Lana Polansky is an art critic, artist, designer and writer specializing in digital arts and play.

Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election one year ago, the games sector has tried to work out how to use our medium to resist the rise of the far right. In March, Resistjam brought game developers together around the world to create consciousness-raising works of political art. Rami Ismail is one developer who has used his platform as a respected public speaker at games conferences to speak out against Trump’s discriminatory travel ban and elevate the voices of developers whose work has been affected. Games criticism outlet Waypoint’s remarkable first year included a week-long special feature on the prison-industrial complex.

One year on, it may now be a good time to evaluate the cultures of resistance that are growing in games. What does it mean to resist fascism with games and tech? How can the videogames and technology industries confront our role in fostering cultures of isolated young men who become radicalised? Does it still make sense to focus on videogames at a time like this?

Videogames and neoliberalism

“Duke Nukem’s Dystopian Fantasies” appeared on Jacobin on April 20th, marking a debut post for writer and artist Liz Ryerson on the leftist commentary site. In it, she makes the affirmative case for looking at videogames as historical and cultural artefacts while judging them on their own merits, and makes the connection between the male power fantasy the game embraces, the alienation people feel under late capitalism, and how that can translate into reaction without a coherent understanding of history.

“This is the power of the fantasy Duke Nukem as a cultural figure represents: that through raw machismo, the series of oppressive neoliberal forces that form the framework of our society can be conquered and transcended. Duke cannot exist in a rational world. He can only exist in a one filled with internal contradictions, crossed wires, and broken down buildings.

“His world is never stable. It can only ever be dominated by irrational fears of the unknown and one-dimensional, cartoonish archetypes. His world never resolves any of its cognitive dissonances, and sometimes even seems to be aware of its own self-destructiveness.”

For the most part, Ryerson’s piece received praise from leftist partisans whether or not they were particularly committed to videogames as a craft. But not everyone felt it was appropriate for a socialist journal like Jacobin to have published a close reading of something like Duke Nukem 3D.

It’s not as if they’d ever previously published pieces on the art, culture and business of games or tech, to relatively little backlash:

  • Les Simerables, Eva Koffman
    “SimCity isn’t a sandbox. Its rules reflect the neoliberal common sense of today’s urban planning.”
  • Empire Down, Sam Kriss
    “The player in Age of Empires II doesn’t take on the role of a monarch or a national spirit, but the feudal mode of production itself.”
  • “You can sleep here all night”: Video Games and Labour, Ian Williams
    “Exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how many of us may be working in years to come.”

In my own experience occupying the art fringe of the videogame industry–which is admittedly a highly reactionary space–I’ve learned that while there are a lot of young people pouring a lot of energy into their craft, it’s easy to feel lonely and beholden to a lost cause. I’ve worked as a writer and small-time artist and developer for almost a decade, focusing primarily on indie and alternative development communities and agitating in my limited capacity for more of a spotlight on them, their histories, and the labour involved in them. My political activity outside of my work consists largely of anti-fascist organizing in my city–that means participating in teach-ins, free food events, as well as protests and counter-demonstrations against the far-right. This work is voluntary, but can sometimes feel much more fulfilling than my actual profession. It’s easy to feel like no one really cares about fringe technical arts because, well, most people don’t. If the industry’s flagship mainstream titles give us very little to seriously engage with, then why bother digging any deeper?

Political critique of AAA games is a lot of work, for something juvenile at worst, and culturally peripheral at best. Click To Tweet

As the Jekyll that is liberalism has once again fallen into crisis and gives way to its Mr. Hyde that is fascist reaction, I’ve felt increasingly insecure about the nature of my work and why I chose it. I laugh nervously and tell people what I do is bullshit before going any further. Luckily, most of the people I’ve encountered while organizing, or even just through having had a political affinity online, have expressed genuine interest in the medium, the inner workings of our opaque and cloistered industry, and its potential as an expressive and communicative tool. Still, I have met those who think of things like social media as “inappropriate technology”, who automatically assume that anyone who has any interest in videogames is a pepe nazi, or who think of any engagement with new media as a cultural and political dead end.

That said, some of the most personally influential leftist thinkers I’ve come across are also writers, artists and academics in this incredibly weird field. More often than not we organize and march together. This is not an attempt to scapegoat anyone specific or to do as so many desperate thinkpieces did after the election and try to reaffirm the dubious political importance of games as an artform through headlines such as “Trump as Gamer-in-Chief”.

I don’t think that making videogames, no matter how fringe or alt, should be conflated with tried and true forms of street activism. Game jams about the immigration ban are not a form of direct action in the way shutting down a consulate or doing an hours-long sit-in at an airport are. Your app is not saving the world.

ResistJam was an online game jam about resisting authoritarianism. Over 200 games were made by participants.

The dominant ideological expression of late capitalism is liberalism, or more specifically, neoliberalism. Liberalism prefers to try to diversify the middle class of the currently existing system, rather than try imagining something that might liberate greater masses of people. According to this view, capitalism fundamentally works, only needing a slight tweak here or there to make it more “accessible” to those who are deserving. A major way it seeks to accomplish this is by centering symbolic representation of various marginalized identities while also depoliticizing things like technological progress, framing them as inherently good and proof of societal advancement. All actual material concerns and real struggle can then be ironed away in favour of simply trying to optimize the level of participation for marginalized groups, as one would fiddle with a dial. This isn’t to say symbolic representation doesn’t matter, but to fixate on it strips us of the ability to think in terms of collective political power, and cultivate a real political program that fights for material improvements to people’s lived conditions.

Class politics of digital media

Media consumption doesn’t determine political outcomes, at least not in a direct sense, but it does help shape people’s political imaginations. Taking the time to unpack the media we consume can tell us a lot about the conditions of production–that is to say, the ways in which labour power is exploited in order to produce entertainment commodities. This may include the mining of cobalt to make computer hardware, or the manufacturing of consoles and other devices at Foxconn plants, or developers coerced into overwork in order to meet production quotas. There is a potentially international struggle of exploited workers even just when it comes to videogames, yet hardly a labour movement to speak of. That there’s hardly a union presence in the technical arts or in tech work broadly, and that these industries tend toward meritocratic, libertarian or even fascist thinking that tends to be expressed ideologically via their major cultural properties, is not an accident.

Conversely, if politics are the “art of the possible”, then media creation allows us to expand the conceptual scope for what’s possible. Most of the art we consume is conservative in character–even works we consider liberal or progressive are often deeply reactionary in their base assumptions. For example, David Grossman explains why diverse Brooklyn Nine-Nine can’t avoid being apologia for the NYPD, and why using progressive representation to paper over the faults of repressive institutions is indefensible.

