Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames

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Art in the Age of Videogames

Edited by Matteo Bittanti Domenico Quaranta Texts by (alphabetical order) Matteo Bittanti Rebecca Cannon Pier Luigi Casolari Maia Engeli Henry Lowood Sally O’Reilly Domenico Quaranta Pippa Stalker Valentina Tanni

Game Art (This is not) A Manifesto (This is) A Disclaimer by Matteo Bittanti

(GameScenes is not about) Videogames as art. We candidly take for granted that videogames are a form of art. After all, the debate was settled by Henry Jenkins (2005),1 who convincingly argued that: «Games represent a new lively art, one as appropriate for the digital age as those earlier media were for the machine age. They open up new aesthetic experiences and transform the computer screen into a realm of experimentation and innovation that is broadly accessible. And games have been embraced by a public that has otherwise been unimpressed by much of what passes for digital art».2 Similarly, James Paul Gee (2006) argues that games’ distinct artistic status require us to develop unique interpretative frameworks:3 «Videogames are a new art form. That is one reason why now is the right time for game studies […]. The importance of this claim is this: As a new art form, one largely immune to traditional tools developed for the analysis of literature and film, videogames will challenge us to develop new analytical tools

and will become a new type of “equipment for living”, to use Kenneth Burke’s (1973) phrase for the role of literature».4 (GameScenes is not about) Art as a game. Somehow, naively, we take for granted that art is a game. Howard S. Becker’s (1982) description of the inner and outer workings of art in Art Worlds reads like the instruction manual of a complex MMOG. According to Becker, an art world is «the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that the art world is noted for».5 Artworks, Becker suggests, are shaped by the whole system that produces them, not just by the people we regard as artists. Like World of Warcraft, art worlds are intricate webs of social, cultural, technical, and economic interactions between different subjects. Among others, there are creators, technicians, players and spectators. An art world, like a game world, is a collective activity. The

rules of this particular game are called “conventions” and they «cover all the decisions that must be made with respect to works produced».6 (GameScenes is not about) game art. There is a difference between a game artist and a Game Artist. The former is a professional role which operates in the game industry. A game artist creates graphics for one or more types of games. He is responsible for all of the aspects of game development that call for visual art. There is a high demand for game artists. Conversely, there is an extremely low demand for Game Artists. Likewise, there are many books that focus on game art.7 This is not one of them. (GameScenes is not about) Art Games. Art Games are videogames specifically created for artistic (i.e., not commercial) purposes. According to Tiffany Holmes (2003), an art game is «an interactive work, usually humorous, by a visual artist that does one or more of the fol7

lowing: challenges cultural stereotypes, offers meaningful social or historical critique, or tells a story in a novel manner».8 She further elaborates: «To be more specific Art Games contain at least two of the following: a defined way to win or experience success in a mental challenge, passage through a series of levels (that may or may not be hierarchical), or a central character or icon that represents the player».9 Rebecca Cannon (2003) provides another definition: «Art Games may be made in a variety of media, sometimes from scratch without the use of a prior existing game. They always comprise an entire, (to some degree) playable game… Art Games are always interactive – and that interactivity is based on the needs of competing… Although both forms follow the lineage of Fine Art and computer games, Art Games explore the game format primarily as a new mode for structuring narrative, cultural critique. Challenges, levels and the central character are all employed as tools for exploring the game theme within the context of competition-based play».10 We can ask ourselves at least two key questions regarding Art Games. The first is: “What makes them art and not just games?” Kristine Ploug (2005) suggests that «For some, the fact that they were made as art, for others the fact that they are exhibited as art – it can all be boiled 8

down to the intention behind them, originating from either the curator or the artist».11 Ploug adds that «In most cases the Art Games are neither addictive nor meant to be played over and over, but merely shorter comments […] The games always have interaction, but this interaction doesn’t always have an effect on what goes on in the game».12 Most Art Games can be played online, on a personal computer, and feature a single player mode. Examples include Mongrel and Richard Pierre-Davis’ BlackLash (1998), Thomson & Craighead’s Triggerhappy (1998), Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder (1999), Prize Budget for Boys’ Pac Mondrian (2002), Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12 (2001), Carlo Zanni’s Average Shoveler (2004), and many more.13 Although Art Games may be considered an expression of Game Art, we decided – for a variety of reasons – not to include them in GameScenes (with a few notable exceptions, such as Eddo Stern’s unclassifiable Cockfight Arena). The second key question is: “Can commercial games be considered Art Games as well?” Personally, I would say yes. There are several examples of games – ICO by Fumito Ueda, Electroplankton by Toshio Iwaii, Rez by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Okami by Clover Studio and many more – that blur the boundaries between what is commonly regarded as “game” and “art”. The relationship be-

tween commercial games and game art is not without problems. As Janine Fron, Ellen Sandor & (art)n wrote: «While the arts community continues to explore games as art, and artistic statements may emerge from game players, it is important to acknowledge that there are fundamental differences between both industries. The art world seeks to find new voices, explore new ways of making art, and also includes a large number of people dedicated to education, criticism and preservation of what has been made to date. Innovation through social discourse and examining public issues are a major driving force in the art community. The game industry is mostly composed of pioneering male programmers and animators, and exists to attract an audience for the sake of commercialized entertainment. Games are big business, with products produced as unlimited editions, in which the initial monetary value of the best selling game is higher than the value of the most successful, editioned, contemporary artwork sold today. The size of the audience is significantly larger for one game than for the edition of one artwork. Yet the diversity of people working in the art world and studying art as a profession is larger than those in the game industry. There are a number of dedicated educators working to implement formal education programs for games, which may invigorate

