Unique, But Familiar: the Personal Island of Proteus

August 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Proteus-Header

Guest Post by Paul King

The sole page of Proteus’ help screen begins “Move with WASD. Look around with the mouse.”

No other controls exist, besides the space bar. Instead of offering a traditional jump, it commands the player’s avatar to sit, peacefully, for as long as they might. The help screen’s final instructions begin with what seems like half of a warning: “Each island is unique, but familiar.”

To move past the title screen and into the game, you begin by clicking the silhouette of a distant island. After fading, the screen opens from a murky black into a gently disappearing elliptical shape, as though you were slowly opening your eyelids. You’ve awoken in what appears to be an endless ocean, a muted sea-green punctuated by the gentle lapping of white reflections. In the distance, you begin to make out the outline of a shrouded landmass. As you trudge towards it, the only anchor in the game’s ceaseless sea, you can practically feel the sunlight of the raincoat-yellow orb shining in the sky.

Everything in Proteus is rendered in a blocky, colorful style that should be familiar to everyone who’s ever seen an early pixelated video game. (Think the “ball” of pong, or the sharp edges of Mario.) But the style isn’t due to a lack of processing power or graphical method; instead, the world’s lack of texture translates into a picturesque canvas of flat colors, almost as though you were gazing directly into a visual interpretation of one of Brian Eno’s ambient tracks.

As you climb onto the shores of your island and walk past the flat browns of tree trunks and across the rolling green hills dotted with single-color flowers and blocks representing dandelions, an ambient soundtrack erupts. These are the changing environs and characters, and your interactions with them feel as though they were entirely up to you.

When somebody completes any video game, they tend to have finished a universal experience. Though the person playing it might have preferred a different gun, or tactic, or motorcycle, their journey is usually one shared by all other players. Certain blockbuster titles, usually role-playing games, offer choice and varied game paths as a selling point. There, you might choose to be a thieving elf that sneaks through danger, or a devil-may-care warrior slaying all in your path. Ultimately, however, the same challenges are present.

Proteus doesn’t exactly offer a challenge. There are no tests of dexterity or hand-eye coordination; there is only your movement through and consideration of the world, your journey. Pass by a stone obelisk and hear a great deep bass noise burst and fade slowly into a background of crickets. Chase a frog and hear its hops become the staccato twang of a distant guitar, or reach a mountainous peak above a plateau of raining clouds and listen to an uplifting crescendo.

Some sound origins are obvious. The crickets cricket, and leaves fall like soft glass. Still, there are other tones I’m uncertain about. Perhaps it was my position on a specific hill, or maybe it was the shadow of a pink-tufted tree.  Proteus’ soundtrack—a constant soothing orchestration of hidden instruments—is only one of the complex machinations behind deceitfully simple visuals.

Each island in Proteus is procedurally generated. Algorithmically, one comes together in a way that is unique, but familiar, placed together by a machine, or equation.

At a certain point, the boxy sun sets and is replaced by the moon. Night arrives, marked by a deep blue and a subdued soundtrack. Slowly, the bright dots of the island’s airspace—be they fireflies, wisps, spots of cotton—swirl and gather, until finally, they culminate in a furious whirlwind at the center of a circle of stones. As you approach it, time speeds up. Clouds and stars race above you, the trees around you begin to shudder and dance. The music, now faster, eggs them on. Enter the circle and soon, the screen fades to white, almost as if signaling an end to your time on the island, a quiet release from the frenzied energy. But then island returns, rewarding a patient moment of darkness in the same way a morning welcomes those just stirring from sleep.

The colors have changed slightly, and the music with it. In the air before you dances a swarm of bees. Above you the calm sphere of the sun now has flaring tendrils, shining down harder than before. Vibrant collections of flowers have sprouted up since you walked into the mystical circle of stones and its swirling puffs.

Proteus-Summer

Usually when a game environment transforms, dangers arrive. Night might reveal prowling tigers, shambling zombies, or some spooky other. Proteus remains peaceful, instead signaling the end of its day and condensed season with frenetic motion. Though you act as a catalyst in the seasonal change by entering that swirling circle, you can’t help but feel a small component of a greater cycle;  a piece in an action that comes from a living, breathing land mass. The whole island, player included, enters a chrysalis and emerges anew.

