Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Art meets computer games. Who wins?

‘Various Self Playing Bowling Games’

Follow me closely, now...computer games, ten pin bowling, hacker, gutter balls only, big screens, sound effects, a row of video game consoles. Art?

I kinda liked it, once I figured out what it was all about. Then I thought of dozens deep and meaningful things it could be saying, and I liked it a lot more, which is just about the usual trajectory for successful contemporary art. The artist is Cory Arcangel from Brooklyn (love that name). He is obviously younger than me, though maybe not necessarily, since the first of his video-bowling games comes from the 1970s. His big installation (in the Barbican Arts Centre Curve Gallery – where else?) is helpfully though not poetically entitled ‘Various Self Playing Bowling Games’ (the artist himself calls it 'beat The Champ'). It consists, as mentioned, of a row of huge screens, 14 of them, covering 90 metres of gallery wall, each playing a video game fragment over and over. They are ranged in chronological order from the 1970s to the 2000s, the video and sound technology improving little by little. But not the score, since Arcangel has hacked the games with a cheap chip from China so that they play a scoreless game over and over. At the end of the screens there is a row of game consoles, blinking away, some looking like antiques.

Gutter balls only. That's life?
And what is all this suggesting, I hear you ask? Let’s see...walking by the big screens is like walking down a bowling alley yourself. You gradually realise that no one is making a score, and you feel the frustration. Those gutter balls of your own (real and virtual – and maybe even symbolic) creep back to haunt you. Then you realise how utterly trivial a video game actually is, at about the time that you start thinking that this whole art work is pretty trivial. I mean, the guy didn’t even actually draw, paint or build anything, did he? But is that what he meant to say? Conceptual art is (usually!) about concepts. Then you see the funny old game consoles and see the blinking green lights on his Chinese hacking chips, and think what a tiny change he made to these games really, and how annoying it all is (at least, I got ‘annoying’ from it at this point. Others may differ).

The accompanying blurb tells us:

Starting with the Atari of 1977 at the entrance of The Curve and running through to the more recent Gamescube console of 2001, the sophistication of the graphics and realism of the games improve and, as a whole, Arcangel’s work represents a near comprehensive history of this development.

 I pause here to ask – how important is it to have a near-comprehensive history of video bowling games? But the blurb goes on:

These games consoles are valued at the time of their release for their novelty and innovation, but are within a few years rendered near obsolete.
That is certainly true.

For Arcangel, the computer equipment used to create his works is central to his practice. Treating hardware as sculpture, he often constructs individual pieces ‘to make a theatre of its own trip through the obsolescence cycle.’

That’s interesting. Let me think about it. And the sound?

As one moves through The Curve, now in itself a virtual bowling alley, the audio accompanying each of the games creates an immersive sound collage ranging from the abstract static of the Atari, to the Sega Saturn’s bleeps and bloops, to the more realistic simulation of bowling sounds of the more recent Nintendo 64 and PlayStation consoles. The one constant in the carefully composed and progressively changing cacophony of video-game sound effects is the missing clatter of falling pins. This slowly dawning realisation again provokes consideration of the addictive lure of such games and the practised skill required to succeed.

‘Impressive sound collage’ is perhaps a little posh for what is basically the sound you hear in a high street games parlour. ‘Cacophony’ I will grant. The missing sound of the falling pins is true – that’s quite noticeable when you finally figure out what’s going on. But I would change the last sentence to read “This slowly dawning realisation again provokes consideration of the addictive lure of such games and the practised skill required to avoid them.”

I can't embed this video, and it starts with an annoying few seconds of advertisement, but it is Cory Arcangel showing us around the exhibition - worth watching. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-eQtgJu3Ek
He says it is the biggest project he has ever done; it took 6 months to make; and that he doesn't actually like playing video games himself. Oh, and he thinks bowling is an 'awkward' and 'clumsy' game.

The exhibition blurb goes on the suggest references to Ed Ruscha’s photographic documentation of banal subjects in his artist books of the 1960s, the ‘music’ of John Cage, and the work of French composer Pierre Schaeffer, who used recorded sounds in his ‘groundbreaking’ musique concrète compositions of the late 1940s such as Etude aux chemins de fer (1948). This is heady company surely, for Arcangel, whose last big success was a work (‘ongoing’) called ‘Super Mario Clouds’, for which he erased everything from the familiar game except the clouds.  Why this is ‘ongoing’, I am not sure.

The artist at work.
But the good news is that Arcangel embraces the spirit of sharing, collecting and connecting that is the internet, and he does so at his web site www.coryarcangel.com, where he shares ideas, news, source code and other assorted information about his work. He even put up an on-line tutorial about how to reduce Super Mario to an endless stream of clouds. Just in case you want to, you know. In any case, his site is the source for the photos in this blog post (thanks, Cory!), and I thought you might also be interested in the artist's comments on his show at The Curve:

I’m gonna be visiting London this week, as I’ve got a few things going on. Lets do the big thing first, so, …. I’ve got an exhibition at the Barbican Curve in London. The show is called Beat the Champ, and the work I am showing is a massive video installation called “Various Self Playing Bowling Games”. It’s a big one. It is pretty much the entire history of bowling video games and each has been hacked to throw only gutter balls. 14 systems! One projected after another(!) in a row. From the Atari 2600 all the way up to the PlayStation II. So, I highly encourage coming to check it out as it should be quite a sight. Its been a few months of stress putting it all together, so I’m excited as well 2 c it installed finally. So yeah, after that is up, I’ll also be doing a re-cap of my performance Music For Stereos the night the night of the opening (so come to both!!!!!!)....Anyway, please come and check some of this stuff out. C u there!

I hope you don’t mistake my tone for disapproval. I love this stuff. It makes you think, and what more can you ask of art? Well, maybe you can ask for more, but making you think is the one bit that is indispensable.

The exhibition.
By the way, I do recommend visiting Cory's web site. He is involved in all kinds of interesting things, such 'speed' art shows, where the show is shown on a browser for just one evening; and a band which talks about music rather than actually plays it, and stand-up comedy. And - my personal favourite - a blog called 'Sorry I Haven't Posted' which reposts posts of people apologizing for not posting to the internet… As a daily blogger myself, that kinda strikes a chord.

Images from:

No comments:

Post a Comment