Earlier this year, the Vera Institute of Justice polled young people in high-crime areas of New York, and found that only four in ten respondents would feel comfortable seeking help from the police if they were in trouble, and eighty-eight percent of young people surveyed didn’t believe that their neighborhoods trusted the police. Forty-six percent of young people said they had experienced physical force beyond being frisked by a police officer.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tries to get around this problem by pretending the actual Brooklyn doesn’t exist.

Videogames in particular have their own sordid history of using diversity rhetoric as a way to deflect criticism of unwieldy, increasingly shoddy games produced under highly exploitative conditions, and reflect profoundly disturbing ideological tendencies (sometimes with the help of the arms industry or the U.S. military.) This has led some leftists to believe that the interactive arts as a craft are inherently reactionary and devoid of creative potential. I sympathize to an extent with this position, but having spent significant time in tech and games spaces, I believe these problems arise from the same historical conditions that render most art conservative, as well as specific ones owing to the opaqueness of the industry itself. I think these are things that can be overcome, not without some effort, and part of what keeps me interested in games is its creative fringe, where artists are finding ways to use the medium to capture as well as suggest alternatives to our current predicament.

Videogames have matured entirely within the context of late capitalism and neoliberalism. Click To Tweet

Videogames have barely a labour movement to speak of, and are an appendage of the tech-libertarian culture of Silicon Valley. An important aspect of their heritage resides in engineers meddling with MIT military computers. They have never, in their production or conception, been entirely separate from the state or the military-industrial complex or from corporate interest, and as a result often exist as an ideological expression of these institutions.

Maybe this was unavoidable, the forces underlying the technical arts world too strong to ever be meaningfully opposed by a few dissenting voices, but I struggle to think of anything in the modern world for which this is not true. Maybe a game jam, or a book fair, or a block party should not be the centerpieces of our activism. These things have their place, but should not be confused for things like street actions (protests, counter-demonstrations against the far-right), grassroots electoral activism, coalition-building between social and economic justice groups, public disobedience (like the destruction of hostile architecture), accessibility and anti-poverty efforts, workplace organizing and so on. This work can be thankless and grueling, but it’s absolutely vital. Still, engaging with media and culture in a way that actually resonates with alienated people is a good way to let them know there’s something else available to them than resigned helplessness. Perhaps it seems like too much effort for too small and marginal a community, but going to any independent games site will bring up literally thousands of entries, much of it being made by people under the age of 30. Many of these people work multiple jobs while making their art for free or almost free, or work under precarious conditions (employment instability, contract work, etc,) and scrape by on crowdfunding, and many–as I’ve experienced both by playing their works and by actually building relationships with them–lean acutely left and hunger for more robust progressive spaces that reward creative experimentation, but often lack the time, energy or organizational guidance that would help them achieve those goals.

But even more broadly, more people play games than identify strictly as “gamers.” Plenty of people who do work in the industry recognize this term as a corporate invention, and don’t actually resemble the stereotype of the socially-awkward, emotionally stunted, self-pitying bourgeois recluses that so much of the industry has historically built its marketing around. While mainstream ideologies in the subculture tend to range from milquetoast liberalism to right-wing libertarianism to cryptofascism, quite a lot more people consume media like games, comics and even anime than are intimately involved with the worst elements of these subcultures. Snobbishly refusing to make any use of these “deviant” or “degenerate” new forms and reacting with hostility at anyone who tries to strikes me as missing an opportunity, and as needlessly ceding cultural ground to people we seek to oppose at every level.

Art as political response

Though GamerGate is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been following it closely, it’s unusual in that it captured the attention of people who have nothing all to do with video games when it’s ostensibly preoccupied with whether certain online blogs have properly disclosed their writers’ ties to indie game developers. A recent post at Breitbarthowever, helps to explain GamerGate’s appeal: It’s an accessible front for a new kind of culture warrior to push back against the perceived authoritarianism of the social-justice left.

Reactionaries–from bog standard republicans to the fractured jumble of fascoid revanchists that make up the so-called “alt-right”–have for a long time viewed nerd culture as part of the broader culture war. This is why Gamergate attracted conservative figures like Christina Hoff Sommers, Todd Kincannon and Milo Yiannopoulos (both disgraced), Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich and so on. I don’t think gaming or memes really impacted, say, the election, and I tend to think the way we talk about Gamergate–as though it’s the cause of, rather than a product of, the resurgence of the far-right–misses the forest for the trees. I don’t think leftist and labour activists ought to go out of their way to address these hard-identified gamers either. There’s no reason for us not to remain critical of the industry and the ideologies it reproduces.

But it’s obvious that this is a group that gets really anxious when they start to feel like they don’t have control over “nerd culture” anymore, and who have in many ways acted as shock troops to dissuade people from asking too many questions about the industry’s inner practices. In retrospect, there was an opportunity with Gamergate for those in and around the industry to really interrogate the relationship between its issues with labour and its issues with incubating angry reactionary nerds, and for the most part that didn’t happen. It couldn’t, because those who were most likely to suffer professional and personal attack weren’t organized, and still aren’t. It’s no wonder so many YouTube celebrities turn out to be fascists. Actually embracing those who work in or around these fields and who are desperately trying to inject a little grace and intelligence into the medium may help weaken that stranglehold. Not such a terrible idea considering how many kids are watching the likes of PewDiePie and JonTron.

We’ve seen this work to an extent: bots that tweet out liberal self-owns and dank communist memes can help bring together people who feel their concerns aren’t otherwise being articulated and addressed, and find if nothing else in this a bond with other like-minded souls. I don’t think these things are necessarily directly persuasive, but they do allow us to give voice to that which both invigorates us and that which causes us to despair.

They’re also a natural consequence of a diverse mass of people all feeling the same disillusionment and disgust in their everyday lives, needing solidarity but also craving catharsis. Taking a second look at these commodities we mindlessly consume may not in itself be movement building, but it can help put things in perspective. (And if these things are in your estimation not meaningful, why waste time getting angry at the people who do find value in them, especially if those people are your comrades in every way that does matter? Don’t we value a diversity of skills and tactics?)

We know this can work with podcasts, publications, flyers, banners, zines, comics, and music, despite the problems endemic to all creative industries. Not only can these things let people know that in fact they aren’t alone, but they also give us an opportunity to craft a compelling alternative vision. Unfortunate though it is that the most visible videogames tend to express the vilest characteristics of the industry, certain indie critical darling games have proven that the same tools can be used to vividly illustrate the daily grind of making ends meet while working a minimum wage job, the dehumanizing procedure of immigration bureaucracy, or the desperate, soul-crushing banality of office work.

