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).
Mathias Jansson in conversation with Tilman Baumgärtel, curator for the exhibition "Computergames by Artist” at Hartware Medien Kunst Verein, Dortmund-Hörde, (2003), which featured an amazing line-up of artists from all over the world working with videogames:Julien Alma/Laurent Hart, F
Cory Arcangel, USA
Mister Ministeck Norbert Bayer, D
Tom Betts, GB
Pash Buzari, D
Leon Cmielewski/Josephine Starrs, AUS
Arcangel Constantini, MEX
Vuk Cosic, Slowenien
Aurélien Froment, F
Beate Geissler/Oliver Sann, D
Margarete Jahrmann/Max Moswitzer, A
Joan Leandre, E
Tilman Reiff/Volker Morawe, D
Anne-Marie Schleiner/Brody Condon, USA
Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag, D
Space Invader, F
Thomson & Craighead, GB
Olaf Val, D
Yang Zhenzhong, CHI
Lars Zumbansen, D
GameScenes: "Computergames by artist” was a large exhibition featuring 30 artists. Quite impressive! I supposed that there must must have been a lot of interest in Game Art, both in terms of audience and funding, correct?
Tilman Baumgärtel: Not really. We got some funding from the Bundeskulturstiftung, back then a very new government foundation, that sponsors all kind of art activities. I think we were among the very first to apply, as they just started out then. Maybe we were lucky that not so many applied at that time. This foundation has sponsored other media and digital art activities later on, but it was never particularly high on their agenda. We also got funding from a social foundation, called Fond Soziokultur. That is probably telling, as they are mostly into social projects, not in the arts. We got an award from them as their best project in that year, though, maybe because it was so different from what they usually support. However, we also got a honorary mention from the Art Critic Organisation AICA, so it wasn’t that the show was not taken seriously by art people.
GameScenes: In 1999, Shift e.V gallery in Berlin organized one of the first the exhibitions on Game Art in Germany. Could you describe the "climate" for Game Art in Germany in the beginning of 2000, so to speak?
Tilman Baumgärtel: There wasn’t really any "climate" for Game Art at that time. The shift people were the kind of people who are these absolute pioneers whose contribution never gets properly acknowledged. I saw their show "Reload", and it was really what got me interested in artists working with computer games. It wasn’t a genre back than, it was really just an interesting exhibition concept, and you really have to give it to them, that they commissioned original works, even though they were neither a commercial gallery nor a publicly funded art space. In fact, I wonder how they financed their activities. I have lost touch with them since, and I really regret that they are not around anymore, as they were among the few institutions that looked both at media art and regular art scene art. I guess they were really representative of that time in Berlin, where idealistic people left and right opened spaces like that. It would be much harder to do today, as even in Berlin rents went up and you cant just have an art space like that in such a central location (right on Friedrichstrasse!).
If my memory serves me right, the exhibition “Transmediale” in 2001 focussed on software art, and that was how people understood these game art works: as the next development in digital art after net art and software art. I am not sure anymore if I saw Game Art as a genre in its own right back then, probably not, as the subtitle of the show was "Computer Games by Artists", not "A presentation/retrospective of Game Art" or anything like that. I think that these kinds of labels are unproductive anyway, as the case of Game Art shows: Once you have a label like that, it turns into this little subculture, that is more interested in itself than reaching out beyond its own confines.
Anyway, the “Transmediale” on software art was what got the hArtware people interested in my project, as they had shown a presentation of software art works previously that was curated by Andreas Broeckmann, then the head of Transmediale, and his show to some extent was based on the works from that Transmediale (that might have been his first, but I am not sure, and the Transmediale website has elimanted the archive of these older shows). It had generated quite an interest in this phenomenon, and therefore it made sense to have a show on Software Art. Then Andreas hooked me up with Iris Dressler and Hans Dieter Christ, who had founded hArtware, and were still running it at that time. Then, one thing led to another, they were interested in the show, they got this huge new space, they wanted to have a good and popular show for the opening etc.
GameScenes: If you could write the ultimate history of Game Art, which artworks in the exhibition would you choose as good examples what Game Art was all about?
Tilman Baumgärtel: Well, all of them, of course.;)
I actually think there were not a lot of really great pieces that came afterwards. Game Art turned into this nerdy subgenre of media art, and kind of disappeared from my radar.
