My goal for my work is to expose and examine dominant values. I believe that art, at its best, speaks in an iconoclastic voice while maintaining compassion for real people living messy lives. One of my favorite books, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” by Thorstein Veblen, shows how creative projects can provide necessary perspective on unexamined patterns.
In his book, Veblen explains the motivation behind the unproductive economics of leisure activities and conspicuous consumption in our society. It reveals common phony behaviors and the necessary role they play in social settings. His work helped me to understand certain unconscious actions by myself and others as concurrently absurd and forgivable.
I hope to also uncover the unseen through my work. I find myself most attracted to overlooked inefficiencies, like the unpicked fruit on a neighbor’s apple tree or the valuable materials in our municipal waste streams.
Jansen’s Strandbeesten grew out of an interest in designing living and autonomous organisms with software. The original ratios for the legs were calculated on an Atari running a month-long evolutionary algorithm. I chose this project because it accomplishes the rare feat of connecting technology to the physical world in a beautiful and functional way.
Over the past few decades, the artist has created (“evolved”) contraptions capable of propelling themselves with wind, storing energy, detecting and avoiding water, and briefly surviving harsh conditions with simple and robust materials. He employs volunteers or assistants to transport, document, restore, and exhibit his creatures, but generally he works by himself.
Jansen was inspired to begin this project to investigate the fundamentals of life after reading “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins, a book that explains how the complexity of life emerged from random mutation. The artist sees himself as a pretend God that is evolving creatures over a short period of time or as someone infected by a virus that reproduces through him (and others via 3D printing plans available online). However, the evolution of this work is limited to advances concocted by Jansen or his computational techniques. It would be interesting to see a version of this system that invited participation from other creators and utilized easily reconfigurable materials (think Legos). A combination of network effects and speed could lead to emergent qualities and facilitate Jansen’s goal of artificial creatures that could survive on their own.
I have some reservations about Flanagan’s definition of critical play as it relates to game art. Flanagan suggests that “game art might be critical if it examines the medium itself”, and her propositions similarly only assign value to games as art if they are subversive, or opposite to some notion of games and gaming culture. Flanagan presents game art as valuable insofar as they are tied to their history and their context, and while I can’t argue that that is a valid critical approach, I find myself dissatisfied with limiting the potential of game art to this unimaginative definition.
With this in mind, I find Flanagan’s second proposition—toying with goals—most compelling because it shies away from the current context within which games exist and examines more the inherent semantics of games. The first proposition seems to propose games to be used as an “ethical simulation” in order to safely challenge our blind acceptance of embedded beliefs. While this is a valid purpose, I dislike that it reduces games to a doctored imitation of a greater force. The third also seems to only express criticality through opposites, which seems like too easy of an answer to me and one that I’ve resorted to too often. I’d like to explore more closely the idea of a game itself—of striving for a goal by overcoming challenges—so the second proposition aligns most closely with my goals as a maker.
When I went to SF MoMa in 2017, my favorite floor was the one full of sound-based artworks (a temporary installation). I have always had a strong reaction to sounds (some positive, some negative), and so all of these were especially moving. However, one stands out in my memory as particularly interactive: Cloud by Christina Kubisch.
The artwork is a large tangle of red wires suspended in midair. Different prerecorded sounds play in different parts of the sculpture. These sounds are mostly recordings of electromagnetic fields from locations around the world, with some generated sounds mixed in. By wearing special headphones, guests can pick up the sounds and hear the magnetic fields themselves, creating their own soundscape as they move around the sculpture.
I really like how accessible this piece is. The visual of this massive net of wires fits perfectly with the audio experience it delivers: chaotic, dense with detailed but unintelligible information. It also really makes me feel the presence of all the data–public, mundane, or extremely intimate–that is being transmitted through the air.
Here is a video of Kubisch discussing the piece (note that Clouds is actually a series, and she is talking about a different but very similar Cloud from the one I experienced):
When I have brainstormed games in the past, they frequently incorporated more than one of Flanagan’s propositions (at least to some extent). That said, the proposition that most directly aligns with my goals is the third: extreme new kinds of play, and making familiar types of play unfamiliar. In my experience, new and surprising mechanics are one of the best ways to interest me in a game, which ultimately causes me to consider the game’s themes and messages more than I might have otherwise. If the method of play is particularly physical or experiential, as is the case with the examples Flanagan provided, then this effect is magnified. In games (and non-game artworks) that I create, I hope to have a similar effect on people, providing a unique and memorable experience that also carries a critical message.
Critical play as a way of exposing and examining dominant values is the proposition most aligned with my own goals. I think having been interested in illustration for so many years has made me more inclined towards narrative, and I think narrative and wanting to convey some ultimate story is most similar to exposing/examining values. There are narrative works that I admire that do relate to the other propositions. For example, I’d say What Remains of Edith Finch does more with “toying with the notion of goals” and making “familiar types of play unfamiliar” than exposing some kind of value. However, in my own work if I were to construct something like that, I’d focus on the first proposition first, before considering adding elements relating to the other two propositions.
