This interview took place in April of 2010 via email and it's part on an ongoing series curated by Mathias Jansson on the milestones of Game Art (for additional information, check the links at the bottom of this entry or take a look at this brand new page).
GameScenes: "Average Shoveler" (2004, above) evokes the look-and-feel of a classic adventure such as Leisure Suit Larry I (1987). What is your relationship to Leisure Suit Larry? Are there other games that have inspired you? What kind of influences can we expect in your future works?
Carlo Zanni: I was playing that game during my early high school years. A friend of mine brought these black floppies and a bunch of paper sheets in English that listed all the shortcuts to reach the end of the game.
USE THE TOILET
To me it was an epiphany. I don't usually play games. I'd love to do it but I don't know why I never do it. I’ve played The Sims, the very first series. I’ve played Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade at the same time of Leisure Suit Larry. Test Drive, Flight Simulator and some example of primordial soccer games.
GIVE FAWN CANDY
Of course Pong, and Xenon 2.
Donkey Kong, Oil Panic and Mickey & Donald on game&watch consoles
Grand Theft Auto.
I remember buying a lot of magazines about videogames but not playing that much.
Street Fighter on the Amiga, Olympic Games on the Intellivision.
The Super Mario Bros. arcade game in some old fashioned café... Was it Mario?
Now I remember I played a lot of tennis on a Nintendo box in the Nineties when I spent one year doing social services instead of joining the army. Hours and hours.
UNDRESS - USE RUBBER
I like to play Wii Golf in New York right now.
KNOCK ON THE DOOR
The Secret of Monkey Island!
GameScenes: "Average Shoveler" was commissioned by Rhizome at the New Museum. How did that come to be?
Carlo Zanni: Rhizome launched the program in 2001 and my work was awarded a commission in 2004:
“For the 2004-05 cycle, artists were invited to submit proposals relating to the theme of games. The call asked artists to propose projects that will contribute to the art game genre, or reflect on broad interpretations of the word "game." from Rhizome homepage.
GameScenes: "Average Shoveler" reminds me a bit of Space Invaders: it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting down aliens or shovelling snow, you just can’t win. Can you tell me something about the idea behind your game – and its embedded failure system?
Carlo Zanni: I thought Space Invaders had an end, a goal to reach. Perhaps the destruction of the big spaceship? Anyway, they are two very different things. "Average Shoveler" doesn't have points or levels or goals. It is a delivery system for “breaking news” masqueraded as a videogame. It's our daily intellectual spoon of white phosphorus bombs for total brainwashing. It is obviously a fictional environment but the feedback you get while playing is completely real: it stinks, it is a thick and sticky runway of blood and you catwalk on it, tapping your slick keyboard. On one level, "Average Shoveler" is quite boring: it turns into a contemplative screen when you get into the buildings and find yourself in a surreal scenario. On another, it is always morphing and changing, thus offering you unexpected adventures. But you need to do some extra work, think about what you’re experiencing. It’s not your average mind numbing videogame. It's tomorrow seen from today. The fun comes when you realize the implications behind the gameplay, and this takes some time and intellectual effort.
GameScenes: You are familiar with both the Italian and the North American art scene. Do you see any difference between the two countries in terms of critical reception, openness to experimentations etc.?
