Ten days ago i went to the opening of Homo Ludens Ludens the at LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijon, Spain. Homo Ludens Ludens, the third part of a trilogy the center dedicated to games, explores play as a key element of today' s world.
I'll come back with more details about the exhibition in the next few days but as a smooth prelude to the lengthier coverage, here's a few words about Art of War Parts 4b and 4c , one of the projects i particularly liked.
Art of War features two puzzling video works. Is that a war movie we are watching? A warzone documentary? A news clip? It's also almost impossible to identify the date of the events or to locate the city where the fight takes place. It might be Beirut or Sarajevo.
The warzone was downtown Stokholm. It was a Saturday afternoon, in Spring 2006. It wasn't much of a conflict either, it was a two day army exercise in which lasers were substituted for real bullets and blood and guts are imaginary.
John Paul Bichard (you might remember his beautifully manipulated gamespace interiors) woke up to the sound of heavy machine-gun fire in Stokholm. Armed with a video camera, he recorded the moves of an army whose tanks, troops, APCs and heavy weaponry were simulating a war and using a Saturday afternoon in the city as a battelfield. Right amidst pedestrians, and passing civilian cars and buses...
The video works explore the nature of violence and how violent conflict is contextualised in the digital media age. As 'real' conflict zones become more restrictive, press access more heavily orchestrated, Bichard constructs an intrusive, voyeuristic commentary on the banality of warfare, the fine line that separates authoritarian control from abuse of power and the ease with which society is incorporated into the mechanisms of institutional violence. Uninvited by the authorities and provided only with earplugs, the works document a thrilling encounter with a grim game.
A couple of questions to John-Paul:
You woke up to the sound of heavy machine-gun fire on morning in Stokholm. It was a complete surprise for you. Still, you grabbed a camera and shot what you saw. At which point did you realize that you wanted to use the footage for an artwork? Was it immediate? Or is it the result of a longer process?
I have played video games so much over the years that my life, the games and my art are in a fluid relationship to each other - so the sound of gunfire was literally a trigger for me. I didn't have any solid idea at the time as to what I would finally do with the footage but I had previously been doing some short mobile phone video experiments so the seed was already sown. Much of what I do I either intellectually file away or stick in a folder on one of my highly disorganized hard drives so the footage sat on the drives for some months, then one day I just started to go through it. That's when I rediscovered Edwin's music which had also been sitting around for ages - the video and the musical compositions simply made sense when I started combining them.
Did you feel like a reporter camera in hands or a gamer while you were in the streets with the soldiers?
Well both really, I guess you could say it was like a war correspondent simulation game: a meta-game to the Swedish army's anti-terrorist war game on the streets of Stockholm. When i got to the border of the area, i was greeted by soldiers standing at a table - i was a little nervous thinking I would have to sneak around to get some footage, but they just handed me earplugs and told me to keep away from the tanks (which i didn't and nearly got run over :)). I felt very much like a war cameraman, running from one melee to another. At one point i was shouted at for popping up in the middle of a fire fight - it's hard to explain the feeling of adrenaline when you have a gun pointed at you or you hear a heavy gunfire down the end of a road even if it is just blanks. I still think it's amazing that the exercise was so open to the public, but that is not uncommon for Sweden. I can't imagine the same thing happening in London or Washington DC.
The work is part of your Violencia series, what is its place in the series? How does it differs and / or what are its common points with the other Violencia art pieces?
Well so far there are two works in the series: [art of game] Art of War Parts 1 to 3 which was shot using a high quality 3 chip DVCAM and [art of game] Art of War Parts 4b + 4c which is a double trilogy made from mobile video clips. These works are only the start of the series which follows on from and expands upon the evidencia series. Whilst the evidencia works looks more directly at the metaphors and tropes of videogames, exploring the aesthetics, ethics and power relationships common in violent games,. the violencia series focuses on exploring our need to consume fictionalised violence and our relationship to institutionalised violence. Whilst Parts 1 to 3 has a more documentary feel to it, the work shown at Laboral is more subtle. Mobile video has a very painterly quality to it and by screening the same trilogy on each side of a panel with one work reversed and in colour, the other in black and white, the scenes become very ambiguous. The footage could have come from Warsaw in 1940, the middle east in the 70s, Bosnia in the 90s, it becomes very hard to place and I like that slippage. Whilst both works are fragmentary narratives, playing with documentary, media and cinematographic tropes, 'Parts 4b + 4c' are perhaps a more poignant reminder that whilst a 40million kronor war game was going on in my neighbourhood, not so far away in the world people were waking up to real gunfire on that Saturday morning.
