One of my earliest memories of playing video games: I’m sitting in my dad’s office playing Wolfenstein 3D and my grandfather walks in. He walks slowly and methodically; he’s elderly, but every time he drives it’s right there on his license plate: a purple heart from World War 2. I’ve just rounded a blocky corner and I know what’s ahead of me. Adolph Hitler shows up in some sort of robotic suit, his twin Gatling guns blazing. And I freeze: to not play is more difficult, a larger acknowledgement of the idea that I am portraying a caricature of my grandfather’s experience. In shame, I return fire until Hitler collapses into a bloody pulp. Silently, my grandfather walks away.
Last year, I played for the first time a game called Rage, which was actually developed by Id Software—the same company that worked to create Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, two early era games which helped popularize the first-person shooting-other-persons genre. I remember wading through several minutes of introduction until I finally sneaked into the rundown and dilapidated hotel a band of post-apocalyptic bandits had made their home. A shirtless bandit noticed me and charged. A shot rang out of my pistol, hit him in the face, and spread digital blood out in a skyward arc as his lifeless corpse fell to the ground. I quit and uninstalled the game a few minutes after.
Even though I grew up surrounded by increasingly devastating examples of a world of violence—digital Nazis, the theatrical release of Spawn, Columbine, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq—it wasn’t until that fake man’s head exploded at the behest of my mouse click that I felt ill about the genre, down to my core. Just months before had been the notorious Sandy Hook shooting, and as a country we were embroiled in a debate about gun control that was already quickly fading, just as every shooting since then has faded into this bleak tapestry of ill will, self-harm, and an inability on our part as a society to see these things as solvable problems. As though it will always and has always been too difficult to turn the mirror towards ourselves and ask, what, as a country, society, or group of people, we could do better.
This isn’t to say, as the NRA suggested after the Newtown Massacre, that videogames cause violence, but it’s hard to ignore that so much of the genre is branched out of the idea of the powerful, silent protagonist. His eyes are our eyes; his gun is our mouse. As though a monitor or television were a window into a universe where everything has been created to showcase destruction at the hand of the only person who has agency in a programmed existence: the consumer as player as protagonist. Like in movies and in television, we as audience members are asked to enjoy, engage, and sympathize with main characters as they perform astonishing acts of violence, either by watching or propelling the action forward with our controllers.
But: it’s all representative, maybe? When we shoot a fake man with a fake gun we are not engaging in real violence; the play violence does not spawn real violence. But, with each graphical update and each realistic sound effect, the genre moves further and further into a “more authentic” experience. Guns recoil authentically, bullets whiz by the headphone as they would the ear in actual war. Grenades disorient. Soon, Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets will make it so that a head turned on a couch will be a head turn on the digital battlefield, a red mist before it.
But is it the fidelity of the experience or the experience itself? It’s a question Lovely Planet seems poised to ask, but I’m not sure it’s actually asking. The description isn’t really hopeful on that count:
A First Person Shooter Gun Ballet set in a cutesy abstract world. Jump and shoot your way through five worlds full of treacherous enemies with your trusty semi-automatic!
Cutesy abstract world is right on, though. Where there might be tall grasses or trees to hide behind in some sort of world-conflict, Lovely Planet’s terrain is a flat, calming green punctuated by small stones and salmon-colored hearts that pop up like flowers. Fluffy white clouds and multi-colored balls dot the sky as you run past colorful spaceships and giant soda containers that erupt out of the ground. An anemic blue-and-yellow arm juts out of the screen, holding a semi-automatic broomstick with a star attached to it. The star spins and you fire equally-absurd bullets, which pierce the sky on their way to injure red blocks with angry faces that disappear in a puff of smoke.
