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:
- The location of video game aesthetics in a history of other artistic forms (painting, cinema, theatre, etc).
- 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.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, the player takes on the personas of 50, Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks, and DJ Whoo Kid as they slaughter hordes of identifiably arab enemies, in an unidentifiable middle eastern locale. The G-Unit is on a quest to retrieve a diamond encrusted skull that they take in lieu of a $10 million payment from a concert promoter.
The skull seems to be a bootleg of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, a piece that also appears in the art for 50’s new mixtape, Forever King, which features one of the countless Michael Jackson sample cash-in tracks bouncing around right now.
Blood on the Sand takes place in one instance of a set fictional video game territories that I am calling Fauxrabia. Unlike all other examples of fictional arab/muslim game lands that I can think of, 50’s Fauxrabia is devoid of uniformed US forces. It is as though we are only 6 months in the future and Dubai has gone to hell in a handbasket very quickly in the interim.
This is a big topic that I plan on digging much deeper into in future. Suggestions for stories (particularly from more seriously engaged gamers than myself) are encouraged.
Engaging with Australia because I can’t re-engage with something I never really put any effort into knowing before, just as there can be no re-conciliation in this land where there never was a treaty.
These pages will now enter a new phase. One eye zoomed out on the intergalactic, one in tight searching Oz for signs of life.
Pemulwuy Dream Team is a video game for the Wii console, crafted by Zanny Begg and Keg De Souza (You Are Here) and Andy Nicholson. The work builds on the crew’s residency at the Redfern Community Center. The game, accompanied by embroidered boxing capes representing some of its fighters is currently installed as part of There Goes the Neighbourhood (also currated by Keg and Zanny), an exhibition and series of events that address gentrification, both in Sydney and elsewhere.
Players box as either representatives of indigenous resistance from the present (eg local youth, 18th century freedom fighters) or personifications of the enemies of native people (eg a speed dealer, gentrification). The title refers to Pemulwuy, an indigenous man who lived in the area that was to become Sydney in the latter half of the 18th century. After many successful campaigns against the colonists, Pemulwuy was shot by a settler in 1802. They mailed his head back to England in a jar.
And it don’t stop ’til we get the po-po off The Block…
Nida Sinnokrot‘s installation Ka (JCB, JCB) pushes my reluctant spiritual buttons profoundly. Primal is a word that is overused, but in this case it rings true.
Ka (JCB, JCB), 2009
2 JCB 1CX backhoe arms
Commissioned & Produced by Sharjah Biennial
Sinnokrot is an artist whose films, installations and sculptures often explore the complex realities of conflict and diaspora. Ka transposes the raised-arms Egyptian hieroglyph of an ancient belief system into a contemporary sculpture. An iconoclastic icon, a primal gesture as much about beckoning the heavens as it is a gesture of despair. All critique and political imperative follows from this simple clash between techne and sacred pose but within a uniquely Palestinian context, Sinnokrot imagines Ka as a humble monument to a future peace.
Note that the assembly was made possible by the labor of Indian workers in a labor camp who Nida bonded with over a shared love of metalwork shop skills.
Unsurprisingly, cricket features heavily in the laborers off-time pursuits.
Watch here for Nida’s kite project soon…