Homo Ludens Ludens runs until 22nd September 2008. If you manage to get to Gijon before May 12, you'll also be able to see the Emergentes exhibition dedicated to media art projects developed by Latin American artists (previous reviews: Life inside bubbles, Emergentes - 10 projects by Latin American artists (part 1), and Part 2.)
Also by John-Paul Bichard: Back Seat Gaming.
Wafaa Bilal grabbed the attention of the media last year with his performance Domestic Tension. Bilal, born in Iraq and currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, installed his living quarter at Chicago's Flatfile Gallery. Viewers could peep in on him anonymously 24/7 over a live webcam, chat with him online 24/7 over a live webcam. But the twist was that the camera was affixed to a rifle-sized paintball gun-and online visitors could therefore fire the gun and shoot at the artist, or anything else in his room. 24/7. And according to Newsweek, viewers have shot the gun 40,000 times in the project's first two and a half weeks. The work brought to Chicago the conditions of bombardment felt by citizens of his homeland.
In his latest work Virtual Jihadi, Wafaa Bilal reconfigures the Al Qaeda-produced on-line propaganda video game The Night of Bush Capturing to introduce himself a character in the game, a suicide bomber based on an image of a traditional Arab warrior, and turn it into a rumination on the plight and behavior of civilians caught in a conflict zone.
Bilal's mod and installation is based on a 2003 video game called "Quest for Saddam" that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi foes and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing where the U.S. president is the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a suicide bomber who is sent on a mission to kill President Bush.
His work is like one of the missing piece of the puzzle, we get some pieces while watching TV news but the picture is not complete and the media often leaves very little space for dialog anyway. I'll past an extract of the statement from the artist as i think every single word of it is worth reading:
My underlying premise for this piece is that hate is being taught - it's not a natural emotion. And video games are one of the technologies being used to foster and teach hate. I am especially concerned by the ones created by the US military, which are intended to brainwash and influence young minds to become violent. Though Al Qaeda's game where Bush is hunted down and killed generated much international outrage, the U.S. Army's own free on-line game is equal to the Night of Bush Capturing in its propaganda motives. Since I belong to both nations fighting in this current war, and since I am an American, I have the ability and right to question my own government's use of these video games to teach violence and hatred.
Along with shedding light on the power of video games and their manipulative uses by both Al Qaeda and the U.S. military, I want to show how civilians in war zones find themselves switching allegiances as a means of self-preservation as the balance of power shifts. Their cities are turned into battlegrounds, and survival is often a matter of obeying the power that exists at any given time regardless of any ideology.
This dynamic is apparent in various conflicts around the world, and even in any American inner-city where the gang members have more control than police; and civilians recognize this and refuse to cooperate with the police even if they don't intrinsically support the gang members. In Afghanistan, Afghani civilians switch sides depending on who is in power. In Iraq people are constantly switching sides. Most Iraqis who support the insurgency do so not because of ideology, but because of their need for security.
The fighting forces in the Iraq war and most wars do not represent the people of either of the warring nations. It's the fundamentalists - Islamic and evangelical -who fuel this violence, and force civilians to ally with them in order to survive.
So my character in the game will be like any Iraqi civilian on the ground, allying with the power which is dominant at the moment. At the beginning of the game the American soldiers are stronger than Al Qaeda, and I will ally with them, fighting Al Qaeda. But as the game progresses and Al Qaeda becomes more powerful, I will switch sides to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq. The game will culminate with my revenge on the Bush administration for the destruction it has wrought on my country. I will be a suicide bomber who attacks Bush.
Wafaa Bilal's installation re-opened this week at The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Avenue in Troy. The piece was to be on display through April 4, 2008, as part of a month-long celebration of art, freedom and democracy at the Sanctuary.
Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy closed the sanctuary due to "code volition."
Please visit the artist's website and show your support either by writing a letter to Shirley Jackson president of RPI (president at rpi dot edu). Or add your opinion in the chat room. Brian Holmes wrote a clear and well-balanced post about the situation a few days ago. I'd also like to mention an article in The Guardian which discusses the current lack of appetite for films about the war in Iraq.
When i first contacted Wafaa to get a brief email interview last week, i had no idea his work would be censored and his view would be silenced. I must add that his work came to my attention thanks to an email from members of the RPI arts department who are very supportive of Bilal's work. Now for your conversation:
What did your previous project Domestic Tension - Shot in Irak teach you? How did you use what you learned during the performance to develop Virtual Jihad?
