This Art Exhibition on Video Games Breaks You Out of Your Comfort Zone

This Art Exhibition on Video Games Breaks You Out of Your Comfort Zone
galerie jumelles
Art Galleries and Museums

Galerie Jumelles

Galerie Jumelles is an online Art Gallery founded by Sierra M. Bretz. Inspired by the French language and lifestyle, Sierra closed her business and her life in the US in 2021 to move to France to promote French Artists.

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As I wandered through the exhibition Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art , my mind felt like it had been hit by several lightning strikes. This exhibition, currently at Chicago’s Wrightwood 659 gallery, showcases the work of 17 artists who have been working in digital spaces for decades, focusing on how the digital world has impacted our collective sense of identities, from race and gender to the surveillance state. But what struck me were the artists using video games in their work. For decades, debates have raged over the role of video games in society: Are they art? Are they dangerous? Meanwhile, artists have been using video games in their work. Some artists create actual video games; others record films within a video game, creating movies called machinima. Various artists have staged artistic interventions within games, and others still have used video game references in their art. And then there is the whole genre of fan art. And of course, there are video games that are art themselves. However, it has taken the art establishment some time to catch up. Tina Rivers Ryan, curator of the exhibition and the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, explains by email that for digital art as well as video game art, “the art world continues to struggle with finding the aesthetic or cultural value (let alone market value) in digital art more broadly.” There are challenges with displaying video game art since “you have to consider questions that don’t come up with traditional artwork: What’s the appropriate scale for the work? Should the experience be individual or collective, private, or public?” Ryan says. Slowly but surely, some institutions are starting to recognize the artistic value of video games. Notably, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has had at least two exhibitions (including the 2022-2023 exhibition Never Alone ) on video games and began acquiring games in its collection in 2012, focusing on the design aspect. It has 36 video games in its archives and is aiming to get 40. So the jury is in. Video games can be art. The better question now is how contemporary artists can and are using video games in their work. A.M. Darke, exhibiting artist and assistant professor of art and design for games and playable media at UC Santa Cruz, explains that one of the powerful aspects of video games is that they “invest you as a participant and an agent in those stories.” You don’t just witness or consume games, especially interactive ones. You actively make choices in the game. Darke plays with the “magic circle” of games in his art. The magic circle is a safe container where “certain things can happen that do not impact you.” For instance, if you see a friend play Grand Theft Auto , you don’t assume they will kill people and steal cars in the real world. “But I design pieces that intentionally break the magic circles, so that the actions you take in the game, the experiences, [the knowledge and perspectives] you’re confronted with, is something that remains with you.” Darke created the online two-player game called Ye or Nay? which takes a page from the board game Guess Who, but where all the cards are Black male celebrities (including several different images of Kanye West over his career). Players communicate via in-game chat to ask questions. Darke wanted to explore Black masculinity and Black celebrity as well as force players to describe and categorize Black celebrities in a way “that parallels how databases and algorithms identify, track, and discriminate against Black people and other marginalized groups.” With Ye or Nay? that experience can take one outside of their comfort zone. “The experience of viewing these Black men, and describing them and communicating with another person,” Darke says, “you become aware [of how] you’ve externalized an internal automatic process of categorization, judgment, and description.” While playing, you become hyper aware of how you talk to another person, whether they are in your community or outside, he notes. In particular, Darke notes that while watching Black folks play the game, he notices a level of comfort and almost giddiness. The piece centers Blackness and allows players to both celebrate and criticize Black culture, Darke points out. But what may be comforting for some may have the opposite effect for others, depending on where the player stands within or outside of the community. While artists like A.M. Darke make interactive video games that people can play in the gallery or online, other artists take a different approach by using popular video games as a canvas for their work. Machinima—movies “filmed” within a game environment—might use any game or game world as their setting, from Second Life to Red Dead Redemption . There were even Machinima film festivals in the 2000s, and in 2016, Warner Brothers bought Machinima Inc., a popular multiplatform online entertainment network on YouTube, for about $100 million. (The company closed it in 2019.) Despite the collapse of Machinima Inc., artists have continued making films in games and exhibiting them at film festivals and other artistic spaces. Skawennati, also known by her Mohawk name, Kanien’kehá:ka, is a visual artist with an exhibit at the Difference Machines show. She describes machinima as “telling a story that might make you feel like you’re in a video game, or just help you to recall the feelings you have in a video game.” It’s more akin to film than other video game pieces like A.M. Darke’s Ye or Nay? . Skawennati creates machinima because she wants “to depict Indigenous people in the future, and I wanted to use a futuristic medium.” She uses Second Life because it “felt like the right medium for the message,” she explains. Characters can fly and telepathically send each other thoughts in architecturally improbable places. Her piece in the exhibition, 2017’s She Falls for Ages , is a retelling of the Iroquois creation story where the Sky Woman falls to earth from space. In an exhibition interview, she explained that she chose to make the sky pink and skin colors a rainbow of colors, “I really wanted to see what a post-race society could look like.” While Skawennati uses Second Life to make Indigenous futuristic films, other machinima artists use the video game format as a means of critiquing mainstream society. Total Refusal, a pseudo-Marxist media guerilla collective, has been shooting machinimas in a variety of mainstream first-person shooters for several years. In conversation with two members of Total Refusal, Leonhard Mullner and Michael Stumpf, they explained that initially, their machinimas focused on pacifist action amidst violent games. One of their first pieces, 2018’s Operation Jane Walk , features an architecture walking tour through the multiplayer shooter The Division . Amidst ruined buildings and cars, and occasional gunfire, the players wander the cityscape learning about New York City’s architecture and design. The collective’s more recent works focus on the root causes of war, such as imperialism and capitalism. Pieces like 2022’s Hardly Working focus on nonplayer characters in Red Dead Redemption 2 and analyze our relationship to labor. When asked why Total Refusal chose to use video games for their work, they explain that games not only deliver architectural models from our world, but also fill these videoscapes with our society’s desires, fantasies, and more. Grayson Earle, an artist who also makes machinima and video games, sums it up: “They mirror our reality.” Since games in general require action from the player, they can make people question their values and reflect on society. Instead, most major mainstream games do the opposite. “In terms of the stories they tell, they are even more conservative than blockbuster movies,” Stumpf says. Thus video games are the “perfect playground to fool around with our hegemony and deconstruct it.” While they use humor within their works, such as the deadpan narrator in both Operation Jane Walk and Hardly Working , the collective wants their work to not only scrutinize mass media, but also to radicalize people to “rethink the economy and the power coordinates we are entangled in.” Paul Vanouse, a professor at the University at Buffalo, sums it up this way: “Many of these artists are not simply utilizing technologies of their times, but actively participating in the formation of these technologies and exploring their communicative potential as ‘media.’ Others prefer to reclaim given technologies through creative reuse, misuse, or even abuse and shape them into communicative cultural significance.” Difference Machines will be exhibited at Wrightwood 659 until January 27, 2024.

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