Games of labour and the avant-garde

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Even more avant-garde works like Nuign Spectre or Redshift and Portalmetal use mixed media aesthetics to illustrate the grotesqueness of prevailing ideologies and conditions, while the dreamy work of an artist like Paloma Dawkins allows us to envision worlds which are seemingly impossible but nonetheless worthy of imagining. Colestia’s Crisis Theory subverts the tech world’s own obsession with Taylorism and systems, specifically using flow chart representation of capitalism to lay bare its inherent instability.

This isn’t to repeat the canard about games being more inherently capable of producing empathy than other art forms, or that we ought to focus on one art form to the exclusion of others. But I do think the exercise of ranking different art forms according to how sophisticated they are is inherently reactionary, arbitrarily limits the scope of expression, and constrains our ability to cultivate the new and different when it’s staring us right in the face.

As film critic Shannon Strucci pointed out in her video “why you should care about VIDEO GAMES”–which was made in response to the very attitude I’m describing–no conservative holdout in the history of the arts has ever been vindicated by a wholesale dismissal of a new form or movement as delinquent and therefore not worth engagement.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.

But this is just regular old art criticism. Not all art is or should be explicitly used toward political ends, and games are no different. Walter Benjamin famously warned about confounding aesthetic with politics, and how doing so creates space for fascism. Grossman’s piece mentioned above ultimately links the dopey neoliberalism of Brooklyn Nine-Nine to an underlying apologia for a racist police state; this sort of prioritization of representation and aesthetics is commonplace in liberal bourgeois rhetoric (the fixation, for example, liberal pundits have with condemning bigotry as being a “bad look” rather than being actively harmful in calculable ways). The tech world, too, is remarkably consumed with style over substance–it’s a world where rainbow capitalism and tokenism reign supreme while the oligarchs who run it not only would be too happy to work on behalf of fascist governments, but have in the past and are in the present.

In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger tracks the history of the reification of dominant ideologies through art, from colonialism to sexism to capitalism. Berger describes the nostalgic yearning for more “legitimate” forms of art displaced by newer technology as fundamentally reactionary and regressive, writing:

“The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible. Its function is nostalgic. It is the final empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture.”

How to use games politically

Suffice it to say, there is little in the history of games or the arts generally that should stop them from expressing reactionary tendencies. It can’t really be helped, after all, if art is to be a reflection of current and historical conditions. By extension, the most regressive elements of gaming culture tend to value only those games that functionally and aesthetically resemble classic games, and classical forms of art. If games are a reflection of an industry full of people who literally want to suck the blood of the young and think unions are a trick of the devil, that’s at least in part true because art forms that preceded them, like oil painting, are a reflection of an inbred aristocracy that believed in the divine right of the propertied classes to rule and thought that they were justified in pillaging entire peoples because of their superior skull shape. That doesn’t mean we ought to deny subversive art where it exists, and it’s a piss poor reason for refusing to support its cultivation in new forms which are as-yet barely understood.

I want socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-fascist art to exist anywhere art is being produced, even if it’s with computers, and especially if its core demographic is young people and kids.

Supporting bold, avant-garde and subversive art is a much bigger social project than simply using what exists toward political ends, but I think if we are going to use what exists for political ends it’s useful to think about how what we create can reconfirm our reality. It’s also worth pointing out that plenty of political art is embarrassing, ineffectual or just plain preachy. The same has been true for lots of “serious” games (maybe even some of the ones I listed above), which may be accused of being boring, simplistic, or worse at conveying their overall point than a book or article on the same subject. (I would counter that games should not try to be like articles or books, but more like paintings, where being simple and straightforward isn’t such a big deal. I would also caution that it’s possible to engage serious subject matter while maintaining a sense of humour.) Conversely, when political operatives try to make use of games–rather than game developers trying to portray current events–this also runs the risk of coming off as condescending, tin-eared and trite. For example, the Clinton campaign made use of a “game-style app” called Hillary 2016 that Teen Vogue described as like “FarmVille but for politics”.

But I don’t think this is a bad way to approach politics because they used a game–it’s a bad way to approach politics because it avoids addressing constituents and answering simple policy questions. It betrayed a valuing of data over people that so many find bloodlessly reptilian about tech evangelism. Also, Christ does it sound boring.

A politically meaningful use of interactive art could mean the creation of workshops for marginalized communities, similar to the Skins Workshop for indigenous kids run by AbTec, a research network based in Montreal. Or, it could mean the kind of partnerships like the one Subaltern Games had with Jacobin to promote their game No Pineapple Left Behind, thereby using games as yet another way to engage people about issues like colonialism and capitalism in the global south. I’ve personally become recently involved with the Montreal collective behind Game Curious, an independent annual gaming showcase and workshop that seeks to bridge the gap between the medium, non-gamers, and radical activist groups organizing around real-world political struggles.

  • Initiative for Indigenous Futures | Workshops: Bringing Aboriginal Storytelling to Experimental Digital Media 
    The Skins workshops aim to empower Native youth to be more than just consumers of new technologies by showing them how to be producers of new technologies.
  • Subaltern Games | Jacobin sponsorship
    “We are proud to announce that we will be collaborating with Jacobin Magazine to help promote our upcoming game, No Pineapple Left Behind. […]
    Jacobin will tell all of the leftists about our upcoming Kickstarter campaign (even YOU). They are also providing copies of their book Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook as backer rewards.”
  • Game Curious | Are you game curious?
    “Game Curious Montréal is a free, 6-week long program all about games, for people who don’t necessarily identify as “gamers.” Sessions are two hours long and will provide an introduction to a wide variety of games, as well as open discussions and group activities, in a zero-pressure, beginner-friendly environment.”

Likewise, mainstream gaming symbolism can be subverted toward leftist messaging–the appropriation of famous imagery or characters for “bootleg” leftist art could be a means for engaging youth culture and kids. Even having something like a YouTube channel or Twitch stream to engage young people on their interests from a left perspective could help shape healthier, more progressive perspectives. And, although the use of incubators and game jams are not inherently radical, and in many ways benefit the industry by training new exploitable workforces, there’s still no reason we can’t sometimes use some version of them for social and teaching events in the future.

Why should we use games to engage and give voice to people, when other art forms exist? Click To Tweet

There remains the question of why we should use games when we can use any other art form–and especially literature–to engage people on ideas and give exploited or marginalized communities more tools for making themselves heard. My answer may not be satisfying, but it’s this: why not?

I want to use all of these tools and more. I want to use whatever’s available to me and whatever works. I want to go wherever there’s movement and culture, and especially where there’s a mass of alienated, unorganized young people looking for an alternative. I see no reason to leave that on the table, or to throw fledgling modes of expression to people who post videos of themselves drinking a gallon of milk to prove their manhood and long for the Fatherland to cleanse itself in the blood of the degenerate races, or the corporations that love them.