the community as a whole with fresh ideas, interest in other art forms, respect for history, and awareness of social responsibility».14 (GameScenes is about) Game Art. Game Art15 is any art in which digital games played a significant role in the creation, production, and/or display of the artwork.16 The resulting artwork can exist as a game, painting, photograph, sound, animation, video, performance or gallery installation. In Game Art, games can be used both as tools and/or themes.17 For instance, to create Unreal Art (2005), Alison Mealey used game tools (e.g. Unreal game engine), games (Unreal Tournament), and gameplay (thirty minutes of players’ recorded activity within the game) to create digital drawings that can be subsequently printed and hung on a wall. By looking at the “unreal” painting, a viewer – even a player of Unreal Tournament – would probably fail to notice any relationship with the source test. In contrast, to create his SolidLandscapes series (2004), Mauro Ceolin used games as a source of inspiration and as a subject. Here, a digital game screenshot is reinterpreted and transformed aesthetically by traditional means (painting, brushes, canvases). The finished artwork can also be hung on a wall. Identifying the relationship between the painting

and the “source code” is not as difficult as in the previous example. However, even avid gamers of Grand Theft Auto would probably not notice at first glance the connection between Ceolin’s artwork and Rockstar Game’s title. Game Art can be analog or digital. “Analog” Game Art demonstrates how traditional arts (such as painting, sculpture, photography etc.) can coexist with new media, by a process of emulation, remediation or incorporation. Consider, for instance, the artist’s fascination for vintage games. One of the best examples can be found in i am 8-bit: Art Inspired by Classic Videogames of the Eighties, a recent exhibition that includes illustrations, posters and paintings by Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, and Ashley Wood, just to name a few.17 “Digital” Game Art, on the other hand, can be considered a subset of digital new media art. In many cases, game artists use digital tools to create ultimately analog artworks. This shows, once again, that the dichotomy between “digital” and “analog” is as feeble and ineffective as the opposition of the “real” versus the virtual. However, it cannot be denied that a significant portion of Game Art is entirely digital. This is the case of computer game modifications. An artistic computer game modification requires the use of a computer game for the creation of a digital artwork. It is also often referred

to as art modding, game modding and patching. As Alessandro Ludovico (2004) notes: «More and more artists are hacking into games’ codes in order to deconstruct the entertainment paradigm by adding social values, decontextualizing lead characters and their actions, and subverting the usual rules of contraposition. In this way, the meanings are definitively changed and the digital landscape is clearly manipulated».18 Art mods and Art Games share some similarities, but they are not equivalent. As Rebecca Cannon writes, unlike art games, «Art mods on the other hand, always modify or reuse an existing computer game. They rarely result in a playable game… Many art mods are not interactive, and those that are often employ interactivity for non-competitive means… [They] employ game media attributes, such as game engines, maps, code, hardware, interfaces etc, for a very broad range of artistic expressions – abstract, formal and narrative, as well as cultural, political and social. Art mods do not necessarily have anything to do with the competitive theme of games».19 Examples of computer game modification include20 machinima (screen-based narratives made using pre-existing, often modded, computer games),21 sonichima,22 generative art mods,23 performative interventions,24 and sitespecific installations25 and site-relative 9

mods. GameScenes includes several examples of computer game modification. Some forms of Game Art as artistic computer game modification have an algorithmic nature, a term used to define visual art explicitly generated by an algorithm.26 Since algorithmic art is a subset of generative art, and is practically always executed by a computer, it follows that some forms of Game Art are also examples of Generative Art, a term used to define art or design that has been generated, composed, or constructed in a semi-random manner through the use of computer software algorithms, or similar mathematical or mechanical or randomized autonomous processes. Since Generative Art is a subset of computer art, some forms of Game Art can be considered a sub-category of computer art. Computer art is any art in which computers played a role in production or display of the artwork. Russian Dolls. Game Art has yet to gain the acceptance, attention, and consideration reserved for “serious” art forms such as sculpture, painting and photography, perhaps due to the flawed impression of many that the source material, i.e. games are an inferior form of human expression or by the equally erroneous assumption that the computer is the only originator/author of the artwork, and that the resulting artifact – in most cases, an image or a video – could be (potentially) infinitely 10

repeatable. Moreover, Game Art is often interactive, participatory, and dynamic, and some believe that “true art” is passive, exclusionary, and static/fixed. For better or worse, most Game Art tends to be parasitic, to borrow a term from Anne-Marie Schleiner, as it appropriates and repurposes existing technology for its own goals. It also elevates that appropriation to the status of a radical gesture. As Miltos Manetas writes: «An artist who works with videogames, doesn’t create or change anything himself. He/she just extracts the hidden notion by looking carefully the parade of symbols the game is offering already. […] A videogame “artist” is not the one who creates a videogame, but someone who “copies” it. As well as a painter is not the guy who eats a piece of bread, but the one who “paints” it, a videogame “artist” doesn't even play a videogame but he just extracts stuff from it. It's easy and beautiful. The coolest thing to do!».27 (Random disruptive quote) «Modern computer games might offer a different and freer approach to responsive media. But my experiences in computer games are virtually nonexistent. And I have no children to show me how to use them.»28 (Games are a popular art). Game Art is not very popular. Although some Game Artists can be considered the Art world

equivalents of rock stars (e.g. Miltos Manetas), most practitioners in the field remain (deliberately) removed from mainstream culture. Their works are considered cryptic, esoteric, or plainly bizarre by the hoi polloi. Game Art is far removed from the mass-produced games that can be found in shops. For this reason, Game Art is not particularly loved or understood by gamers.29 Even paladins of videogames such as Henry Jenkins do not seem to be particularly impressed. In the preface to Nick Kelman’s Video Game Art, he writes: «A few of those art critics have been prepared to defend videogames as art when they are created by artists already recognized for their accomplishments in other media – so we are seeing a range of artists worldwide stage political conflicts or erotic fantasies through pretty simplistic game interfaces. As these works take their place in the Whitney Biennial, the curators are not so much conceding that videogames are art as they are proclaiming that “even videogames can be used to make art in the hands of real artists”. Of course, the fact that highbrow artists are starting to tap game-like interfaces speaks to the impact this medium has on our visual culture. But if games are going to be thought as art, let it be because of what Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Brothers) does again and again and not because of what some pedigreed artist

