[-empyre-] Art cred and advocacy

Renate Ferro rtf9 at cornell.edu
Sun Mar 3 09:46:54 EST 2013

Dear Paolo, Ana and all,
 When Claudia and I decided to host this discussion on empyre our
common interests centered not around the sanctioned space of the elite
art world but a world where alternative gaming including social,
tactical media and art intersect. You will note that our topic
includes Insight/Incite.  As in all of our fields in research and
production there are certainly differing communities that we all seek
to exist in and though I for  one do not fall into the first category
right now there are many others that do.  Throughout this month we
will be hosting a number of gamers, curators, theorists and others who
exist in both communities, those more commercial and those more social

About twelve years ago the Gaming Department at Cornell was interested
in attracting women to their program.  I was in the middle of an MFA
at the time and was TAing with a drawing professor who was willing to
collaborate. Our predominantly female art undergraduates joined the
class of predominantly male gaming students who were divided into
mixed teams. We would take turns working between the Gaming Lab on the
Engineering side of campus and then do crits in the drawing studio on
the Art side of campus.  Yes they are situated directly opposite from
one another on campus.

The art students and gaming students created and drew for hours
imagining games that featured  inventive characters and concepts whose
mission was certainly not the norm at the time.  Interestingly while
the teams agreed on these conceptual plans, once the gaming
programmers began to code they abandoned the work the female art
students had created together with them reverting to the games and
characters that the gamers themselves were used to playing. (those
whose mission usually was to hunt for and conquer).

Feedback from the gaming students provided insight that the
collaborative plans were too "difficult" to realize with their
relatively new programming skills. I rather doubt that now.  The
artists gave up disappointed that their collaborative ideas and
conceptual drawings were for nothing. The other rather revealing
comment from the gaming professor was that though the concepts were
novel the reality was there would be no "market" for these types of

The opportunity that the class provided-- to hash out gender roles,
social politics, and other complicated and difficult "conflicts" was
lost.  I was not in a position to take it head on as a grad student
but often think of this missed opportunity with much regret. What I
realized is that the professors who planned the collaboration thought
their plans would involve simply learning how the worlds art and
gaming could co-exist. The resulting failed collaboration instead was
better taught with faculty members whose interests and specialties
included the areas of  gender, sexuality, politics, theory, history,
and psychology and perhaps even economics.

We have an entire month to hash this out.  I am hoping that all of our
empyre subscribers will let us know what they are thinking.  Please
feel free to advertise this month's discussion to all of your
colleagues and friends interested in the potential of this month's
discussion. The discussion will not center just around gaming and art
but at the subtle complications that both bring when they are merged

Paolo I am really interested to hear about more of your projects and
research interests.
Ana what is the name of the book that your wrote on gaming?  Can you
send us a URL?

Our point this month is to invite a much more nuanced discussion.  I
am thinking right now about an experience I encountered about twelve
years ago.
On Sat, Mar 2, 2013 at 11:17 AM, paolo - molleindustria
<paolo at molleindustria.it> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hello empyrialists,
> thank you Claudia and Renate for inviting me.
> I'd like to start by reframing the introductory post. Just a little bit.
> If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the many
> collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising upon every
> glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture acceptance.
> The repeated "video games can never be art" claims made by Roger Ebert from
> 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, critics
> and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for the first
> time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most importantly,
> their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent tastemaker.
> In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged
> within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like
> "aesthetics"; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles with
> pictures of Duchamp's Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird looking game
> was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert's argument.
> Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively
> about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and
> polygons really mattered to them.
> As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new
> sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher
> cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream
> press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.
> The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for
> grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in the
> past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist
> grants). The exhibition "The Art of Videogames" at the Smithsonian, shortly
> followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has been saluted
> as the ultimate institutional validation of the "games are art" truism.
> In the midst of the celebrations it wasn't appropriate to wonder whether or
> not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt "generously"
> supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process
> involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games -
> it didn't make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen titles were
> actually playable.
> And I haven't heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the
> aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and Design
> collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky furniture?
> Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design imperialistically claiming
> videogames? Are games furniture? Can architecture make you cry (like
> videogames, of course)?
> For those who don't hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn't really
> matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and creating
> videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It doesn't matter
> that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across the digital art
> world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
> Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of arcades
> at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with
> computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with
> relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more related
> to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.
> These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal,
> never-ending dispute we call "art" was never the point of this debate. The
> point was to "elevate" the cultural status of videogames as a whole: as a
> medium and as an industry.
> For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they spent
> moving pixels and polygons around: "We knew we weren't wasting out time!"
> For the industry it was a way to snort some of that magic art dust without
> accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged space for
> cultural experimentation: "We don't want just weird artsy games in galleries
> and museums. We want Pac-Man!"
> The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood as a
> traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames have
> been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient scapegoats.
> The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the long
> stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a perennial
> persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no matter what.
> In the past I've been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry by
> making games about controversial issues; works defying players' expectations
> or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as "not games".
> Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the
> "maturation" of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal.
> Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to support
> the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry using Duchamp
> to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art grants and tax breaks
> in the process).
> What did not change between now and then is the tendency to conceptualize
> the gaming field as an  homogeneous space devoid of conflict.
> I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all attitude
> of the "Videogames and Art" controversy of these recent years. If we are
> talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in question.
> Because there are major differences between a commercial product like
> Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. The lack of
> critical discourse within the game industry should not influence the way we
> treat games outside of it.
> And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also try to
> complicate the terms of the debate.
> Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start
> to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible
> and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting
> moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate
> with them.
> Love,
> Paolo
> _______________________________________________
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> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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Renate Ferro
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art
Cornell University
Department of Art, Tjaden Hall Office #420
Ithaca, NY  14853
Email:   <rtf9 at cornell.edu>
URL:  http://www.renateferro.net
Lab:  http://www.tinkerfactory.net

Managing Co-moderator of -empyre- soft skinned space

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