Technology, related to arts organizations and outreach, usually means “the internet.” Museum websites are ubiquitous — the publicity, calendars, visitor information and announcements that supplement, but do not replace, conventional mailings hardly qualify as “evolving.” Museums are beginning to embrace Web 2.0 (blogs, community building tools, VR, etc) technology.
The use of websites to document past shows, giving them a much longer life, is old tech, although evolving as more arts organizations begin to expand their online archives. In the area of viewer education, audio tours serve as personal (but not personalized) mobile docents, presumably to enlarge (or at least, engage) the audience. A comprehensive survey of these efforts is beyond the scope of this project, so this section serves to introduce a few notable examples looking beyond current practice.
The following contains speculation on several evolving technologies with the capacity to transform audience habits and expectation. By definition, reports on “evolving” phenomenon are out of date before publication, these essays represent a certain point in time of the author’s work and research interests.
Games present an enormous potential to shift boundaries, and expectations, for arts audiences. While the traditional gaming world and the “elite” art world, couldn’t be farther apart, gaming vocabulary and environments are pervasive and increasingly accepted as an expressive medium for artists. While games have yet to appear in major museums and the sanctioned commercial art galleries, there are a handful of projects poised to crash those gates - and more that will be celebrated in survey shows decades from now.
Games have jumped out of the familiar Candyland box to embody an enormous range of activities and pursuits that resist any attempts at a limiting definition. (Beware those who try, the arguments are academic and fierce!) Like video and film (once scorned, but now celebrated by the art community) games are audio and visual media. Games are also highly immersive, allowing for an artist to direct or compose an experience. One such piece is Night Journey, a collaboration between video artist Bill Viola and The Game Innovation Lab at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Night Journey integrates Viola’s video imagery within a 3D first-person gaming environment to form an “explorable video” evoking the sense of a journey towards enlightenment. The team of game designers, led by Tracy Fullerton, collaborated closely with Viola to explore what it meant to design a game as a work of art. Two wildly different vocabularies bred the previously unimaginable question, “What is the ‘game mechanic’ of enlightenment?” On a parallel search for innovation, the design team produced a vast synthetic landscape embedded with a layer of visual and sensual events revealed by the player’s (viewer’s) desire (that is, choice — for the desire must be explicitly indicated) for a moment of reflection.
The result is a stunning experience, unique in both the gaming or art worlds. Night Journey’s pace is languid; encouraging slow, deliberate observation — the gamer must slow down and adjust to a new, and subtle, set of emergent goals. The art audience will have to grab a controller, become accountable for explicit decisions and outcomes, in order to actively explore the poetic landscape. It is inevitable that new energy, and new audiences will enter the art world from these efforts.
|ALTERNATE REALITY GAMES (ARGs)||Alternate Reality Games describe an enormous span of categories and sub-genres, but are generally characterized by their use of the environment (either local or the entire world), telling a story through a wide variety of media ranging from movie posters to phones, fax, email, internet sites, GPS and mobile technology. Another term for ARG is “distributed narrative” — imagine that every object or message delivery system in your environment is potentially a piece of the puzzle (or story. The game aspect (game mechanic) is puzzle solving; to get the message, or story, you need to put the pieces together again. Although the most famous examples of ARGs have been promotional vehicles the most often cited precedents for ARGs come from literature and cinema.*
ARGs are a nascent phenomenon, and, as such are rapidly transforming in design and purpose. World Without Oil, touted as the first “serious ARG” (“serious,” in gamespeak denotes either educational or issue-based content) encouraged players to narrate a scenario describing a worldwide oil shortage. Termed a “massively collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of an oil crisis,” the result was an imagined story depicted as collage of over 1500 contributed blog posts, videos, voicemails and images. This represents a new type of storytelling and it will be a short leap from “serious game” to legitimate literature.
BIG GAMES are a branch of ARGs closer to performance or street theater. Large scale urban events, they tend to be less narrative and puzzle driven than ARGs, instead focused on the environment, social interaction and traditional gameplay. One of the earliest examples, B.U.G. (Big Urban Game), was commissioned by the University of Minnesota in 2003 to promote awareness of the urban environment and design. Like ARGs, Big Games employ a mix of technology and medias with the “real world” — PacManhattan transformed city streets into Atari’s ‘80’s game craze maze. The human PacMan player was guided (or foiled!) by a combination of Wi-Fi internet connections and cell phone instructions, to collect the virtual dots and evade the (real, that is human) ghosts. These games, although participatory for the players and designers, are equally spectator events taking place simultaneously on the city grid and the computer screen. The next brand of performance art and street theater will likely make use of BIG GAME elements as theatrical directors discover this element of spectacle.
