on the web are highly suitable sites for digital activism.

Of the many famous cats in the internet cat star system, the work of Maru is perhaps the most nuanced, disciplined, and as a result, enduring contribution. Maru’s latest video, A big box and Maru. Super Slow ver.- pushes the audience to consider the value of cute cat videos in their own right, rather than simply as a cover for more other more clandestine or didactic online art and activism.

In seeing Maru spring from the box, seemingly hang in the air if only for an instant, and land with the grace of … a cat, the viewer is presented with a powerful prompt for the contemplation of the nature of art and culture in the era of digital reproduction. The cat is in the box. A computer box, no less. And the cat is alive.

Walter Benjamin, referencing the work of master Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, pointed to the filmic-mechanical technique of slow motion as one of a number of ways in which the newly developed technology of motion pictures and the evolving conventions of cinema opened opportunities for a radically new perspective on existence. Vertov described his films as employing two distinct modes: “life as it is”, and “life caught unawares”. Maru’s latest offering is a pure slab of life caught unawares, a videographic manipulation of time and space that invites the viewer to see with new eyes the world around them. Since the video’s upload to YouTube on August 8, 2010 (one week ago at time of writing), nearly 400,000 views have been recorded, although it should be noted that many viewers (like myself) are responsible for many multiple views. The sheer magnitude of this ability for images to simultaneously reach audiences in every corner of the world suggests a need to revisit Benjamin’s work on the effect of mechanical reproduction and to consider the effects of networked digital communications on our very perception of existence.

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