Several years ago a friend of mine was going through the intense heartbreak at the end of a lengthy relationship and I was younger and ill-equipped to offer the right kind of support, so we drove. In my heart I knew it was a terrible idea because gas prices had just reached their all-time high—a price that now, much later, feels downright reasonable. We lived in Texas, where you drive long enough in one direction and the landscape doesn’t change but the things that define it do: buildings and sidewalks turn to great expanses of trees, sky, and fences, which in the daylight you can look past to see cows grazing on burnt, unloved grass. I gave my friend the option of the four cardinal directions and we drove, as far as we could stomach, towards each individual arm on a compass, first west, then north, then east, then finally, south, back to where she lived.
I don’t remember picking up a hitchhiker but there she/he/it is, a presence in my car, asking me questions—like why was I driving—and prompting me to choose responses that float up over my windshield, remain even in the face of the wind as the car hits a 100 km. This is the steady ephemera of Glitchhikers, a driving simulator in the loosest sense. Hold forward to speed your car up, hold back to slow your car down. Once you let go of either you’ll return to the same pace, in the same way that letting go of the buttons that allow you to look left or right out of the windows will return your view to the center. You can switch lanes to avoid traffic, but there’s not much point; the only cars on the road with you tonight are tiny red taillights in the distance, which seem to ebb back and forth and always stay out of reach.
I remember taking a family road trip north to stay with my grandparents in Wisconsin and also visit college campuses for my brother, who would be out of high school soon. Nothing stands out about the experience except that in Arkansas, after driving on roads that weren’t even paved we arrived at a campus I’ve forgotten and he refused to get out of the car. At the time I wasn’t really old enough to consider the ramifications, but I didn’t really blame him; the lack of paved roads seemed to be at the time the ultimate evidence that this wasn’t a good place. My parents grew frustrated and we drove on, and his feet never touched ground in the state. Now, I wonder if subconsciously he was worried that if he left the car, he would never be able to go back home.
In Glitchhikers, a sign rolls past telling me it’s 49 kilometers to Phanteron, a place which I never really intended to go to. My first passenger disappeared just as quickly as they’d appeared, after talking briefly about drugs, driving, and the other kinds of topics that can feel utterly significant in the small talk that occurs on a highway after midnight. A new one is in my car, decidedly alien, from a place where a star exploded and destroyed her home, creating so much of the universe in the process. She’s pregnant, she says, and asks if I would drop her at the hospital. Not many of my species seemed willing to take her, she says. I speed up as fast as the game will allow me and the next time I look over, she’s gone, but I don’t remember passing a hospital. On the other hand, it’s late, and my eyelids grow heavier and stay closed longer with each passing blink.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was 18. At the DMV to get my learner’s permit the person behind the counter was aghast. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to just take the driver’s test and get it over with. I didn’t know how to drive, I told him. It wasn’t that hard, he said. Later, I would fail the parallel-parking portion of the driver’s exam, rolling my rear right tire over the surface of the curb as the woman sitting next to me sighed, checked a box, and told me to move on.
There are several different passengers in Glitchhikers—they seem to occur based on the responses you choose to their questions. Before one appeared in my car, I saw them sitting on the edge of a bridge above me as I drove under it, their legs dangling down and over the lip. We talked about suicide; how almost everybody who had attempted it regretted it, how it actually hurt more people than the person attempting it assumed. How easy it would be to drive straight into a concrete divider, or over a cliff, careening at high speeds. How something in this world, or within ourselves, always stopped us. Next, a small, goat-like ghost appeared as I passed what seemed like a canopy of dead trees. It hated its parents; it didn’t seem like it owed them anything. I agreed, and then it asked me why I was driving.
It’s easy to think of the car as the ultimate American symbol of freedom. So much of our legacy is entrenched in this idea of the highway, the vein that draws a line across the surface of the nation and leads to infinite places and nowheres. Even as the environmentalist in me loves Chicago’s public transportation, there’s that piece buried within the self that longs for the easy option of the car, the ability to drive until night turns to early morning and watch as the scenery around you speeds by and changes without consequence. I guess at some point deep within me I long for an easy illusion of progress, one where I only have to turn a key and press down on a pedal to feel as though I am exerting some change on my environment. Really though, when it comes down to it, I am trapped in the car, and the feeling is fleeting—I must always return to the point at which I began.
