Critical Kits and How We Use Them

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norms and conventions – such as how games should look and feel, how their mechanics affect behaviour, and which themes games should and shouldn’t explore. Artist duo Jodi’s performative practice of Wrongplay,14 playing computer games in a way that aims to disrupt the mechanic and break the illusion of the world, is a seminal example of this. At the Critical Kits Symposium, artist Laura Pullig made the point that kits can have high levels of usability and still be challenging due to the subject matter they deal with or the experience they offer: Depression Quest15 for example upset many men on the internet because it challenged their idea of what games should be about, not because it had poor usability. Part of the power of kits, but also the difficulty of using them to distribute art is not knowing who will use the kit and how they will want to use it. Not all paintings have to be about the formal process of painting, not all artworks using networks have a responsibility to unmask the spectacle of surveillance infrastructure, and not all kit artworks have a responsibility to focus on the formal qualities of kits. But, as Nathan Jones wrote in the Piratepad debate, there has been a long history of interactive artworks that problematise interaction, so why shouldn’t kits problematise making? Artists from Nam June Paik onwards have hacked together ad-hoc and functionally transparent systems to demystify and disturb the polished user experience of consumer goods.

seem all the more impressive. So while there is lots of fun to be had with difficult to use kits, personally I want to get beyond the wonky = art Heath Robinson aesthetic. Then again I’ve been telling myself that since art school. Artists like Maywa Denki, who turned their dad’s electronic business into an artwork parodying consumer gadget fetishism, offer an interesting example of how this going beyond could be done. At the symposium we developed a set of conversations and references that enabled some first steps toward a critical cultural-literacy of kits. Critical kits expand the aesthetic and formal qualities of instructions and parts: the behaviours and experiences that they generate, and their relationship to mainstream Maker culture. In short, reengineering the kit as a tool for exploring and rethinking our relation to technology.

Of course, artists should be free to go with or against the grain of whichever cultural form they are working with. But we should be wary of repeating the binary arguments between functionalist and anti-functionalist art and design that dominated the 20th century. For example, Jean Tinguely’s16 dysfunctional machines highlight the effectiveness of modern mechanisation rather than challenge it. The difficult to navigate or the oblique architecture of Claude Parent & Paul Virillio17 serves to remind us how much easier everything is when we have flat floors. The dumbness of Simon Penny’s wonky Petit Mal18 robot, a Wallace and Grommit style robot that wanders aimlessly around art galleries, getting stuck and bumping into things, makes robots like Boston Dynamics’s Big Dog19 14 15  Parkin, S. (2014). Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest. The New Yorker. Retrieved from tech/elements/zoe-quinns-depression-quest 16  Hanor, S. J., & Charlesworth, M. (2003). Jean Tinguely : Useless Machines and Mechanical Performers , 1955 – 1970 17  Redhead, S. (2006). Toward a theory of critical modernity: The post-architecture of Claude Parent and Paul Virilio. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies. 18  Penny, S. (1997). at the intersection Embodied Cultural Agents : of Robotics , Cognitive Science and Interactive Art. Cognitive Science, 103–105 19 16

Venn diagram of comfort zone & art world by two makers 17