This is the full text of an essay I wrote to be featured in the Babycastles X Arcade Review exhibition, which is on now in their NYC gallery! Much like in kittyhorrorshow’s ANATOMY, the essay is presented in the space on a series of tapes visitors have to find and listen to. There’s also three other installations that creatively integrate a game with a critical essay written about it. I think the exhibition is a fabulous way of demonstrating the importance of the interplay between art and criticism, in a time where both run the risk of being increasingly devalued. Enjoy!
Hey everyone! This post is a transcript of a talk I gave at The Practices and Politics of Inclusivity in Games, a symposium at the University of Leicester, a gathering specifically to present research on how to make videogames a more broadly inclusive medium and industry. While there are many present practical issues, I naturally turned my mind more towards a theoretical and historical angle. Is the way that we tell (and repeat) the history of games part of the problems we currently face? Of course. Anyways, enjoy! I also included some recent articles I read after writing this talk at the end that are excellent further reading.
An interesting thing I’ve had to adjust to since moving to the UK to study games is the history of cassette-based computing and gaming that was almost totally absent from the North American scene of the 80s and 90s. The ZX Spectrum in particular had a huge influence on both commercial and homebrew game creators (and the line between the two was not always so clear!) and cast a shadow of influence I hadn’t even been aware of. Learning about these unfamiliar home computing systems and the colorful cultures and history around them has been exciting, but a few months into my studies I had yet to actually encounter or handle a ZX Spectrum.
My first experience pressing one of my fingers into those gummy rubber keys was at the Museum of London. I had heard of their new initiative to collect videogames that were developed in London or somehow featured the city as a prominent location, and knew that an initial selection of these games would be on display at the same time I’d be in the city for Now Play This, so of course, I decided to check it out.
I got my degree in Art History from a small college of about 3,000 students in Central Pennsylvania. By the time I was done, I had probably only seen an incredibly small fraction of the works I wrote about, maybe one or two on day trips to New York or Washington DC. For many art historians, this is probably the case. Because the majority of objects of art history are paintings and sculptures, a good-enough sort of analysis can be conducted based on photographs and contextualizing historical information. Outside of very close investigations into underpainting, verso inscriptions, and other material quirks, most times a high quality photograph will do if you set out to write an analysis of a visual work, or at least we convince ourselves it does to keep the practice of Art History remotely sustainable and accessible.
Then, for my senior year thesis project, I moved on to writing about the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s and its prefiguration in movements like Fluxus and Gutai. Oftentimes, finding photographs of the works became a challenge and even fewer were still intact or had been re-enacted in the time since the original exhibitions discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years. Six Years is an incredibly interesting book because it is halfway between formal archive and personal scrapbook, a close-read of one perspective on what it was like to identify and formalize an artistic sensibility and mold it, often with her own two hands, into a program of exhibitions. Lippard frequently remade conceptual art pieces on the spot for her “numbers shows,” and despite her impressive archiving skills evident in the text, these great efforts of combined curating and art making usually ended up evading thorough photographic documentation. Each grainy, black and white, mostly unspecific photo I could find and tentatively identify a few of the artworks in was a blessing.
I’ve posted before about common downfalls of major museum exhibitions of videogames, and pretty much my entire Master’s dissertation (and proposed PhD research) is focused on finding effective ways to curate and present games to the public through museums and art spaces. Alongside my writing on this blog, which is an attempt to talk about videogames from an arts perspective alongside the histories of net.art and new media practices, I’ve started a new monthly project that will hopefully offer a place to experiment with these alternative approaches:
The new year just about marks the first anniversary of me starting this blog. 2014 was really the first year I put my serious writing online as well as other sites and publications on a regular basis. I finished my MSc degree with a dissertation on videogames and art, pitched an essay to and became a regular writer for The Arcade Review, wrote articles for several other blogs and sites related to art and technology, and even made a few goofy Twine games. For myself and pretty much everyone else I know, 2014 was a year marked by a lot of tension and setbacks, but at the same time I’m proud of what I achieved and the interesting things happening in both the art and game worlds despite these issues.
The first thing that greets you as you walk into the Game Masters exhibition, which opened this week at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is not so different from what you’d see walking into your average video arcade in the heyday of quarter-per-play gaming. Maybe a bit cleaner, and there’s some space and expository materials between the lined up arcade cabinets, but the noise, flashing color, and of course, players, are all present. Unlike how games are displayed at the MoMA, their original consoles, art, and context ferreted away so that all that remains is a controller and a screen, Game Masters offers a throwback to the original site and context of these arcade cabinets. The arcade era themed section opens up to a vaguely defined “Game Changers” area, and then a lounge-like area where a variety of indie titles are running on both desktop PCs and iPads.
The striking difference between the first area and the second two is partly due to the attempted scope of the exhibition, to cover videogames, as a new cultural form, from end to end. However, one of the major changes in how we play games is the huge transition from loud, hot and crowded arcade, where people perform and watch as much as they play, to a mostly private experience, at home PCs or consoles. Of course, there are still elements of viewing and performance that persist, in Let’s Plays, online multiplayer, occasionally even in-person multiplayer, but in general, private, focused contemplation is how we engage with videogames today.
Last Thursday, the Museum of Everything returned in a bigger and better venue with a slightly tweaked title, now the Museum of Anything. In the ground floor display area of the Fruitmarket gallery, the same index cards and piles of craft supplies made their appearance, and members of the public gathered to select, hang and group objects of personal, or global importance.
I wrote about the previous incarnation of this project here and here, so I won’t say much this time around, just that some cards from the previous hanging made a reprise, and the submissions this time were even more varied and creative. Here are a few of my favorites:
The bustling Fruitmarket gallery was a great venue for the project, and I think just about every visitor lingered longer than they intended to, getting absorbed in discussion or being struck with inspiration for yet another card to hang up. Again, the results of the day-long exhibition were documented and collected… who knows where this true “museum without walls” may pop up next?
“The Art World” is a clumsy, indistinct turn of phrase that is much lamented and often criticized or lampooned for its overuse, but it has its purposes. We hear “the art world” and tend to roll our eyes sometimes, but it does imply the sites of art production, and related commerce, display and academic reflection that are tightly networked together, arguably increasingly global and homogenous, in our current situation. Simultaneously, as games are getting more sophisticated (technologically at least) the rhetoric surrounding their value as an experience has shifted from linear-yet-interactive narrative to microcosmic worlds for the player to explore. Whether or not games being produced are living up to this hype and are really that different is another discussion, but if we run with the assumption that games are or at least attempt to represent their own worlds, then, like little conceptual nesting dolls, wouldn’t each game world have it’s own art world inside when you pop it open?
Some games do. And even if they’re simplified copies of styles and systems existing in our “Art World,” as a person who loves both games and art history, I can’t help but notice. One of the long-term goals I become most feverishly obsessed with in the already highly-addictive Animal Crossing series is filling up the art gallery in my town. Unlike objects like furniture, clothes, and natural items, art can’t be found lying around or in the town’s main shops. Instead, you have to cut a deal with a shifty art salesman who drifts into town every week or so.