Of course it means more to me because it’s my regrettable industry and subculture, and I don’t blame anyone if they read this and still can’t find it in themselves to give a shit. Still, these cultural properties aren’t going away, so we might as well engage with them. More than that, we can make good on the promise of so many oleaginous tech disruptors that Gaming is revolutionary in how it makes possible different and exciting new worlds. Isn’t a new world what we want?


The Gamer Trump Trope

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Labour issue examples

  • Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, The Guardian
  • Chinese university students forced to manufacture PS4 in Foxconn plant, Forbes

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Otto von Bismarck, Wikiquote

Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), was a German aristocrat and statesman; he was Prime Minister of Prussia (1862–1890), and the first Chancellor of Germany (1871–1890).

Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.
Politics is the art of the possible.

Interview (11 August 1867) with Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck of the St. Petersburgische Zeitung: Aus den Erinnerungen eines russischen Publicisten. 2. Ein Stündchen beim Kanzler des norddeutschen Bundes. In: Die Gartenlaube (1876) p. 858 de.wikisource.
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An archaeologist with a background in Russian literature and culture, Owen Vince's current research and writing interests are in; urbanism, architecture, video games, and capitalism (and, often, the interrelationships between these).

In September 2001, William Basinski began a project that would later become known as ‘the disintegration loops’. The avant-garde composer accumulated a number of earlier recordings that had been made on magnetic tape, and began the process of transferring them to a digital format. The tape, however, had already begun to disintegrate; as it passed through the tape head, the ferrite began to erode and fall apart. Basinski played the tapes, on repeat, allowing them to deteriorate over time, with each repeated playing. This introduced gaps, distortions, truncations, adding new and unexpected textures to the original composition.

But he could not have predicted the significance of the September 11th morning on which he finished the project. On that day, Basinski completed the recording and went to his rooftop, from where he watched the dual masses of the World Trade Center buildings disappear in smoke, and eventually collapse. It seems, from a gloomy and removed perspective, that the collapse was not by any means a single event, but a collapsing that set in motion other collapsings. It defined the trajectory of a generation, pre-determining everything from defence spending and European Union immigration quotas to public road signage and TV commissions. And these echoes of construction through disintegration (albeit, a kind of negative construction) came to a head.

Over the past year, gaming has attempted to drag itself from the barbaric shadow of Gamergate, in which colleagues and friends were sent into hiding, where the submersion of paranoia into everyday society had become so total that an entrenched community – under a false flag of ethics – aggressively defended the indefensible position of rejecting the creation of new and different games, and denied all attempts at their historicisation. I watched all of this unfold from Turkey. I watched as fighter jets tore across the immersive blue sky. I saw trunk roads that, plunging toward Syria, bore no traffic. In a store they said “you can’t buy Aleppo soap any longer”. The soap vats are empty. I saw two towers collapsing; an industry tear itself to shreds.

I wondered if it was any good attempting to grasp something of this crisis, this “rhizomatic” modernity where “any point” of the rhizome, of this complicated and self-involved structure, “can be connected to any other, and must be”. This intensification of crisis and commodification has given, somehow, new life to the creating of new “weird” games, as Zolani Stewart has argued. So how do we write about them, and how do we inject that writing and thinking into our present, and cast it toward our futures in an epoch of sustained crisis and uncertainty?

William Basinski handles magnetic tape
Photograph 0f William Basinski by Peter J Kierzkowski


If “weird” games celebrate their own lack of finality, their own brokenness, should we break our writing too? These games, and our playing of them, are a kind of expressive, emotive spectacle which doesn’t shut down when we press “quit”. It isn’t separated from our writing. Reviews create false dichotomies (game : text, experience : reflection). So how do we break (away from) and re-integrate them, as a kind of process?

Disintegration implies the unexpected transformation of a base compound, of a once-coherent unit, into a newly emergent form. That form might be toxic (decaying elements produce radiation), or positive. For Basinski, the fact of the tapes’ decay generated a sweeping and mournfully beautiful repositioning of them. It was unexpected, and added to the original object while taking away from it. But, as a loop,  it also always came back to it.

A black, stone walkway leads forward towards a fractured wall made of floating cubes, silhouetted against a sky at dawn
Img 1: Screen from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary

Recently, Stephen Bierne suggested that games criticism is rarely understood as a craft in its own right. That it receives a ‘bad press’, and that its detractors – there are many – argue that it ‘ruins’ games, or that (perhaps worse), it is irrelevant. Designers might argue that critics understand poorly how games are actually made (the, ‘how can you judge art if you can’t paint?’ argument). Others suggest that it has projected unrealistic social and political commentary onto the surface of the games, or that it has injected too much personal anecdote into its practice. I’m not going to address and criticise these complaints point by point. I think they’re quite dull, and unenlightening. But I want to suggest that games criticism – in tearing apart games, in performing deconstruction, in addressing and anatomising – is a productive, albeit destructive, act. It locates games in their critical, social, and aesthetic milieux. It says: culture is extended by having engaging, often difficult, conversations about artistic form and practice. It is GPS. It is a smoke signal – a flare among the ice.

But I want to go further. I want to say that the destruction of the source material is usually only rhetorical. We don’t actually jigsaw, melt, or decay the base compound away from its original size, or form, or identity, but we could do that, and it may be equally revealing, even if problematic. Maybe it would help us better understand what a game might be doing, and how it might be doing this, in a time of growth and ambivalence in the games community, and at a moment of intense historical anxiety for us as a whole.


I keep a scrapbook of architectural collages. My hope is that a few years down the line, I’ll actually be an accredited urban designer in the real world. For now, I get a lot of insight and inspiration from taking photographs of buildings, film stills of architecture, screenshots of buildings in games, and collaging them together. I use a broadly ‘constructivist’ method, as used by Italian architect and illustrator, Aldo Rossi, among many others (see gallery above). It is a humble sort of scrappy practice. I enjoy it.

Recently, something unusual happened. I was using my partner’s cheap HP 301 printer, and was running off a series of screengrabs from freeware games. I was doing it in a hurry, because we were heading out. The printer was running dry of colour. After a few false starts I put the image, from Connor Sherlock’s Sanctuary (Img. 1) through the printer, and what came out (Img. 2), was disarming. In an attempt to reproduce the image as well as possible, the printer had inverted, inaccurately, the image’s colours. What was looming, coherent and black came out in a dusty, powdered turquoise-blue. Its outline, once a shimmering, necrotic band, was a deeper waving line of green. The background, rather than being ominous, was calm, even placid. Like raspberry juice spilt in a glass of milk. It was not the original image. It was different, beautiful, and more importantly, accidental. In the process of extracting, or in Bierne’s term, “deferring” the game away from itself, I had created something unexpected that, regardless, still referred back to it.