Often, a game’s digital world exists solely as a static landscape with one-sided interaction. Usually, it is up to us as individual players to act as the experimental component or the dynamic instrument. But though we, as individuals in a programmed world, might be dynamic, we all fulfill the same role. We are the same cog that fits into a developer’s machine, makes it turn linearly through its universal paces. This tends to result in an identical experience for all who play the same game.

There are pieces of Proteus that hint at an identical experience. You awake in an ocean; you climb ashore a distant island; you swirl through the seasons. But since each island is procedurally generated, no two islands or games will ever truly be the same.

At a certain point during my night in Proteus, a white owl appeared in a tree, staring at me before taking off and flying to the next tree; later, I walked towards the crude ruins of a tower to find myself teleported to another crumbling monument.

Proteus-Owl

I learned later that others retelling their experiences on the game’s forums had not encountered the owl. Instead, one account was dominated by a dark figure that appeared after the night sky had turned red, only to run off, while making sure the player was following. Some played with constellations; some sat in solemn graveyards. While we had all played Proteus, it became clear that we did not share the same experiences; we all wandered through different worlds, encountering familiar aspects in a unique way.

The main difference between unique play in Proteus and role-playing games is agency. In a massive fantasy or space world, the player is given what appears to be wide path to play how they wish. They move through a static world and sculpt it in a pre-designed fashion. Ultimately, the developers of these games give players the gift of agency, the ability to move through that world and shape it.

This also forces the game to be reliant upon the player. Even if a game’s narrative is linear, it depends on the player to advance it. For example, a programmed character within a game may walk a programmed path, forever, until a player enters and engages its route. By interacting with that non-player character (NPC), the player has helped it fulfill its destiny, and furthered the action of the world. The expectation is that the world exists at the behest of the player, and the player is often imbued with the power of a god who may alter the world.

While Proteus as a game—and product— exists for the player, its world isn’t reliant upon a specific player experience. Because it isn’t static, differences occur, many and obviously, around the player. Because the world is produced dynamically, the player must act as a static element with practically no control. And though each player may in turn approach the game in an identical capacity, once the island is generated, it is a fresh, dynamic world each time, reducing the potential for a homogenized experience.

The largest contributor to this success is the way in which Proteus plays with music. The endless cacophony (both aural and visual) that permeates the atmosphere is so incredibly active. As a player explores, animals or flowers don’t change course like an NPC. Instead, they react naturally, not as though they were born for your experience, but almost as if the opposite were true. When you approach an area that produces a sine wave—be it a tree, a slope, or some other mystery—the feeling isn’t that Proteus or the object in Proteus has begun to play for you, but that the sound, or owl, or structure was always there, and you just happened, through a chance generation, to wander into it. Starting a game of Proteus is not like listening to a pre-recorded album, but like listening to the chaotic throng of generative music. And though you might begin and stop Proteus at will, there’s no guarantee that the island’s music will follow.

 

Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.

Dominic from Luton goes to Reykjavik

August 9, 2013 · Print This Article

Dominic from Luton as Paul Young (documentation of a performance)

Dominic from Luton as Paul Young. All installation photos by Ingvar Hogni Ragnarsson

Guest post by Mark Sheerin

It is more than 1,000 miles from Luton, England, to Reykjavik, Iceland. But Dominic from the UK town appears to love a good caper. Why else would he put together a group show on very little money in one of the most far flung and expensive cities in Europe?

“It was done on a wing and a prayer,” he tells me on the phone from his Luton studio. “The art was just really, really ambitious considering we didn’t have much money to play with. It’s amazing what you can do with a cardboard tube and a delivery van.”

Five artists took part. And the show has just run for a month at gallery Kling & Bang. Along with Dominic, the full bill included Gavin Turk, Mark Titchner, Laura White and Peter Lamb. The show went by the name London Utd. “It’s kind of doing what it says on the tin,” says Dominic, whose eponymous town is just a twenty minute train ride from the UK capital.

Not that he is the first to cross the Atlantic to the artist led space. He tells me that Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades have also shown at the dynamic and co-operative venue. And Dominic takes the opportunity to recount the tale of Kling & Bang’s legendary appearance at Frieze Art Fair.

