Serious Games

By Daniel Etherington, 10 January 1997

A survey of digital technology-based artworks shown concurrently with Digital Dreams 4

Using the example of how unmoving music 'created with synthesizers or rhythm machines' can be, Tom Sherman extrapolated, 'The missing content in emerging digital technologies is human emotion' (see Mute Issue 6). Sherman went on to suggest that, 'Emotional tone will naturally fill all digital forms over the next decade.' The 'fleshing out' of digital territories he refers to is a live and very apparent process. What is dubious is Sherman's use of 'emotion' as a yardstick for the sophistication of artistic endeavours with digital media. I do not presume Sherman to be implying that worthwhile artistic activity is solely based on the expression of human feeling but the concept of 'emotional content' most certainly needs to be broadened out and assimilated into a larger assumption. The 'fleshing out' that Sherman refers to should instead be read as a process whereby artists are becoming increasingly adept at utilising digital media to do the things that artists are doing in the wider sphere of artistic production. This wider sphere subsumes the Romantic ideal of expressing emotion but more importantly also incorporates contemporary artistic process that is notional, theory-based.

Work shown concurrently with the conference Across Two Cultures: Digital Dreams 4 in Newcastle, UK, in November seemed to indicate that artists are indeed fleshing out digital territories.

However, exhibits also affirmed that some artists are using digital processes as gratuitous ends in themselves. As with any new medium, the initial R&D phase needs to occur wherein the qualities of that medium are felt-out. During this process the art created is likely to be intrinsically concerned with the medium itself; this has certainly been the case with work based on new-technology media - technology and process taking precedent over content or theme. Thankfully this activity is becoming obsolete. However it has highlighted a technology fetishism and a resultant parallel aesthetic where - putting the complex interrelations of medium and content aside for the sake of argument - the hardware and software may have richer qualities than the actual content of the work. Visual artists are now increasingly deploying digital media notionally - the myopia of its 'novelty value' having previously prevented this.

Jeff Noon, the urban British heir to William Gibson, provides a suitable metaphor for the transferral of notional language from more familiar medial territories to digital territories through his use of maps stored purely as digital data deployed by his 'Xcabbers' in Pollen. These maps consist not only of preexisting data, transposed literally, but can also be extended to incorporate fictional streets. In identifying new elements the cab(?) computer declares 'Info is fluttering, driver.' Info is indeed fluttering - artists working with digital processes are operating at the forefront of semantic change and evolution. Existing cultural references are being broken down as more conceptual artistic practices are transposed onto or emerge more fully in digital territories.

I know this'll sound hellish insipid compared with BIT's diatribe in Mute Issue 3 but I enjoyed Osmose, the work of Char Davies and the Softimage team (included in the exhibition 'Serious Games' at the Laing Art Gallery); I also found it thought-provoking and heck, are these two things not perfectly viable results of interaction with an art work? Osmose becomes problematic when one is assailed by the accompanying rhetoric. Davies' intention was to show that 'an alternative is possible', an alternative to both military VR setups or your basic 3D mayhem-gaming arena. Osmose "gives people the experience of heightening perceptions of where the body is in space" by creating a VR interface reliant on breath and balance. Fair enough, but beyond this are reams of further theoretical justification. This rhetoric incorporates predefined ideas of 'nature' that have been ripped to shreds, inverted, convoluted and critiqued to such an extent that they crowd one's perception of Osmose and countermand the work's potential for fleshing out digital territories.

Jane Prophet's Swarm consists of an installation and a related website. Swarm generates simultaneously and paradoxically a Gestalt of society and a reductionist view of individuals, or individuals' individual memories, as distinct parts. One monitor in the installation showed a brain-scan cross-section, the cranial cavity filled with a bees. The bees are analogous to both members of a community and fragments of brain activity (memories, for example). The website - despite the ongoing frustration due to the limitations of bandwidth - provided the neatest playing-out of Swarm's central metaphor. Visitors to the site were encouraged to leave thoughts and memory. The website is perfectly suited to the amalgamation of individuals' thoughts - collected as a concise analogy of the hive mind.