This isn’t simply an aesthetic consideration – it doesn’t just look good. I think it offers two things; (a) a commentary on what exactly (or beautifully inexactly) games criticism is doing and; (b) a unique artistic practice that enables us, as critics, as ‘responders’, to extend the kinds of forms that we use to respond to games. It is to locate ‘games criticism’ outside of writerly practice, to annexe other arts that can influence, invest, and reimagine it. But we’ll always have writing. After all, that’s what I’m doing here, in order to frame the work.

new4Img 2: The distorted print-out

So how does my unexpected, disintegrated image refer back to the original game?

Sanctuary is an ominous, architecturally interesting, and very affective piece of design. I already knew, before the disintegrated image was made, that Sanctuary was about finding security and protection within a hostile environment. It conveys this using the architecture of the actual sanctuary building, a sort of church-like dark assembly that is lateral more than vertical, and squats beneath the big, dangerous sky. But I hadn’t yet thought about how particular emotional and affective responses were generated by that contrast between danger and safety. It’s a walking simulator/horror, so already we know that it’s going to put us in this kind of strange place, and it’s going to be like Suspiria (shown below) and Italian horror film. It’s also about encountering buildings – architectural forms – in a landscape.

The atmospheric and environmental emergence of the central built form, as it appears from behind the dark forest, has an alluring inevitability to it. Despite the gyrating terror of the experience, with its whip cracks of thunder, we can imagine an arc of inevitable and flexible progression by which we will ultimately end up, safely, within the sanctuary. This is quite an optimistic idea, but I hadn’t thought about how that relief was articulated, and how it plays on the psychological shock that what is protective is also necessarily ominous, and shares its qualities.

High-angle shot of a white, black and red room with a striking abstract mural on the ground. A person with white skin and long brown hair wearing a pink dressing gown appears to be running into the room from a forked stairway.
Screencap from Suspiria (1977) Director Dario Argento

We realise that the looming bleak form of the sanctuary building is simultaneously protective, but also worrying. Its mass, scale, and darkness are threatening because we cannot make it out against the storm. But the disintegrated image, in blurring the cube shapes (outside of the sanctuary) into the building’s framework/body (that which surrounds and protects you), makes you realise that actually they exist on the same plane, and are made of the same surface texture. It neutralises the cubes. We realise that our relief stems from this manipulation of perspective by which we find safety and comfort in a building that is exactly the same as the cubes. Our relief is in the act of neutralisation, that we can move our ‘body’ and perspective in the game so as to disappear and reappear the cubes. We can create and diminish them by how we stand, within the sanctuary, and look out onto the storm.

This is even more important because, to ‘end’ the game, you actually have to interact with a sort of ‘Alpha cube’ – boss cube – that normalises the world. That cube is contained inside a dark building. It is part of it, and to ‘resolve’ the game – to reach its end state – you have to interact with it. The earlier perspective-shift of cubes + sanctuary building had alluded to this. It was the architecture telling us what to do, what to anticipate.

Without the disintegrated image, I would not have understood how the interrelationship between ‘place of safety’ and ‘objects of fear’ produces our relief – how it structures it, and how it is manifested, and made real, through our gaze. The attractive way the image turned out also confirmed how dependent a game’s atmospherics are on its arrangement of architectural space, and the kinds of lenses and gazes that it affords us to perceive and encounter them. This felt, in a very small way, like the maturation of an industry that I first came into contact with when I was still a child.

But playing a game is always already a mesh of responses and reactions which defer away from the object, before coming back to it. You don’t have to be an ‘art critic’ to appreciate that. It is inherent to the playing process. Sure, some games are more likely to activate a greater number of points of reference, contrast, and connection, but the art critic doesn’t have some inherently privileged capacity that a non-critic does not. For Michael Benson (and he’s talking about abstract expressionism), “these responses mobilize the past in the present and, by so doing, open lost or buried currents or constellations to investigation and narration”. More than this, it isn’t just about re-recovering, but also emergent generation: about creating entirely new responses to that encounter. Maybe a realisation about architectural perspective (as above), or an idea for a photograph, a design reference for furniture, or a sketch that you might want to undertake. Thinking about games also spawns new games – it creates at least the potential for cascade, for influence.

So I followed that thread. I’m not Basinski, or Connor Sherlock. But I wanted to run with that disintegration a little longer. I started to unpackage and extend my thoughts beyond play.

A games criticism that takes a hard look at itself in the mirror, creating and demanding new things. Click To Tweet


With my responses to Sanctuary, I tried to pursue a strategy of accident and continuity. The initial image remains the focal point, but I also wanted to radiate outwards from that original, the ‘accident’, toward forms and images that sprung to me as a result of that initial realisation. An aggregate of response through which I was continually trying to work out what ‘sanctuary’ means, and how buildings and design make us ‘feel’.

Everything I was doing was to recreate those conditions of the relationship between chaos and serenity which Sanctuary itself embodies. I wanted to explore some of the relationships between form, light, line, and mass; to examine shadow and the visual trick by which cube-material becomes coincident (made safe) with sanctuary-material. So I made a negative collage (Img. 3); an amalgam of cutaway and negative fragments, shorn remnants, of the process of creating the actual positive collage, because, Sanctuary works by appealing to the cutaway, and to how negative and positive spaces shape how we visually encounter masses in the (game) world. It helps us to stop treating “graphics” as something that, in a two dimensional way, simply “looks good”. We want to ask why, and treat the designer as a designer, an artist, an architect.

An angular, layered construction of white paper
Img 3: Collage of collages

A lot of my thinking about Sanctuary was architectural; as in, how space and form are organised in the level design. These aren’t just aesthetic considerations, but formal ones; the creation of a sanctuary is enabled by the security of a built form that covers you, but also the kind of ‘dissolving perspective’ that you have, from inside the sanctuary, which enables you to manage your gaze of the ominous cubes.

I used folded paper on a white paper surface; the ‘architecture’ was made of negative cutaways made from the original collaging. They were accidental structures, which I used to create baked shadow (the soft-edged, dissolving kind you see below), so as to understand how shadow and form can interrelate and inform one another. It just struck me that the game was all about these ‘impossible architectures’, these peculiar and deranged shapes which – regardless of their aggressiveness (they are blade-shaped) – create more comforting profiles in terms of how shadow is cast, and light interrupted. By creating architectures that stem from the game’s architectures, I was trying to map the game and its effects into a kind of practice. Bringing it into my hands.

