Home > Writing Portfolio > A Dark Matter Reading List

Posted by: Emilie | MAR-02-2021

As I become increasingly difficult in my defense of all forms of free/illicit/unofficial/etc culture as not only important but a vital (and presently highly exploited) element of the economy, I want to reiterate that I'm not alone here, nor did I come to these conclusions after doing mushrooms in a cave for too long. This is the reading list that I've synthesized many of these points from, with a specific focus on videogames and issues of unofficial/pirate distribution and preservation in that area. Still, they cover a pretty broad range of length and format but I think they're all very worthwhile, and essentially cover the majority of art; not outside of capitalism, but excluded from it while still inside of it. Invisible, in essence, but also omnipresent, the problems here are what truly inform my idea of the potential and most pressing issues facing the arts right now. If we want to shed light on this work and by extension fundamentally change the function and operations of culture, we first have to think about what it is, and why.

(As always, if you need any help with access, get in touch and I'll do my best to help! This list is also a work in progress and I'd be excited to hear about any suggestions to add.)



Art Worlds – H.S. Becker : This is a sort of proto dark matter study, and could potentially use a bit of an update because so much of the operations of the art world have drastically shifted since the 1980s. It is a primarily sociological text which draws attention to the broad variety of activities and actors surrounding the creation, display and reception of even a single artwork, shedding light on many of the reasons these “peripheral” positions are, in fact, vital and constitutive of any individual artist's professional career.

Wages For Housework – Louise Toupin : This is a history of the Wages for Housework movement, which, during the 1960s and 70s, explored strategies to draw attention to varieties of unwaged care, maintenance, and social reproduction work, focusing on women and domestic workers. It also importantly progressed its theoretical position through an investigation and assertion on the behalf of unwaged labor to imagining a different way of organizing society outside of waged labor, which necessarily excludes many things, beyond housework, as not true labor or contributions.



Dark Matter – Gregory Sholette : This book's title provides the overarching metaphor for this list and is one of the central texts in discussing issues of invisible, unwaged, and unconsidered labor within the arts. “Dark matter” to Sholette is all the work in a field that is uncompensated, unofficial, often unnoticed and almost always labelled “unsuccessful” and yet creative fields increasingly rely on to maintain their aesthetic hierarchy and rate of profit. Sholette also takes an agnostic approach to “dark matter,” observing that it is at once capitalized upon and a potential site for resistance and rethinking value, and can span the ideological spectrum from the work of groups like ACT UP to the homepages of online hate groups.

Art After Money, Money After Art – Max Haiven : This text investigates examples of several critical art practices on either side of the accelerating financialization of the 70s and 80s. The analysis of how artists engaged with questions of value in their own work and in the art market and wage labor system more broadly is used to raise questions about currency, value, and the potential of building a world without these systems, where both art and money are defunct categories that no longer try to manage, corral, capitalize upon or exclude elements of productive imagination.



Towards an Art History for Videogames – Lana Polansky

Mixed messages: The ambiguity of the MOD chip and pirate cultural production for the Nintendo DS – Casey O'Donnell

From aggressively formalised to intensely in/formalised: accounting for a wider range of videogame development practices – Brendan Keogh

"Bursting Circuit Boards": Infrastructures and Technical Practices of Copying in Early Korean Video Game Industry – Dongwon Jo

Early Games Production, Gamer Subjectivation and the Containment of the Ludic Imagination – Graeme Kirkpatrick

Imagining Decentralized Videogame Culture: Unprofessional Game Criticism – leeroy lewin

No Artist Left Alive – Max Haiven

Interview with Hito Steyerl

Art Strikes: An Inventory – Stewart Martin

The Museum Union Wave Dossier – Maxwell Paparella

FROM MY TO ME – Olia Lialina

Chaotic Lawful: Teaching Digital Games in a Licensing and Permissions Lacuna – Darshana Jayemanne and Martin Zeilinger



I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production – Hito Steyerl

Lee Lozano: Not Working – Jo Applin


In the beginning we all played Family – Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez

First Person Stimulator – Freya Campbell



The Last Car – Lilith Zone, 2020

Crowds – Nat Content, 2019

Bitsy Mystery Dungeon – Everyone, 2019

VIDEOPULP: Super Carty™'s Dread – Mariken S. and Fotocopiadora, 2019

Brief History of Perverted Dragon Warrior ROM Hacks – Nilson, 2019

Danny Sullivan's Indie Heat – Menos Playstation, 2018

IGF Pirate Kart – Over 100 people, 2012

Don's Adventures – Don Miguel, 2000



What is the “dark matter” of the games industry?