WB: It reinforces my notion of the comfort zone versus the conflict zone. Because of image overexposure, we need to come up with smarter tactics and strategies in order to engage people. Otherwise we will continue to exist in the comfort zone while our collective power is taken away by institutions.
In Virtual Jihad, the main character looks like you and carries your name, why do you think it is so important to expose yourself so much personally?
WB: I wanted to place it in the context of reality, the need to reflect life in art. What better way to reflect what Iraqis are going through than a personal tragedy, casting myself as a suicide bomber after the killing of my brother. I represent so many Iraqis who find themselves vulnerable to a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda taking over their homeland. They either become violent because of the pressure or they are forced to join these organizations out of fear or they join because of their outrage at what the U.S. is doing to their homeland.
Why do you use video games as a medium for your interventions? What makes them more powerful or more adapted to the kind of discourse you are engaged in?
WB: Because video games have become the medium of our time, so many people use this popular medium to convey a message. With video games, people are engaged beyond art, their senses are engaged.
Showing your works must be challenging for art venues because all the media attention (and probably mis-understanding) they get. What is the experience you have with exhibition spaces?
WB: We are certainly experiencing the problem of an artist versus the establishment. We are using the power of the internet as an encounter. The internet levels the playing field. Video games are becoming more and more powerful because they bypass the censorship of institutions.
WB: Sometimes the project itself becomes the trigger for the dialog. I'm not necessarily interested in imposing ideas or having a project that is dogmatic. I want the conversation to be carried on outside the gallery walls. The purpose is not art itself but the conversation it triggers
Can you tell us something about your upcoming book? What will it be about?
WB: It is called "Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art, Resistance under the Gun" to be released in Fall 2008 on City Lights Press. It is basically a dual narrative of my Domestic Tension paintball project last Summer and my life in Iraq and the U.S.
However, Wafaa still has one project going on. Online! Run to Dog or Iraqi and cast your vote to decide which one -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- will be waterboarded at an "undisclosed location" in upstate New York. Waterboarding is a form of torture which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. The person is immobilized on their back with the head inclined downward,, and water is poured over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. The person would (usually) be "resuscitated" at the last moment
A doctor and a vet will be on hand to minimize the risk of death to the dog or the human being. At the time i spoke with Wafaa, the dog was the clear winner of the contest!
I'll leave you with this video interview of Wafaa commenting on the RPI censorship:
Was taken last week at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies at La Jolla, California which Kati London and I visited courtesy of Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass. The institute was built by architect Louis Kahn as two symmetric concrete buildings with a thin stream of water flowing in the middle of a courtyard that separates the two. Too bad my images don't do justice to this amazing building.
I find it hard to believe that no one has ever shot a movie there. Elio Petri would have done something amazing with this set.
Anyway, any solemn thought and sense of beauty we might have been filled with vanished half an hour after when we met with Mary Flanagan's Giant Joystick which is on view until March 17 in the art gallery in the Calit2 building at UCSD.
Extremely fun and physically exhausting.
More etech08 talks with W. James Au's take onWhy Won't Second Life Just Go Away, Already? Understanding Web 2.0's Most Misunderstood Phenomenon
Throughout 2007, publications like Wired, Forbes, and the LA Times pronounced Second Life over-hyped, while negative press over Ponzi schemes, porn, etc. suggested imminent disaster. Meanwhile, the world's user base tripled (both in terms of monthly active and maximum concurrent users), and continues attracting about a half million new sign-ups a month. How can this possibly be happening?
W. James Au is the author of the recently published The Making of Second Life (amazon usa and uk), online games editor at GigaOM.com, and lives as an embedded journalist inside Second Life on New World Notes. In his blog he takes the position of some kind of archivist conducting ethnographic research of everyday practices and life in this emerging world..
Second Life... "What was it again?" (James Au's PPT slides)
After the year 2006 where SL was on everyone's lips, that was the year i interviewed W. James Au. I actually never really got into SL. I found its aesthetic repulsive but i never stopped finding fascinating pieces of information about what SL was revealing about our society and how it is also contributing to its current shape in James' New World Notes. I was probably not the only person at etech who cultivates some curiosity for the synthetic world. The room was as packed as possible and the doors were left open to allow people crammed in the corridor to listen to the talk.
In Spring 2006, SL made the cover of Business Week. It's Anshe Chung - the "virtual Trump" - who got the cover. The avatar has built a development from nothing and quickly turned it into an operation of 17 people.