If videogame violence is representation, Lovely Planet seems poised to take that to task, because even in this world of absurd landscapes that seems like a lo-fi Katamari Damacy, the action is still the same: point, shoot, destroy (or save, depending on how you view it). Ideally, it would be this message: that no matter how you dress it, gun violence is still gun violence and even the cutest setting in the world won’t change it. But instead of offering this as commentary, it offers it up as celebration: look how great this semi-automatic is. All distractions have been stripped away: there is only you, your gun, and these enemies which must perish.
It’s a shame, because the game is well-crafted. Hypocritically, I find the action on point, the speed of the game intoxicating, but even though I can stomach its cutesy celebration of violence, it’s never clear that there’s any intent at all. Is it proof of concept? Minimal artistic design as necessity? An exercise in restraint? Problematically, all it becomes is another shooter, another weird war game, albeit set in a place of floating islands and child-like expressions of joy and violence. It ultimately doesn’t matter what it looks like, because the symbolism is still there. It’s not doing anything different.
I’m not sure if I’m growing tired of it all because I’m getting older or games are. As a fledgling player with a fledgling medium, I was thrilled to experience the highs and lows of war through it and its comfort and safety of a screen, because, in this new and fresh interactivity, it was exhilarating. At the time, false war was one of the best ways to showcase the power of “the game,” a first-person perspective ideal for a computer screen, the pointing of a gun ideal for a mouse.
If games can be art—and they can—the genre needs to be ready to accept a change, for a shift where violence isn’t the predominant expression of the medium, be it via guns, fists, or even the jump of Mario’s boot. Yes, film functions as a propeller of art and also the action movie, but so much of that visual media is obsessed also with comedy and drama. But where action is a subset genre of film, action is inherent in a videogame because there must be some sense of challenge. (The alternative, historically, is puzzle.) But a film (or book, or poem, or painting) may be challenging on themes or subject matter alone. Games are only just recently discovering the latter’s place in interactivity—games like Gone Home, To the Moon, and Depression Quest.
I’m looking forward to the day when a shooter is a parody of a shooter, but Lovely Planet isn’t it. It’s not that it’s not smart enough, or “good” enough, but it’s just tired, the same, nothing we haven’t seen before wrapped up in a different paper (lovely though it may be). Guns can have their place, will always have their place in a medium that was once (and still may be) defined by them. But, in the wake of tragedy after tragedy—will that place ever be comfortable? I’m not sure. But each year, more and more games are more than happy to join the ranks of pretend violence, no matter the setting or period, and more and more people are happy to buy them. Lovely Planet just wants to be another gun game, and that’s not really its fault; it’s ours.
Generalized humans, shapes in watercolor, stand in front of a world that looks like a swirling snow globe.
Scrawled across Zachary Cahill’s promotional banners and digital photographs of watercolors, are questions: “What is a painting? Why do we still do it?” The emblem USSA, a fictional world constructed of USSR and USA, is marked on all works as a returning incantation.
As if following the conditions of bringing a spirit from the dead, Cahill summons an answer from the invisible, painting directives on top of thick woods. Another painting asks, “Our psychic connection, But How? Why?”
Only a Painting, Zachary Cahill, digital photograph of watercolor on plexiglass, 18 x 24 inches, 2014
In a similar way full of sickly color, Zach’s watercolors share the constricted sight of paintings by Austrian artist Maria Lassnig. Her paintings are made with what Lassnig called “body awareness”. Fluorescent, painted humans wear constrictive goggles, disfigured through interactions with the outside world. A translucently painted wall of color floats in front of neon eyes. Maria Lassnig paints self-portraits that look like the self is overtaken – mouth open, head upturned and paintings of one body merging into another, neither body fully formed as self-portrait.
Almost all of Maria Lassnig’s images look stunned. Several portraits feature the eyeball held out away from the body, as well as above the head. Eyeballs are no longer used for seeing, but as overly-conscious tools of awareness. Eyeballs that examine the activity of looking.
Transparentes Selbstporträt, Maria Lassnig, oil on canvas, 1987
I saw Zachary Cahill by chance, shortly after seeing his exhibition called USSA Wellness Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He asked me what I was reading these days. He was reading a book about religion, far-reaching into the past.