Carlo Zanni: If a critic approaches your work seriously it doesn't really matter if he is Italian or American. There are cultural differences of course, but these details are irrelevant, almost invisible. The real problem has to do with the large number of curators, critics, and dealers that have no background in new media: they don't give a shit, they just don’t “get it”, and because they don’t understand, your work has no value whatsoever. They don’t even ask the artist because admitting their ignorance would compromise their “expertise”. Therefore, if you’re working with new media – especially with videogames and internet art – you basically don't exist, you’re not even on the radar. Occasionally you see a bunch of shows that feature a few media pieces, but usually not in mainstream galleries or museums. It is a fringe-like business. You don't see new media works regularly shown in important group shows around the globe like it happens with other media, like photography, video, painting, and installations, nor you find them at top art fairs. In auctions, videos sell next to nothing in comparison to other media. Paul Pfeiffer, Bill Viola, Doug Aitken, Pipilotti Rist, Gary Hill, Tony Oursler who else? Think of the current paradox: there are millions of people right now creating videos with their cell phones but the bottom line is that the market still only trusts a piece of paper with ink on it. This is a problem for game Art and new media art. I guess the real question is: Can auctions related to new media art work the same way as auctions for paintings and traditional art? The above artists can sell their pieces as installations and/or hardware with embedded videos. I still have some doubts that a video can make $100.000+ in an auction in the form of a burned DVD with a signature on it, at least if not done hundred years ago: time is a gentleman in regard to history but not very often in regard to living people. The North American art scene is wider and broader. In some ways, it’s easier to get attention and opportunities to exhibit your work. Also, American universities are always eager to embrace new subjects and have been always investing in research while in Italy everything happens at a slow, glacial pace. Italy is paradoxically doomed by its Past and Tradition, both a bless and a burden. Other factors that prevent to country to explore new territories are the pervasiveness of the politics of the Church and the equally toxic popularity of neorealism and arte povera. At the same time, Europe as a whole provides plenty of opportunities for artists that do not fit the established canons. Moreover, there are smart minded curators who are able to recognize new phenomena, but like the artists themselves, they face similar problems in surviving in a conservative artworld. No matter how hard you try, if you work with games, you are pretty much invisible in the establishment of art. This is an important point to make because the artworld is a place where money comes and goes very fast. For these very reasons, it is an interesting playground. The hardest one. Nevertheless, for artists like us, ignored by the high powers of Art, Steve Jobs’s words come to mind as an inspiration, or better, as an imperative: This ain’t just business, This is practically spiritual… This is about overthrowing dead culture. Dead gods.
GameScenes: Antonio Riello’s “Italiani Brava Gente” is one of the earliest examples of Italian Game Art. What is your relationship to that artwork? Can you name any artists that inspired your investigation?
Carlo Zanni: “Italiani Brava gente” is a masterpiece. I came in contact with this artwork relatively late, in 1999, I don't remember. Around that time, I discovered an easy way to create simple videogames and I was experimenting with the possibilities of making art using a game-like structure. It took me a lot of effort and it did not quite work until Average Shoveler. As for the second part of your question, usually I don’t find myself inspired by other visual artists’ works but at the same time, there are some seminal pieces that I feel very close to, for many reasons. Among others, I would mention Cory Arcangel’s "Landscape Study" (2002); Yucef Merhi’s "Atari Poetry I" (2001); Jon Haddock’s "Isometric Screenshots" (2000); Mauro Ceolin’s RGB Tetris (2002) and Marco Brambilla’s "HalfLife (Surveillance Channel)" (2002).
GameScenes: What is the relationship between videogames and art?
Carlo Zanni: There’s clearly a parallel between Game Art/Video Art and the videogame industry/film industry. With the introduction of inexpensive camcorders in the Eighties, many artists began to experiment with the new format and video art boomed. Clearly, these videos were (and are) much smaller in production size than the average Hollywood production. The distribution and worldwide success of videogames created a gigantic industry of multi-million dollar titles (both in terms of budget and revenue). Tools like Flash and screen capture applications as well as hacking techniques are helping artists to craft game-like projects. Like art videos, these are usually smaller in size than their counterparts for the mass market. But things are changing: think about the emergence of DIY film-making, epitomized by films such as “Breaking Upwards” or “Paranormal Activities” that cost about $15.000 to make. Filmmakers are exploring new formats and tools to create feature films. And the studios are taking notice: Paramount, for instance, is opening a new division called Insurge Pictures to “micro finance” up to ten movies with a maximum budget of $100.000 each. The repercussions on video art will be huge and the might amplify the very meaning of terms like DIY, which too often refers to lo-fi, rough, crude, and – let’s admit it – juvenile, crappy projects. We might see something similar with Art Games that could feature much longer and much more complex narratives...
GameScenes: What can videogames do for the art scene?
Carlo Zanni: Going abstract, I can say that a pivotal feature of videogames is the chance to save the game you are playing with. You stop playing and come back on it even days later. It is much more like when you read a book or you follow a TV series. This is interesting to me because there is a time while you rest your mind; you think of your past experience, you sort of meditate on it. Perhaps you feel some sort of a urge growing inside, a wish that needs to be fulfilled in your next play. I would like to see this approach transferred to the art scene, where too many people are just jumping from a project to the next, trusting their own taste but never looking outside their courtyard, so to speak. This is another problem within the artworld that is promoting and presenting to the audience very easy decorative works or modernist revivals. Game Art could challenge the status quo.
Link: Play Average Shoveler
Text by Mathias Jansson.