When games actually ARE art

Corey Arcangel is a Brooklyn-based contemporary artist who has made a name for himself incorporating digital technology into his work. I attended his show The Sharper Image back in April at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

I’m not much for contemporary art, because it often seems too haphazard and for lack of a better word, easy. I had to walk through another exhibit to get to Cory Arcangel’s and actually saw the following “pieces” on display:

  • A row of four dots on the wall
  • A slide projector on a table projecting…nothing
  • Two copies of the Life Magazine Picture Puzzle on a shelf

When crap like this constitutes “art” I don’t feel uncultured when I say to my wife, the only person I ever go to art museums with, that “I don’t get it.” Her usual response is that contemporary art requires context in order to understand it, and that if you already have that context it makes sense to you.

If that’s the case, and my being a video gamer for 32 years, wouldn’t contemporary art which incorporates modded Atari 2600 and NES cartridges and PlayStation 1 controllers as part of the work make some sense to me?

The first exhibit I saw was Space Invader. Arcangel describes the work on his website:

Space Invader is a mod of the Atari game Space Invaders which has been turned into Space Invader (note: it’s no longer plural…thus the white out over the last “s” on the cartridge) –> all the invaders have been erased except one.”

The exhibit is interactive; I asked the nearby security guard whether I could actually pick up the Atari 2600 controller, and when she answered in the affirmative I snatched up the joystick with a huge, little-kid grin…and then promptly found myself holding only the rubber joystick guard while the rest of the controller fell down loudly onto the white bench on which the Atari console rested.

No one can say the exhibit isn’t authentic.

I thought the game was stuck at first, but resetting didn’t replace the lonely Space Invader with the horde I was looking forwarding to shooting up in a fit of nostalgia. Then I read the placard identifying the piece and thought “I get it. Clever.” I always feel as though I’m meant to have some sort of deeper reaction to a piece of “art” than thinking the title is clever, and Space Invader left me feeling empty.

I did some reading about this exhibit online. I’ve cleaned up the text as the website I took it from looks like a product of Babelfish or some such translation program:

“Arcangel’s work also distinguishes itself by demanding audience interaction. This usually ends in total frustration and thus delivers a critical commentary about the participatory strategies so very popular in the 1990s.” So I looked up “participatory strategies” and found this:

“Participatory Learning & Action (PLA) is a practical approach to development which evolved and spread in the 1990’s. PLA enables people to learn, work and act together in a co-operative and democratic manner to achieve agreed goals.”

I have trouble getting from A to B, here. The audience member plays the game alone, and this has something to do with criticizing people working together? It sounds more like Arcangel is just having a laugh at us.

I Shot Andy Warhol was much more amusing than Space Invader. From Arcangel’s website:

I Shot Andy Warhol is a modification of the NES game Hogan’s Alley, where the gangsters have been replaced by Warhol, and the “innocents” have been replaced by the Pope, Flavor Flav (pre MTV show!!!!), and Col Sanders…” I got the high score in all three game modes, and then walked away amused but with no idea what the hell the piece meant.

Once again, I looked up some criticism. I Shot Andy Warhol has been read as a tribute to Warhol, and inasmuch as Warhol was about being strange and walking down the road less traveled, this is acceptable to me.

Super Mario Clouds is an old Mario Brothers cartridge modified to erase everything but the clouds. “The work’s minimalist aesthetic reveals clear references to abstract monochrome painting.” That actually makes some sense to me, courtesy of an undergraduate art history course.

Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games is three PlayStation 1 consoles with modded controllers that play the games by themselves, displayed on three side-by-side monitors. I found an interview with the artist and apparently this work is meant to be funny.

I’ve heard Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade speak a few times about his belief that gamers have a set of shared, digital experiences which help define us as gamers. I think Jerry would have enjoyed Totally Fucked. It’s another hacked NES cartridge:

I burst out laughing in the middle of the dead-silent exhibit hall when I saw this. I can’t find a video of this piece, but it’s actually animated. Mario faces left and right alternately over and over again while the “?” block flashes.

I define art as something which inspires an intellectual or emotional reaction that is substantive and resonates. I may not have understood most of these pieces on an emotional level, but they did get me curious and wondering what they meant. By my definition, I have to call every one of these exhibits art, even if they are of the contemporary variety I normally have such distaste for.

Do these exhibits prove Roger Ebert wrong? I Shot Andy Warhol is literally the same thing as Hogan’s Alley with altered graphics. Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games aren’t being played by us, i.e. people, but they are certainly playing games. Space Invader has been hacked to be a terrible game, but it still has all the basic functionality and victory conditions it is meant to. I suppose it’s possible that someone could actually fail to kill that lonely Space Invader before he marches to the bottom of the screen, such that they would lose.

It’s ironic that the piece from Cory’s exhibit which drew the most immediate and powerful reaction from me was the one exhibit which truly isn’t a game anymore because it cannot be played – but that’s the point of Totally Fucked.

I’ve argued that video games are not art, but when I think about these exhibits I’m not so sure. My favorite Penn Jillette quotation: “The definition of an intellectual is someone who can change their mind given facts …” Cory Arcangel’s works are facts, real entities that exist to be looked at, interacted with, and contemplated upon.

Many of them are video games, and they literally are art.

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