Based in London, Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson work together and often as igloo with international artists, including John McCormick and Adam Nash. Their practice is multifaceted ranging through installation, intervention, virtualisation, film and performance drawing on the multiple layers of reality and unreality. Much of their work is in recreating environments and systems where coding joins hands with choreographies of the body. Their core concept is the intersection between technology and the human spirit, where our ambivalence to technology is explored with originality, humour and intellect.
One of their most interesting project is SwanQuake, created in 2007.
This interview took place in May 2010 via email.
GameScenes: SwanQuake combines Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake and the first-person shooter Quake. Is the title meant to be interpreted as part of your "artistic statement", meaning that the boundaries between high-art and popular culture are not as rigid as one might think? That gameplay is the 21st century equivalent of ballet?
BM: It’s not really a statement merely a pun - as are many of our titles. We’re using a game engine and incorporating dancing avatars. We were originally going to use the Quake Engine at first then Half-life (we we’re also going to have a more game like ‘Easter eggs’ where you could shoot the ballerinas, but we dropped that).
Cynthia Beth Rubin says it better:
"If Games signify popular youth culture, Dance signifies established high Art culture. Putting them together challenges the non-game savvy viewer, and no doubt equally confuses the gamer. But that is the point. Hybrid culture is not just about mixing East and West in a move towards "cultural diversity"'; it is also about mixing strands of culture within the same geographic location. It is about that mix representing generational differences, gender preferences (whether they come from socialization of some other root) and even differences in class and educational background which define expectations of what constitutes leisure time." (Cynthia Beth Rubin)
The boundaries between fine art and popular culture exist, and some forms of art remain elitist and ideas of what ‘craft’ is are confused, with the skill being in the idea not necessarily in the workmanship. Anyway, we are interested in putting different forms together one’s which you wouldn’t ordinarily see together or combined. Some people find the need to categorize and notions of art being entertainment can be frowned upon heavily.
"When I first encountered the work of igloo a number of years ago what impressed me most, ironically was not the technology, but the territory that they explored, revealed & developed with that technology. As director of Fieldgate Gallery, I have encountered & am familiar with video art, site-specific installations, & the video game, & have even seen these elements combined together. What I had not seen before was the total eradication of the boundaries between these disciplines, & it is here that igloo’s work is genuinely original. The worlds they create are total simulacrums: there is no separation between the invented & the real, the site & the represented, the local & the imagined. It is a territory that is cohesive & singular in language, yet simultaneously is forever folding in on itself. There work engages the particular of the site while undermining its place, the original & point of departure become one in a conceptual unraveling." (Richard Ducker, 2010)
We sometimes show it in an animation context and this crowd is interesting because although we are welcomed with open arms there has been a recent backlash against 3D work because of it’s prevalence in the cinema/movies special effects etc, so appreciation of old techniques are trendy again same in film making. In seven years this will probably change again a constant back and forth of what’s in and what’s out. In some Game Art its people manipulating code, being clever with it and retro, this is also a trend like early interactive media movements. Already interactive design, also ‘the conceptual’ in modern art maybe starting to appear pretty tired these days.
GameScenes: What were your original goals when you developed SwanQuake? What kind of techniques did you use build it?
BM: We had been working for a number of years on live performance, using media onstage, controllable virtual characters, ASCII cameras and making CD-Roms. We had been experimenting to try and give some sort of control to the audience. We wanted to make some sort of performance that you could give to someone - actually put something it on their hand -or make it so they could have it at home. We thought about video - but its linear and fixed viewpoint, also difficult to deliver on the web. We had been fooling around with mocap - we made a little piece on the web dotdotdot - you can spin the performers around, slow them down, zoom in etc. it breaks the proscenium arch... because its gotta be quick to download, the audio is internet radio and the characters dont have textures and there’s no environment. A logical next step was to make a 3d world for the performance that you can navigate. That means a game engine. We conceived SwanQuake as a series, we are working on the other environments now -they are more fantastical. We install Swanquake in galleries because that seems to be the best ‘fit’ - now we are building the virtual environments into furniture and creating installations- this is to enhance the sense of immersion.
Actually we’re using the Unreal Engine - in fact the ancient Unreal Engine 2 Runtime - Unreal 3 wasn’t around when we began working, initially we wanted to use the Valve Source which was called the Half-Life 2 engine back then, there was a problem with the code being leaked onto the net - that held up Half-Life back for an age, eventually we had to start building - Unreal hadn’t been a choice as the Unreal tournament etc look so horrible. Runtime is great because its small - it comes with absolutely no assets at all. The editor bundled with tournament mean you have to do a big install of game assets, we didn’t want any of that. Runtime is a blank slate. Of course the editor is great! Now we’re working with Unity and UDK for different pieces...
RG: We used Vicon optical motion capture systems for the avatars in SwanQuake but for other projects we have used many different systems such as Animazoo Gypsy Gyro, Hypervision, Ascension Motion Wireless, Gypsy Exoskeleton and Flock of Birds to name but a few.
SwanQuake: the user manual [see more images here]
GameScenes: You also created an impressive "user manual". However, unlike traditional instructional texts, your intriguing document is a collection of thoughts and ideas about the very notion of Game Art. Was that document "necessary"? I mean, is Game Art such an arcane, esoteric concept that you felt compelled to write a detailed explanation?