does once on a lark. Calling videogames art matters because it helps expand our notion of art and not because it allows curators to colonize some new space».30 Although Jenkins’s main goal is to support the notion that videogames medium is a form of art, he is not shy about communicating his diffidence for Game Art. In his argument, Jenkins is clearly establishing an antinomy between games (= a popular, lively art) and Game Art (= highbrow, colonizing, and snooty activity). According to Jenkins, videogames occupy a space outside the official art world but, nonetheless (or because of that) they touch the lives of ordinary people, unlike Game Artworks. Jenkins goes even further, suggesting that «Some gamers and game designers still want to deny that videogames can be art because of the low (or lofty, depending on your perspective) reputation art has in contemporary culture».31 Julian Stallabrass reminds us that «Art at all levels defines itself against mass culture. In doing so, it regularly uses complex references to art history that require specialist knowledge of its viewers».32 As a non sequitur, consider the following passage from Peter Lunenfeld’s essay GameBoy: «Artists have long been open to games, play, and even sport: think of Marcel Duchamp’s obsession with chess; the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse;

the extruded board games that were the Situationists’ psycho-geographic mappings of Paris; the algorithmic play of Oupeinpo […] Today when an artist like Chris Finley creates suites of paintings with titles referencing LEVEL THREE and WARP ZONE you could say that he’s taking the classic – and now classically suspected – high road, trying to revitalize or radicalize painting or sculpture with the importation of pop cult tropes».33 It is true that Game Art often defines itself against commercial games. Its ambivalent nature lies in the fact that it both celebrates and condemns its source material.34 (Meanwhile…) «Art was trying to make reality play a game which was different to the game that art itself was playing. In other words, there was a time indeed when art was always trying to force reality ... today this is no longer the great game that art is playing. All the art forms are now playing the game at the level of the simulation of reality».35

process has been extremely complex. Moreover, the technical limitations of the print medium forced us to trim down considerably our original ambitions. Some of the criteria that we adopted are highly subjective, thus, questionable. We wanted diversity but also consistency. We wanted to include milestones but also new entries in the short-but-intense history of Game Art. We gave a preference to technically accomplished works that were also aesthetically striking. Above all, GameScenes will not provide answers about Game Art. Rather, it will raise more questions. As I said, this is not a manifesto. This is a disclaimer. San Francisco, July 2006

(GameScenes is not an encyclopedia of) Game Art. While arcades might be dead, museums are full of game-related artworks. One might say that museums are the new arcades.36 The amount of remarkable game artifacts available online and offline is overwhelming.37 This book only reflects a tiny portion of it. I must confess that the selection

online at:

Notes 1

The essay, originally written in 2002, was later included [in abridged form] in J. Hartley (2005) (ed.), Creative Industries, Blackwell Publishing, London, and [unabridged] in J. Goldstein (2005) (ed.) Handbook for Video Game Studies, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. It is also available henry3/GamesNewLively.html.


H. Jenkins, (2005), p. 313. A similar argument was reiterated and expanded, somehow less convincingly, by N. Kelman (2006) in Video Game Art, Assouline, New York.


See also S. Poole (2000), who eloquently explains in the now classic Trigger Happy why game development itself is art, an art that



does not fit into existing categories.

ping of Historical Trajectories of “Art Games” Versus

to games, game artists explicitly incorporate

K. Burke’s (1973), p. 58. For a more cautious

Mainstream Computer Games.

games in their artworks. An example might

approach, see E. Adams, “Will computer games

14 S. Fron, op. cit., p. 9. A very similar argument

come at handy at this point. Although it can

ever be a legitimate art form?”, Journal of Media

is put forward by M. Fuchs (2005) in From an

be forcibly argued that many Julian Opie’s

Practice, vol. 7, n° 1.

Artist’s Perspective,, available online:

paintings and installations appear to be in-


H.S. Becker (1982), p. X.

spired by game aesthetics, one might make


Ivi, p. 29.


For example, L. Hartas (2005), The Art of Game

Gioco] Sconfinamenti videoludici in 2002, but I

book conventions are at work as well. Thus,

Characters, Collins Design, New York; M. Omer-

am quite sure it had been used many times

Julian Opie does not qualify as a game artist.

nick (2004), Creating the Art of the Game, New

before. The reason why I’m mentioning this

Miltos Manetas, on the other hand, explicitly

Riders Games, San Diego, CA; Works Corpo-

is because my own definition of Game Art is

acknowledges the relevance of digital games

ration (2004) (ed.), Japanese Game Graphics:

broader than the ones formulated by many

Behind the Scenes of Your Favorite Games, Collins

other critics, as it encompasses traditional

Design, New York; D. Morris, L. Hartas (2004),

artifacts such as painting, sculpture, and pho-

( who created

The Art of Game Worlds, Collins Design, New

tography, and not only digital works.

various modifications for Unreal Tournaments

York; T. Kusano, N. Sagara, and K. Iida (2004)

15 I used the term “Game Art” in my essay [Fuori

16 The term “Game Art”, however, is not equiva-

an equally convincing argument that comic-

in his works. 22 The term was coined by Victor Todorović

2003 and 2004 that allow users to import

(eds.), I Love Game Graphics, AllRightsReserved,

lent to “game aesthetics”. Also, the “game” in

their own samples into the game in order to

L. Hartas and D. Morris (2003), Game Art: The

Game Art only refers to digital games, not

compose unique pieces. More information can

Graphic Art of Computer Games, Watson-Guptill

traditional, analog games and toys. For ex-

Publications, New York; Liz Faber (1998), Com-

ample, Zbigniew Libera’s Correcting Device:

23 For some of these definitions I relied on Wiki-

puter Game Graphics, Watson-Guptill Publica-

LEGO Concentration Camp (1997) cannot be

pedia, which is both a bless and a curse, since

tions, New York.

considered Game Art even if it uses a toy/game


T. Holmes (2003), p. 46

(LEGO) as a theme/tool.