Glitchhikers is as much about choice as it is about a lack of choice. In dialogue with its eponymous passengers, you can choose from a handful of responses, which then go on to influence that conversation and which passengers occur next. But at the same time, the car here is not so much a symbol of freedom or choice as it is a vessel of inevitability, taking you forward on this unnamed highway until the game decides that it is time to end. Going faster or going slower doesn’t ultimately affect your journey; what does is how quickly you answer questions and click through responses. Your travel time is your reading speed. Eventually, after a stretch of alien, angular trees, a blocky city will approach in the distance, and a series of signs will warn you that the left-hand lane is for exiting only. No matter which lane you stay in, the game ends and your digital eyelids close, either in sleep, death, or something else.
Just like driving, Glitchhikers isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. Even in the wake of similar questions from different passengers and a road that goes nowhere, it’s an intensely personal experience, one that begs the player to take part in difficult thoughts and conversations. The game isn’t so much a game as it is a setting, in the same way that a car is not necessarily a mode of transportation but a singular place in which to exist, even as the world around you changes and falls into the perimeter. And while both may be personal experiences, they’re by no means unique ones. One passenger—purple headed with a large, singular eye—explains to me the concept of “sonder,” or the realization that every other person around you is a fully conscious being with their own life, story, existence. The power of this statement isn’t so much reflected in the digital cars around you—which do not exist—nor in the actual, theoretical cars around while driving in reality. Instead, it feels more like a comment on the other people that might also play Glitchhikers, ponder the oddly deep questions presented to them by aliens, and consider, what it is to talk to strangers, and what it is to drive after midnight, both in here and out there. “Millions of distinct bacteria share your body,” the radio host quips at one point. “You’re never alone.”
Even though I write about games critically here and other places, sometimes as a player I find it easy to tune out and become one with a keyboard and mouse or controller and just sit and stare, as though I were watching The Expendables on repeat several hours a day, several days in a row. In that vein, I spent the past month playing terrible, huge-budget, blockbuster video games and not doing much else. I wanted to reboot myself and take a post to collectively detox by thinking about some stuff that was more artful, thought-provoking, and most importantly, free. As much as I could write full essays talking about each one, those would probably end up being longer than their respective experiences, so I think it’s preferable to say that if one interests you, check it out—let’s play our way out of The Expendables together.
I wrote about Increpare’s Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave last month, but the dude is so wildly prolific that it’s hard not to always be thinking about at least one of his games. Universal History of Light came out in February and is already behind 3 newer games on his games page, but it’s a sticker. Basically you play as a seeing eye dog accompanying a student to a lecture about the effects of laser pointers on the brains of dogs, which cannot smell the point of light and are driven insane. The professor then shines their own laser pointer too close to the dog, who is then sent by insanity to a dystopian island filled with even more strangeness. Items acquired after that point include a carpet beater and a hoodie.
Whenever I get into a weird conversation with somebody else’s parents about how I write about video games, I inevitably end up telling them about a handful of the same games, like Gone Home or Proteus, both of which I’ve written about here before, in attempt to justify a hobby that seems to be filled with a lot of guns or grand theft auto or Pac-man. Another is Depression Quest, which is a text-styled game (built in Twine) that aims to promote awareness of depression, namely by putting the player into the shoes of somebody suffering from depression. As somebody who is no stranger to winter feelings and sun withdrawal, it’s an incredibly effective, stark, and brave portrayal that is tough to play but also a shining example of an interactive medium. Check it out. (N.b.—while it can be played for free, it is also offered on a pay-what-you-want basis with a portion donated to charity.)