I am personally still most fond of the pieces by Jodi, especially these hacked Basic Games, officially titled "Jet Set Willy © 1984" (2002), but that is of course, because I had a hand in them being commissioned. I did a show with Jodi for Annette Schindler. Who ran the Basel-based art space Plug-In, and apart from showing older work, they did these pieces for the show. The show travelled to Berlin and to New York later, and it my proudest accomplishment among the few exhibitions that I did. It is a hard-sell for the audience, because it is about this really arcane and dated technology, and you have to be a bit of a geek to truly appreciate it. Then again, it was to me among the most "pure" works of game art because they worked with games, that allowed for very fundamental changes, because the code was so primitive and completely open. Anyway, Jodi for me always did the most representative and long-lasting works in whatever medium they worked, whether it was the net, computer interfaces, browsers, or now Google maps. They really have staying power, and they are still around, you really have to admire them for their creativity, their stamina, their will power and their stubbornness.
But, again, I think all the pieces in the show were good, and I think the show is still a very representative overview over some of the best game art works. And I think that it really made the show appealing, that it was not just works from the "usual suspects" but that it also had works from people that are not really part of that scene, like Yang Zhenzhong or Aurélien Froment.
There were some pieces, that should have been in the show, but were not for different reasons, like "Museum Meltdown" by Tobias Bernstrup and Palle Torrson because of its historic significance and "Pencil-Whipped" by Lonnie Flickinger for its sheer outlandishness.
GameScenes: As a media art theorist writing about net.art and Game Art how would you place Game Art in a contemporary art context?
Tilman Baumgärtel; Again, Game Art for me as a genre started to look exhausted after we had done the show. I am not really up to date what is going on in this field recently, so I should be careful with my opinions.
Nevertheless I think it is safe to say that Game Art never really reached the contemporary art context, at least if you talk about art that is sold in the art market. There were a few artists, like Feng Mengbo, who for some time got shown in regular galleries and even in Documenta, but in the long run, it just did not get any lasting recognition at all.
That goes not only for Game Art, but also net art and Software art, and I have raved and ranted elsewhere extensively about this, so I do not want to get into it again, but I think it has to do with some kind of technophobia in the art scene, the fact that the art scene is much more commercially driven than it was in the 70s, when video art became first successful and the fact that this kind of works has this whole infrastructure of festivals etc, so artists are not really forced to interact with the "real" art world. In general, I do not mind, as I am not an art person, but was in fact much happier with the workshops for kids at the hArtware show and the fact that very ordinary people were able to relate to the works. But I still think that people like Jodi did not get what they deserved so far.
In the particular case of Game Art one aspect that does not apply to other digital art forms so much is that is really very much a work with existing games, so it most of the time ends up being some sort of appropriation art or another and often is very much about the restrictions that certain games impose on you...
GameScenes: Looking into the future, do you think Game Art will be eventually absorbed into the broader Artworld as one genre/format/medium/style among many others, or will it continue to exist and grow somehow autonomously, with a specific set of aesthetics, theories, and practices?
Tilman Baumgärtel: I moved to Asia in 2004, not long after the hArtware show, and I am really not so in touch with the whole media art scene anymore, but from what I perceive here, the whole scene seems a bit dead. In fact, I was surprised that somebody would still be passionate enough about the whole thing to do an interview on this show. And to learn from "Gamescenes" that there are still artists working like that.
It seems right now the focus in the art world is really on selling very traditional works for very inflated prices, and since there are known issues with turning digital art into a commodity, there is little interest in these works. So I do not see Game Art being absorbed into anything, as long as there is no "conceptual turn" in the art world at large. Who knows, maybe people will get tired of this art market art at one point. I think it is now more important than ever for artists in contemporary technology, as it is such an important and transformative aspect of global culture. But it is very risky, and I can see why not a lot of people are trying it.
Sorry to disappoint you there.
I also think - and I was thinking that even back when we did the hArtware show - that the real revolution are not the artists games (actually I like this term much better than Game Art), but the original computer games themselves. I would really like to do a show on those, and have approached countless institutions about it, but so far nobody ever took me up on it. But that is something I would still like to do very very very much...