BM: Seemed like we could do with something that gave context -galleries get what were doing when we can show them the pieces in another gallery -there’s a sort of ‘oh yeah I get it...’ moment. But if that’s not possible we need something else. Also we are often asked to talk about the work and sometimes give workshops, the book is handy for that. Another reason was that most books about videogame art are B/W - we’re really visual and wanted to see some colour pix. The User Manual is part of a series - in a way we wanted to get over the bits talking about us and get onto other people. We don’t write ourselves so we worked with Scott (the editor) to get a bunch of people to write the essays, we also wanted a variety of opinions. The next book is about the user experience -were are interviewing some artists and commissioning essays.
RG: The manual doesn’t tell you how to play the game because there aren’t any rules really. The first half is more of a diary about - ‘the making of’ and there are instructions of how to actually build what we have and contextualise the work a bit. We wanted to de- mystify the complexities to encourage others to have the confidence to try and make work like this themselves. For the second half we invited several writers to offer up essays around the themes. We are just about to start a follow up which will be less about us and more about artists we missed out, ideas of designing experiences.
GameScenes: Are you also gamers? What is your relationship to videogames?
BM: When I was a boy I had a ZX81 and I used to try and write computer games. - that was really hard and the graphics were somewhat limited....later on I used to run a small design house, one of the clients was the Media Museum in Bradford in the UK. They were adding a media section and my company was asked to help curate and do interactive design for the computer games section. Quake II was really new then and I was making a virtual version of the museum as a Quake level for an exhibit about multiplayer gaming. I made the Quake level and tested it from plans without visiting the real place. When I went for a site visit I was amazed that I instinctively knew where to go in the museum - all the spaces were in my body, just from playing the game. I had a light bulb moment and realised that actually 3d environments were actually really great simulations of real places BUT because almost all computer games are based on fantasy spaces we don’t realise because we never been in an alien spacecraft or a dungeon to compare the game to the real version. Anyway straight away I thought this would be something to investigate.
RG: We used to paint together - the subject often grew from screen shots taken from games such as Sonic Hedgehog. We embedded silicon chips into the paint for the ‘rings’. We started working on a motion capture animation and were talking to Wavefront and SoftImage about ideas we had about making the entirely motion captured work, people, objects, even water - we were in San Francisco and looking at data gloves and VR - which seems to have resurfaced these days with the advent of stereoscopic and 3d. We worked on a project ’end-if’ initially in VRML, hilarious which never really got made - but it was the beginnings of works like dotdotdot (an interactive internet radio widget with 6 motion captured characters you can manipulate and choose different genres of music to listen to in the process.)
I have ended up working closely with motion capture ever since as performer, coach, supervisor and researcher.
GameScenes: Do contemporary art critics understand Game Art at all? What was the reaction of the art world to complex artworks like SwanQuake?
RG: We’re not really that interested. Unless it’s someone like English art critic Brain Sewell who can certainly liven up a journey on the tube, even though you may not always agree with him he’s definitely worth it. We’re into people who make stuff really and what they have to say.
We were pretty apprehensive when EDGE & the The Guardian Games blog said they were coming to review the opening show of SwanQuake: House. We thought the journalists would just not get it. We were pleasantly surprised to read the reviews, in fact we were very happy with them, they got a real sense of the work.
When we started using game engines to make work one of our first projects was exhibited on a large scale at ISEA/Zero1 in San Jose and Bill Viola was the key note at the conference that year. Many colleagues were in the front few rows of the audience and immediately turned round to us when Viola starting speaking about his new Night Journey (his game environment). I think then it dawned on us that hey, people will accept this artform soon enough if Bill does it. He made video art ok so maybe he’ll do the same for this genre or at least art using game tools?
GameScenes: Have you been inspired by other Game Artists?
RG: Not really or should I say not yet, maybe Damiano Colacito because his work is exquisite and hes been making real versions of virtual objects for a long time...also sculptor Oswan Gong who uses a weird photorealistic texture mapping technique, and Richard Wentworth for his playfulness, Doshin the Giant on the GameCube and the Space Channel 5, the Dreamcast game.
BM: So far I prefer games to game art, almost nothing compares the thrill of Half-Life intro sequence, but you have to mention the n+n Corsino and Dear Esther by Dan Pinchbeck. As for ‘regular’ artists say Xavier Veilhan! Right now our australian colleagues Adan Nash and John McCormick (SquareTangle) are doing some amazing things with domes - when we first started working with them on SwanQuake it was inspiring to see the projects they had previously made.
GameScenes: In the "Tales of the Forest" exhibition that took place at the Virserum Art Hall in Sweden (9/5 -5/12 2010), you are showing a piece called Summerbranch. How would you describe it?
Summerbranch is a 3d environment which evokes an English forest and has camouflaged characters hidden in it. We made it and a series if other works including video and lenticular prints, during a residency in the New Forest in the UK. Usually it’s a large video projection, with a wooden interface modelled from a virtual tree stump, with wooden trackball and buttons. We’ve always been obsessed with computer games trees, these ones we had to grow from virtual seeds. We talked to the company who made the software about real models of their trees - it had never occurred to them to try!...Like in all our work, the audio is important, surround sound of forest foley made by one of collaborators Adam Nash. We were very interested in movement / stillness and camouflage techniques when we made the piece - its been shown many times now, some people find it relaxing but others find it quite unnerving, it looks to me old fashioned (we made it in 2005) but somehow it keeps its own aesthetic. What I like to see sometimes is the essential falseness of virtual worlds, I love to see how round surfaces are represented by flat polygonal objects, the other thing is, how in nature, green plants in the sun have the same brightness as peak green RGB values.
Related: GameArtworld. The Early Years