10 R. Cannon (2003). 11

K. PLoug (2005), § 5.

12 Ivi, § 7.

18 A. Ludovico (2004), § 2. 19 R. Cannon (2003), § 5. See also R. Cannon,

13 S. Fron, (art)n (2001), p. 9. For more infor-

“Meltdown”, Journal of Media Practice, vol. 7,

mation on Art Games, see, for instance, T. Baumgärtel (2004), On a Number of Aspects of

n° 1. 20 Note: for some of these definitions I relied

they seem to change on a daily basis. 24 Such as mods that disrupt in-game norms to expose underlying functions of game play. 25 They both compare similarities and differences between real and virtual worlds, drawing the viewer further into a reality of fantasy. 26 For more information, see B. Wands (2006), Art of the Digital Age, Thames & Hudson, London, and A.R. Galloway (2006), Gaming. Essays

Artistic Computer Games, or L. Baigorri (2005),

on Wikipedia, which is both a blessing and a

Game as critic as art 2.0, and the excellent re-

curse, since they seem to change on a daily

search report by P.J. Stalker (2005), Gaming in


27 M. Manetas (1996), § 8.

What does “significant” mean here? Unlike

28 M. Jacobson, in M. Sondegaard (2005), p. 111.

artists whose production tangentially relates

29 This is hardly surprising. I doubt that many

Art: A Case Study of Two Examples of the Artistic Appropriation of Computer Games and The Map-


The artworks were collected in the homonymous book edited by J.M. Gibson (2006).

be found at:


on Algorithmic Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

(even among the movie buffs crowd) would

hibition in Berlin there were more than


find Gordon’s video installation 24-Hour Psycho

thirty artworks on display (installations,

Gane, Mick (1993), Baudrillard Live: Selected Inter-

(1993) – in which the artist slows down Alfred

videos, games, performances etc.), dedi-

views, Routledge, London & New York.

Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), allowing the viewers

cated to a single game, Pong (1972). For

Gee, James Paul (2006), “Why Game Studies Now?

to see it in slow motion – particularly appeal-

more information, see: http://pong-mythos.

Video Games: A New Art Form”, Games & Culture,

ing. The fact that Gordon’s version of Psycho


vol. 1, n° 1, pp. 58-61.

lasts twenty three hours does not help either.

Artis&site=01:05:01. Curated by Andreas

Gibson, John M. (2006) (ed.), i am 8-bit: Art Inspired

30 H. Jenkins, in N. Kelman (2006), p. 10.

Lange, “Pong.Mythos” has also been presented

by Classic Videogames of the ‘80s, Chronicle Books,

31 Ibidem.

in Stuttgart, Leipzig, and Bern (2007).

San Francisco.

32. J. Stallabrass (2000), p. 179.

Goldstein, Jeffrey (2005) (ed.), Handbook for Video

33 P. Lunenfeld (2005), pp. 59-60.


Game Studies, MIT Press, Cambridge.

34 This is why I personally did not agree on the

Adams, Ernest, “Will computer games ever be a

Holmes, Tiffany (2003), “Arcade Classics Spawn

editorial decision made by Joline Blais and Jon

legitimate art form?”, Journal of Media Practice, vol.

Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre”, paper

Ippolito of juxtaposing Art Games and com-

7, n° 1.

presented at the Digital Arts Conference (DAC),

mercial games in the otherwise superb At the

Baigorri, Laura (2005), “GAME as CRITIC as ART

Melbourne Australia, available online: http://hy-

Edge of Art (2006).

2.0”, available online: www.mediatecaonline.


Jenkins, Henry (2005), “Games, the New Lively

Baumgärtel, Tilman (2004) “On a Number of

Art,” in John Hartley (2005) (ed.), Creative Industries,

Aspects of Artistic Computer Games, Media Art

Blackwell Publishing, London, pp. 312-27.

Game Art in the last few years, noting that «In

Net”, available online: www.medienkunstnetz.

Jenkins, Henry (2000), “Art Form in the Digital

recent years, games have caught the eye of the


Age”, Technology Review, September/October,

art community at large, opening a new chan-

Bittanti, Matteo (2002) (ed.), Per una cultura dei

pp. 117-20.

nel for the future of games in art, as presented

videogames. Teorie e prassi del videogiocare, Edizioni

Kelman, Nic (2006), Video Game Art, Assouline, New

by artists using new media and museums».

Unicopli, Milano.


They quote, among the other, “Game Show”

Becker, Howard S. (1982), Art worlds, University of

Ludovico, Alessandro (2004), “Video-Game Art:

presented at mass MoCA in 2001, “Bitstreams”

California Press, Berkeley.

Changing Software Meanings”, available online:

and “Play’s the Thing: Critical and Transgressive

Cannon, Rebecca (2006), “Meltdown”, Journal of

Practices in Contemporary Art” presented by

Media Practice, vol. 7, n° 1.