Books are installed within Zach’s exhibition and are on his mind. Several books compose the reference material of a reading library situated within the exhibition, thematically a wellness center within a tubercular sanatorium.
Inside this wellness center library, another influential book sat on the shelf, the shelf hung behind chairs of seated art viewers: The Preparation of A Novel by Roland Barthes. In our conversation, Zach mentioned this was a book he had many times recommended to everyone, and would recommend to anyone. The novel describes the process of planning a novel, a meta-novel, then, much in the way USSA Wellness Center is laid out according to the logic of a wellness center. The center includes a reading room, patients’ displayed watercolors, and hallway inspirational banners, as well as containing earnest watercolor washes of cliff precipices.
USSA Banner, Zachary Cahill, installation at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2014, image courtesy of Tom Van Eynde
I brought up the Barthes book about grief, Mourning Diary, a diary kept after death of Barthes’ mother, a book written concurrently with The Preparation of a Novel and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. The book was formed from a collection of notes on notecards, as with most of Barthes’ writing. Statements were written directly after the death of Barthes’ mother and continue up until his own death. Everyone grieves, and most want to attain wellness.
“But to see proof is a relief.”
“Do you have a book that you would recommend to everyone?” asked Zach. My mind drew a blank. Goodnight Moon, I thought. A book that loves sleep, loves to usher in sleep, with a wish goodnight to each object in the universe – the lamp, the cup and saucer. This universe contains one bedroom and the moon. The book is written séance-like in its bidding goodbye of each thing. Goodnight object, goodnight object, goodnight object.
I asked Zach about his séance that will begin at midnight at the MCA this Saturday, September 13th. Would it contain all of the props I had heard his séances contained before – complete darkness, a summoning of people in line?
Things I know about a séance are few. Popularity of the séance grew in the 19th century with the rise of Spiritualism. Séance comes from the French word meaning, seat, or session. Summoning of spirits no longer only happens while seated.
As a hypnotist speaks, an inert body listens: formally, sweater over shoulder, Susan Howe sits at her table, illuminated by a lamp with hands placidly folded beneath her book of words. Rather than gathering spirits, but akin to the method, Howe gathers words.
Words flow through, less a narration than a retrieval of emotion. The poet is like a medium, and the medium practices body awareness. From centuries-old sources, her poems are fragmented quotations, reaching far back.
“I need an excuse to reach that far back,” I thought, “and I love to have excuses.” The language comes even-keel. An invitation to a séance:
Susan Howe, from performance with David Grubbs WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, 2014
Work by Edra Soto.
Lloyd Dobler Gallery is located at 1545 W. Division St. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Work by Nayland Blake and Claire Pentecost.
Iceberg Projects is located at 7714 N. Sheridan Rd. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.
Work by Michael Madrigali.
CourtneyBlades is located at 1324 W. Grand Ave. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Marcelo Grosman
The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Sabina Ott.
The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St. Reception Friday, 5:30-7:30pm.
I’m typing this on my phone, the only possible way at the moment, so apologizes for its brutish nature. Apologizes because I’m in the middle of the woods, 30 + miles from even a small town, and it seems like I’ve left it all behind but the clicky clack on the LED screen tells me otherwise. Some people are getting ready for school, to attend or teach, but my partner and I are trying to enjoy the last bit of summer away from our jobs
and society. So we’ve got ourselves on a small lake in the woods with a one room cabin and water that smells like farts, and everything is nice and comfy. On the walls are prints from the direct category of hotel art: bleeding kitsch, soft pastel colors to brighten the room, even the meta print of what you are doing hanging near the door in case you would forget that you are not at home afraid of life, you are out here afraid of life.