A mini dot.com boom followed as many other articles followed Business Week enthusiasm. That's when companies started to knock on the door of Linden Lab with requests to be allowed to get in. Linden Lab resisted for a long time but they changed their policy and allowed companies to buy land like any other user.
These companies would start opening shops to display and sell their stuff to avatar. One of the first company who joined SL was American Apparel. But their efforts were quite useless as the online shops was empty most of the time, most players were just ignoring it. James draw a comparison between this empty shop and the scarcely visited homepage of McDonald's in 1996. The pattern is similar, loads of modern is thrown to join the hype but with very little effect.
James went on by comparing shops selling cars. It appears that a kid who had opened his own shop and made it more appealing with hot babes and rap music was selling way more cars than Nissan who had just opened a shop which didn't looked much more than a giant vending machine.
Anyway, in 2007 the backlash started to hit hard:
The truth lies probably somewhere between the utopia described in the previous paragraphs and the disaster scenarios that would mushroom in 2007.
He was right and soon magazines such as Wired, LA Times, Forbes and many others were reporting failure of commercial ventures in SL.
While backlash stories kept coming in, the active user base has tripled in the space of a year.
TV series like CSI and The Office featured SL in one of their episodes. CSI proposed a feature where the story would continue inside SL. However neither of these TV appearances have contributed much to the overall growth of SL. It's not the media that drives long term activities.
SL keeps on attracting innovation and major companies continue to invest heavily in SL, not just for marketing but also for practical applications:
Interactive demo of the future Cisco Connected Health hospital campus, Palomar West due to open in San Diego, California, in 2011. Video:
IBM uses SL as a platform to design prototypes (3D data center) using OpenSimulator, OS version of SL, reverse engineering project.
Greenies, a '50s style crazy room filled with tiny green aliens attracted the attention of L'Oreal Paris which started to advertise there by placing Copies of their products inside the funhouse. Corporations have learned their lesson and now adjust to what users want.
Corporation presence per se is not as important as one might think. Companies own a total of 2000 islands, that's 15% of the private-owned island which means that corporation presence on the total land mass amounts to less than 5%.
3 principles that make SL keep thriving (so far):
1. Mirrored flourishing - "What you do here should make you better out there"
This principle has been part of the community since its origins
The activities you do in SL can potentially improve your own life. Disabled people who have to stay home use SL to meet other people and get a social life.
SL is a space that creates opportunities. Users own the IP right to the content they create on SL.
2. Bebop Reality - "The virtual world as a 3D jazz combo"
3. Impression society - Whaddya got, and how long are you gonna stick with it?
In SL making an impression is about being cool, compelling, exciting. It is not about money but about how much creativity you can bring to the community.
Impression is also about how long you stay there and provide and that's something that shows by the look of your avatar. A well-dressed avatar for example shows that its user cares for it, has been in the community long enough to polish the appearance of its character. Long-term activity is a prerequisite if you want to be cool in SL.
SL is a very frustrating experience at the beginning. There are neither rules nor guidelines, you have to make them up on your own. According to James Au the result is that SL is an international cutting edge creative space with high barriers to entry.
Kowloon: a Japanese studio 4 made a video game inside SL so that gamers can live inside the game. There's actually a huge amount of content no one knows about. Some of the most active users are from Brazil and Japan.
Steampunks are an active community in SL and a rather large one with 30 to 35 000 active users.
Midian cities, role play inside SL giving its users a "third life". Like a mini-MMO. The users don't chat as much as they write a story collaboratively and on the fly.
My Second Life, The video diaries of Molotov Alva: documentary in SL (coming soon to HBO). There are many Machinima makers but only ten of them can be regarded as top talent as their movies go beyond the usual audience of the SL community. Usually machinima don't, they are for insiders.
Ajax Life, a web-based client for Second Life that does not rely on browser plugins. Made and constantly improved by a 15 year old girl between her classes.
Several versions of SL on the phone.
SL hooked up with a jogging treadmill. Video:
James also mentioned a Danish architecture studio which uses SL to play with SL and tries to figure out what architecture could be like were it not all those regulation rules, they came up with a desing of building that looks like pearls and some Chinese contractors found about it and the building might be realized in China.
No matter if and how SL grows up it has proved itself as a valuable platform for experimentation and prototyping. 300 universities using Sl as a teaching tool.
Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool, edited by Liane Lefaivre and Döll.
