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 Stephen Honegger and Mathias Jansson took place in June 2010 via email.
Born in South Africa in 1974, Stephen Honegger was among the first Australian artists to experiment with videogames and achieve worldwide recognition. His first major work is the video installation "Container" developed with Anthony Hunt in 2002 and exhibited at the Gertrude Contemporary Art Space in Melbourne, Australia. Container, is based around the format of a video game. Set inside a full-scale replica of a shipping container, gallery visitors can experience the unsettling feeling of being hunted as they view a projected video, created with 3D modelling software, depicting a sinister event filmed within the gallery space. He also worked on "Escape from Woomera" (2003), a modification of Half-Life that challenged the Australian immigration policy. Today Honegger works as a a senior artist for a videogame company, Visceral Games, and worked on six published titles (Heroes over Europe, Heatseeker, Lucinda Green’s Equestrian Challenge, AFL Premiership 2005, Gaelic Rules Football, Heroes of the Pacific).
GameScenes: One of your seminal works, “Container” (2002) is an extremely original and powerful combination of interactive art and gaming aesthetics. What were your goals and what kinds of tools did you use to create the videogame sequence?
Stephen Honegger: Container came about as a solution to the problem of creating a dark enough space in the gallery to project a video. Our solution was to build an enclosed space within the gallery but had no idea what that structure would be and how it would tie in with the content of a video. At the time, I was building a Counter-Strike map of a shipping container yard, so we decided to make a scale replica of a shipping container to project the video inside. We came up with the idea of creating a narrative, using the Half-Life engine, describing how this improbable object may have manifested itself in the gallery. I used a modified version of the Half-Life engine called Spirit of Half-Life to build everything in the video sequence. A few years later Container was remade for shows in Sydney and Korea.
Stephen Honegger, Anthony Hunt, "Container", 2002
GameScenes: Was “Container” your first Game Art project?
Stephen Honegger: I first started using games in my art work in 1998. I made a video called 'More Dance' which was a recording of characters from the Playstation game Tekken. In their idle animation loops with a pounding electro sound track, it looked like the characters were dancing with each other instead of getting ready to fight.
GameScenes: You also developed another milestone in the history of Game Art and the "Serious Games" movement, “Escape from Woomera" (2003). What role did you play in the development of “Escape from Woomera” and how you got involved?
Stephen Honegger: I was lead environment artist on Escape from Woomera and responsible for modelling and texturing the Woomera detention centre. My friend, Julian Oliver put my name forward to the creator of the game because he knew that I had experience using the Half-Life engine and that I was concerned about the plight of refugees in Australia's refugee detention system.
GameScenes: Was “Escape from Woomera” well received by the public?
Stephen Honegger: The game achieved its goal a long time before it was even released. The title of the game and the fact that it was funded by the Australian government was enough to be controversial and get people talking before anyone actually played the game. By the time that it was released to the public in 2004, the Woomera detention centre had already been shut down. I like to think that Escape from Woomera played a small part in the detention centres demise and drew attention to the plight of refugees.
Stephen Honegger, Anthony Hunt, "Container", 2002
GameScenes: Australia has always been at the forefront of innovation, when it comes to Game Art and game-based artistic interventions. Why is that?
Stephen Honegger: When I first started making artwork using games, I had no idea that there were other people doing the same thing in Australia. Only after meeting Julian Oliver and Chad Chatterton did I realise that artist were using games across an array of artistic disciplines. Julian was doing amazing things with interactive environments and audio design and Chad, like myself had just started to explore the possibilities of creating environments with a game engine. Those two guys where the catalyst for myself and many other artists in Melbourne to realise the potential of using game engines as part of their art practice.
People working in the Australian game development industry also turned to making game art and independent games such as Escape from Woomera. They felt that they were unable to have much creative input into the commercial games that they were developing and wanted to make games which they had more control over and had more meaningful content.
GameScenes: You’re both creating artistic project with videogames and developing artworks for commercial games. How do you see these two contexts? Are they in opposition or are they somehow communicating with each other?
Stephen Honegger: I really enjoy working as a game artist, it's a lot of fun making interesting landscapes and objects for games. I have been pretty lucky though, and have generally worked on projects that I am interested in. Obviously there are constraints and limitations placed on you creatively when working for a commercial developer. Making art for a gallery space is a kind of privilege, a unique opportunity to do something new. As a contemporary artist, you are not constrained by the limitations of any one medium and you are able to create an experience for the viewer that cannot be done anywhere else. That is the biggest attraction for me in making artwork for a gallery space, not limiting myself to any one medium and trying to create something new and original.
I think that commercial video games are not paid the same artistic dues as other art forms such as film and literature because of the term 'game'. Games are generally considered somewhat trivial. To be honest though, I don't really want games to be aligned with other accepted forms of art. I like the way that games have created a new realm that doesn't sit very comfortably with other existing art forms.
All images courtesy of the artist
Text by Mathias Jansson
Link: Stephen Honegger
Link: Esacape from Woomera