“Majestic Lion” by Sylvia Duran is a loose, blobby portrait of a male lion, culled from both French Impressionism and supermarket romance novels. The subject stands hesitant with mane and fur waving in the breeze, either dusk in the plains of Africa or the set of a shampoo commercial. The lion’s legs taper to the ground with the delicacy of tree trunks. From his perch of slab rock he surveys his kingdom – a vague smear of gray and umber barely established on the canvas. And so with its uncertainty, it becomes an apocalyptic wasteland. The resulting carnage of light paint splatters completely engulfing the scene, bathing the lion in a snowstorm of ash. Or dandruff, since it really may be an ad for shampoo.
To to the left of this, the big cat theme continues with “Bengal Tiger” by Don Balke. Surrounded by tall grass and immersive reflecting water, Balke’s portrait is a highly skilled colored pencil meets water color portrayal of one of the worlds fiercest predators doing an impression of Falcor, the Luck Dragon. To note is Balke’s use of abstraction, taking full advantage of the tigers stripes and how they map the water while melting in it. The aspiring indie band should seek this image out, rotate the tiger and his reflection 90•, so his orientation is vertical and they would have a sweet album cover to go with their sweet, sweet sound.
Theres also also a cartoon of some mice bathing in a tea cup hanging above the toilet which is far cuter than the act of me peeing while viewing it. A small painting of fat geese, painstakingly rendered, standing in a bombed out green and straw colored nowhere. A total mind game while washing your hands, this unassuming meditation ties Duran’s apocalyptic scene with Balke’s “Never Ending Story” reference, as we must all confront The Nothing.
The most impoverished of all is the small print mounted on wood near a couple bunkbeds, which everyone, from the artist, to the mall sales clerk, to the Innkeeper / curator had the intelligence to see that glass and a frame would be wasted. Here, a panther suffering from a belly ache is trying to shit in the trees amidst Renaissance laser light shows from the sun.
Shooting fish is a barrel, you say. It’s not fair to discuss this work in the context of an art blog, nor is it right to hold the innkeeper to the same task as the curator, of course. But I don’t just write for the sheer pleasure of destroying. The print I haven’t mentioned yet is my favorite. In it, two decoy ducks sit on a table with a jug and a small jewelry box. The wood grain of the box allow the wooden ducks a place of hiding. While the jug itself pushes the sense of country home, the bird painted on the jug speaks with the decoy facing it, crafting humor within the frame. Kathleen Cope Ruoss loses mastery over the jug, which flattens to the point of uncertainty, becoming a bluish gray mass without distinction. But the wood stays true, and looks tangible. The hard smooth surface reflecting the craft store heart plank wood, stained a light amber at home, or here in the cabin.
In hotel art, is it honesty or escape that we look for more? Wall accents or inspiration? To be noticed but unseen, the innocuous predators of tranquility. Even the shame-crapping panther knows he is just a bit player in your experience. His humility is hard to find in the art fair art we are about to be inundated with at Expo or Detroit Design week. Anyone who may be showing in the rooms and hallways in the hotels rooms at (e)merge take note. It is easy to surpass the quality of the art found on the wood grain paneling of B&B’s, or the sterile pastel walls of the Days Inns, HoJos and Hilton Expresses around the country. What hotel art offers us is our own level of kitsch. Comfort within the sterile and alien. A sense of peace even when the very work threatens our sensibilities of good taste. It is not meant to be looked at for long. But there are much worse things we see everyday.
September 8, 2014 · Print This Article
I met Carla Herrera-Prats—artist and co-founder of Camel Collective—at SOMA in the San Pedro de los Pinos neighborhood of Mexico City, near the Mercado San Pedro de los Pinos, famous for its fish. SOMA, a space for reflection and discussion of contemporary art, runs two pedagogical programs: the first, an inexpensive two-year program directed at Mexican artists; the second, a relatively costly 8-week summer program directed towards international artists. Carla Herrera-Prats plays a central role in organizing and executing SOMA Summer. This year’s SOMA Summer, which carried the theme “participation and collaboration in art,” closed on August 20th, 2014. I asked her how participants of SOMA Summer find their lodgings.
