With the Smithsonian set to crown video games the latest institutionally-ratified art form next year with its "The Art of Video Games" show, we thought it was about time to take a look at the subject of video games as fodder for visual artists. The subject has received increasing attention, from Carolina Miranda's smart feature in ARTnews to proliferating courses in digital and interactive media at art schools all over. But we didn't just want to focus on artworks that took video games as subject matter, we wanted to see what examples there were out there that actually tried to merge the sensibility of gamers into the sensibility of fine arts, in however awkward a way. In other words, we wanted art that we could actually play. Here's our shortlist:
Hunter Jonakin, "Jeff Koons Must Die!!!"
Florida State University MFA candidate Hunter Jonakin hit a nerve with his recent project "Jeff Koons Must Die!!!" Why? Maybe because this indubitably jokey first-person-shooter-style art video game contains an element of authentic wish fulfillment. Built into a fake old-school video game arcade cabinet and rendered in rather blocky graphics, "Jeff Koons Must Die!!!" thrusts players into the body of someone locked into a museum during a Jeff Koons retrospective... who happens to have a rocket launcher. The player is then allowed either to look around politely and study versions of "Balloon Dog," "Made in Heaven," and giant inflatable lobsters in peace -- which causes the game to end -- or blow these postmodern classics to smithereens with your weapon, "Doom"-style, at which point a crude and terrifying, zombie-robot-like avatar of Koons emerges, scolds the player, and sends in security guards to fight. A second level plops players in to a room where "waves of curators, lawyers, assistants, and guards spawn until the player is dead." What does it all mean? Jonakin comments, "In the end, the game is unwinnable, and acts as a comment on the fine art studio system, museum culture, art and commerce, hierarchical power structures, and the destructive tendencies of gallery goers, to name a few."
Wafaa Bilal, "Virtual Jihadi"
The first-person-shooter format has proved to be fertile territory for would-be video-game art commentaries. Before garnering tabloid headlines for surgically implanting a camera in the back of his skull, Iraq-born artist Wafaa Bilal touched off a major sensation in 2008 with his work "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi." The backstory is important: In 2003, the crude "Quest for Sadaam" was released, which used the "Duke Nukem 3D" engine to create a world where you blasted your way through waves of Saddam Hussein clones. A group called the Global Islamic Media Front decided to one-up "Quest for Saddam," seizing it and re-hacking it, making it into a game called "Quest for Bush," a shooter that had players try to take down then-U.S. president George W. Bush -- a rather crude recruiting tool that nevertheless garnered major media attention. For his own version, Bilal re-re-reappropriated the Global Islamic Media Front game, this time inserting his own face and story into the game, now re-titled "The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi." In real life, Bilal's own brother had been murdered by a U.S. drone strike in Kufa, Iraq, and he brought the story of this tragedy into the game to justify the character's quest to kill Bush. The gesture was intended as a commentary how military violence perpetrated by the U.S. in Iraq was only destined to fuel more terrorism -- but not everyone saw the value of this message. Campus Republicans got the piece ejected from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute show where it was to debut, and then the city of Troy even shut an alternative art space that was to host a showing of the work.
Feng Mengbo, "Long March: Restart"
Beijing-based artist Feng Mengbo just got a major showcase for his artistic video game work at PS1 MoMA, which showed his massive, multiscreen, and fully playable 2008 work, "Long March: Restart." The project is a pastiche of old style Nintendo games like "Contra," "Mario Bros.," and "Street Fighter," but features as its centerpiece a Red Army soldier who must battle his way through the psychedelic world. His weapon of choice? Flying cans of Coca-Cola. According to MoMA, the initiative grew out of a 1993 series of paintings Meng created titled "Game Over: Long March," inspired by side-scrolling actioners. The actual Long March, of course, was Chairman Mao's epic 1934 military retreat, which cemented the Communist leader's legend -- a feat that Feng apparently is comparing to Mario's endless struggle with Bauser, a daring comparison that means... nothing of substance, as far as we can tell. The fact that the player in "Long March: Restart" actually has to actually chase the Red Army commando around while controlling him on the giant screens installed in the galleries is pretty cool, however.
Cory Arcangel, "I Shot Andy Warhol"
Set to get his due with a career retrospective at the Whitney in May, Cory Arcangel made his name hacking videogames, with works like "Super Mario Clouds" that turns the well-known Nintendo game into an experimental film. But for the 2002 project "I Shot Andy Warhol," he took the NES shooting gallery classic "Hogan's Alley" and rejiggered it so that players were trying to gun down images of the Pop icon, while avoiding shooting other cut-outs of the Pope, Flavor Flav, and Colonel Sanders. Another level of the hacked cartridge has players using their lightgun to blast cans of Campbell's Soup as they tumble through the air. To judge by the photos posted at the artist's Web site, at least, gunning down Andy is not just for Valerie Solanis anymore -- even kids can enjoy it! And it doesn't stop there: In 2009, yet another artist created "I Shot Cory Arcangel," a new version of the "Hogan's Alley" hack -- "problematizing" Arcangel's version -- in which players can shoot a ballcap wearing avatar of the artist, and shoot down flying Nintendo cartridges.
Bill Viola, "The Night Journey"
One of the more legendary art-videogame hybrids -- in the sense that it seems to exist mainly as legend -- is "The Night Journey," the product of a collaboration between video artist Bill Viola (master of dreamy, slowed-down, pseudo-religious atmospherics) and the University of Southern California's Game Innovation Lab. The game thrusts users into a first-person universe of a barren, mysterious, black-and-white landscape, replete with imagery inspired by Viola's installatioin "Pneuma" -- indistinct, shadowy imagery that can't quite be pinned down. "The Night Journey" is meant specifically to strip away all the goal-oriented aspects of gaming and instead reward just observing the eerie landscape, which is, according to a Web site, inspired by the likes of Rumi and Plotinus. The piece has been gestating since 2005 -- eons in video game development time -- and prototypes have been seen at various conferences and exhibitions (most recently, the Museum of the Moving Image's "Real Virtuality" show), but Viola's studio told our IN THE AIR blog earlier this year that it might well be released later in 2011, though licensing was, at the time, still being decided.
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