Img. 4: Re-Sanctuary 2 – baked shadow forms (light)


Img. 5: Re-Sanctuary 3 – baked shadow form (dark)

The final manipulation (Img. 6) involved a more straightforward manipulation of gradient, contrast and brightness. I decayed the image by ramping up the contrast, so as to ‘cloud’ and rough the forms and their appearances in space. This softening, or contortion, dispels the more cuboid and organised assemblies of the original level design, but also hints at its verticality and organisation. My white-line triangles were intended to convey the shaping of perspective that looking at the ominous outside, from within the sanctuary, entails. Our gaze is drawn upwards, making the most of what its perspective disappears and reveals. Again, it enables another visual clue that the ‘solution’ to the environment is actually to be found in the cubes, because our sense of architectural sanctuary is coincident, materially, with it. Just as we have power to see and unsee the cubes using the architecture, we can also control the activity of the cubes in the game world. To prevent the disaster that threatens to destroy it. It demonstrated the idea that we have a “gaze” inside of a game, and that space plays a crucial and complex way in which we “feel” within particular areas. It breaks the game away from feelings of action and reward toward something actually more human, more embodied.

Img. 6: Re-Sanctuary 4 – contrast form w/ perspective


I’m not claiming that my interpretations of the game’s design and aesthetic are definitive or should supplant the original (!). I’m saying that it’s good to think about, and that deconstructive or disintegrative responses to artworks such as games can push our minds in unexpected, explorative directions, and reconnect us with the fact that games are always enjoyment and reflection, always personal. Doing this kind of disintegration work helped me to think about atmosphere, architectural narrative, and formal level organisation in the game. Of how these are generated and sustained in both the act of play and the resulting process of thinking about that play. My work helped me to blur the line between experience and form, and to think beyond the tropes of “Graphics”, “Story”, “Mechanics”, “Sound”. They helped me to understand the kind of artificial embodiment which happens in playing a game, and how space doesn’t just imply where we can and cannot “go”, but how we feel about being there in the first place. It reinserted the person, and evacuated the “Player”.


Basinski’s loops extend across four CDs, and hours of content. I doubt I have fully listened to all of it, because I have not always listened with an open ear. I retrace the loops and explore them, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s probably the point, because this transposition is exactly what gave first breath to the composition that later became known as The Disintegration Tapes.

Disintegration explains the idea that art criticism and, in this case, games criticism, presents a kind of explorative data-bending in which the ‘object’ is received both into a culture and by individual who constitutes a part of that culture. Disintegration is what happens when the magnetic tape of the object’s composition – its basic state – wraps around and through a played experience. “Deferral” implies a looking away, or a passing on of responsibility. In fact, isn’t it better understood as a kind of absorption? The object is transformed, either rhetorically or literally, and so dispersed. Like I said above, a lot of this comes from the refusal of traditional writing modes to fully implicate themselves, messily, in the contexts and complexities from which games emerge, politically, emotionally, aesthetically.

We saw this position angrily rejected during Gamergate, as we have seen the hype and commercialization of the industry at large. Fear of context and fear of close, messy reading alike, and fear of diverse gaming communities, mean that most review writing treads water in the same stale categories. Locating criticism outside of this framework necessarily entails risk and ambivalence, but we should be okay with this; okay with it because this can be generative in its own right. It can create and establish new connections. Spark new thoughts. Without that printer malfunction and my subsequent screwing about with the images, I wouldn’t have come to certain conclusions about how space works in the Sanctuary.

By annexing the game and your response to it into the same, ambivalent space, you’re doing something quite radical. It frees both the game and the response from commodification and potentially oppressive, reductive frameworks. Surely this is a better way to think about writing and responding, and helps us – like the mass of contextualised, personal, engaging writing regularly curated by Critical Distance, for example – to begin to escape the false ideology of a commercial and anti-personal, anti-historical lens through which we “engage” with games. Not afraid to be clever; not afraid to say “I don’t know”. Not afraid to refuse to give a game a score. Capitalism is crisis; so writing in capitalism necessitates that crisis is transformed into construction. Into the uncertain certain of grabbing writing and thinking back from its jaws.

Of course, I’m not arguing for some superposition in which all criticism is reduced to a point of utter subjectivity – an “anything goes” scenario. I think there are stable, and more coherent, lenses and arguments which you can read through a game – especially when those games are thought about within their social and political contexts. We can talk about the formal arrangement and effects of level design; we can talk about game mechanics; we can talk about dissonance and story and politics; we can talk about the presence and “presencing” of the body; we can talk about gender and its articulation; we can talk about oppression; we can talk about reward and reward systems. (And so on.  I don’t want to disappear down the rabbit hole. My practice depends on not falling down the rabbit hole. There’s always got to be a promise that we can surface again.)

What this kind of disintegration does is deepen and expand the possible reactions and responses that we have to art objects, to games. It creates a manifold of new arrangements and lenses by which we can peer at, criticise, applaud, challenge, and reimagine a particular object; mediating how we receive it into our culture(s). After all, writing isn’t an inherent practice. It isn’t neutral.

I believe we can both say and do things – writing and collage, for example – that interact with one another in ways that ‘pull apart’ a work of art so as to see it more clearly and more coherently. Messy play with paper and digital manipulation helped me to better understand how mass, perspective, light and architectural narrative were serving the more atmospheric and ‘metaphysical’ arguments that Sanctuary, as a game, is making. But they also create practices and new objects that can of themselves be quite cool to look at and think about.

At the end of the day, after the critical work is done, the game is still there. Still whole. Click To Tweet


An article by Steven Cottingham recently described the idea that art criticism is maybe one hundred years behind its practice, and that the convention of mass art criticism – the jargonistic, posturing, and ultimately hollow language we’ve become used to sprayed in Helvetica on gallery walls – is tied so absolutely to Late Capitalism as to make it self-eating. Games criticism has its own bugbears, and has had its own peculiar, concentrated evolution – a lot of the best games writing is a rejection of the formula of review writing that is focused on aggregate scoring and commercial viability. It’s writing being done about race, gender, landscape, and narrative (etc!) on platforms like Twitter, wrapped up and read-over through useful things like Storify.

When disaffected arts writers shit-talk the domination of “artspeak”, you can also say that a lot of games writers are also disaffected, and have been doing a lot to break the mould, to be representative, and to think about producing a new writing and curation of games responses. Aren’t Let’s Plays a kind of conceptual approach that blasts apart the muck of wordage and revision and editing which refines writing, and opens it out into the concentrated albeit expansive moment of speech? LPs locate games ‘writing’ ahead of language, and prioritise effect. It fulfills just something of what Jane Rendell has called a “site-writing”, as an arts criticism that “puts the sites of engagement with art first”, above the act of writing. Acts like this.

