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, take a look at this brand new page).
GameScenes: In 2004, you took part in the Whitney Biennial as a member of the "The Velvet-Strike team", which also featured Anne-Marie Schleiner and Brody Condon. How did this collaboration come to be? What was the idea behind "Velvet-Strike"?
Joan Leandre: We met somehow with Anne Marie in Barcelona. Anne's work was sort of a reference to me, same with Brody. I think there was a lot of mutual understanding and coincidence in what we all many people were doing, after all, this sort of complicity is what makes a team project go on by itself, in a natural way...and it's the same for any good thing in life, good stuff goes out the easy way, the rest is just wrong. No need for additives.
After the events in 2001 we somehow decided to break into one of those simwar networks and “Counter Strike” was one of the more visible and popular and so to speak iconic computer distraction productions related to this “fight against terrorism” nonsense fear vs horror god damned nightmare. We proposed a public contest for making anti-war graffiti inside the game using some native features of the software. There was later a replica of the “Counter Strike” web site from where you could download those mods and use them in your own system. Suddenly this crazy guys “playing” counter strike could see those naif and cheese anti-war graffiti in the walls of the game where they were trying to kill the “bad” boys.
In my opinion Velvet Strike was an attempt to put in crisis the term “game” when applied to such a thing, that is when the so called game crosses the boundary of the act of playing itself and goes become some sort of narcotic routine for bewildered people. I mean when the natural process of learning is gone from the act of playing and you go spend your life in the screen triggering digital events in the machine. Velvet Strike was about using the native possibilities of the software to reverse its own meaning inside a social network. It was about inducing some feedback inside this community of so to speak “players” and suggest the possibility to scape the routine of such monochromatic psychopath after all lonely practices. Then, calling it art or something else is beyond the content of the project itself, that was in my opinion just an aftermath which was good for starting a debate and a public knowledge about the topic.
GameScenes: At the Whitney Biennal 2004 Cory Arcangel's seminal “Super Mario Cloud” was also on display. It’s curious that two game-based art projects were selected that year, isn’t it?
Joan Leandre: In the mid to late 90's there was a first wave of people being interest in bringing computer game software productions beyond the standards of entertainment and distraction and do something else whatever we would like to call it, from simple jokes to more elaborated projects. Those, such as early works by Anne Marie, Brody, Julien Oliver, Eddo Stern, Jodi...we were sharing a lot with Jodi by the time around 1999 here in Barcelona when I was finishing “retroyou RC FCK the Gravity Code” and they just finished the “Untitled Game” series which is in my opinion a work of an extraordinary importance.
In those days computer games didn't get yet to the level of socialization, popularity and business of nowadays but that was just a matter of time. Few years later I think Hartware and Tilman's Games among very few other exhibits draw a line. Between 2003 and 2004 there was a peak when it comes to this interest for computer game based projects...there started to be many exhibitions and many people going into this. Nothing new actually, this is the way it works, like waves...you might be a good surfer then you spot a perfect wave you go for it you ride it and enjoy, then as wave looses power you just go down and try to catch another one, some people does love surfing.
“Velvet” and “Super Mario Clouds” were included in the Biennial because both were recent contemporary oriented and heterogeneous projects inside this new ready to exploit digital art trend category so called gameart or whatever terminology you'd like to use. I personally think this is obviously a really weak and poor approach, this waves of new fresh stuff...I don't like this social surf it's too much static monochrome but sometimes by accident you are on the wave. It works as in this mood of permanent update typical of our days specially when it comes to tech products, when today you buy some new trendy device and tomorrow becomes an insult to your dignity because is too old fashioned. It is all so obvious that better not to talk about it. In any case “Velvet Strike” started as some sort of interruption in a very particular war-sim network. It made some people inside this environment very mad and upset which means the project actually made sense. For a few months they mailed us, they insulted and told us they would kill us and so, then they invited us to Whitney and many other events, the circle was closed.
GameScenes: In 2003 you took part in the exhibition “Games: Computer games by artists” (11/10-30/11-2003) @ Hartware Medien Kunst Verein, Dortmund-Hörd, curated by Tilman Baumgärtel. Can you share something with us about this exhibition? How did you get involved?
Joan Leandre: Games was a great pleasure and I have a nice memory, I worked before with Iris Dressler & Hans D. Christ at Hartware Medien Kunst Verein in a software exhibition called Control Panels, those people are always really fully involved in what they do. They did a good job together with Tilman. The exhibition as I said before was somehow the first big one about computer game based projects, it was split in two parts, as far as I remember one about software and installation projects the second one about video productions related to the computer game sphere.
