This interview took place in March 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).
Mathias talked to Robert Nideffer, Professor of Studio Art and Informatics; Co-Director for the Art, Computation and Engineering Program (ACE), Director of the UC Irvine Game Culture and Technology Lab and Affiliated faculty in the Visual Studies Program.
GameScenes: In 1999 you took part in the seminal exhibition ”Cracking the Maze”. For that event, you developed a now legendary patch forTomb Raider. Can you tell me something about the exhibition, how you got involved, and if you had earlier experiences with videogame-based art?
Robert Nideffer: As you probably know, the exhibition was curated by Anne-Marie Schleiner, a very interesting artist in her own right. It was the first online specifically game-art focused exhibit I'm aware of. I found her concept really interesting. If memory serves correct, she put out some sort of call and I responded to it, and she wa gracious enough to let me do something for the show. At that point I'd certainly played a lot of videogames, and had been doing some work that either had elements of games in it and/or was inspired by games, but it wasn't really the main focus of much of the work in the way it's become ove the past 10+ years since. For example I'd done my Ph.D. in the social sciences a few years earlier ("Bodies, Nobodies, and Antibodies At War: Operation Desert Storm and the Politics of the "Real"", 1994) as an interactive CD-ROM dealing with the mediation of the Gulf War of '91. The role that the trope of "gaming" played in that project was a pretty big part of the analysis, as was inclusion of actual game media that was being produced at the time, and which was part of the general "discursive terrain" of the war effort so to speak, not to mention all the wargame simulation Genral "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf was using to prep soldiers for the battlefield down in Florida. Post Ph.D., as an MFA student, I got the chance to production manage and art-direct another CD-ROM project in collaboration with the noted physicist Stephen Hawking called "Life in the Universe" which, in addition to the overall UI being pretty playful and game-like, incorporated a couple of Director based games - one to replicate RNA sequences, and another to decode radio signals, inspired by Hawking's liking and suport of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute's mission. Other than that, it was mostly just little hacks and experiments for fun.
GameScenes: What was the intention behind the Tomb Raider patch? It played a very influential role in the history of Game Art.
Robert Nideffer: Ummm, well I'm not sure I would dare claim it as such, but gee, thanks! The theme of Schleiner's show was the game "hack," "patch," or "crack." In that context the crack became a means to reflect on gaming culture from another angle, and to attempt to contribute to the formation of new configurations of game characters, game space, and gameplay. At the time of the show, the real Tomb Raider (published by Eidos Interactive), and its main heroine Lara Croft, was an extremely popular video game franchise. So popular in fact, it had become the target of one of the most famous underground game patches called "Nude Raider," which stripped the title character of what little clothes she had. I decided I wanted to "patch the patch" for my project. In that interest, Tomb Raider consisted of three-parts: 1) an appropriated website where I repurposed the existing commercial site; 2) a spoofed mail-server that re-routed messages submit to her fan club website to the Director of development at Eidos UK as if it were coming from the Director of Marketing in the US branch; and 3) a patched version of the Nude Raider patch, which placed police blotter style bar codes across Lara's private parts (and gave her a goatee as a Duchampian homage), thwarting the game player's expectation of seeing her polygonal private parts.
GameScenes: Did people back them "get" this particular artwork? I mean, it paid homage to Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q", but in a videogame context. However, if the viewer was not familiar with the original artifact or did not have a clue about Lara Croft, she/he was bound to miss out on a significant part of the artwork.
Robert Nideffer: Well, comprehension is always an issue, isn't it. There's certainly plenty of times, after it's all said and done, that I'm not even sure I unterstand what my work's about. Usually I just try to make up compelling enough stories after the fact - for merit and promotion, for interviews, or simply for my own need to feel I've done something worthwhile with my time! Seriously though, you're absolutely right, and such things as tongue in cheek (or van-dyke on chin) nods to Duchamp, or my patch's relationship to the original Nude Raider patch for example, are often easily lost in the mix. I remember one critical review written where the piece was mentioned and the author, though she was quite flattering (and an extremely smart theorist), interpreted the piece in a completely unexpected way - and certainly not one I'd thought much about when making it. That's not to say it wasn't a perfectly valid reading, it was just comprehension of another sort. So I guess all I'm trying to say is that "getting it" is a tricky game, and often has little if any to do with authorial intent, goals, and objectives - that can be the beauty and/or the horror of it.