I’m still an arts critic. I still want to write, for a vast number of personal and social reasons. But I also want to make a space for disintegration – the transformative action on an object – to occupy a distinct edge to my practice as a writer, and to let it reflect back onto it. I think that collage practice and print-art can offer a way (for me) to think about scenography and architecture, about how games and level design generate particular effects on us. If nothing else, they provide prompts for thinking, and avenues for pursuing otherwise hazy ideas. Games writing – as curatorial sites such as Critical Distance evidence – is becoming increasingly diverse, but the freeware and diverse games we celebrate, and the alternative perspectives and readings around AAA games that we attempt to assert, have been at risk as we come to realise simply how big and complex is the games industry – ranging from elite vulgar apartments to the small, cold, rented rooms I’ve so often found myself playing from. Between vulgarity and precariousness. So we create, and play, and talk about play, in ways that are sensitive to that fragmentation, to that ambivalence.


Beirne, Stephen. ‘How Game Criticism is Like Cooking a Roast Chicken Dinner’ Normally Rascal, 2015
Quick, Genevieve. ‘Art Writing’Temporary Art Review, 31 March 2014
Brenson, Michael. Acts of Engagement: writings on art, criticism, and institutions, 1993 – 2002. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
Rendell, Jane. Site-Writing: the architecture of art criticism. I.B. Taurus, 2010

Nathan T. Dean is a writer, artist and theatre practitioner based in Lincoln, UK. Taking inspiration from new weird, postmodernism, his own existential crises, and a bank of literary interests, Nathan strives to create novels, plays and pieces that tackle the absurd and uncomfortable.

“This century’s art should be about connection, people to people communication without cultural gatekeepers and about the authentic voice that speaks from experience.” – Barry Hale, Frequency Festival Organiser

I’m stood in an enclosed space of Lincoln Castle, listening to children squeal in delight, men and women discussing a visual display amorphous and swirling about them amid crashing noises, and watching a grand 3D projection right before my eyes. Margaret Thatcher blurs and warps into King Richard, as temples fall, civilisations clash, people are imprisoned and set free; this is seeper’s (2015) contribution to The Frequency Festival, a projection exploring the scope of human freedom, displayed against Lincoln Castle’s walls, directly connecting the past to the present to the future. The Castle is historically and politically significant not just to the people of Lincolnshire but also of the world; to  include in the piece the destruction of King Richard – who opposed the Magna Carta, a document which gave birth to American Independence, property rights, and freedom as we recognise it today – through the medium of light projection, narrative and art, was a perfect metaphor and conclusion to a festival celebrating collaboration and accessibility within the art collective.


  • Showreel for Seeper’s work in 2015
  • seeper 3- Credit John Bennett

    Seeper installation in Lincoln Castle for Frequency Festival – John Bennett, 2015
  • seeper 6 - Credit John Bennett

    Seeper installation in Lincoln Castle for Frequency Festival – John Bennett, 2015

  • seeper 2 - Credit Benjamin Kidd

    Seeper installation in Lincoln Castle for Frequency Festival – Benjamin Kidd, 2015

Seeper is an interactive and digital art studio based in London that creates installations for major brands.

The theme of this year’s (2015) Frequency Festival was liberation, a resonant yet complex topic in the 21st century. “Frequency’s primary role is to present art to new audiences in Lincoln in a way that complements the city’s image of its past and its ambitions for its future. [It] presents a high-quality, no-barriers festival platform for celebrating the county’s talent and for building creative, collaborative and professional networks” says Barry Hale, festival organiser.

It is no accident that the terms “platform” and “networks” are metaphors borrowed from web 2.0; the interplay between art and technology is one of the main driving forces behind the “liberation” that Frequency celebrates. Opening up this interrelation between gaming culture, the indie mentality, and the arts world, creates a collaborative atmosphere. By breaking down these barriers between different creative microcosms, the Frequency Festival inspires accessibility and, most importantly, interdependence between fellow artists.

The artistic pieces across the city thrived in their interactions with the architecture of the city; the heritage sites and the new builds, the future and the past. They emulate and interact with the theme, but the most crucial element is not necessarily the individual pieces, but the holistic bringing-together of audiences, creators and landscapes of Lincolnshire; it is about the structures and systems in place that connect people to art, and the way we support artists creatively and economically.

co_LAB at the Web We Want Festival

co_LAB’s participation was a continuation of a project inspired by the anniversary of the Magna Carta. They had run an intensive workshop which brought together students from Film and Media, Computer Science and Psychology and developed an exhibition as part of the Web We Want Festival at the Southbank Arts Centre, London. This exhibition formed the basis for their installations at the Frequency Festival in Lincoln.

Arts economies

As a self-published novelist and dramaturge, I am interested in the crucial relationship between conventional funding opportunities, the price of the book, and surviving like the Punks and Beats of before. It is an unavoidable element of artistic cultural expression.

The tension between communication and consumption was demonstrated in the work curated for the festival. co_LAB’s piece asked the audience to speak about how they viewed the internet – arguably the freest space in the world right now – and how it can remain a liberating space for humanity. Squidsoup transformed the shopping centre into an artistic space, creating a bridge between the ordinary shopping day and the expressiveness of the festival. And Shun Ito, with his piece Cosmic Birds, introduced one of the simplest and most important elements of the arts: discussion, debate, ‘what is this, and why is it so gorgeous.’

The artist’s primary struggle is being able to communicate to an audience. The reality is that the independent sphere of artistic curation is stunted; the budgets are not available, the support structures are not always evident, and the work gets lost in a sea of Kickstarter rewards and blog posts. And when you have to find alternative means of income to support your true vocation, it is often difficult to find the space and time to push your work out into the throngs to be found, especially when so many others are doing the same. For all these economic and community based issues the artist faces, The Frequency Festival puts up a good fight to circumvent and alleviate those stresses.

Cosmic Birds, Shun Ito

  • Shun Ito, 2015
  • Cosmic Birds 1 - Credit Benjamin Kidd

    Benjamin Kidd, 2015
  • Cosmic Birds 2 - Credit Benjamin Kidd

    Benjamin Kidd, 2015

  • Cosmic Birds 3 - Credit Benjamin Kidd

    Benjamin Kidd, 2015

Shun Ito’s “Cosmic Birds” was diplayed at Chad Varah Chapel for the Frequency Festival. Ito has been creating kinetic sculptures since 2001, using light and movement for aesthetic effects inspired by his study of dance.

Liberated arts organising

Uzma Johal, Barry Hale, and their team aim to occupy two architectures: firstly, the city itself, and what it represents; and secondly, the arts, the metaphysical/spiritual/economic architecture of artistic expression that helps and educates humanity. Though the project is exemplified by placing digital art directly on the stonework of a place renowned for its connection to liberty, they nevertheless face a difficult challenge in creating this framework for one and all.