What is the “dark matter” of festivals, exhibitions, and arts organizations?

What is the care work, maintenance and social reproduction work in these contexts?

How does piracy and other forms of unofficial distribution benefit the games industry even as they incorporate measures to control or enclose it?

Where does “dark matter” become apparent in games education, games promotion, and games events?

How would acknowledging, incorporating, or compensating “dark matter” activities affect the degree to which success is centralized and a minority profit in the games industry?

How do condoned channels, like streaming, official releases, game education programmes and division of labor within studio environments create waste?



I feel like bringing these perspectives together is important now, because it seems that, despite the emergence and scaling up of formal, professional unions or self-directed approaches to commercial work in the videogames space, much of the ideas circulating about how the conditions of working on videogames could be improved stop within that narrow sector. Further, there's a troubling rising attitude from people mostly in this first group that people operating outside of official channels, distributing their work for free or for donations, criticizing the enclosure and management of platforms for funding and distribution with the intellectual property metaphor, and making works that are indifferent to any aesthetic, political or narrative sense of “professionalism,” etc, are somehow deflating the economic or political potency of the demands of professional game makers.

I don't think that taking this attitude will actually “work” or lead to anything productive, but I also think it is a bit hypocritical and sad. Leaving open these lines of critique and supporting work which embodies it is not, I think, casting moral condemnation on anyone who does professional work personally, as it is frequently framed in these complaints. I think the element of “leaving the option open,” in terms of what we think videogames can do and be, is important (it would certainly be much harder to re-invent the concept if it was eradicated from the discourse and public sphere), and I also just think the human capability of creativity is valuable in itself. But also, professionals seeing this as an antagonistic relationship in the first place are, in my experience, demonstrably wrong. Free and experimental work, and sifting through it and discussing it and fostering it, is basically butt work, fairly thankless, and no one cares about or values it in a industry or monetary sense, but commercial products are also drawing on this “raw material” all the time. The vast liveliness of free work can be said to “trickle up” to gradually expand the margins of what is acceptably marketable or recognizable as a videogame in the first place

The fact also is that a lot of artists, writers and game makers contributed art, supportive writing, and communications boosts of the recent unionization pushes despite not being in a position where they would soon or likely benefit directly from them. Not to say this is bad, quite the opposite! I think it's a part of the long history of artists contributing to movements that are outside of their direct wheelhouse. But to now turn around and say “actually, you're a problem” here is kind of cruel, but also completely expected as the gap between amateur or hobbyist and professional becomes more formalized and materially meaningful. And in a time where working conditions are increasingly atypical and precarious, and surplussed labor and populations are unavoidably noticeable, willfully tuning out subsequent demands or horizons beyond professional security just won't work!

At the very least, do no harm, right? I think these articles, books, art and games together offer productive perspectives to think about unofficial, non-professional work beyond it only being worthwhile, productive or worth considering if it participates in professionalization. They also offer perspectives for regarding professionalism in its context rather than the mistake of regarding it as the whole of The Games Industry, which is so frequently done. But at the very least I present all this evidence as motivation to ask that people at least change how they discuss work that may not be legible to them as “professional,” as “productive,” as “commercial,” as “good” etc. in the future to avoid framing it (which, yes, media corporations trying to consolidate attention, ownership, discourse and capital any way they can would agree) as a problem.

But beyond that, isn't there massive field of untapped potential here, that all these texts point to, for both organizing and formulating broader, more ambitious demands, all moving in the direction of a world where both art and game making as rarified, hierarchical fields can be abolished, where we can all make in new ways without the pressures of the wage labor system OR exclusion from it to discipline us? There is no clear map forward, but a lot of places to begin.