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

1

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.

2

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

3

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.

new3
Img. 4: Re-Sanctuary 2 – baked shadow forms (light)

 

new2
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.

new6
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”.

4

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

5

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.

Resources

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.

Seeper

  • 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.

Ecosystems

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?

References

More information about artists featured at Frequency Festival 2015

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


A Film and Media Ph.D. candidate, Chris Goetz investigates how users explore the internal world of a videogame using both their own imaginations and the game’s interface to transcend the body and engage in an interactive fantasy.

If we are to believe popular press, then the technology for affordable virtual reality experiences, long thought “just around the corner,” may have finally arrived with the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. But excitement over these and a spattering of similar devices has prompted proponents of virtual reality (VR) videogames to confront a longstanding stumbling block: the need to somehow harness VR’s vague futurism and redirect it to the task of designing actual games in the present.
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The August 2015 Time Magazine VR cover story demonstrates how this redirection implicates more than just games; the many industry voices represented there struggle to stay ahead of the complex ramifications of VR’s expected disruption of the western visuospatial regime. But the problem with games is also unique. While VR mania has generally waned since the 1990s, swept aside by the radical changes in Internet and Web 2.0, a now-dated splinter rhetoric about virtual worlds has stubbornly clung (unchanging) to videogames. Even today, the virtual world paradigm exerts a subtle influence on both games academia and popular press.

For decades, the fact that VR tech was not quite there yet—and likely wouldn’t be for three to five years—acted as cover for hyperbolic proclamations about an imminent future when we would spend more time in cyberspace than in the “real world,” when everyone would simply dwell inside a virtual world where anything was possible. Take a representative print article early in 1990s VR craze:

Lanier and a companion donned helmets, goggles and body suits, switched on and were instantly transported to their newly hatched universe. They experienced the illusion of being in a solid, three-dimensional world…. Other users have described the experience as like being a character inside an animated cartoon. Some have tried just that—being Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny; in virtual reality you can be anyone or anything you like. “You might choose to become a cat,” suggests Jaron Lanier. “You might very well be a mountain range, or a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. Or a piano … I’ve considered being a piano. I’m interested in being musical instruments quite a lot.” (Frith, 1990)

This article demonstrates the common slippage between the novel experience of three-dimensional graphics and the fantasy of immersive virtual reality. There is an important difference between “immersion” in the general sense of any engaging or engrossing activity—certainly many or most games fall into this category—and “immersion” as a narrative “mode of address,” which occludes the space of spectatorships (hidden behind a “fourth wall”) and offers a window onto diegesis, the world of the story.

Videogames, of course, have never been virtual reality. Click To Tweet

They have never generated spaces where one can be or do anything. Their spaces and the actions possible there are constrained by rules and affordances that have been designed and programmed in advance. This fact is never acknowledged in writings about VR, which tend to view all games as “temporarily embarrassed” VR experiences. This teleological attitude is supported by the simultaneous assumption that the point of all games is to offer virtual worlds, or self-contained secondary realities—“cyberspaces.”

While most commercial games do contain fictional settings or characters of some kind, very few games are organized strictly around a make-believe fantasy of dwelling within a separate, virtual world. Videogames offer varied pleasures far in excess of this goal, and sometimes in direct contradiction of it. Games can at times best be understood through the kinetic, embodied, and multisensory action of play. Virtual world discourses construe games as disembodying departures to virtual spaces, leaving our bodies behind. Some games are better understood as puzzles, which have nothing to do with virtual worlds. Even games predicated on the pleasure of exotic transport, as Fuller and Jenkins once argued of Mario games (“Nintendo and New World Travel Writing”), which have a virtual world component (visiting a world apart from your own), do not for that reason rely on textual or diegetic fullness or coherence. These games, I would argue, productively frustrate this desire. Often, games are built around complex reward systems including level-ups, accruing “loot,” or advancing to more difficult stages. Games are just as likely to self-referentially poke fun at their own lack of narrative coherence as they are to try and flesh out every conceivable diegetic detail. Many games tout their narrow scope of meaning: “this is a game about collecting Garfield trading cards” (Garfield Collections).

People who play a lot of games, or who study games, already understand that the point of most games is not to provide a virtual world experience. Even though some games do try to do this, and many games have some virtual world component, which is rarely the sole focus of play. For example, the Dragon Age series presents an immersive story world filled with diegetic characters where players act out the role of a customized avatar. And yet the series is also structured by the extended processes of accruing power, dwelling on player statistics, sorting item and equipment menus, leveling up, the tension of spatial exploration, and agonistic conflict and bodily combat. The discontinuities to immersive, 3-D optical perspective entailed by these other elements of gameplay complicate and exceed the virtual worlds paradigm.

