Arthouse, Austin

On view through November
by Dan Boehl

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      Michael Smith
      Mike Builds a Shelter, 1983
      arcade cabinet, video game
      74 x 32 x 36 inches
      Courtesy the artist and Dunn and Brown Contemporary, Dallas, TX

      View Gallery

      In the winter of 2006 a World of Warcraft gamer, a young woman, suffered a stroke and died at the age of 18. She had amassed a large number of friends while playing the online fantasy game. To pay homage to her, the avatars of her warrior guild met at the young woman’s favorite spot in the game, an opening on the edge of a secluded lake, and held a funeral for her avatar. A rival clan, tipped off by a mole at the virtual funeral, ambushed the funeral goers, killing them in minutes.

      Like Iraqi war footage from imbedded journalists, the massacre was recorded. You can watch it on Youtube. You can read the thousands of forum posts and blog entries either denouncing the massacre as inhuman barbarism or praising the act as a brilliant game tactic that gave obsessed gamers a healthy dose of reality. The virtual massacre straddles the gap between the real and the virtual worlds, a gap that video games narrow with every new advancement in technology and gameplay.

      Reset/Play, the current exhibition at Arthouse guest curated by Marcin Ramocki and Paul Slocum, explores the inner workings of the World of Warcraft (WoW). Rather than examining the fervor and enthusiasm that WoW instills in its gamers, Alexander Galloway’s How to Play World of Warcraft (2005) investigates the mechanics of gameplay. Galloway’s multimedia work displays video recordings of the gamer’s keystrokes and mouse clicks next to prints of complex schematics that correspond to the real time WoW action. In the context of the vast amount of time, money and energy players spend on WoW, the piece seems more like a science fair dissection of photosynthesis than an artistic exploitation of mimesis in the game. Galloway’s piece deconstructs the game to show how people interface with technology, demonstrating how mundane WoW really is. But the piece fails to reveal why we are compelled to play video games or the connection the gamer has with the virtual experience.

      Many of the works in Reset/Play follow Galloway’s example, choosing to deconstruct gaming mechanics rather than taking advantage of the game’s ability to catalyze our desires and imagination. In Electric Paints (2008), artist Mike Beradino takes apart an Atari 2600, affixes the electronic relays to a canvas and reconnects the relays with electric paint. Watching a monitor on the side of the painting, a viewer can play a working version of Missile Command. In his related piece Liquid Pong (2008), Beradino uses a PC, a matrix of electromagnets and a liter of ferrofluid (iron suspended in oil) to reconstruct Pong as a physical object. Liquid Pong succeeds in becoming an object of interest and beauty, but the gameplay isn’t as engaging as the original Pong. Both works show us how games function, but revealing the mechanics doesn’t help us understand the games or ourselves any better.

      I’m interested in seeing game technology deconstructed, but like examining the parts of a Jarvik artificial heart, the deconstruction doesn’t explain the human drama created by the conglomeration of code, hardware, and a flat screen monitor that make up the gaming experience. In this regard, works in Reset/Play are most successful when they, like the technology used to create them, bridge the gap between game and viewer, either appropriating game mechanics and exploiting the player experience, or creating new emotional experiences of their own.

      Michael Bell-Smith’s While We Slept (2004) appropriates Marble Madness, a staple of classic gaming, collaging the game’s landscape with 2D animations to create a futuristic bombing raid that destroys everything but an endless sunrise. The holocaust of a black and white landscape feels like a dated future and is awe inspiring in emotional potency. Like watching Red Dawn on a Netflix DVD, the piece embodies the apprehensions experienced by arcade-bound Cold War youths a generation before. It induces fear, but also nostalgia. I haven’t come to terms with the nuances of this kind of nostalgia yet, but it feels like the right kind of nostalgia: the past reinvented to mirror our own current political moment.

      A finished game system in its own right, Return of Balance (2007) by Nik Hanselmann, Joe Mckay, and Gregory Niemeyer was created in response to the problem of how to develop a non-violent video game. To play, the gamer stands on a square balance board to control a similar square on a computer screen. By shifting body weight back and forth, the gamer smacks colored balls into a series of like colored hoops. The Nintendo Wii has now mass-produced and mass-marketed a similar piece of hardware, denying Return to Balance this particular innovation. But what is really interesting is juxtaposing the gamer’s balancing act to the meditative and slowly increasing difficulty of the gameplay. The game seeks to make the gamer more aware of the physical body, rather than immersing the gamer in fantasy. Return of Balance asks questions that merit further exploration, among them, does virtual violence inspire real violence and is computer technology teaching us to neglect our bodies and our neighbors?

      How to Build a Shelter (1983), Michael Smith’s upright arcade game (in this exhibition, the game sports a new cabinet and uncorrupted code), is uncanny in its incorporation of Reset/Play’s major themes. Smith first programmed and constructed the piece in 1983, when games of its type hit the American public like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. In the game, the player controls Mike, Mario’s hapless cousin, as he builds a bomb shelter in his basement before the nukes destroy the city whose skyline fills his living room window. Mike’s movements are impossibly slow, and he will never be able to complete the shelter before time runs out. How to Build a Shelter is complete in its synthesis of interface, political statement and objective beauty—the very paradigm of art mixed with gaming. The technology long since rendered obsolete, How to Build a Shelter asks the question: Why do we waste our time playing games when the world is being destroyed?

      Reset/Play offers a well-rounded survey of a relatively new genre. The exhibition explores video games’ ability to connect virtual space and physical experience, bridging the gap between technology and our desires. As technology becomes more subsuming, it is the artist’s responsibility to highlight and expose the intersection of body and machine. Like the World of Warcraft funeral massacre, video game art can shed light on the relationship we have with games. The best work begins to reveal how these games exploit our desires and create lasting emotional experiences with repercussions beyond the limits of the game.

      Dan Boehl lives in Austin and works for the University of Texas. His book Work won the 2006 Pavement Saw Chapbook Award and is available at Domy Books. Poems from his manuscript Kings of the F**king Sea are online at Sawbuck Poetry, Sink Review, and forthcoming in print from Handsome and the Okay Mountain Reader.


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