I just finished binge-watching Twin Peaks on Netflix, and Catachresis tickles my fancy in the same exact way that the show did. If a younger David Lynch were somehow transported into our present and the only way he could deal with his weird feelings about unexpected but short-range time travel were to make browser games, Catachresis would probably be one of them (The developer cites Lost Highway as an inspiration). It puts you into the shoes of a paranormal investigator, or as the main character puts it, “ghost plumbers.” It’s both creepy and funny, and rendered in an art style that lets you know there’s not going to be a weird jump scare.
This is a game where the less said, the better. It starts out and you’re a frog on a lily pad aiming your tongue and eating bugs and fractions are popping up everywhere. It’s not actually edutainment, but the first few minutes do a really great job of pretending like it is. Get the turtle upgrade as soon as possible, and then move on to a variety of different segments (onet set to the soothing narration of a history show) that made people like the game so much that they pledged over 70 grand to a sequel on Kickstarter. (Seriously, if you ever play one video game in your life, play this one, and then reconsider that life decision and play the rest of these too.)
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
A current exhibition at theÂ Hammer MuseumÂ in Los Angeles,Â Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, is a deft rebuttal of Institutional Critique.Â Take It or Leave ItÂ mashes together a variety of well-known works by well-known IC artists, creating a confused jumble of brands intelligible only if viewed in the same spirit as one views a shoe rack at a department store. The message, delivered through the cunning mess organized by curators Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum, and Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, seems to be: Institutional Critique, and by extension most current critical art, is irrelevant. Take it or leave it. I am tempted to agree.
Upon walking into the exhibition, on the second floor of the newly-free Hammer Museum, one encounters, first, and fittingly first, Andrea Fraser. She beams from a bulky television screen, leading aÂ Gallery TalkÂ (1989),Â a repeatable performance for which she is widely identified. As she primly leads us through a series of quotations lifted from museum brochures, reviews, and so on, highlighting an institutional language that has only intensified and become more isolated from everyday language in the last twenty to thirty years since Fraser led these toursâ€”leading of course to that awfulÂ Institutional Art EnglishÂ article I hate so much, because honestly the everyday language of cricket fans orÂ teenage YouTube enthusiastsÂ is as unintelligible to me as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh might be to them, and you know, if you want to learn a sociolect, learn it, itâ€™s really not that hardâ€”we glance to the right and are accosted by RenÃ©e Green’s garish (but quite beautiful)Â Mise-en-ScÃ¨ne: Commemorative ToileÂ (1992-1994), and a pair of bits of Mark Dion pieces,Â The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division)Â (1992) andÂ New York State Bureau of Tropical ConservationÂ (1992). This all in a roomâ€”a foyer, reallyâ€”perhaps 8 ft x 20 ft. The trend continues throughout the rest of the show, with a bewildering oversaturation of work by easily recognizable IC artists organized room-by-room according to big dumb categories like THE MUSEUM or POLITICS. The POLITICS room, for instance, has two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, two works by Robert Gober, and three works each by Jenny Holzer and Fred Wilson! Wow! Oh, and a Glenn Ligon piece, if I remember right.
The aural confusion rivals the visual confusion, with sound bleeding from Andrea in front, a relatively innocuous guitar piece with very nice furniture by the only name I didn’t recognize in the show (and which I didn’t write down, but I probably should have laid down on the furniture, I have to admit I was a little tired while viewing, or attempting to view, this show), the arabesque from Dana Birnbaum’s three-channel video installation Arabesque, and several other voices speaking from several other video installations. One can really only walk through the show saying, “oh, Andrea Fraser! oh, Alan McCollum! oh, Felix Gonzalez-Torres! oh, Adrian Piper!” and so on. Each work, regardless of its individual merit or its potentially radical past effect on the institutionalized art world of the 1980s and 1990s, becomes a calling card, a simple brand identifier, a shoe. The effect is to suggest a feeling that Institutional Critique should be, or has already been, laid to rest, that it has suffered the same fate as its preceding movements and morphed into a series of innocuous and critically irrelevant calling cards.