Most relevant to this dicussion is the element of improvisation common to all ARGs. Real people solving or creating or racing after real or imagined elements is a messy business and game designers (known as puppetmasters) work behind the scenes and make adjustments, during game play (so-called “real time”) in response to unforeseen developments. The players thus have a hand in the outcome and the experience resulting in an improvisational aesthetic.
One example of a street game with elements of an ARG is THE GO GAME. Although billed as “the ultimate cell phone scavenger hunt and the future of corporate play,” THE GO GAME serves as another interesting model for the potential of location-based technology to collide with the art world. In a typical GO GAME scenario, groups of players (or teams) enter a neighborhood supplied with a web-enabled cell phone and a digital video camera. “Missions” in the form of elaborate instructions or clues, are delivered via a central server to the team cell phone. Proof, in the form of text, image, or video documentation, is relayed back to the game master. A percentage of the missions include actors, “plants” in the environment to provoke team performance.
For this commission, I attempted to replace GO GAME actors (often playing as fortune tellers, a bride or other stock character) with local performance artists to illustrate the potential of combining elements of an urban street game with performance art. I was granted permission to insert artists into a game commissioned by Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) for its annual New Media Producers Institute on June 1st, 2007. I worked with Mitchell Rose, a filmmaker and performance artist to adapt a participatory dance piece, Dance Along With Mitch, performed recently RedCat in Los Angeles, into the game. (The performance had to be postponed but may be included in an community GO GAME in August.) Participation + performance + games + the urban environment makes a potent mix for new arts and new audiences.
In a twist to my previous note that artists are not traditionally concerned with outreach, I should point out that gamers and game designers, unlike artists, are motivated to expand their audience. The primary motivation is commercial, but game designers are not only driven by dollar signs, but share an earnest evangelistic zeal that more gamers would make the world a better place: If we all just played more, we might just get along.
*The Beast, produced in 2000, by Microsoft Entertainment Division, was a promotion for Spielberg’s film, A.I, and I Love Bees, produced in 2004 by 4orty2woEntertainment for Microsoft was a promotion for HALO 2.
G.K. Chesterton’s 1905 classic story, The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown; John Fowles 1965 novel, The Magus; David Fincher’s 1997 film, The Game. Jordan Weisman, generally credited as the creator of the first modern ARGs, recounts his fascination with the Beatle’s Paul is Dead phenomenon in 1969 as inspiration.
Audience as Avatar
|Virtual Reality (VR) also referred to as Virtual Environment (VE) has yet to break into the mainstream art world, yet there are a numerous projects, scores of artists and several museums (notably science and tech) doing serious work in the metaverse. Inspired by literature (notably Vernor Vigne’s classic short story, True Names, William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash) but no longer the stuff of science fiction, computer, VR is evolving and growing exponentially along with bandwidth and memory.
At the present, the most accessible, and well-known, internet-based version of VR is Second Life. A free-for-all environment with its share of porn and gambling sites, its relatively low barriers to entry has allowed a broad range of experimentation in the arts. Many of these efforts fall into the category of obsessive modeling and replication, related more to the painstaking 18th century hobby of sailors laboring to craft ships in bottles than anything resembling current art concerns. An extreme example of modeling, Robbie Dingo (an avatar name) labored to build a three dimensional version of Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, documented in a four minute video to the accompaniment of Don McLean’s ballad, Starry Starry Night. While the artist poses an experiential motive “Ever looked at your favorite painting and wished you could wander inside, to look at it from different perspectives? on his blog, he betrays his emphasis on (his!) ability and craft with his stated intention that the video, documenting his painstaking calculations and process, “be the end product, not the build.” In other worlds, the viewer, however tantalized by the possibility, is never granted access to the enchanted place; but is supposed to be enchanted, or at least impressed, by the skill and effort of the modelmaker. Comments to the video reflect the focus on technique over aesthetics and experience.
Art or craft; it is flourishing in Second Life. There are thousands of museums and galleries and while a video touting Second Lourve may not be convincing, the art world is tentatively paying attention.
On February 13th, 2008, the Aperture Foundation sponsored a panel discussion on art in SL at The New School in New York City. The panelists were distinguished representatives from the real world: Fred Ritchin, NYU professor and a contributing editor of Aperture; Michael Van Horn, curator of the Joseph Monsen Collection in Seattle; Richard Minsky, founder of SLART magazine; and Michael Schmelling, photographer.
ARTNET NEWS covered the inauguration of SLART, a journal providing critical review of arts in Second Life, available online, in-world as in hard copy in real life.