The Whitney Museum of American Art in 2001,

Cannon, Rebecca (2003), “Introduction to Artistic

Lunenfeld, Peter (2005), User. Infotechnodemo, MIT

“ArtCade: Exploring the Relationship Between

Computer Game Modification”, paper presented at

Press, Cambridge, MA.

Videogames and Art” presented by SF MoMA

the PlayThing conference, Sydney, Australia avail-

Manetas, Miltos (1996), “COPYING FROM VIDEO-

in 2001. In the last five years, the number of art

able online:

GAMES, IS THE ART OF OUR DAYS”, available on-

exhibitions focusing on Game Art has literally



skyrocketed. It is probably a good thing.

Fuchs, Mathias (2005), “From an artist’s perspec-

Morten, Sondergaard (2005) (ed.), Get Real: Real-

tive”,, available online: www.artificial.

Time + Art + Theory + Practice + History, George

35 J. Baudrillard, “The Work of Art in the Electronic Age”, in M. Gane (1993), p. 144. 36 J. Fron, E. Sandor & (art)n discuss the rise of

37 At the recent “Pong.Mythos” (2006) ex-


Braziller, Inc., New York.

Websites and Blogs

Ploug, Kristine (2005), “Art Games. An introduc-

Media Art Net,

tion”,, December 1, available online:,,

Poole, Steven (2000), Trigger Happy: Videogames


and the Entertainment Revolution, Arcade culture,

Books, New York.

We Make Money Not Art, www.we-make-moneyn

Sandor, Ellen, Fron, Janine, & (art) (2001), “The Future of Video Games as an Art: On the Art of Playing With Shadows”, paper presented at Playing by the Rules: The Cultural Policy Challenges of Video Games, conference, The University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center, 26-27 October 2001, available online: http://culturalpolicy.uchicago. edu/conf2001/papers/sandor.html. Schleiner, Anne-Marie et al. (1999), “Switch: Games”, School of Art and Design at San José State University, available online: http://switch. php?cat=16. Stalker, Philippa (Pippa) Jane (2005), “Gaming in Art: A Case study of Two Examples of the Artistic Appropriation of Computer Games and The Mapping of Historical Trajectories of ‘Art Games’ Versus Mainstream Computer Games”, Research Report, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, available online: Stallabrass, Julian (2000), Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art, Verso, London.


AES+F Action Half Life, 2003 by Domenico Quaranta

«In this new world the real wars look like a game on www.americasarmy. com, and prison tortures appear sadistic exercises of modern valkirias. Technologies and materials transform the artificial environment and techniques into a fantasy landscape of the new epos. [...] The world where any most severe, vague or erotic imagination is natural in the fake unsteady 3D perspective. The heroes of new epos have only one identity, the identity of the 1

rebel of last riot.»

With these words, the Russian collective AES+F introduces one of its most recent projects, aptly entitled Last Riot (2005): a series of photographs that show a group of young models doing battle within a mannered, artificial setting. The frozen poses, cold colors and absence of shadow recall the sixteenth-century frescoes of Bronzino, glossy images in which there is no trace of drama, ideal strength or energy. The name of the collective comes from the surname initial of its three founders, Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch, and Evgeny Svyatsky – all three, Russians born in the late fifties. Throughout the 1990s the group engaged in rigorous post-conceptual exploration of the relation between body and environment, of the rhetorical power of image transformed into icon. Their reflections regarding the surface of images would, in 1996, bring them into contact with the fashion photographer Vladimir Fridkes, and hence they would focus primarily (but not exclusively) upon photography as the medium for their work. In their hands, a photograph becomes an elegant and 40

glamorous exhibition of its own nature as an artifact that has been manipulated. Instead of presenting itself as a fictitious representation of reality, photography tries to be the sincere representation of a reality which we increasingly see through the eyes of the media. Long gone are the days in which media imitated – tried to give a credible, realistic representation of – reality. When a terrorist attack surpasses the most spectacular of Hollywood’s special effects – and, in doing so, attracts a much bigger audience than Titanic – reality begins to fall in line with the media, imitating their language and special effects. The real world now takes the myths and heroes that are part of our history (our unconscious) and degrades them to characters or settings for prime-time commercials; it turns them into the stuff of television news and front-page photographs. Three-dimensional video war games are one of the main models of contemporary reality – a fact reflected in the settings and visuals of various AES+F works. The most representative example of this is undoubtedly Action Half Life. Begun in 2003 and still a work-in-progress, the project so far comprises three series of photographs, one of drawings and one of sculptures, all dedicated to the heroes and heroines of a war which translates the settings of a videogame into reality or, rather, the cinematic reality of the media. The background landscape is provided by the Sinai Desert, a Middle-Eastern setting no different from that of a real war actually taking place yet also the location where the last episode of Star Wars was shot. The

weapons wielded by these heroes are props created for the occasion. In one sense, they are obviously false; however, as the artists point out, they are modeled on those tried out in previous “virtual wars”. As for the heroes, they are children and youths in immaculate sneakers, shorts and tank tops. In the introduction to the project, AES+F explain: «Our heroes are teenagers emerging from the most “heroic” of life’s phases. The teenage moment is the moment when a young shepherd can take heart and gain victory over a hulking giant and when an abandoned child can find the inner unction to extract the magic sword out of a rock to become king, vanquishing all enemies. All of our young heroes are conquerors in the virtual world. Their enemy is absent, and pain and suffering are forbidden by the very nature of the game. They are so alienated that nothing, not even their common virtual battlefield, inhibits their giving themselves over to pure personal exploit, to securing victory over an enemy that does not exist. The driving concept behind our art is our perpetual attempt to precipitate the “genome of heroism” out of today's world of glimmer reality».2 And thus we see the return of such myths as David and Goliath or the young King Arthur. However, children are not only the stuff of such legends; they are also the most passionate players of videogames, the victims most exposed to the effects of this superimposition of reality and fiction. And the Russian collective’s choice of these particular “lead characters” for their recent work is a matter for