CHP: The participants find their own places. We bring them lists of people, friends of SOMA, who have told us they have rooms available. I don’t know how it has happened, but we’ve never had a problem of someone not finding a place to stay.
JW: Really? In five years?
CHP: Yeah! The administration is tiny, which makes it very flexible. In other institutions, it has happened lately that administration has taken over faculty and students. Here, our administration is very minimal. It means that we have a lot of work, because we’re definitely understaffed, but at the same time it makes things incredibly easy. For instance, we do not have the administrative capacity to individually match each summer participant with housing, so instead we send an e-mail to friends of SOMA asking who has space and when, then we forward these details to participants. It’s very organic.
JW: Do you think there’s a SOMA identity? Is there a thing that SOMA is trying to do with this 8 weeks of SOMA Summer or with its 2-year program?
CHP: In terms of forming our participants ideologically? We try to stress the most is pushing participants to understand the consequences of what they do, how they can situate their work in a context. I can speak more specifically about the choices I’ve been making for SOMA Summer. There are not necessarily univocal decisions, there is an artist council that is involved in decisions, but definitely I am in charge of deciding the practicalities: who’s going to come, who’s going to lecture, and how that happens.
JW: Are you in charge of assigning the themes?
CHP: Those get discussed by the group of people we work closely with every year .
JW: How did the theme for this year come about?
CHP: I work in a collective. And collective practices have been very important to me for a long time. Also, the theme has to be relevant to the Mexican context, and we prefer themes that function intergenerationally, that allow us to invite artists from the generations that precede the current generation of Mexican artists. If we understand mural painting as a collective activity, Mexican artists have been working collectively since the 1920s—the generation of artists who were active in the 60s and 70s is referred to as the generation of “Los Grupos.” It was exciting to be able to invite some of these artists to contribute to the program.
JW: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like SOMA Summer is directed towards a more global art audience: the language is English, the language in which it’s presented is very in-tune with the global art discourse, and the cost is prohibitive to those who aren’t already wealthy or who can’t apply to their respective governments for assistance. So is the idea here to bring these people to Mexico to show them what’s going on in Mexico, and then they’ll go back to wherever and…
CHP: Yes, we want to bring young artists from all over the world to Mexico, because we believe this opens up the local dialogue and is very helpful to the local scene. And yes, we do need to charge tuition, but we do provide partial grants to more than 60% of the participants every summer.
JW: How is SOMA Summer different than SOMA’s 2-year academic program, besides that one is in English and the other in Spanish? And the cost, of course—the Spanish program is much less expensive.
CHP: The expectations are different. Obviously if you are here for 8 weeks, the expectation is not at all that you will produce a work of art. We insist on calling it a program as opposed to a residency. I mean, the way that most residencies across the world are defined is as a time for production, you enter into this new context and make something out of it. The academic program is structured more like an MFA.
JW: I like that you call SOMA Summer a program. In a way, it seems like the idea here is to have this program, like a computer program, that inserts a local art discourse—like the language and concerns that surround art here in Mexico City—into the larger global art discourse.
CHP: Yes, in a way, but I think it is more of an exchange than the sort of parasitic thing you’re describing. Many people who came to SOMA Summer end up coming back and staying here. It’s nurturing the local scene in a way that I did not expect. We can also see the influence of the so-called “Mexican contemporary art scene” in the work of some of the participants who have left and not come back.
JW: What was the original intent of SOMA Summer? Was there one?
CHP: In Mexico there is are very few possibilities for artists to continue their studies after undergrad. What gets lost is the ability for peer groups and dialogues to get developed locally. We wanted to make a space for people to find their peers. For SOMA Summer in particular, we were thinking about two things. First, if we’re encouraging these local artists to have a local dialogue, how can we bring the global contemporary art dialogue in to interact with it? And second, how can we provide a place in Mexico for artists who are interested in teaching to have a forum to teach without necessarily being a full-time faculty? How can we can use the energy and knowledge of someone like Carlos Amorales or Mario García Torres? There’s no way Carlos or Mario could be full-time teachers, they’re too busy for that, but they can do a very good one- or two-week long seminar or workshop. It is really important for SOMA to use the human capital available to us in a very productive way for everyone.
