Catalog Essay

the following is an excerpt from the essay that is in the Flux #4 catalog

Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Play
by Celia Pearce

Originally published in Ken Friedman and Owen Smith, issue eds; Sharon Poggenpohl, series editor and publisher. 2006. Part 1: Fluxus and Legacy: Special Issue of Visible Language, Volume 40, Number 1, 2006. pp. 66-89. Minor revisions and corrections have been made to this addition, including a new introduction for the Fluxhibition #4 Catalog.

Introduction to the Fluxhibition #4 Edition

I was first introduced to Fluxus art as a ‘tween in the 1970s while visiting a family friend, Ed Schlossberg, who was loosely connected with the movement through his association with John Cage. Later, working as a game designer for Schlossberg’s interactive design studio in the early 1980s, I learned more about art and artists from this movement, especially the work of Yoko Ono and Nam Jun Paik. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, through curator Karen Moss, that I became aware that this work was part of a larger movement. Moss brought my attention to Fluxus through a research interest in non-digital interactive art for a lecture I was planning to give at the American Film Institute. The lecture was called “Dadabase: A History of Interactivity in Art.” I approached these works from the perspective of a computer game designer. My goal was to demonstrate how non-digital artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray, and later, Ono, Paik and their contemporaries foreshadowed “interactive media” by exploring techniques for making analog media interactive. They literally and figuratively “played with” the properties of a variety of media to create participatory art. I wanted to get beyond the technophiliac tendencies of the so-called digerati to think that what we were doing with computers was entirely new.

I ended up presenting the “Dadabase” lecture over several years at various venues, ironically and intentionally as a conventional art history slide lecture, complete with 35-millimeter slide carousel. This chagrinned a number of host organizations, many of which were, by this point, strictly digital. Still, I felt it was important to present the work in an analog medium using this traditional presentation format. Eventually I gave in, and migrated the talk to PowerPoint. I recently gave a version of it again at the Art History of Games Symposium in Atlanta.

A couple of years after I put together the lecture, sometime in the late 1990s, something rather amazing began to occur: video game art. Prior to this period there were only two (depending on how you count) works that were made under the auspices of art in the video game medium, both of which I’ve only become aware recently. But by 2001, a movement was in full swing. In 2003, I co-curated a festival of independent and alternative games at the Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine, along with Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Nideffer. Around the time this paper was published, I joined IndieCade, an independent festival of independent games, now in its 3rd year. In addition to showing digital art games, we have also shown analog games, including Brenda Brathwaite’s powerful Train(2009), an art board game that could easily hold its own in a contemporary Fluxus exhibition.

This paper was an attempt to connect the dots between what I would term the two major “game art” movements of the twentieth century. I was fascinated by some of the commonalities of the two movements, which this paper enumerates. Many of the new video game artists were trained in fine arts and were no doubt aware of and influenced by the Fluxus movement. However, again technophilia being what it is, there was the general sense that this was somehow something brand new that had never been seen before. In this paper I sought to eradicate that belief, but also show the ways some of the essential spirit of Fluxus carried into the video game art movement. 

The works presented for International Fluxhibition # 4: Fluxus Amusements, Diversions, Games, Tricks and Puzzles, are indicative of some of the themes and ideas that run through video game art and which were originally explored in this paper. Video game art, like Fluxus art, leverages the reappropriation of mass media and mass-produced commodities, to make statements not only about the media themselves, but also about the larger context of society, power and control in which they are embedded. They tend to be highly self-reflexive, heuristic works that make statements about themselves.

One classic example we see of this is the unplayable game, a kind of high concept game that makes a larger statement by exposing the broken systems that it represents. The best historical example of this is of course Yoko Ono’s White Chess, also known as Play It By Trust, a chessboard with all white squares and all white pieces. Chris Westlund’s Futility, like White Chess, uses a simple game system to convey an idea about the mechanics of playing by the rules, rules that fundamentally make no sense. On the one hand, it elegantly highlights the blind obeisance with which we unquestioningly follow the directions meted out to us by games, while serving as a metaphor for the same patterns of obeisance in life. Similarly, video game art frequently interrogates the underlying assumptions of the medium itself: that we ought to follow “the rules” and “the directions” of the game and its designers. One of the earliest examples of video game art, Mike Builds a Shelter, created in (1983) by video artist Mike Smith with programmer Dov Jacobson, is an arcade-style game in which you build a Cold War era bomb shelter. No matter what you do, however, you always die in the end. Like White Chess, the aim of this game was to create an interactive simulation that highlighted the futility of the system it was modeling. Futility, while less literal, nonetheless creates a similar metaphor for life and a blind following of rules. 

Painful or antagonistic interaction is a common theme, often entwined with wordplay and visual puns. An early example of an aggressive Fluxus kit was Ben Vautier’s Total Art Matchbox, a matchbox which contained instructions for destroying all museums, art and libraries, and saving the last match to burn itself. Jamie Newton’s Sorry I Missed You (2010) and D.S.H. Watson’s Game: Screw People; Take their Money (2010) both follow this same tradition. Newton’s piece is particularly charming in that it packages its aggressive message in a sweet little padded velvet gift box: it is, in fact, a gift, but perhaps one you do not want to receive, it is passive aggressive in the same way as some of Ono’s works, Cut Piece being the prime example, as well as some of Chris Burden’s work. It also harkens back to Man Ray’s Le Cadeau (The Gift), the destructive, nail-encrusted iron. Though packaged a traditional Fluxus kit, not unlike Vautier’s Suicide Kit or Millers Orifice Flux Plugs, Watson’s piece uses a visceral sense of tactility to resonate with contemporary issues of capitalistic greed. This work is particularly apt in our current period of flagrant and unregulated abuses of corporations responsible for such problems as the current recession and the BP Gulf Coast disaster.

Arsenal Games by you&me is a very contemporary take on a classic Fluxus conceit: The creation of scores and rules that players must enact to complete the work. While it uses traditional Fluxus concepts and approaches, it also connects to the contemporary outdoor games movement, in which real physical space is appropriated as game space. I recently attended the Come Out and Play Festival in Brooklyn, New York, where a number of different contemporary street games were being played concurrently in the same or overlapping space. I could not help but see shades of Fluxus in this enterprise, and was asked to do a radio interview for the festival to talk about the correlations. In earlier years, when it was hosted in Manhattan, some of Come Out and Play’s festival events took place on the very same streets as the original Fluxus experiments. you&me is innovative in that its essential premise is this same type of violation of the Magic Circle that game scholars reify as enclosing all game activities. By creating a single game board where multiple games are occurring, fighting for dominance, and basing it in a real space, the game makes a statement not only about games but also about power and dominance and space. Indeed we are all engaged in different games simultaneously, sometimes with the same people. Similarly, Velvet Strike, an anti-war graffiti patch for the counter-terrorism first-person shooter mod Counter-Strike, appropriated a game by creating another game to play within, and indeed against, its core gameplay premise.

One of the reasons I believe artists have gravitated towards games, whether digital or analog, is that games are already an interactive medium. If you are interested in scores, or chance operations, or participatory art, games provide you with a set of accessible mass-media conventions to play with, and a framework for engaging the audience. It’s very exciting that artists continue to explore the possibilities of analog games, whether in the gallery or on the street. Games model systems, societal conventions and rules of engagement in a way that no other medium can. Today, with video games continuing to grow in popularity, and board games continuing to hold steady, contemporary takes on classic Fluxus concepts are as relevant as ever.

—Celia Pearce, July 2010

Close Menu