Work by Gavin Turk at Kling & Bang

Work by Gavin Turk at Kling & Bang

“They did a Frieze Project in London in 2008 called Sirkus. It’s an incredible story,” says the artist, telling me that Sirkus was the name of a Reykyavik bar: “This place was the hub, the heartbeat of the arts community”. But after nine years of business, Sirkus closed down, leaving Kling & Bang free to turn the façade and fixtures into a temporary installation for the art fair.

Dominic warms to his tale: “They arrived at Heathrow in October 2008 and basically all their credit cards had been stopped because the [Icelandic] crash had suddenly happened overnight and so this bar, which was a mirror of good times and place to meet, became that again in London.” Word soon went round about the penniless Icelanders with the reconstructed bar.

Things are a bit better in Reykjavik now and in its way London Utd has become another bridge between the art scenes in both cities. Mark Titchner’s piece was a piece of text in Icelandic, which read The World Isn’t Working. (Perhaps the UK crash is yet to come.)

Gavin Turk meanwhile offered a twelve and a half metre diptych inspired by Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series and featuring the four wheeled emblem of working class Britain the Ford Transit. Laura White produced no less than 54 drawings of photos of sculptures which she herself had made. And Peter Lamb translated the shifting detritus on his studio floor into two large abstract canvases.

Asked about one of his own works in the show, Dominic is ready with another yarn. “That photo was done as a tribute to Paul Young,” he tells me. Like the artist, the singer came from Luton. “He used to work at Vauxhall [car plant] in the early 80s and he told someone I know in the canteen once that he was going to be a global pop star and then literally 18 months later he was, with Everytime You Go Away.”

The track resonates with many a Lutonian and inspired a Dominic from Luton performance at an event called Café Almanac organised by Bedford Creative Arts. This involved sourcing an 80s wig from Luton Indoor Market, posing for a portrait artist in the shopping centre and getting 5,000 badges made to cover a cheap suit. “I just stood up in front of about 50 people in this Working Men’s Club on a Saturday afternoon and sung my heart out,” recalls the artist.

Peter Lamb (installation view at Kling and Bang)

Peter Lamb (installation view at Kling and Bang)

This took place under a net filled with 200 balloons in the colours of the local soccer team, intended for release in the final verse. However “The net got caught in all of my badges so I had 200 balloons attached to me and I panicked and – it wasn’t scripted at all – I basically ended up having a fight with these balloons and stamping on them and stuff and it brought the house down actually.”

But despite the hazardous stagecraft, Dominic’s “biggest challenge” is a self-proclaimed inability to sing. So it comes as no surprise that the artist thinks most performance art is too earnest. “People would argue with this, but I think there’s a duty to entertain,” he says, “That’s just my take on it. That’s my little mantra.” Even the anecdotes which relate to each of his gigs are compelling experiences.

As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that the artist formerly known as Dominic Allan comes from one of the most derided towns in the UK. His “from Luton” tag is a sticky piece of cultural baggage. Dominic tells me that the name just came about through being easy to remember when he ordered materials.

Now, he claims, “It’s just a very glorious vehicle for the idea of the underdog and also to shove it back in people’s faces now because Luton’s one of those towns which people laugh about . . . The more I go on, the more I realise that it is serious, and it is serious”.

So that’s Dominic, from Luton, easy to laugh with, hard to laugh at. Prepare to be entertained if he ever comes to your town.

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from Brighton, UK. He can also be found on Culture24, Hyperallergic, Frame & Reference and his own blog criticismism.com

I AM MYSELF A CITIZEN OF NO MEAN CITY Vol. 3

August 7, 2013 · Print This Article

 IMG_2503American Legion Mall downtown Sunday Frisbee photo by Benjamin Bernthal

Greetings from Indianapolis, friends!

July is a lovely time here. One of my favorite things about July is the 4th. Here in Indy the thing to do is to watch the fireworks display that is set off from atop the Regions building downtown. The best place to do it is from a rooftop with a bunch of friendsIMG_2389photo by Benjamin Bernthal

In the way of Art, July brought to an end a lengthy and large exhibition of work by Ai Wei Wei at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This was an interesting exhibition to get to see. It included a series of photographs, pieces of modified ancient art (such as the image below), and a few pieces related to measuring the tragic earthquake that took place in China in 2008. This is a traveling exhibition and I highly recommend seeing it if it comes to your town. I went on the very last day that it was open, and the gallery was buzzing with conversation and lots of people moving around the space.