And yet for many scholarly and cultural commentators gaming is a monolith of virtual worlds. This is especially evident in game studies’ over-emphasis on the few fully fledged virtual worlds games out there (Second Life, The Sims) as if these were somehow representative of games in general. But it is also there in games scholarships’ obsession with the social aspects of hybrid games with a virtual world component, especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The virtual world view is popular across a variety of academic fields, from economics (Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds) and psychoanalysis (Turkle’s Second Selves and Alone Together) to sociology (Taylor’s Play Between Worlds) and, of course, theater and performance studies (Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck). And the virtual world is a stock image in the pop-cultural imaginary, which represents games as separate worlds where anything is possible and players retain full bodily articulation and control. This can be seen as early as the 1982 movie, Tron (or 1984 novel, Neuromancer and its progeny), and more recently with The Matrix (1999) or Gamer (2009), as well as with popular television like American Dad (“Virtual In-Stanity,” 2010), Adventure Time (“Guardians of Sunshine,” 2011), and Community (“Digital Estate Planning,” 2012).

While imagining cyberspace futures may be necessary, the prevalence of this conception of videogames has drawbacks. Click To Tweet

First, it tends to force a teleological view onto the history of videogames—that, as virtual worlds, all games are assumed to be VR in the making. In this sense, game studies seems to be echoing film studies, which for decades viewed early silent cinema as “pre”-narrative. The earliest films were considered “primitive” and failed attempts at storytelling when studied mid-century, after the establishment of Hollywood’s narrative-continuity system. In 1986, Tom Gunning disrupted film studies by identifying a distinct mode of audience address in those early, pre-1915 films. This was the “cinema of attractions,” which addressed its audience directly through a series of perceptual shocks and thrills, much like vaudeville or the carnival midway, and quite distinct from narrative immersion. A decades-long narrative teleology had masked this other mode of address.

Today a VR teleology pulls videogames into its frustration over the technological limitations of the present—games can only be made sense of as failed virtual worlds. The description of current high-definition VR games as “Pong,which was recently offered by Valve’s Ken Birdwell (“You’re seeing the Pong version. These are early, early days”), is not just an example of VR’s perpetual futurism (Stein, 2015: 45). It also represents a historical teleology which denies Pong (and any other non-VR, non-virtual world game) any meaning of its own. Pick up Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld if you find yourself somehow imputing the notion that 1970s videogames only mattered for the subsequent game development they fostered.

The wishful notion that videogames, as a medium, hail to us from the near future—i.e., are interesting only for what comes next—has perhaps covered over sustained consideration of gaming’s actual address to the player. This seems to be the case for at least a segment of the VR community focusing more on new tech than anything in an actual game. The Time piece says (quoting “a senior researcher at Sony”) of Sony’s VR research “that in the past few months it has gotten the hardware far enough along that the software will now matter more”. The same article suggests that software designers, despite decades to mull over the problem, “are still trying to figure out which types of 3-D games translate well into virtual reality” (Stein, 2015: 44-45). Now that the rubber has hit the road, there seems to be a paucity of wisdom about what games are, what makes them compelling, and what role they should play in the design of VR technology.

A second problem with the virtual world paradigm seems far subtler, but it has serious ramifications. While videogame console manufacturers carefully consider how their console and controllers will fit in the living room, VR proponents recommend emptying a sizeable room of all furniture to free up space for virtual-reality gaming. The erasure of the living room reflects the virtual worlds paradigm’s tendency to ignore the situated context of play. Assuming that games are always only there to immerse us in a separate reality blinds us to how games are “tangled up” with the rest of our lives, how they might even help us make sense of our social and interpersonal selves through play. Approaching games ethnographically as part of a broader project on games ecology—the relation between games and the world around them— Stevens et al (2008) identify and counteract what they call the “separate worlds view” in game studies. This is roughly the idea that videogame play (which is very often “framed in technocentric terms like ‘immersion in virtual worlds’”) “is a world apart from people’s other activities in everyday life” (2008: 43). While these authors only seek to expand the narrow scope of the “separate worlds” view by supplementing it with ethnographic data, I recommend a more direct challenge. Something central to gaming-as-we-know-it actually includes our experiences of the spaces where we play games. The interaction between game spaces and the spaces where we play games is an important part of any game.

But this leads to a final pitfall of the virtual world paradigm—seeing games as “separate,” “virtual” worlds often reveals a moral judgment. Psychoanalytic articles questioning the moral value of videogames, like Lemma (2010), often view a game’s complete separateness from this world as a reason to interpret play as a way to avoid confronting problems in real life—especially as concerns one’s body, which is assumed to be supplanted by the (player-designed) idealized avatar substitute. But seeing gameplay as a waste of time better spent outside the fantasy (in “real life”) reveals a broader moral complaint. Zoya Street (2014) puts it this way: “The ‘real’ in ‘real life’ is not phenomenological, but normative. When someone tries to tell me to ‘join the real world’, I suspect that her concern is not that I am delusional, but that I am failing to live within the proper moral constraints” (2014: 20).

Over-indulgence in videogames is time spent in an inadequate copy of the world we already live in Click To Tweet

Just like seeing games as storytelling devices tends to put them at a disadvantage against principally narrative media—a move that films and television shows are more than happy to make—viewing them as virtual worlds tends to set them up as inferior, a-priori. It also masks what is unique and interesting about them, the very things most likely to help their cause for legitimacy.