The entire event coincided with the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. The document, created in 1215 despite King Richard’s opposition, rebuilt the structure of British politics. No longer could the Royalty dictate to their whims; now the people held the rights to their land, their beliefs, and their futures. The formation of the Magna Carta opened up new pathways for our concepts of liberty, but we are by no means in a utopia of liberty today. The spirit of King Richard still lingers. The Frequency Festival, as I said, faces a difficult challenge in supporting individualism and the economics of the artistic sphere. They recognised the constant struggle between freedom of expression and authoritarian suppression, and it was this awareness that allowed the Festival to function as well as it has.

Some systems currently in place that support the arts are fragile and underdeveloped. Powerhouses such as Saatchi & Saatchi ushered in a commercialisation of the arts, and further added to a sense of elitism. With university cutbacks and ever-fluctuating changes in funds, the arts and humanities are continuing to become fields of interest only for a specific range of individuals, which could be boiled down with those with money or those who don’t care about such things. This is something arts producers like Threshold Studios, and artists like Nick Driftwood are trying to change, or at least subvert. They do not subscribe to the idea that art is simply a status symbol for an upper echelon of the rich. They are firmly grounded in the communicative power of the arts, and thus build systems that work toward the goals of that ideology, rather than toward the goal of making a buck out of the art market.

In some ways, Hale and Driftwood’s work is comparable to the Altgames movement, a DIY approach to cultural production. Both have a connection to Punk, a musical and artistic movement of the 1970s promoting free expression, interconnectivity and a breakdown of social hierarchies . “I grew up during punk where the philosophy was go buy a guitar and start a band and there was very little separation between those on stage and those in the audience. That’s come round again”, says Driftwood, who seems to imbue his work with this sentimentality. If it has come around again, should we be concerned about the same commercialisation of punk occurring again in new media art forms? As much as Frequency Festival revels in how it supports its artists, if it continues to grow in success will it too have to cede to a bigger picture in which free expression may not be at the top of the agenda?

“Art is not a commodity, but a language that everyone has the right to speak” Click To Tweet

This gives me hope that they will continue to focus on building a framework for artists that resists the pull of commercialisation.

ROAD promotional video

Nick Driftwood is a digital artist and videographer who works with soundscape designers to experiment with a sense of place. From the official website: “ROAD is an immersive non–linear screen work for public spaces that is inspired by the relationship between freedom and technology.”

On the ROAD

It seems logical to appropriate the Punk Mentality – alongside individualism, grassroots, community funding – when trying to break down the elitism within the arts. Driftwood’s piece ROAD, a visual and musical piece, is philosophically related to the idea of the freedom of the roadtrip, the American dream, and – most importantly to me – the Beat Generation, who I’d argue were some of the freest literati of contemporary times. Whilst I observe my image of Lincoln Castle destabilising under seeper’s 3D mapped projections, I also witness the barrier between audience and the arts collapse, letting Beat-Thought, Punk-Freedom and creativity flourish. They are creating a new architecture, moving away from defined roles, and into a playful space of sharing and communication. Barry Hale explains it perfectly: “art speaks most effectively when it engages with the beliefs, the questions and the passions of everyone, away from the commercial concerns of arts investors and the machine that serves them.” Yet this machine looms over the creative and humanitarian professions.

Many of the events at the festival are entirely free. Hale explained to me how they try and create an adventurous, explorative atmosphere across the city. Like a well-designed quest system, every event is a leaping-on point for discovering the rest of the artistic exhibits on offer. I began with ROAD at Chad Varah House and then travelled to what is known as The Steep Hill towards the other sights and sounds across the city. I saw parents entertaining their children during the holiday break, overwhelmed consumers decompressing at an installation in the shopping centre, and wild businessmen stumbling across something that connected with them.

Squidsoup, Enlightenment

  • From the Salisbury Cathedral Youtube page: “Squidsoup’s Amazing light installations reflect on the values and legacy of Magna Carta.”
  • Squidsoup - Credit Benjamin Kidd

    Benjamin Kidd, 2015

Squidsoup is an international group of artists, researchers and designers (UK/NO/NZ) working with digital and interactive media.


However, the machine that looms over artists whirrs on. How can we support a playful, interactive, multi-demographic arts & humanities, when it doesn’t make any money? The answer might be to see what happens systemically when the city is made into a playful space. 17,000 people came to view the festival. 800 visitors a day came into the Waterside Shopping Centre. At the launch party I learnt many of the hotel spots in the city were fully booked, aggravating German tourists who could not find a place to stay; each of those visitors spent money in cafes, local shops, the scene that is Lincoln that exists with or without the festival. This new, enlightened, for-the-people, by-the-prosumer approach to artistic funding and growth does benefit the community. The artists are given space and room to breathe. The physical architecture of the city drives the construction of the festival, and this drives the audience not just from artist to artist, but from site to site, driving economic activity across the city.

“You hear a lot about how tough things are for the arts at the moment and that’s true.  There have been big cuts in public funding for the arts and that affects not just people creating work but also venues and festivals who present it. There is also the impact of digital distribution and it is hard for creators of anything digital to make money from their work. But there are good reasons to be optimistic.  Audiences are growing hungry for new experiences and for being part of something.  The tools for making and sharing work are getting better and cheaper.” – Nick Driftwood

The festival was a physical expression of a kind of Punk mentality: ‘come together and be a part of something, and maybe we can make something grow’; this only functions with belief, a belief that needs to permeate contemporary culture or the arts will suffer. If everyone can create, everyone needs space. If everything is cheap, does this devalue the finished product? If there is no budget to begin with, how does anyone create? The Frequency Festival shows, within the microcosm of Lincoln, how it could be possible for the macrocosm of the international art economy to evolve. ROAD showed how relatively accessible technology and a free spirit can create a piece inspiring that innate need for adventure. Practical and artistic needs are both supported in the festival, and by utilising the interconnectivity found in our prosumer future, the Festival exemplifies how the economy thrives naturally when people work together. Rather than trying to fund collaboration – rather than seeing it as a cash injection into the arts – we should see the arts as a functioning system that money can move easily around in.

Across the world people are creating experiences within the arts focusing on expression, community and collaboration, to combat “a hierarchy we should regularly challenge”, as Barry Hale put it: hierarchies in culture, social circles, the arts, the government; hierarchies we accept diligently which, perhaps, slow down our development. The geography and architecture of Lincoln were temporarily appropriated into a space that artists and audience could share, inspired by the ideals of Punk and collaboration — how do we make this happen on a macrocosmic level?


More information about artists featured at Frequency Festival 2015

Note: All infoboxes on artists were embedded into the article by the editor