This interview is part of GameScenes' ongoing series on the pioneers of Game Art and the early days of the GameArt World. The conversation between Israeli-born artist Eddo Stern and Mathias Jansson took place in June 2010 via email.
"Eddo Stern works on the disputed borderlands between fantasy and reality, exploring the uneasy and otherwise unconscious connections between physical existence and electronic simulation. His work explores new modes of narrative and documentary, experimental computer game design, fantasies of technology and history, and cross-cultural representation in computer games, film, and online media. He works in various media including computer software, hardware and game design, kinetic sculpture, performance, and film and video production. His short machinima films include "Sheik Attack", "Vietnam Romance", ”Landlord Vigilante” and "Deathstar". He is the founder of the now retired cooperative C-level where he co-produced the physical computer gaming projects "Waco Resurrection", "Tekken Torture Tournament", "Cockfight Arena”, and the internet meme conference "C-level Memefest" He is currently developing the new sensory deprivation game “Darkgame” (from eddostern.com, 2006) [photo credit: Montalvo Arts]
GameScenes: What is your relationship to videogames?
Eddo Stern: I started playing and making computer games on an Apple II+ in the early 1980s. I was a member of the Be'er Sheva computer club, cracking games and doublesiding floppies with a round hole punch till someone built a square floppy disk nibbler. Some of my more memorable game playing experiences were with Autoduel, Timezone, Castle Wolfenstein, Aztec, Ruski Duck, Utlima, Zork, Drol, and Karateka. I've been interested in and studied math, philosophy and then art. In trying to combine all three, games eventually became the solution, a new “gesamtkunstwerk”. My earliest art work was installation focused. After that I worked with pretty high end VR for a few years - but VR seemed so stale compared to gaming culture, and I really like low tech tinkerering. I am very interested in total immersion but not in a strictly visual or haptic way - and I think my approach to gaming reflects this.
GameScenes: Were you a member of the now legendary collective C-level? What was the artsitgic fulcrum behind this highly influential group? And how did it start?
Eddo Stern: C-Level was both a group or people and an artist run space. I started with a few friends right after graduate school. The initial idea behind C-level was to create a space and working environment outside of school that mirrored the Integrated Media Lab at CalArts which most of us had shared. C-level was supposed to be a workspace that broke from the tradition of the segregated artist studio. In the beginning C-level was just that - a space where we worked and shared equipment, an artist co-op. Eventually things shifted and C-level became a public space which produced and hosted events, and soon after become more well known as gaming lab and often miscatagorized as an "artist group" as a few of the gaming projects become well known (Tekken Torture Tournament, Cockfigtht Arena and Waco Resurrection), but there was plenty going on at C-level that had nothing to do with gaming.
GameScenes: "Waco Resurrection" is one of the most celebrated works by C-level. Why creating a game about the Waco incident?
Eddo Stern: The idea for the Waco game came into existence as an amalgam of forces and arbitrary events (as does anything? perhaps…). I had been interested in the intersection of real events/history with gaming, and had been exploring this using video (Machinima) specifically with works like Rock Attack, Sheik Attack and Vietnam Romance. Michael Wilson (from C-level), was working on a sound piece about Waco at the time, and this helped spark our interest in researching the specifics of the Branch Dividians. The connections between religious beliefs, constructed mythologies and historical fantasy (super powers and a self published religious text) were starting points for exploring the waco events as a "subjective" documentary rather than an accurate historical reenactment through game. In addition to this, me, Mark Allen and Jessica Hutchins had just finished the Tekken and Cockfight physical game performances and were ready for a more ambitious game project that also involved a physical (off-screen component). We then recruited Peter Brinson and Brody Condon to join the team and started working on Waco Resurrection - three month later we were done. One of the differences in making a game about an historical event is the nature of identification and implication. Game require the users to act and such appear to implicate the player in the actions of the avatar they are controlling. This is rather obvious but does create new emotional experiences. Imagine a documentary about Hitler vs. a fictional film with an actor playing as Hitler vs. a game where the player plays as Hitler. The most common criticisms we heard about waco were that the game is in bad taste, that the game is exploitative, that the game was pro Dividian / pro Koresh. The bad taste and exploitation criticism stem from people struggling to consider that games can be made about serious issues while still providing some ambiguity. The second criticism of the game being politically skewed assumes that Koresh as a protagonist = a Hero in the game - a unique issue that games reveal as film about Hitler would likely not draw this criticism or a film about David Koresh.
SHEIK ATTACK (1999/2000)
Digital Video, TRT 00:16:45
GameScenes: You were among the first artists to experiment with machinima. Think for instance of Sheik Attack (1999) and Vietnam Romance (2003). Why were so fascinated by this format (medium?)? How did you create Sheik Attack?
Eddo Stern: I made my first "machinima" in 1995 of my girlfriend playing Tetris with a voice over - recorded on high 8 off the screen. I later made "Rock Attack" recording a rehearsed scene in Command and Conquer using a VGA to TV converter, in 1996 and I thought I had invented something completely new until I was shown Miltos Manetas' "Flames" project recordings of Lara Croft dying on a PS1. "Sheik Attack" was a more ambitious project which took about 6 months to finish. Initially I created a storyboard and then went looking for games that may provide footage to match my storyline, I then played the games over and over recording the screen trying to match the shots that I needed but with some improvisational moments, I think I have about 10 hours of footage for the 16 minute final video. Only midway through this process did I recognize the extra-textual connection between the games' titles and release dates and their correspondence to the events in Lebanon that I was trying to recreate. For "Vietnam Romance" I had a mix of very precise film scenes that I tried to recreate frame by frame in games and this was a pretty challenging process from a game play standpoint. Trying to match the helicopter landing scene from the TV show M.A.S.H. took a few whole days of game play. Also trying to find the right deer to shoot in the right way to match "The Deer Hunter" was not so easy and I will adamant to resorting to cheat codes to spawn the damn animal at the right place - even that took about a day :)
VIETNAM ROMANCE (2003)
Digital Video, TRT 00:22:45
GameScenes: Do you see any difference working with machinima and a more traditional style of video art?
Eddo Stern: I think it depends on the context of the video and what you are trying to say or do. Many Machinima works are self referential - in the sense that they exist in the same cultural context as the game(s) they are using. My choice of specific games for my Machinima are determined by something else I want to say. My subject matter is not much concerned with self references to game culture (you'll notice that most Machinima is comic in nature) as it is to a wider cultural context for the intersection of history, violence and simulation. So to answer your question I do think that presenting work as Machinima assumes a context of game culture (and a more mainstream / lighthearted expectation from the work). Whereas presenting the same work as videoart in a museum / gallery brings a noter set of expectations and another set of viewers, likely not familiar with the game culture context and likely used to a shorter non-linear viewing experience. Showing the same work in a film festival brings with it yet a noter set of expectations and viewing practices. For my Machinima films I find that film festivals have often offered the best viewing context - not unexpectedly in terms of migrating the visual experience away from the computer screen which is something that is important to me when showing my Machinima. I was inspired to make video by a piece called "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y" by Johan Grimonprez. Unlike many works of video art which document a performance or offer footage of repetitive goings-on, Dial was an intensely entrancing immersive experience, and yet did not rely on conventional narrative to achieve its immersiveness.
GameScenes: As an artist experimenting with videogames, what is your relationship with the art market?
Eddo Stern: My work exists in various art/economic contexts. Some of my works are free, some are editioned, some are one of a kind objects, some are distributed, some are self published, some are sold, bought and shown by galleries and museums.
All images courtesy of the artist
Text by Mathias Jansson
Link: Eddo Stern