While Institutional Critique was certainly relevantâ€”often many other things, including beautiful, shocking, and a variety of other adjectives, many of which are vinyled to the already-crammed walls of the show in the form of various historical derogatory reviews of IC artistsâ€”during its heyday, in the Internet age, where anyone looking at art or working in the art world probably has a smartphone and enjoys, or pretends to enjoy, a variety of privileges vis a vis the rest of the world, including the ability to very easily and quickly assemble a tawdry list of dirt surrounding any institution, from Hammer to the dollar, the opacity that once enshrouded institutions with a veneer of acceptability and inevitability has been replaced with an ironic remove that ensures the same effect. This ironic remove serves a very useful purpose insofar as it allows us to continue living lives of privilege without the persistent nag of horror at how and where our clothes were made, where the materials in our smartphones were mined and in what conditions (not to mention the conditions in which they were made), and the total unraveling of the environment that has recently become apparent. There is, almost without doubt, a legacy of horror in at least one object within 50 ft of you; there is, almost without doubt, a weather event without precedent that is currently occurring or has recently occurred in the region where in which you live. A lightly sneering ironic remove allow us to, in the words of a WWII propaganda designed by British intelligence in the event of catastrophic air attacks that tellingly became a meme so successful that it adorns dorm rooms everywhere, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This ironic remove is necessary to live life without succumbing to a deep and unshakeable sense of doom and should be embraced, unabashedly, as such. This selfsame remove, however, is what renders work like IC, that attempts to call us out on things that we are very likely already aware of but are making a decision to ignore to retain a certain degree of sanity, irrelevant, for being reminded of the knowledge we are trying to ignore strengthens, rather than weakens, our barriers against it.
Let us, like Paul Bettanyâ€™s character in Dogville, consider an illustration. I am in a social situation with a friend. A party, perhaps, someone’s house or apartment, a someone that neither of us know particularly well, but who has invited us, for whatever reason, over. The party is relatively low-key. At some point, my friend goes to the bathroom. When my friend returns, I notice their fly is unzipped and mention that hundreds of people recently died in a factory fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, a fire that is having relatively little effect on the efforts of anyone to regulate garment factories in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where conditions are widely known to be unacceptable. I conclude by pointing out our partyâ€”our drinks, our clothes, our phones on which we take pictures and look up things on Wikipedia (or whatever), the iPad or iPod the music is playing off of, perhaps even the building we sit in, perhaps it is a house that was purchased and flipped after a predatory loan forced its foreclosureâ€”is only possible because we are the privileged beneficiaries of a vicious and exploitative economic system so deeply pervasive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine its alternatives. Have I performed Institutional Critique?
Insofar as a party is an institutionâ€”any party, regardless of its particular circumstances, contains both a normative protocol and an accompanying normative horizon of possible outcomes, just as any institution doesâ€”yes, I have. Formerly, institutions maintained credibility by disguising, with varying degrees of force, the aspects of their makeup that might damage that credibility. Institutional Critique directed its gaze, or rather our gaze, at these aspects. I can only assume that the effect was shocking and/or confusing, since I am too young to have experienced Institutional Critique during its era of relevance. In any case, were I to point out that to my friend that their pants were made in horrific conditions, etc, I would be highlighting an aspect of the institution that most parties try to leave out, namely that the objects that make the party fun were very likely produced in dire circumstances and as a result of great suffering.
While it is certainly possible that such a proclamation would have had an effect on a party pre-smartphone, it is almost impossible that such a proclamation, made now, would not be immediately dismissed or laughed off, or said, in the first place, with a degree of irony so as to neutralize its contents. Most people at the party, most people at any party of people that enjoy a certain level of privilege, likely already have heard about the Dhaka fire, or have heard the phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” or something like it, and all of those peopleâ€”those people who read Twitter or listen to NPR or the BBC or read the Guardian or whatever, who cares reallyâ€”okay, us or we, not those peopleâ€”choose to ignore these concrete facts of our own existences. We live in a constant state of dramatic irony, or something very close to the old Greek eirÅneia.