ANIMA II(2017) by Nick Verstand is the second version of a previous work ANIMA(2014). ANIMA II is inspired by the four thousand years old Chinese philosophy of “Wu Xing,” the “Five Elements” of the universe, also means the ever-evolving “Five Stages” that the universe has: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The system of “Wu Xing” describes the interactions and relationships between phenomena: which can be natural phenomena, or the interaction between the internal and external self. By balancing the five qualities, one is able to actualize their inner self.
I was at the premiere exhibition of this piece after I read about it. I admire how this audio-visual piece strikes me as extremely organic, peaceful and engaging. The globe has an internal hemispherical projector, that projects fluid visuals that are algorithmically generated and transition between the five stages. The visual is accompanied by a spatial sound composition constructed from recordings of corresponding five elements in nature. It also the globe communicates to human approaching. It uses 3 Kinect sensors to decide faster or slower diffusion of fluid based on human locations.
The work is created by a group of people/studios; it took years to complete; used projector, hemispherical lens, 8.1 speaker system, 4DSOUND software, and openFrameworks.
1. If we define “game” as a formal, closed-form system, with a deliberate system of rules and mechanics, the first proposition suggests that critical play exposes/examines dominant values through its internal design: rules, environments, messages, culture and etc.
2. The second proposition suggests an approach to critical play by challenging the traditional “forms” of games, to evoke surprises that lead to discussions of larger social issues.
3. The third proposition suggests an even more extreme approach: building a counter-intuitive game mechanism.
I found the first two propositions relevant to my goals: creating novel/fun and meaningful interactive experiences that are accessible and intimate. Therefore, I do not wish to create counterintuitive games for the sake of evoking thoughts(not the 3rd proposition). However, in order for my experiences to be novel and fun, they can have unusual forms that bring positive surprises(2nd proposition). The first proposition is crucial. I don’t want any of my work to become a technical demonstration, so it’s important that my work is built upon messages/values that I want to convey. By designing a novel set of rules within an experience that I create, for example, generating music with subtle body movements, I can bring an intimate experience where the translation from movements to sound can be felt and enjoyed.
My choice for this week’s example of interactive art is not exactly art, per se, but adjacent. Detroit: Become Humanis a high-budget, triple-A, branching-narrative adventure game centered on a futuristic Detroit and its impending android revolution. Detroit is the latest entry in a collection of graphically sophisticated but lukewarm “interactive movies”, such as Until Dawn, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but unlike its predecessors, Detroit‘s attempts to tear down ludonarrative dissonance while incorporating meaningful gameplay are innovative and fascinating, if not fully successful.
Where most video games attempt to depict a narrative in spite of the form’s limitations, Detroit attempts to make its tropes a conscious move. For example, UI elements such as missions, objective markers and invisible boundaries are presented as part of the in-world HUD through which the three android protagonists perceive the world. This HUD distorts and even breaks as the protagonists gain sentience, and so surpasses being a disconnected layer of information to become narratively essential. In terms of narrative, Detroit surpasses its predecessors by offering a much stronger illusion of meaningful and irreversible decisions, as evidenced by the sophisticated flowcharts that display at the end of each level. On the other hand, Detroit is still obviously an “interactive movie”; levels are still movies interspersed with button pressing or thematically appropriate minigames, alternate scenarios are often just the same lines delivered by different actors, and the need to display the flowchart at the end of each level belies a deliberate appeal to completionist video game players. Perhaps these moves seem so innovative to me because I’ve become accustomed to the standards of gaming and accepting of ludonarrative dissonance, as we discussed in class. Nonetheless, seeing these small “tricks” in a highly produced, highly commercial video game that seems to earnestly try to push the boundaries of its form excites me.
Perhaps more interesting is the game’s laborious production and the implications of what that effort attempts to achieve. Detroit: Become Human is the result of €30 million and six years of development—over two years to research and write 3,000 pages, 250 3D-scanned and mocapped actors for 513 roles, and even a new game engine to support graphical advancements. Detroit betrays the video game industry’s desperation to imitate life. In addition to actors who portray the characters, there are actors who take every possible step in every scene. There are stunt doubles. All these actors are scanned and mocapped. Then the modelers and animators adjust the resulting 3D models and animations side by side with reference videos of the original performance. Eye and eyelid animation are manually added because they are excluded from the mocap data. Facial animations are also animated from scratch in action scenes. All this extended effort to reproduce a live performance is reduced to an awkward moment when a few hundred android figures appear untextured and unanimated in what is supposed to be a triumphant crowd due to hardware limitations.
It’s fascinating to examine how Detroit struggles with its conflicting desires to be interactive, but also narrative, but also commercial.