GameScenes: The following year you organized an equally important exhibition with Antoinette LaFarge titled "SHIFT-CTRL". What was the idea behind this event? And why was it held at The Beall Center for Art and Technology?
Robert Nideffer: "SHIFT-CTRL" was the inaugural exhibition for the Beall Center for Art and Technology, then a brand new media art facility at the University of California Irvine campus. It was one of the first international exhibitions to showcase the use of game metaphors, design principles, and technologies as part of a critical art practice. We felt this was particularly important to do as games exploded from a niche market dominated by a youth demographic to occupy cultural center stage. The exhibition showcased a broad array of creative work related to gaming, and provided alternative models for looking at how computer games and gaming culture were affecting the larger society. We had a pretty good budget, so we could do it right. The show was supported by Rockwell International, the Beall Family Foundation, RareCSP, Attachmate Corporation, Antenna Design New York Inc., Apple, and Toshiba America. The works were clustered into three main conceptual categories: "role-playing games as shared social spaces," "evolvable and emergent systems, "and "world hacks." "SHIFT-CTRL" was pretty well received, and got coverage in a variety of media including the LA Times, OC Register, OC Weekly, GameFace Magazine, NPR, and PBS affiliate KOCE-TV. The Beall Center was, interestingly enough, endowed by Donald Beall who was the retired Chairman and CEO of the Rockwell Corporation - a transnational corporation renowned for manufacture of electronic controls and communications, particularly in the fields of avionics, munitions, and manufacturing. However, Mr. Beall is credited with streamlining Rockwell's management program, and steering the company away from its dependence on the defense industry to focus on commercial electronics. My understanding was he gave the grant to UCI as a gift to his wife Joan, who had been very active in promoting K-12 arts education in Orange County. Apparently, rumor has it, they at least liked the show! In general it was very well received by the campus, the surrounding community, and the media - which was great, since it was a bit of a risk at the time. People came from all over the Southern California region (and beyond) to see it. Lots more kids and families came than was expected and/or usual for art shows on campus, teachers brought classes on field trips, etc. We were pretty pleased with how popular it was while up.
GameScenes: How would you describe the North-American Game Art scene a decade ago? Was there any interest in lodo-artistic interventionss or was digital gaming largely ignored in artistic contexts?
Robert Nideffer: Well, it still can be hard to convince some people that videogames can be art objects. But it remains equally hard to convince them that urinals can be art objects too! Convincing people what should or shouldn't count as art is as at least as thorny a problem as comprehension. I remember soon after coming to the UCI campus (around the time-frame you mention, or maybe a little before), I gave a talk to a group of very smart people from all over campus interested in information technology, computing, HCI, social theory, and so on. At the end of my presentation, which included a number of game-related projects, the first question I got asked was "Well that's all very interesting, but what makes it art?" Not missing a beat (I suppose because such a response was not entirely unexpected) I queried back "Because I'm in the art department?" At least they laughed. But to try to respond more directly to your question, my sense at the time was that, at least in terms of the people I was dealing with which included other artists (as well as colleagues from a variety of other disciplinary locales), critics, historians, the general public, were quite curious about what was going on, and the fact that it was happening in within a "fine art" frame of reference didn't seem to be an issue. If it was, I never heard about it.
GameScenes: Looking back at the early years of Game Art, is there anything that you find surprising about the evolution of Game Art?
Robert Nideffer: It's certainly been exciting to watch how much it's grown, and how sophisticated and facile new generations of artists are in working with the medium, both technically as well as conceptually, particularly those who come out of a strong critically informed background and training in the arts. It's also been interesting to watch various cultural institutions - galleries, museums, universities, just to name a few - have made moves to embrace game inspired art, culture, and technology. My sense is that many people and places are struggling to make sense of and situate what's happening "on the ground." That struggle often reflects a variety of mixed motives - i.e., games being presented as "art" as a way of bringing more bodies through museum doors, courting resource-rich games companies into sponsoring cultural events by framing their visual components of their product as fine art, game-centered academic programs being developed to boost flagging enrollments in certain disciplines and/or to try to get corporate kick-backs, and so on. But those mixed motives, and the attempted sense-making, is a big part of what keeps it interesting. I just wish I could be around 50 years from now to see what's going on.
Text by Mathias Jansson
Link: Robert Nideffer
Link: The Tomb Raider patch
Link: SHIFT-CRT (link to PDF)
Also in this series (Game ArtWorlds: The Early Years):