Had we all been alive thousands of years ago, located in a relatively small area of the Mediterranean, and had the luck or circumstance to be a free or free-ish citizen of an antiquity-era Greek city-state, we might have, at some point, gone to a play. Regardless of whether or not this play was a tragedy or comedy, there would probably, at some point, be a character speaking from beneath us, down the stairs of the amphitheater onto the stage, a character who was speaking of something that we, the audience, knew was false. We would know it was false because of something else we had learned during the play, in another scene, a scene in which the character now speaking did not appear. We would know and the actor would know, probably, having been in rehearsals, spoken to other actors, and been aware of the general arc of the play. Everybody would know besides the character speaking, the character who has temporarily taken the place of the actor, who weâ€”the audience and perhaps the actor, I don’t really know about actingâ€”temporarily identify with, moreso than our identification with what is real.
We are now, at this point, the actors and audience in our own scenes, which are not in amphitheaters, but instead are in living rooms, museums, concert halls, book fairs, art fairs, galleries, restaurants, bars, whatever.Â Â At all of these times, in all of these places, we are ourselves, but we are different versions of ourselves: we are our house-party self, our museum self, our concert hall self, our book fair self, gallery self. Pablo Helguera, with droll precision, has highlighted this in his book Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World; Alex Galloway, much less drolly but no less precise, has highlighted this in his book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Both authors point out that we act not in regard to dictates from sovereign powerâ€”the King, the state, whateverâ€”but rather in regard to the protocols (for Helguera, scripts) we assume to be inherent and inevitable in a given situation. When briefly employed at a Hollywood gallery for which I was asked to write a press release for a show of paintings I found tedious and boring, I did not, for instance, write â€œthis show is tedious and boring, but would probably look great above your designer furniture and that’s why it’s being shown here,â€ but rather wrote a press release in the style of blue-chip gallery press releases (“We are pleased to present…”). I’m not sure if that’s a particularly good example, but who cares? All saltwater fish will die off in 35 years.
For the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser contributed a pair of essays: “There’s No Place Like Home,” in which she eloquently considers (and doubts) her own relevance; and “L’1% C’est Moi,” a beautifully-researched, well-written account of the current art market and its inextricable ties with the very people many critical artists, whose livelihoods depend on the art market, love to hate. The latter, while very informative, is very clearly Institutional Critique, a highlighting of an institutional issue that was very likely already known, and if unknown certainly intuited, by whoever might have read it. The former, on the other hand, is an investigation into the nature of critique, in which Fraser wonders if
… by interpreting negations as critique, by responding to judgments of attribution with judgments of attribution, by aggressively attempting to expose conflicts and to strip away defenses in critiques of critiques and negations of negations, critical practices and discourses may often collude in the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.
Does critique, of the sort that pervaded Institutional Critique and that pervades critical art following IC, aid us in our collective pushing away of actual, real problems? Does it aid us in ignoring that the Whitney is funding by the financial institutions and executives who are responsible for the slow bleed-out of the world’s environment, of global socio-economic mobility? Does it help us “Keep Calm and Carry On?” Sure it does, because we already know all that shit and we’re ignoring it because we’re alive and what else are we going to do!
In a conversation I had recently with Renzo Martens about the Institute for Human Activities, for which he is the Creative Director, while he was in town for a solo show at The BOX, he mentioned both that he is interested in redirecting critical art’s “mandate” and that his work with the IHA is decidedly non-revolutionary. “We’re just going to do what art does,” he said. “Which is, like, create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and see how it goes.” The IHA is an institution that quite earnestly touts art as a means for revitalizing a town outside of Kinshasa in the war-torn, globally-exploited DRC and which operates off of the already well-established model of the global arts residency. The IHA will, and has already attempted to begin to, teach drawing and other arts-related classes to palm-oil plantation workers; a few of these workers will be particularly talented; the IHA will, with the local artists’ permission, sell their drawings in the international art market; the proceeds from these sales will lift those few lucky artists out of poverty; other palm-oil workers may become more interested in art and work harder on drawings than on manufacturing palm oil; and so on. The settlement will offer an artists’ residency for artists to engage with the local arts scene and teach classes to locals. Meanwhile, rich people, who love to be around the creature comforts that artists surround themselves withâ€”nice bars, cappuccinos, good food, artistsâ€”will stay in an onsite hotel, increasing the settlements’ real-estate value and general quality of life. Perhaps these people will buy or build houses near or on the settlement, as they have in places like Marfa, TX, raising the value of the property and ostensibly improving quality of life for everybody. In short, aside from the occasional swipe on its website, there is no critical component to the IHA at all. That said, the logical conclusion of the IHAâ€”or one possible or believable conclusion, given that institutions function almost entirely on belief, as Adam Overton pointed out in my interview with him, not on logicâ€”is that the palm-oil workers will stop working in the palm-oil plantation and start drawing, thereby robbing Unilever of the exploited underclass that it, like all capitalist enterprises, needs to survive.