careful consideration. As is well-known, the mass-media representation of childhood is problematic. Paedophilia is one of the most execrated words in contemporary culture; like terrorism, it is one of the few that can still generate a sense of horror in our repressed and anaesthetised sensibility. The representation of children is “forbidden” because of our desire to remove those we are accustomed to think of as pure and innocent from the perversity of the gaze – a gaze that is charged with eroticism and malfeasance. It is this which adds to the unsettling nature of even the most innocent of the works by AES+F. Writing about AHL, the art critic Ekaterina Degot underlines something that is well-known to many primitive tribes: visual representation kills life and beauty. The media’s resistance to the depiction of children is also an attempt to save them from a violence which is not the consequence of but an implicit part of that representation itself. «Deep down, the culture believes that representation kills, that beauty is captured: looking at it intensely, then freezing its image forever is nothing but kidnapping it to some de-humanized space, thus murdering it. Especially in photography, where this murder is more focused, more technically prepared, more cold. And instantaneous.»3 In casting its projects, AES+F uses children who have already worked in show business and thus have already passed through the pillory of representation. They are children who already know how to show off their best side, who act and strike poses even when not explicitly asked to do so. Their very 41

beauty, Degot comments, has about it something of the sacred which instils a certain fear. The child is the “other” which we cannot fully understand; his or her presence disturbs us; and the violence children undergo when their beauty is subjected to the stereotypes of fashion photography disturbs us even more. Between 1998 and 2000, this paedophobia was the subject of the AES+F project Suspects (Seven Sinners and Seven Righteous). The collective took the portraits of seven children/adolescents who had committed murder and mixed them together with those of seven others; the settings and make-up were the same, so that there were no clues as to which was which. As Hou Hanru noted, the exercise forced the observer to suspend traditional morality.4 AES+F was here playing upon the fact that those who have committed atrocious crimes can becomes media stars; but at the same time, the project also underlined the impossibility of “reading” a face for telltale signs of evil – because evil is everywhere. In Action Half Life, too, all the soldiers are necessarily killers at the same time as they are heroes. The imposed, forced poses contrast ironically with the natural way in which they wield their weapons. Every attempt has been made to strip the image of the spontaneity of play: AES +F is not offering photographs of children playing at war but rather images of postmodern ephebes posing for a snapshot of a real battle. As for the background, the desert landscape is full of towers, 42

bunkers, military planes, and futuristic weapons of war. This plasticized – yet credible – science-fiction image offers us a glimpse into that strange future in which there will be no need for a nuclear holocaust to turn children into “lords of war”. This is also the future explored in The Islamic Project, a complex work which began in 1996 and is still developing. The wide-ranging debate aroused by this project was due to the fact that it seemed to be the paranoid – and “politically-incorrect” – exacerbation of a conflict whose gravity all were trying to minimise, right up to the moment it exploded: the conflict between Islam and western civilisation. Using cruel black humour, The Islamic Project “photographed” various symbolic sites of western civilisation as they might appear after a clash of cultures which, in 1996, still seemed very remote. The Statue of Liberty is shown with a burka and a copy of the Koran; the Beaubourg with carpets and ogive arches; Cologne cathedral is like the Haghia Sophia; the Guggenheim in Bilbao has cupolas and minarets; the skyline of New York is completely “islamified”. In Action Half Life, AES+F takes the videogame aesthetic to its extreme consequences, demonstrating that such games do not only transform our way of communicating, of depicting the world, but also, in a much more negative sense, can also begin to condition the very way we see reality. (English translation by Jeremy Scott)

Link: Notes 1

AES+F, Last Riot, 2005, available online at


AES+F, Action Half Life, 2003, available online at


E. Degot, “Not-Strangled-Yet. Vulnerability of the Image”, in The Nordic Art Review, vol. III, n° 6, Stockholm 2001, pp. 70-71, available online:


H. Hanru, “AES Group”, in Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture, Phaidon Press, London 1998, pp. 160-63, available online:

Biography AES+F are the surname initials of the four members of the collective. Tatiana Arzamasova was born in Moscow in 1955 and graduated from Moscow Architectural Institute (MARCHI) – State Academy in 1978. Lev Evzovitch was born in Moscow in 1958 and graduated from Moscow Architectural Institute (MARCHI) - State Academy in 1982. Evgeny Svytasky was born in Moscow in 1957 and graduated from Moscow State University of Printing Arts (department of the book graphic arts) in 1980. Vladimir Fridkes was born in Moscow in 1956. He works as fashion photographer and collaborates with AES group since 1995. AES group exists since 1987, AES+F since 1995.



AES+F | Action Half Life, Episode 2, #12, 2003


AES+F | Action Half Life, Episode 1, #9, 2005


AES+F | Action Half Life, Episode 1, #15, 2005


AES+F | Action Half Life, Episode 2, #14, 2003 | Action Half Life, Episode 3, #5, 2003


