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 Miltos Manetas and Matteo Bittanti & Mathias Jansson took place in July 2010 via email.
Born in 1964 in Athens, Greece, Miltos Manetas is a multimedia artist currently living a nomadic life. Manetas has created internet art as well as paintings of contemporary artifacts like cables, computers, videogames and Internet websites. He also launched "Neen", an Internet-based art movement, and presented the Whitneybiennial.com, an online exhibition that challenged the 2002 "official" Whitney Biennial show. Manetas was one of the first artists to both recognize and celebrate the influence of videogaming on contemporary art, on visual culture tout court, and on our psyche. His epiphany spawned a series of game-based artworks for different media (painting, videos, installations). Manetas is a true pioneer of Game Art.
GameScenes: Your "Videos after Video Game (1996-2006)" series is considered the first example of machinima. You started developing these videos in 1996, when you moved to New York. What prompted you to use games as a medium? What did you find in digital games that you could not get, for instance, with video?
Miltos Manetas: In 1996, video games started to exist so heavily, that they became impossible to ignore. In the same way that the impressionists focused on nature, computer landscape became for my generation the most important subject matter. Of course, video games were around from before, but it was only during late 1990's that we realized that they were part of that computer landscape, and not just yet another bit of visual excrement that was dropping out from television. At that time, video games ceased being entertainment solely, and started becoming communication.
GameScenes: What kind of communication?
Miltos Manetas: Video games were not communication between humans, though, but more importantly, they represented communication between humans and intelligent machines. I decide, that if I start listening carefully to video games, these intelligent machines would tell me about how they felt, and share their views of the world with me.
Miltos Manetas, "Flames", 1997, video, 1' 10"
GameScenes: Can you explain how you began "listeining" to games?
Miltos Manetas: It all started for me after buying my first PlayStation. I remember that after unpacking it and looking at the joystick, I was thinking that it was the first time that a computer was gently offering me its little hand. So I decide to grab that little hand, and to start walking together with it.
GameScenes: You were already making videos at that time, right?
Miltos Manetas, "Mario Sleeping", 1997, video, 2'54"
GameScenes: So, it was about "listening"?
Miltos Manetas: It was about how to start listening to the newest side of the world! It was about permitting these newcomers, our intelligent machines, to come forward and reveal their stories. The fact that, just a few years later, Machinima became a popular art of storytelling shows that many other people, some of them artists, but most of them not, were also interested in listening to these stories.
GameScenes: In the "Videos after Video Games" series you simultaneously use and subvert some tropes and conventions of video art. Were you trying to make a point about that state of contemporary art? For example, is "Mario Sleeping" a nod to Andy Warhol's famous artwork?
Miltos Manetas: No, the problematics related with the work of Warhol did not concern me the least. At that point, my interests regarding the state of contemporary art were already fading. Contemporary art is cool, but once I started going around the different levels of Super Mario 64, I kind of forgot all about it . In 1999, I decided to leave New York and move to Los Angeles, because in New York, nobody cared much about all that digital culture. In NYC, people were too absorbed with art to notice that life was changing around them. When a new generation of artists came to age, even New York discovered video games, and now we see some art related to them displayed in the NewMuseum. Back in those days, no critic, gallerist, or curator had ever played a video game.
Miltos Manetas, "SuperMario sleeping (under a painting)", 1997, video, 1:15
GameScenes: Unlike the more recent fan videos that emphasize stunts, breathtaking action and players' skills, your videos focus on stasis, repetition, and the triviality of simulated spaces, (from sleeping to tapping a foot). Were you suggesting that what really matters in games was inactivity?
Miltos Manetas: In simulation, (video games), as well as in life, it is nice when action stops for a little while, so that that the player can look around, and see the details of the situation. That’s how we actually do our painting, and sometimes photography. It is our call now to find the perfect medium, that can potentially explore the observation of those moments also in simulation. I started myself by exploring with video and prints but I have to admit that my work is pretty basic, and I hope that younger artists will soon invent more intricate ways to let the simulation talk.
Miltos Manetas, "Miracle", 1996, video, 1' 13"
GameScenes: In videos like "Miracle" (1996) you play with glitches and code malfunctions. Do you think that bugs and mistakes represent the essence of new technology? Is the failure of the simulation as the trademark of its inner nature?
Miltos Manetas: In Miracle a Hornet F-18, a light aircraft, from a flight simulator, falls onto the sea, but instead of crashing, it starts running over the water's surface. We can think about that run on the water as a glitch and a malfunction, but we can also see it as special thing that airplanes can do in a simulation. I find the second approach more interesting. When I filmed that airplane, it was not because I wanted to speak about game bugs and mistakes, but because I wanted to show what was happening there, and also because I found it very poetic.
GameScenes: How does game-inspired art fit into the "Neen" manifesto?
Miltos Manetas: The work with video games was, for me, an early version of Neen. Up until 2001, I held hope that video games would turn really radical. But that did not happen. The video game industry instead became a kind of “Hollywood 2.0”, where what mattered most was budget and revenue. So I started investing all of my efforts into the World Wide Web, and specifically into what was, back then, its most revolutionary field: Flash animation. Flash was important because anyone, even the programming illiterate like myself, could use Flash to create amazing things. Still, video games remained my secret love, and I still hold out hope that one day, fascinating video game Neensters will show us stuff that will take our breath away.
Miltos Manetas, "Christine With PlayStation", 1997, oil on canvas [source]
GameScenes: You are also a painter of seemingly trivial pursuits... You've painted computer cables, computer screens, and people playing videogames. Why using a traditional medium such as painting to explore the digital world? Why not using digital technology to depict our new digital landscapes?
Miltos Manetas: I started painting in 1995. I decided to abandon art, after being a conceptual artist. Having to deliver works to four final exhibitions that were supposed to be my last, I bought four canvases and painted the same picture on all of them. These first paintings (Sad Tree, 1995) were successful and I continued painting; first laptops and digital cameras, and later, all kind of hardware. At that point, I did not know how to use computers, but I learned quickly, and started becoming a screen-junkie, like all of us are now. While I was doing my paintings, I actually started “using digital media to portray the “digital world”. Indeed, until now, I have produced something like 500 large-format prints from video games, 20 videos after videogames, and more than 30 websites that employ Flash animation and other such programming. Yet painting still remains for me the one important medium that can have a considerable effect on the karma of reality.
GameScenes: How so?
Miltos Manetas: Because a painting does not move. It stays still though everything in it - forms, colors, meanings, and interpretations, even its format and composition - is in constant transformation. People speculate about the existence of quantum computers, and hypothesize about what we will be doing once they are invented. I want to close out this interview by sharing my belief that perhaps quantum computers have always been around, and we have been using them from the ancient times, and that are are nothing other than what we call "paintings"!
All images courtesy of the artist; Manetas' photo from Interzine.
link: Miltos Manetas
link: NEEN. New Art Movement (Charta) [book]