JW: There’s an argument that art schools or pedagogical programs such as SOMA are turning into a new prescriptive institution for art, that instead of museums being the institution that scripts and reproduces what art is and means on a massive scale, it’s now art schools. Or that, on a more general scale, graduate institutions or professional in general are becoming the tool with which subjects are ideologically produced. In your piece Transactions, for instance…
CHP: The piece you’re talking about was in my thesis show at CalArts, a few years before SOMA started. I became very aware of the fact that so many people in Mexico that hold power positions were educated in the United States, which is of course problematic. There is a very specific way of understanding Mexican society through an American lens, and this is the lens that the people who hold power in Mexico are looking through.
JW: Yeah, my boyfriend was telling me that almost every Mexican president has gone to Harvard…
CHP: Yes, many Presidents and many cabinet members have gone through the American graduate system, specifically Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and so on. Mexico’s not the only place where this happens, though. The United States Master’s Degree is a very sophisticated ideological apparatus. That, to me, is one of the reasons why SOMA needed to be in Mexico. Even if it’s in English, even if there’s a lot of people coming from abroad, even though it responds to the international contemporary art scene, the fact that participants have to take the subway and adapt to the way of living of DF nurtures their work in a very different way. This goes hand-in-hand with what I was saying earlier: what is crucial at SOMA Summer is to assist the participants in becoming aware of the context in which they produce. We also try to make lectures happen in a very horizontal way.
JW: How? Are there specific things that you’re trying to do or ways in which you organize things to be more horizontal?
CHP: By choosing people who are willing to dialogue that way, by not inviting people who will shut down the conversation or who will not allow for dialogue. Further, every year at the end of SOMA Summer we have an intense discussion with the participants of what went wrong and what went well. We’ve changed the program in very specific ways due to these conversations. For instance, up to last year the program was six weeks. For a couple of years participants were saying that they didn’t have enough time, that they needed to be in Mexico for longer to be able develop their ideas further. So we changed the program to eight weeks, beginning this summer.
[Carla stands up and turns the light on]
JW: What happens at the end? Open Studios?
CHP: Yes, on the 20th of August. It is a closure event.
JW: Wait a minute, the idea here is to not pressure people to produce but there’s an Open Studios?
CHP: Calling it Open Studios would be a contradiction because they don’t work in studio per se. But as in a traditional Open Studio, participants present whatever they want; mostly work in progress. There is a curator who comes every year who helps them try to make clever translations of what they’re working on into this event. I think in most residencies they treat the artist as a kind of thermometer—you’re supposed to be able to assess the temperature of a place and present a response very quickly. I don’t like that.
CHP: Because you are forced to make a decision in a moment that maybe you’re not ready. But we need to have a conclusion. One needs to have a moment of saying, “ok, I need to wrap up.” You need to clean your table. It’s important to have that moment, it’s important to think about that moment, and it’s important that you feel you can clean your table without having necessarily to finish your project. But calling it an, Open Studios…it’s not a great thing: it doesn’t even translate well into Spanish.
Carla Herrera-Prats’ work comments on the cultural and economic transactions that flow, often invisibly, in the context of a transnational world. Her projects juxtapose photography and material from different sources questioning the documentary value of both images and text. Herrera-Prats works is co-founder of Camel Collective, a group of artists and activists who work together since 2005. She has shown her individual work in Canada, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the United States, Egypt and Dennmark in venues such as Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros, Darb, MUAC, Centro de la Imagen, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Centre Vu, Artists Space, Art in General, and The Contemporary Museum of Baltimore, among others. She received her BFA at “La Esmeralda” in Mexico City, and her MFA in Photography at CalArts in Los Angeles. She has been a participant at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York.