Joan Leandre, "retroyou_RC" (1999) (source)
GameScenes: In Dortmund you presented retroYou nostal(G) (2002-2003) which is now regarded as milestone of Game Art. Since then, you have returned to retroYou several times. That concept resurfaces in other of your works. Can you explain your iterative strategy?
Joan Leandre: Retroyou was some sort of joke environment which hosted several serial projects. It was never intended to be a monolithic project but a modular project. The first series was totally finished in 1999 composed of many variations starting with “retroyou RC Fck the Gravity Code” and “retroyou RC Butterfly Overflow” which was based on a very popular racing game of the late 90,s.
The native main objectives of interactivity (racing-competition) and narratives in the original game were progressively vanishing after a precise act of interruption via software, someone could talk about deconstruction which at this point sounds a little obvious to me, I rather prefer to think about this sort of interventions as interruptions or even better translations. So then, the gravity center of such a simulated world was set to be spinning around so there were all floating objects, no racing, no game and progressively the software itself was turning into some sort of self running screen saver running without the need of any human input. One could float away beyond the limits of the game map, you could see all the hidden geometry, all the mess from above while getting into the blue sky...it was really like visiting the backstage of the software itself. That was a great pleasure, like finally finding something really suggestive inside a commercial computer game. I remember this fresh feeling of doing something that is sharp and simple.
The retroyou environment project continued as some sort of serialized collection of tests on different contexts not only computer games, some of them were never shown as they were not intended to be shown at all. In some sort of continuation to retroyou RC there was “retroyou nostal(G) Wings of Fire” which in few words was about a flight simulator reduced to the minimal expression, geographic data was lost, there was only one remaining airport at 3500 meters high with a runaway one square meter of size, aircraft aerodynamics turned into a crazy nightmare, no human could pilot such an aircraft, again only the machine was allowed to fly the Iron Bird. So, I could honestly say, all together is a continuity of tests based on software or in general in the contemplation and translation of mass media environments as well as about the act of interrupting them.
In general I think it is very relevant this idea of postulating against progress as it is understood by corporate powers, for instance in the form of tiny particular projects of reversing, interrupting or whatever sort of symbolical acts of sabotage. Perhaps this is very important these days. It gives us the chance to put some color in this very often monochromatic global society and to trigger some nice feedback, like a Boomerang round trip.
Joan Leandre, "retroyou_RC" (1999) (source)
GameScenes: Could you describe your relationship to games and art?
Joan Leandre: As you can guess I'm a cheater when it comes to technology and I never understood the technological medium in an unconditional way...basically I can't understand the tasteless euphoric approach to technology same when it comes to art, no way. Takes long slow time in life to get to learn, I never played computer games, little excess with computer is bad for health and at some point it makes you stupid. You really have to cheat if you are to survive computers.
Instead of being a victim or part of the bewildered herd I choose to take a distance and put some close look to what is beyond the machine. I always felt close to the observation of mass media phenomenon’s and the effort to draw an interpretation hypothesis for instance, how do they work and how the are being used. I consider “Velvet Strike” or “RC” and the rest of projects including the “Babylon Archives” or the new recent series “In the Name of Kernel”, something closer to this sort of analytical approach expressed with great fury or with great calm.
The resulting object somehow might later escape your control and turn into pure art fetishism...others will like it, understand it or just write and guess about it but as said before that's another story. Basically the digital entertainment business is now in the epicenter of this galaxy of products, sub-products, fascination and repulsion, this sinister and blurry idea of progress, of data property where everything is a game of mirrors and most people get bewildered and fall into this narcotic state of mind when the screen becomes your kingdom and your body a prison. Now, this idea of game is very important for the world these days more than ever before, I mean the true game when playing is about true learning as opposite to cloning, repetition, mass production, machine slavery.
I found it was really fun to change the sense and meaning of mass media products. It was nice to cheat computer games and use them in such a way they became absurd toys. Interrupting computer games is the real playtime. Playing is a matter of freedom without conditions as it should be in art and any other human activity. By default mass media distraction computer games are designed to reproduce the conditions of slavery through the administration of regular doses of permanent updating, all covered by a layer of colorful and euphoric promises. Crowds of people are ruining their lives in the screen giving feedback to a machine which in a broader context is no more than a giant pocket calculator.
Text by Mathias Jansson.
All images courtesy of the artists.
Link: “Velvet-strike” (2002)