So far, I have framed the VR and virtual world problem as a kind of refusal to recognize games: VR is a perpetual deflection toward the future, virtual world is a misrecognition of the present and the past. But the problem could also be stated as a matter of emphasis on hardware, or a conflation of software with hardware. VR is an emphasis on interface at the expense of everything else, and virtual world a slippage that begins with the presentation of three-dimensional computer graphics, but ends with the full articulation of a technologically-mediated fantasy world (the Holodeck). A recent VR article on Pacific Standard ponders: “Sure, these bulky helmets give us a simulation of three-dimensional space directly to our eyeballs. But then what?”:

What virtual reality needs to make it feel, well, real at this point is not new helmets, new screens, and higher resolution. Rather, the medium needs compelling experiences that make a case for why it’s unique and important. The people who are going to make the first acclaimed works of virtual reality aren’t Google engineers, but novelists, artists, and designers ready to work in multimedia. (Chayka 2015)

This is true—except artists and designers have already been working with this “multimedia” technology, and their videogames have proven entertaining, surprising, sometimes inspired. Game designers have had, from the very beginning, to think hardware and software together, and to find something interesting to do within severe constraint.

VR, it is imagined, will affect music distribution and access to live performance (“what its like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert”), virtual fieldtrips for underprivileged classrooms (“field trip in a box”), will result in a reconfiguration of domestic space and furniture (“Sell your dining-room table and eat over your sink… Get a murphy bed”), will change how we tell stories (“storytelling rules of video games don’t work”), will change how we study and understand empathy, (“where people become aged versions of themselves to help them save for retirement”) —and it will be the “final platform” we develop for the circulation and consumption of media (Stein, 42-45). Jaunt’s Jen Christensen is quoted saying VR will make “actual flying cars and jet packs… irrelevant”—not that these technologies have been front and foremost on inventors’ minds in the past several decades. While Hollywood seems to be making the move to the supposedly more immersive 3-D movies, VR is “not necessarily a medium for filmmakers”—James Cameron has recently said he has “no use for it” (Stein 49). The relation between VR and other media technologies seems in tremendous flux, with nobody quite sure how VR will fit in: Mark Bolas has been working on VR since the 1980s, but he has still employed film students to help him “figure out what [to] do with this” technology now that it has finally arrived—the article asserts more generally: “now that the hardware can be made at a price for the consumer market, a lot of people are trying to figure that out” (Stein: 48).
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I argue in a forthcoming publication that the over impossibility of this journey is part of gaming’s nostalgic address to its player.
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Sudnow’s text is well known in game studies for its thorough documentation of the author’s obsession with mastering the Atari game, Breakout (1976), a Pong-like game involving bricks that break when a small ball bounces off them, and which he played at home as a port for the Atari 2600. Sudnow describes the fine-tuning of his muscle memory, the way the game fit in with everyday activities, and the exhilarating emotions stemming from slowly overcoming its challenges. What may today seem like an archaic entry in the history books, or perhaps a simple smartphone game to kill a few idle minutes, was for Sudnow not only an exciting cultural phenomenon but also a matter of prime-time, full-body engagement, like a favorite sport both played and spectated. It was what he looked forward to doing after work, not just on his way home. And it was treated as a nearly inexhaustible text despite not having a diegesis, and being one of the earliest and visually simplistic commercial videogames:

Now I told myself, ‘Concentrate’. I did a little seat squirm, as when entering a freeway on-ramp and you have to hit sixty in a real hurry, peeked up to the band to get the jump on when it was coming, stiffened up and sat on the edge of the chair, and handled one. I missed the follow-up but had returned my first slam. Actually, I got myself in its way.

In a half hour of just ‘concentrating’ I’d refined the instruction. I discovered if I told myself to ‘glue my eye to the ball’ I could start fielding first slams much better and get some of the follow ups as well. For about twenty minutes I sat there mesmerized, tracking the ball like my life depended on it, my entire being invested in the hypnotic pursuit of that pea sized light. Kneading my eyeballs into the guts of its movement like following a guy in a fast crowd where a momentary diversion would lose him, I soon got to a four or five round volley of fast ones. (Sudnow, 1983: 35)

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Works Cited

Castronova E (2008) Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Chayka K (2015) “What Will We Do With Virtual Reality?” Pacific Standard Magazine. http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/what-will-we-do-with-virtual-reality
Frith D (1990) “Lucy in the sky—with Rubies? Not a Problem” Sydney Morning Herald.
Fuller M and Jenkins H (1994) Nintendo and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue. In Jones S (ed) Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Sage Publications, pp. 57-72
Gunning T (1986) The Cinema of Attractions. Wide Angle, 3(4).
Lemma, Alessandra. (2010) “An order of pure decision: growing up in a virtual world and the adolescent’s experience of being-in-a-body.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 58.4 (2010): 691-714.
Murray J (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Stein J (2015) Inside the Box. Time Magazine. 17 August 2015. 40-49.
Stevens R, Satwicz T, and McCarthy L (2008) In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives. In Salen K (ed) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 41-66.
Street, Zoya. Delay: Paying attention to energy mechanics. Rupazero. 2014.
Sudnow D (1983) Pilgrim in the Microworld. Warner Books.
Taylor T (2009) Play Between Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press
Turkle, Sherry. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic books, 2012.