IMG_1523Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

The 100 Acres park at the IMA (a 100 acre sculpture park that deserves its own blog entry) has a new installation called Flock of Signs by Kim Beck. Some of the signs are blank, others point to the air and state “Bug.” others list scientific names for plants. All I know is that they are beautiful.

photo(7)photo by Benjamin Bernthal

A few weeks later I finally made it to one of the Listen Local concerts put on by Musical Family Tree and Indy Parks. This is a “pay what you want” fundraiser for the Park consisting of live performances by local bands. This installment included Amo Joy, Vacation Club and United States Three. The Set Design was so cool! It is a cardboard and acrylic piece by BrainTwins that can be arranged in a variety of ways to create different color patterns. BrainTwins is an Indianapolis art duo composed of Jessica Dunn and Justin Shimp. They create a variety of 2D, 3D and 4D based works of art.

stagefrontFINALStage at the Musical Family Tree Listen Local concert series at Indy Parks. Set design by BrainTwins

Later in the month I was lucky to be able to visit the studio of one of my favorite Indianapolis artists Kyle Herrington. Kyle has several shows coming up in September, so there was plenty of new work to see. One show is called Backyard Phenomena and chronicles Herrington’s struggle with being thrust into new found adulthood, which culminated in him turning thirty and buying a house. His anxieties about something catastrophic happening to his house has translated into sculptural pieces as well as paintings. We talked for quite a long time. I admire Kyle’s commitment to making everysingleideathathehas. I think it is what has allowed him to make such a large body of work with what I see as having very consistent and complete conceptual ideas in relatively short time frame (just one year). Kyle’s work makes reference to sci-fi logic, modern obsessions with the apocalypse and celebrity and mashes them altogether into a funny, but kind of scary reality.

Kyle Herrington

IMG_1561Kyle Herrington with his work.

For August First Friday I went to the Harrison Center for the Arts to see the Spineless book arts exhibition. This yearly exhibit features work from bookmakers in the region. The IUPUI libraries also curate a selection on display from their collection of artist’s books.

IMG_1637First Friday at the Harrison Center for the Arts

IMG_1635Cyanotype book by Indianapolis Artist Tasha Lewis

While on the subject of Cyanotype, and given the fact that I saw him shortly after taking this photo, I think I should mention another mind blowing artist here in Indy who uses it as his primary material for art making- Casey Roberts.

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caseysImages via wildernessoverload.com

Until next month!

Yrs,

Wendy

Wendy Lee Spacek is a poet who lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana. She likes her city very much. She is a core volunteer of the Indianapolis Publishing Cooperative (Indy Pub Co-Op), publishes small editions of handmade books under the name Soft River and is an arts administrator at the Indianapolis Art Center. She will be posting monthly all summer long about her encounters with art, culture, creative experiences and resources in her city.

LA-Based Street Artist Gune Monster Returns to Kansas City Roots

August 1, 2013 · Print This Article

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After losing his job and apartment on the same day a couple of years ago, Los Angeles-based street artist Gune Monster says he contemplated a suicide. Instead, he picked up a marker and begin drawing the toothy, ghoulish figures that would eventually become the hallmark of his  alter ego.

First, he drew about 50 stickers a day. The number quickly climbed to upwards of 350 hand drawn, colored and cut stickers , many of which would eventually make their way onto the poles, benches and other public spaces scattered around Los Angeles. Larger murals would eventually follow as the street artist’s ambitions grew.

“Murals change people’s lives” he says. “They change your opinion of the wall. It changes it from being some ratty wall that’s got some tag or some weird penis that’s got some hair to an amazing, beautiful mural that’s got a hummingbird flying through the sky with birds and mountains.”

Gune Monster also feels that creating murals offers developing graffiti artists an opportunity to mature by forcing them to openly confront the public with their work in a more much more personal and direct way.

“You’ve no longer going out at night” he says. “You’re no longer hiding in a gallery. You’re no longer putting up stickers. You are now in daylight, in the public, being judged by everybody that sees you. And that’s when you’re at that point where you’re confident enough to spread your art.”