010 publishers says: Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool maps the continuing history of an urban design strategy for play in the city. Liane Lefaivre has developed a theoretical model for tackling playgrounds as an urban strategy. She steps off from a historical overview of play and the ludic in art, architecture and urban design, focusing particularly on the post-war playgrounds realized in Amsterdam as joint ventures between Aldo van Eyck, Cornelis van Eesteren and Jakoba Mulder.
Ground-up City places the playground high on the agenda as an urban design challenge. It also shows how specifying a generic, academic model for a particular situation can lead to a practically applicable design resource.
The first interesting aspect of the book is that it was written by a theorist and an architecture firm both very keen on exploring the potential of playgrounds as a means to connect people together, to increase a sense of community and to improve the integration of immigrants into the city.
Liane Lefaivre is Professor and Chair of History and Theory of Architecture, University of Applied Art, Vienna, and Research Associate at the Technical University of Delft. The architecture firm Döll - Atelier voor Bouwkunst has developed a practice where creativity and innovation are deployed in order to tackle the design task in an undogmatic way.
Lefaivre has been investigating playgrounds for years, tracking the archive of urban playgrounds Aldo van Eyck had told her about before he died, setting up an exhibition about playgrounds and design for children at the Stedelijk museum in 2002, and writing numerous books on architecture, playgrounds and van Eyck.
The legacy of Van Eyck pervades the book. The Dutch architect is famous for having designed the playgrounds that almost everyone who grew up in Amsterdam during the '50s, '60s and '70s have played in.
In 1947, the young architect was asked to design a small public playground for Bertelmanplein, a residential area in the Dutch capital. Van Eyck designed a sandpit bordered by a wide rim. He adeed four round stones and a structure of tumbling bars. Bordering the square were trees and five benches. Van Eyck also designed the playground equipment with the objective that it could stimulate the minds of children. The first playground was a success. Many playground commissions followed and Van Eyck adapted his compositional techniques to each site.
Of the 700 playgrounds realised by van Eyck between 1947 and 1978, 90 still maintained their original layout in 2001, though sometimes equipment designed by others had been added. With the playgrounds, he had the opportunity to put the needs of the child and neighbourhood democracy at the centre of town-planning and urban renewal.
Playgrounds are hardly ever taken seriously in urban projects, at least not as much as car parking or street density for example. Besides, the emphasis is usually on safety rather than spontaneity and creativity.
In their chapter about "The Nature of Play", Döll explains that There is a need for an inspiring alternative that cultivates the potential of homo ludens in an urban context. They set out to demonstrate that the city is already full of playful opportunities by listing some of the most inspiring examples of the re-appropriation of public space by city dwellers: Ingo Vetter's exploration of Urban Agriculture, free-running, urban golf, street football, rockabilly fans gathering for dance sessions in Tokyo parks on Sunday afternoons, Stadtlounge in St Gallen by Pipilotti Rist and Carlos Martinez, a blue house, Pink Ghost in Paris by Périphériques Architectes, etc.
Lefaivre then kicked in again with a long and fascinating chapter on the place of play, in particular in the art world, from XVIthe century Dutch paintings to Carsten Höller's Test Site at Tate Modern. Another focus of the chapter is the history of post-war playgrounds, in particular in Amsterdam.
Lefaivre and Döll had the opportunity to apply their ideal of top-down (driven by the citizens themselves) playground design in a study they realized in two urban redevelopment areas in Rotterdam. Oude Westen in the inner city and Meeuwenplaat in Hoogvliet, both defined as "multicultural neighbourhoods" experiencing social problems. They asked children to give them a tour of their neighbourhood, to take pictures of anything in their area on which they had a positive or negative opinion and to report on how and where they play. See Döll, Work / The World is My Playground.
The study has received much interest in the field of public space and play but its materialization into policy and practice is still accompanied by a big question mark.
An interesting appendix is the one made of the interviews carried out by Lefaivre with 2 artists and a curator whose practice involves a particular attention to play: Dan Graham, Erwin Wurm, Jerome Sans.
I picked up that book without thinking too much while i was in my favourite Berlin bookshop, it followed me reluctantly in my suitcase and i only opened it the other day because i was stuck in a hotel room without internet. It might have been one of the very first times that i said "thank you" to the evil and capricious spirits that govern internet connections. Ground-up City is an inspiring little book.
And one for the road:
In the author's words: Trigger Happy is a book about the aesthetics of videogames - what they share with cinema, the history of painting, or literature; and what makes them different, in terms of form, psychology and semiotics.