Themes of social interaction or community and the affect of new technologies, are central to a number of other works in 'Serious Games' and 'Ex Machina'. Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming consists of a bed in Zone, Newcastle, and a bed in Camerawork, London. A live link connects the two; telematically the two beds exist in close proximity - a person lying on the bed in London is projected onto the bed in Newcastle and vice-versa. When no-one is on the beds the exercise seems remarkably pointless but when two people reach out for one another's projected images the sensualism is telling. Despite behaviour either consisting of stroking (sexually sensual) or pillow fighting (sexually aggressive) the work succeeds in raising issues of sensuality in a world increasingly structured around digital means of communication - communication devoid of interpersonal physicality. How sexual, or sensual, can the cyborg be? Although all sorts of nonsense is talked about virtual sex, Sermon's installation manages to be both ominous and sensual - forcing an interchange of the senses, vision replacing touch, evoking a central facet of shifts in communication technologies. Susan Collins' Touched and Yoshinori Tsude's Discredit series similarly join the debates about digital sensuality but the engagement is more constrained at the interface between the user/viewer and the technology. Both Collins' projectors and Tsude's tiny monitors (the digital viewfinders of camcorders) are beautiful pieces of technology but reading of the works is confused with the fetishistic aesthetic of the equipment. The works' treatment of sexuality blurs into the gratification offered by the equipment.

Diller + Scofidio's Indigestion in 'Serious Games', shifts the interaction from the bedroom to the dining room. A horizontal monitor, table high and of dining table proportions is the arena for a variety of social interactions. Diller + Scofidio's dissection of society - our mores, domestic arrangements and architecture - forces confrontation with ourselves: 'We are no longer in the system of the panoptican... we are rather in a mode of self-surveillance: we watch ourselves as someone else' (Alice Jardine). Culture's use of digital media is creating an intense acquaintance with ourselves - ranging broadly from the physical imposition of CCTV to the density of analysis of every aspect of experience. This process is a latter stage in the centuries-long conquest and shrinking of the world by emergent technologies, be they Viking navigational aids, jet engines or ISDN links. This shrinking has condensed populations and so forced intimacy. New appraisals of the body have precipitated cultural protagonists to flesh out digital territories with an extended discourse, an aspect of this acquaintance with ourselves.

Harwood's Rehearsal of Memory in 'Serious Games' is a case in point. Working with Ashworth Maximum Security Hospital, Harwood created a computer-based work that creates an anonymous personality based on the experiences of patients. Despite this anonymity Rehearsal of Memory gives voice to marginalised members of society - killers, rapists etc.

Voice recordings and text describe familiar and domestic contexts directly comparable with the viewer's own. These artworks demonstrate this 'self-surveillance', this intimate focus.

Dealing with scientific autocracy and the culturally domineering notions of determinism, Simon Robertshaw's installation The Order of Things questions assumptions of normality, utilising juxtaposed imagery of an autopsy table, a corpse, and, upon further interaction, a psychiatric patient being treated with ECT. The process - the interactive theatricality of the installation - is excellent but the work isn't subtle. Harwood presents issues of psychiatric health through a polemic stance, Robertshaw however, in offering no choices . ECT is presented through imagery informed by precepts of torture, but despite the apparent extremity of the process, 'Controlled trials have shown ECT to be at least as effective as antidepressant drugs... it appears to be the most effective treatment for severe suicidal depression.' (HP Rang & MM Dale, Pharmacology 1995)

Despite Sherman's suggestions, artists are already well-versed in exploiting emotional, even forcibly emotive language through digital media. Certainly the inheritance of video art (most obvious with Robertshaw) has provided certain inroads but alongside this it seems visual artists are currently mastering the semantics of digital territories. Familiar expressive or theoretic means are being transposed successfully and there is evidence that new notional territories are evolving. The time is fast approaching, it seems, when in the words of Charles Esche, 'these new media will also lose their contemporaneity and become part of our conceptual furniture.'

Daniel Etherington

Serious Games: Art for the 21st Century at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 16 Nov - 9 Feb and at the Barbican, London, June 97. Ex Machina, Zone and Camerwork 7 Nov - 22 Dec 96.