AES+F | Action Half Life, Episode 1, #10, 2005


AES+F | Action Half Life, Drawing #2, 2003

Cory Arcangel NES Landscapes, 2005 by Domenico Quaranta

The most striking thing about Cory Arcangel’s work is its eclecticism and the way it totally eschews order. He himself in an interview confessed: «I am a classic multi-tasker, one of those who grew up doing his homework while watching television». He has a website, or rather a blog, or rather two blogs; but these are not necessarily the best place to start for an understanding of his work. He describes himself as a programmer; but that is only one of his identities. He is also a teacher, musician, artist, performer, exhibition curator, and, occasionally, art critic. Some of these activities he carries out as Cory Arcangel, others as a part of one of the many collectives of which he is either a member or occasional collaborator: Beige, Contagious Media Group, The 8-bit Construction Set, Gay Beatles, RSG, Paperrad. Often works are even presented as both individual and collective. But once one gets over the confusion generated by defunct links, multiple identities and works classified in various ways, one discovers a rare coherence which is no less solid for being subterranean. There is a connecting thread. It may be traced by a dirty and tremulous mouse – befitting the “dirty style” he is so fond of – but it is unmistakable. One of the bases for the coherence to be seen in his work is his love of “old systems”. One might here speak of nostalgia: there is no doubt that the retro-chic fascination of his work – together with his irresistible gifts as a performer – have made him the darling of the New York scene, courted by the likes of Jeffrey 50

Deitch and other private individuals and institutional bodies. However, I would say that the correct term to describe Cory Arcangel’s attachment to old systems is economy. As he himself revealed in an interview with John Bruneau: «I like these systems not cause of nostalgia, but because they are cheap and easy to work. Also they are the perfect middle ground between analogue and digital video».1 There is an economy of means and knowledge: it is much easier and simpler to learn how to modify an old Nintendo cartridge than something more recent. And there is also economy of space, codes and bits: in this era of broadband, Arcangel produces remarkably light works, often of less than 32k. This is even an economy of intellectual reference: Cory himself has commented that «I would love to say there was some contemporary artist who’s work really got me thinking, but lately I have just been trying to sort out twenty years of garbage TV culture that is filling my brain».2 He is someone who strives for maximum effect with minimum effort, considering it a positive thing “to do as little as possible”. For Arcangel, lightness also involves a sort of Pop superficiality; hence his denial of any artistic influence that is not contemporary, not the result of friendship; and hence his immense, passionate love of television and the internet. «I am a pop artist and all pop culture to me is fair game! I love it all. I don’t have a TV now, cause if I did I would watch it all the TIME!!!»3 As in Pop Art, there is a certain ostentation in this proclamation of

superficiality; but the fact remains that all of his work arises from his own delight in creating it, from a conception of art as enjoyment, amusement, pleasure. Born in Buffalo, Cory Arcangel soon moved to New York, where he studied classical guitar at the Oberlin. The Beige group was formed around 1997, when he was at music school, and is the “collective” background for all his subsequent artistic activities. Founded by Cory Arcangel, Joe Beuckman, Joe Bonn, and Paul B. Davis, this group of programmers was also a musical band and a small record label. Their first project of a certain scale was The 8-bit Construction Set (1998-2000), which was the name of their band and of the record they released on the Beige Records label. In fact, it was a “battle record” comprising music, software and video; one side was recorded – and can be read – using a Commodore 64, the other using an Atari platform. The 8-bit Construction Set reflects the predilection for low-tech and lo-fi aesthetics that is characteristic of a lot of European Net Art; but it also echoes the advent of 8-bit music, which was then emerging in both the US and Europe, with old platforms being used as musical instruments. It is no coincidences that, after 8-bit Construction Set, Beige experimented with the use of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as an instrument for making music (Paul B. Davis) and video (Cory Arcangel). These experiments led to Fat Bits, the group’s first installation, which was presented in 2001 at the Chicago Deadtech. For Arcangel, NES cartridges are the perfect tool for making videos

by working on minimal graphics and old platforms whilst remaining true to the nebulous resolution of the television image (which he finds much more fascinating than the precision of new pixel technology). Cory Arcangel threw himself into Game Art without ever having been a great player of videogames, or being a fan of the rather stiff hydraulics of the Nintendo console. «I never really liked or played the game [...] I think there are a lot of people who missed that particular game, but no one who missed the aesthetic of the early computer and video game movement. [...] I don't love the games so much, but I really love the systems. I love the look that the old Systems have. For one, the NES directly accesses the TV's colors [...] Like my cloud cartridge was really made for a TV I have in the corner of my apt, so at night it makes my living room glow that slurpy blue of the sky in the game [...] And I really like the yucky stuff that the TV signal adds to the pixel perfect style. People forget that the pixel design style that is really popular is kinda like a mirage. That aesthetic only exists in the heads of designers because back on the day pixel graphics were all displayed on TV's which of course make everything blurry.»4 The “cloud cartridge” is Super Mario Clouds (2002), perhaps Arcangel’s best-known work. It is a Super Mario Bros cartridge from which he erased everything except the clouds, which flow uninterruptedly left to right across the screen. It might look like video, but it isn’t, particularly as it is much lighter – only 51

32k to be exact. In an entertaining tutorial written to illustrate the code of the work line by line, Arcangel explains that in the NES images are constructed with quadrants of 8x8 pixels, for a total graphics load of 8k. «These two hardware limitations defined the aesthetic of most early eighties videogames on the Nintendo, and making “art” for this system is a study of these limitations.»5 By playing upon the limits of the machine and the programming code, Arcangel creates a hypnotic icon that is immediately recognisable. Its very lightness, which almost verges upon the idiotic, makes it into a delicate metaphor for his work as a whole. Cory Arcangel would return to the Mario cartridges a number of times. Coming almost a year before the clouds, his Super Abstract Brothers substitutes all the characters and backgrounds with abstract forms and figures, transforming Mario Bros into a strange Tetris, undermining our links with images and a world that, due to our absorption in the game, we tend to perceive as real. In Fantasy Cutscenes # 2 (2004), on the other hand, Arcangel adds to the same cartridge captions that evoke both silent cinema and strip cartoons, thus causing a “collision” of various narrative genres. Naptime, for its part, is a hypnotic video in which a sleeping Mario dreams a constant flow of psychedelic code to the accompaniment of an 8-bit soundtrack composed by Arcangel’s friend, Paul B. Davis. But it was with Super Mario Movie, the fruit of collaboration with Paperrad, that Arcangel once more achieved the success (and fascination) of Super Mario Clouds. 52