FIRST-RATE ART IN "SECOND LIFE"
The current issue reviews a show currated by avatar In Kenzo at USC Annenberg’s Justice Commons. The art ranges from imported drawings to interactive animations that react to your avatar. Avatar artist Filthy Fluno documented 39 stages of a drawing, displayed dynamically in Second Life as an animation culminating in the final image.
Virtual Worlds also allow for the intriguing mixture of the real and the virtual. Artist Jospeh DeLappe re-enacted “Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi” as human and avatar in NYC’s Eyebeam Gallery and Second Life. For twenty-six days, DeLappe powered his Gandhi avatar across Second Life by walking the requisite 240 miles on a treadmill.
Real world audiences were welcomed to visit him as he tread in the gallery, along the way, he met denizens of Second Life, keeping a blog post of his experiences. I learned about his walk when he visited a project I did with filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, Gone Gitmo, an installation of Guantánamo Prison, integrating portions of her film, UNCONSTITUTIONAL into Second Life.
DeLappe recounts in his blogpost:
Just before reaching the end of the march, Cinco took us to a most extraordinary location called “Network Culture”, where there is an interactive recreation of the “Gitmo” interment camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One is able to take part in a simulated experience of arriving at the camp in a military transport plane, all the while straining to view what is going on through the sim provided black hood. You emerge in a supplicant position inside one of the kennel-like holding areas duplicated from the original layout of this notorious camp. Quite a chilling and sobering experience in an otherwise uplifting day:
The juxtaposition of Gandhi, kneeling and shackled in our Second Life experience, is a stunning image, but also a demonstration of the public and serendipitous nature of an open virtual universe. You never know who might drop by or how they might react; this was an artwork interacting with another artwork, the image a mash-up of both. The metaverse, or, at least some versions of it, have a public dimension that has the potential to redefine art in public space.
Gone Gitmo ( blog , video , SLURL) is a political piece emphasizing human rights while it pushes the formal boundaries of spatial narrative in its inclusion of documentary footage within a virtual environment. Views of the computer graphic (CGI) created barbed wire cages of Camp X-Ray are validated by the integration of defense department footage. The power of a detainee’s father’s lament is amplified when this image is scaled relative to the avatar rather than the computer screen. This integration of documented vs. virtual reality and the interplay scale and avatar has aesthetic implications that have to be fully unexplored.
Also unexplored is the potential for enforced viewing and embodied edits in this new form of narrative. The Gone Gitmo experience begins with a new form of cinematic scripted event: the avatar is offered a HUD (heads up display) allowing the filmmakers to control both her vision and position. The brief first person segment is a first person experience: the shaky black screen indicates you are hooded, the audio indicates that your C-17 transport plane is landing and you are being dragged to some destination. When the full environment reappears, it is a third person view, of your avatar, kneeling, shackled in a cage in Camp X-Ray. This embodied teleporting is a radically new form of editing.
The persistent nature of the virtual environment (it persists day and night, it is “on” or available across time lines and geographic boundaries 24/7) allows for a wholly new type of event with attendees unrestricted by time or place. Gone Gitmo has simulcast a conference from Habeas Commons, and has planned a Veritar Speaker’s Series — a forum for speakers who have been to the actual Guantánamo Prison, to visit the virtual installation and share their experience. A veritar is a new term coined for this series of an event, it signifies an avatar appearing under her own name; machinima documentation of these events will herald a new form of documentary: Cinema Veritar.
Gone Gitmo has its own gallery space; a building giving a second life to a series of readings performed at Joe’s Pub, sponsored by the PEN USA and the ACLU by posting audio transcripts attached to posters of the event. The readings include recreations of transcripts of FBI interrogation sessions and emails obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act read by producer Alex Gibney and author Francine Prose. Although available elsewhere on the web (both the PEN USA and ACLU sites) the audio experience in an environment with a hard chair and ankle shackle, is evocative. Confronted with the issue of conveying “harsh interrogation techniques” we made the decision to create a space to contemplate these practices, rather than replicate them. We’ve built a contemplation chamber, not a torture chamber.
Second Life is only one of many internet-based VR engines, both public and private. mTV and Coca-Cola have built elaborate members-only virtual environments for promotion, QWAK has developed a virtual reality engine focused on applications for business teleconferencing. The above examples serve to introduce the notion of the avatar as audience in a field where art in the age of mechanical reproduction is still being debated. The tension between strict replication and experience, between the aesthetics of accuracy and technical prowess versus subject and evocation, reflect the nascent state of the art. Art in the age of avatars not only doubles an audience experience (the avatar experience reverberates in the body) but introduces an entirely new field of aesthetics.