If Martens is redirecting art’s critical mandate, as he says he wishes to do, he is redirecting it towards creating art that is not critical at all, but that rather simply does what art does, or what capitalism does, or what whatever does. Perhaps what we need now, he is sayingâ€”and, again, I can’t help but agreeâ€”is engagement, whether naÃ¯ve or not,Â rather than negation, for only in our engagement can we, and whosoever has the (mis)fortune to surround our work, truly experience the absurd, hideous, exploitive nature of the institutions that structure our lives. As Danh Vo says in this hilariously uncomfortable YouTube interview with Bartholomew Ryan of the Walker Art Center: it is “very important to…exercise the bureaucracy.”
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.Â Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, IdeologyÂ is on view until May 18, 2014, at the Hammer Museum.Â Renzo Martens: Episode IIIÂ is on view until March 1st, 2014, at the BOX Gallery.
Starting Memorial Day, May 31, 2010, through Labor Day, September 6, 2010 over 700 MuseumsÂ will offer free admission to active military personnel and their families. This list organized by the National Endowment for the Arts & Â Blue Star Families (a non-partisan, non-profit organization, created by military families for military families)Â includes The Met, The MOMA, The Whitney, The Guggenheim, not to mention Chicago’s Art Institute & MCA. The complete museum list broken down by state can be found here.
This is a wonderful program that is both good politics, good business & good karma. I would love to see the Art Institute & MCA get together and lead the way by extending it to not only the summer but year round and for as long as America is at war. OurÂ museumsÂ in all 50 states have a sum collection of history and culture that isÂ unrivaledÂ throughout the world. A treasure that every militaryÂ personnelÂ should be welcomed andÂ encouragedÂ to see with open arms.
Chicago is the city ofÂ tomorrow, lets have Chicago lead the way.
UPDATE: After speaking with Erin Hogan Director of PublicÂ AffairsÂ with the Art Institute to clarify what the difference/change was in ongoing policy she explained that the established policy was active military were free but with Blue Star for the summer families of active military would be free as well. Also the website would be updated to better reflect this policy.
This is great to hear and hope it is a big success.
The kind folks across the pond at The Wizard’s Hat sent me two copies of Issue 03 (The Magic Number) of their illustration zine to give away. “The Wizard’s Hat is an illustration house & zine created by Jeffrey Bowman and Andy.J Miller as the platform for producing collaborative projects under one name. The house focuses itself on self initiated projects involving many of today’s most established illustrators as well as producing its own body of projects based on their love of illustration.”
Jim Stoten, Olimpia Zagnoli, Gemma Correll, Will Bryant, Nick Deakin, Nousvous, Robert Loeber, MrGauky, James Gulliver Hancock, C86, HeyHeyHey, Zeptonn vs. Welmoet, Kipi Ka Popo, Edward McGowan, Ashkahn Shahparnia, John Ringhofer, Andy J.Miller, Jeffrey Bowman
John Ringhofer, Half Handed Cloud, Jim Stoten, Jimtheillustrator, Andy J.Miller, ‘Ponstinople Clones’ feat Nick Philpin
Hit me up if you want a copy. First two people will get one.