Shown by Deitch Projects in January 2005, this is again a modified cartridge, with two pages (32k) of code producing a fifteen minute flow of sound and image. The gallery catalogue presents the work in this way: «The movie is gonna be about how Mario's world is falling apart. Like mad max, but in 8bits. Picture title screens, messed up fantasy worlds, castles floating on rainbow colored 8-bit clouds, waterfalls, underwater dungeon nightmare rave scapes, dance parties, floating/mushrooms level scenes, Mario alone on a cloud crying, fireball flicker patterns, and video synth knitted 60 frames per second seizure vidz. Each scene will also have music. & All being generated by this one 32k 1984 cartridge!!!!!!!!!!!». 6 This is an almost epic work in which our hero surfs through a digital world that is breaking down, which is at times recognisable, at times completely abstract. The alternation of half-legible captions and fragments reveals the difficulties of communication which are caused by the imminent collapse of the system. In the exhibition venue the work was projected alongside the source code, which created a wallpaper effect, and the original cartridge modified and repainted by Paperrad was put on display as a work of art. To date the act of transforming the cartridge into a sculpture, and therefore an artistic object in its own right, in some way independent of its contents, has been carried out with the minimum of intervention, because Arcangel considers larger scale changes less in line with a genuine “hack”. However

there is a precedent for this, in the work of the hackers who created cracks for Commodore 64 games and went so far as to sign them proudly with their own “tag”, namely a brief video at the start of the game. Arcangel came across these tags while he was working on Low Level All Stars (2003), a research project performed for the show Kingdom of Piracy, in collaboration with Alexander Galloway under the RSG label. The two artists examined more than 1,000 tags and selected ten of them to put on a DVD. To all intents and purposes the project represents a form of digital graffiti, saved by RSG from an underground scene where it risked being lost, with the aim of demonstrating its high level of self-awareness and offering an interesting comparison with “highbrow” culture. The classic I Shot Andy Warhol (2002) combines hacker intrusion with graffiti defacement. The victim is the cartridge for Holigan’s Halley, another old game for NES. Our victim, on the other hand, is Andy Warhol, whose silvery wig and darkrimmed glasses make him unmistakable even in 8bit graphics, alongside the Pope and other pop icons. What we have to do is repeat ad infinitum the act of feminist Valerie Solanas in June 1968, with the difference that here Andy is set up as a target, flat and abstract like his numerous self portraits, until he actually turns invisible in the third level, where we are invited to throw the notorious Campbell’s soup tins at him. Oh, and I was forgetting, the target is presented on a TV screen, and the joystick is a toy pistol.

In other cartridges – from Space Invader (note the disappearance of the plural “s”) to F1 Racer Mod and Slow Tetris (all produced in 2004) – what is defaced is the game itself, which becomes boring and unplayable. However, these works also reveal a more constructive aim, which was already to be glimpsed in Super Mario Clouds. True, the game can no longer be used as such; but it has been transformed into landscape, into a picture to be looked at. There is no action but that of sitting and observing, letting oneself be hypnotised by the flow of images, be bombarded by the cathode ray tube of the television. GameBoy Killed the Video Stars; but the videogame heroes must return to television if they are to have their fifteen minutes of fame, to become icons. Slowed down, Tetris becomes an abstract picture, to be contemplated as one contemplates a Mondrian; separated from all his friends, the fearsome alien invader becomes an innocuous little spider we can annihilate whenever we want. As for the road in Car Racer, when stripped of the roaring engines it becomes a poetic metaphor of travel and new frontiers, an American highway with mountains in the background, immobile clouds in the sky and a Nintendo advertising hoarding on the horizon. It is no coincidence that Arcangel has based a series of posters on this landscape, bringing out the full iconic power of the image. (English translation by Jeremy Scott)



Biography Cory Arcangel, born in 1978, is a digital artist who lives and works in Brooklyn.


His work is concerned with the relationship between technology and culture.


J. Bruneau, John Bruneau Interviews Cory Arcangel, undated, available online

Cory’s best known projects probably are his Nintendo game cartridge hacks


and his subversive reworking of obsolete computer systems of the seventies


and eighties. Arcangel frequently talks about his early collaborations with

E. Salvaggio, Cory Arcangel Doesn’t Even Like Super Mario Brothers, interview

Paul B. Davis as being very important to the development of his own work. In

with Cory Arcangel, April 2003, available online at

1998 they founded Beige, a programming ensemble with other friends from


Oberlin Conservatory. Cory’s work was featured in the 2004 Whitney Bien-

In H. Mugaas, (A talk:), undated, available online at

nial, and has also been exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum and MoMA.



cangel_Mugaas.htm. 4

E. Salvaggio, op. cit.


Cory Arcangel, [Introduction], 2002,


Cory Arcangel, Idea, 12 June 2004, available online at

html. projects/sub.php?projId=153.



Cory Arcangel | NES Landscapes, 2005. Screenshots from the emulated software. Courtesy of the artist


Cory Arcangel | I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002. Screenshot, courtesy of the artist


Cory Arcangel | I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002. Screenshot, courtesy of the artist


Cory Arcangel | I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002. ModiďŹ ed NES cartridge, courtesy of Team Gallery, New York


Cory Arcangel | Naptime, 2002. Series of screenshots, courtesy of the artist


Radical Software Group (RSG) & Beige Records | Low Level All Stars - EAGLE SOFT INC., 2003. Screenshots, courtesy of the artists


Beige Records | The 8-bit Construction Set, 1998-2000. Courtesy of the artists