Gune Monster returned to his hometown of Kansas City this past June to live mural at the City Ice Arts Building — a converted warehouse in the city’s arts district that houses a collective of local artists and artisans. Though he wasn’t able to paint at the Kansrocksas Music Festival (the event was cancelled), his new clothing line and projects in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Las Vegas continue to keep this elusive artist fully occupied.

Check out his website for more great images of his work.

Words by Carolyn Okomo, a Kansas City, MO-based writer. 
Images by Dave Dumay of City Ice Arts and Carolyn Okomo.

Guest Post By Jamie Kazay

July 30, 2013 · Print This Article

Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 3)

I’m on the porch rifling through Barbie posters and notes on what she would prefer when running away to a deserted island. I know Barbie would want to be with Ken. The way “Marianne,” played by Anna Karina in “Pierrot le fou” (“Pete the madman”), ran away with “Ferdinand,” played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, to live in the French Riviera. The couple ran away for two different reasons, and their fears kept them together. At the end of the film, I like to reinvent different outcomes. Perhaps they should have stayed in town.

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Photo from kistenet.com

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Photo from kistenet.com

Pierrot le Fou

Photo from kistenet.com

This argument applies to play with Barbie as well. I take her outside of the box, adjust her arms and legs, and am free to imagine Barbie in a variety of ways. She is Ken’s girlfriend getting ready for date night when I put black high heels on her. She is Midge’s friend getting ready for brunch when I put strappy sandals on her. She is Skipper’s sister getting ready for a yogurt run when I put sparkly flats on her. I assign Barbie various identities, and each time the fictional truths may be compared to real-world cultural representations.

My adjustments to Barbie’s identity are necessary. For many she seems such a frivolous thing. Questions about her importance reinforce the idea that Barbie encourages the creative interpretation of identity. I cannot escape her. I have spent so much time alone with her. Some have not understood, but many have been supportive—my man included. (I say “man” because after a certain age “boyfriend” just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the weight of an adult relationship.) Things changed along the way. I changed when I got close to the essence of Barbie. I got close to myself. I learned to trust myself. I learned about the superficial sting.

I also know that Barbie is “plastic” and “anatomically incorrect”—like some “real” women that I know. But, she’s gotten a “bad rap.” I know that I “just can’t change” the opinion of some. That sometimes it just “is what it is.” That Barbie is made for “art’s sake” and that some “art” is inspired by Barbie. That Barbie “inspired” the long list of female characters of La Nouvelle Vague. Consider Artist Nickolay Lamm’s “comparison of bodies.” Lamm suggests that the “average” woman’s body is “no match.” In fact, Lamm found “unrealistic measurements of 36-18-33, compared to the typical 19-year old girl’s 32-31-33” (Revealed: What Barbie would look like as a Real Woman). This explains why Barbie can’t stand-up on her own.

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I’ll admit, I “agree.” She sends the “wrong message” to “impressionable” girls. Barbie is not for the “weak.” I learned this my “first year” in Chicago. We went to some “pop-up” art gallery on a Friday night and there was Barbie—“decapitated,” lying in the “middle” of the room, on the “floor.” I asked the artist “why” he’d done this. He calmly, “sipped” red wine out of a mason jar, said “I used to do this to my older sister’s Barbie when I was a kid.” He then joked about Barbie’s “power” to revert him to “childhood.” This has always stayed with me. Barbie brings out the angry adolescent in every adult.

Who is not disappointed, enchanted, or tempted by Barbie? Most days, in the world of Barbie, the view from the porch provides a narrow balconyscape which hosts the angular silhouettes of red-tipped bricks. Sometimes we have company and they join us on the porch. In these moments the table is cluttered with wine glasses, water crackers, cheese platters, Barbie, Midge, and Skipper. On an eventful evening, Barbie is a kaleidoscope twirling from hand to hand. Soon we are scampering. There aren’t enough hours. There is never enough time, just the way time ran out for “Ferdinand.”

Soon, I feel the twin twinkle of goodbye kisses. It’s just me at the door. At the heart of La Nouvelle Vague is a breathless, powerful glance because it is difficult to turn away from the beautiful tragedy. It is difficult to answer and dispute the fullness that Barbie deserves. I only rarely come close to completing the lanky jigsaw puzzle. I cannot really see the end. The journey is mine, this Barbie pink path that leads to the unknown, the pink purgatory.

 

Jamie Kazay teaches in the English Department at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection, Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.