This interview took place in January of 2010 via email and it's part on an ongoing series written by Mathias Jansson on the seminal milestones in the Game ArtWorld (for additional information, check the links at the end of this entry).
Opening night RELOAD@shift, 25.09.1999:
GameScenes: Can you tell me something about the creation of Shift
e.V gallery in 1995?
Martin Berghammer: Shift e.V. was a privately held non-profit art-organization founded in 1995 by myself and a group of Berlin-based artists. We provided a platform for exhibitions, lectures, and events that dealt with crossover-tendencies in contemporary art. After six years and nearly twenty-five exhibitions Shift closed its doors in spring 2001.
GameScenes: What’s your relationship to art and videogames?
I am an artist, I started as a painter in the 1980s, later switched to installation, and worked with different media including Super-8 film and video. I founded Shift in 1995 and ran it as a director and curator for six years. I became interested in video games in the early nineties, I played some "harmless" adventure-games (like Myst). At that time I discovered DVD-projects from artists and musicians that were built around a game aspect, such as "Freak Show" from the band "The Residents". The game Quake caught my attention not because of its furious action, but for the fact that it was the first game to allow networked (IP-based) gaming; it seemed like a good example for a 3D-environment providing real-time-interaction and -communication (chat). After becoming a gamer myself - which I felt was a necessary step in order to be able to work with it - I became aware of the various peculiar and creative aspects to the culture of gaming. Any modification of the game, of its levels and characters, required a lot of coding experiments with buggy editors and handcrafted tools released by other gamers, everything was "learning by doing". I noticed an interesting momentum here: a growing sub-culture connected to a technical revolution had begun to enter the mainstream. Such a wave could serve as a metaphor for how culture mutates in general as well as how cultural borders are transgressed.
GameScenes: I found this comment about Reload very interesting: “Despite their enormous economic and social relevance, online games are still reduced to being a waste of time and appropriate only in the realm of nerds and slackers.” It seems to me that the idea that videogames could be indeed art must have been regarded with disbelief and scorn at that time. On the other hand the exhibition Reload toured Germany during 1999-2001, so there must have been a growing interest in this new form of art?
In the early nineties
gaming was still an underground phenomenon, unnoticed by the mainstream, and
not taken seriously in the contemporary art world. Only a few media artists
worked with modifying computer code, HTML-pages and games, and formed an
outsider group within the art world. Working in that field required quite a lot
of technical skills, and the audience also needed a certain amount of expertise
in order to fully understand the work. By the mid-nineties the aesthetics
of computer-, game- and web-interfaces slowly started to invade mainstream
media like news-TV, advertising or MTV-music-clips and artists became more
aware of the potential of the web and virtual space as a source of material and
inspiration. Through researching
the topic on the web I discovered the work of some of the other artists
(mentioned earlier in this interview serie) that had worked in the 3D-game
space, but processing that whole phenomenon intellectually had not yet
GameScenes: How did you select the artists for the exhibition?
When I started to play Quake myself I immediately knew that there was an art-project somewhere in there, but didn't quite know how to approach it. In 1998, while playing online I met Florian Muser & Imre Oswald who had built a Quake-level representing the Hamburger Kunsthalle. That was a starting point; I invited them and several other artists, whose work dealt with architecture, 3D and/or internet-based media-art, to contribute to a gaming-project. Only some of them had experience with gaming and/or Quake. A bunch of blinking computer screens in an empty room always looks a bit odd - I therefore decided to go for a "real space vs. hyperspace" concept for the show, since I thought it was important to base it within actual, physical space. The main conceptual decision we made in modifying Quake was not to deconstruct - i.e. destroy - the game but to work within the given environment and let the software be "playable" (to keep it fun...). The group working on the digital pieces quickly became a team, helping each other with the many technical challenges they were facing. Muser & Oswald's "Hamburger Kunsthalle" level was basically finished when I invited them - the piece was then later acquired by the museum. The other Quake-levels were commissioned for the show, production time was several months. We had a public Quake-server running during the exhibition that allowed players from outside to join in (you had to download and install the modified levels from our website).
The exhibition designer was Stefan Wieland. Can you explain the big idea behind his innovative and original design?
Stefan Wieland's piece was a hybrid between sculpture and exhibition architecture, spread across all rooms, and consisted of six giant letters forming the word RELOAD. As often in his work he used a word/text-fragment as a starting point, reducing it to a simple object that still subtly referred to its original meaning. Working directly with the proportions of the exhibition space he transformed it into a sort of real world game level, playfully forcing the visitor to navigate through the gallery by climbing over and around the sculptural components. Furthermore, the sculpture, while elegantly hiding the computer hardware, served as a stand for the four terminals running the Quake-mods, as well as providing a pedestal for Astrid Herrmann's architectural models of game-space interiors. In the second edition of RELOAD that travelled to Geneva, Nuernberg, Munich, and Frankfurt we tried as a group to merge the two realms a little more, and, using the new version of the game Quake 3, we designed a virtual representation of Stefan Wieland's new sculpture as a single game-level in the form of the word LOST.
Well, as is often the
case when people encounter a screen in an exhibition, here they were also
initially in more of an observation mode. Then they would hesitatingly grab the
mouse and begin to click it. Others would ask me what to do etc., so I would
give them a brief introduction and show them how to get around....and off they
went on a virtual stroll. The visitors familiar with games immediately
felt comfortable, as well as some Turkish teenagers who came to play every
afternoon with their McDonald's food in hand, as if the gallery was a gaming
arcade (after a few weeks we had to kick them out though...). Once a curator
stormed in and loudly declared himself to be a pacifist - later that night he
was the last person to leave and we had to pull the plug on him.
GameScenes: What surprised you most?
I was definitely surprised by how quickly and seriously the whole topic of games and virtual space was taken over by academia and theorists. I am stunned (and at times dismayed...) by the momentum of this technical (r)evolution, in particular by the extent to which it now overstimulates and governs our lives. The boundaries between reality and virtual space are blurred more and more: head-up-displays in cars, air-tags for cell phones, military equipment etc. You might even say that we're already living in a gamer's science-fiction world today.
Florian Muser und Imre Osswald created a 3D version of the museum "Hamburger Kunsthalle" as a game-space and an arena.
Web-Artist Holger Friese built a level from scratch, ignoring the conventions of level-building, using textures and graphics recalling his previous work therefore creating sort of a walkable catalog.
A fan of French avant-garde architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, Tom Ehninger re-created the 1923 "sketch for a house" as a Quake-level that proved to be very popular among players.
Christine Meierhofer modified and abstracted an
existing Quake-level by replacing all textures, objects, and player figures
with b&w wire-frame drawings.
Text by Mathias