GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of our ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The conversation between Mathias Jansson and Dutch artist Michiel van der Zanden (1979) took place via email in January 2011.
"In my work, I import the world of digital media into painting and vice versa. I’m using images from videogames and ‘3D computer graphics’. For years I’ve been fascinated by games and their specific visual quality. As a starting point, I used to extract images from existing games, more like a tourist or reporter. These images were combined in collages, which functioned as sketches for my paintings. Nowadays I mostly use Blender 3D software to model my own (game-) settings. Ideas, stories and concepts coming from gaming and 3D culture, combined with situations and environments from my personal life, are converted to the intimacy of painting. And because I like to work in a collage-like way, the videogame is an ideal starting point: a game is a 3D (photo-) collage in its essence. I adjust my way of painting to the chosen subject. Sometimes very precise, to overemphasize the kitsch quality. Sometimes almost expressionistic, to enlarge the contrast between the different image elements. The typical game aspects are unmistakably visible. On top of that, I’ll try to break the videogame’s original intention: I will pause at a diner which is just used as scenery in a racing game… A machinegun from a game is exhibited in a military museum... But I also have a run with traditional painting genres, such as portraits and landscapes. I will take elements out of a videogame and give them a new function and context. Murals from a videogame, become a 17th century ‘Trompe l'oeil’ (an optical illusion), or a soldier’s face, who’s face in the context of the videogame seems less important, is now portrayed attentively. Sometimes the friction or absurdity is less recognizable, leaning towards a more subtle approach and it becomes more about the overall atmosphere of the work itself.
In short, as an artist I’m interested in the differences, as well as the similarities between traditional art, painting and ‘new’ media" (© Michiel van der Zanden, 2010)
GameScenes: In your work you mix low and high culture. How do videogames fit into your practice?
Michiel van der Zanden: When talking about the cross-pollination of high and low image culture, I aim at the meeting of 'Art' with mass culture. This is reflected in my choices of subjects, but also in the fact that I import game aesthetics into my work.
More and more you see the 'game’ phenomenon introduced into contemporary art (also this blog is proof of that). On the other hand, the 'arty' videogame is still neglected in the world of Sony and Microsoft. (With a few exceptions, like Katamari Damacy, PS2 e.g.). The game industry is very big and has a fierce competition, leaving little opportunity to experiment. In addition, the development of a game is a big undertaking for which a lot of time, manpower and technical knowledge is needed. Because of all this, contemporary consoles are no platforms for independent software developers. Only on the mobile platforms (phone apps) and PC, you'll see 'arty', 'homebrew ' games appear. The interaction between games and art is therefore mainly one-way traffic.
Oversimplified , games can be seen as mass entertainment, fun, and Art as elitist and isolated. When these boundaries are blurred it becomes interesting: That's why you could call certain phenomena within gaming, 'art'. I don't necessarily mean good level design or storyline, but - for example – the use of games in a way that it was never intended to. Such as group dances or in Counter Strike-Source. There are some good examples of this on YouTube. It's a kind of incidently originated Machinima. Though the makers (gamers) of these videos, don't put labels on it.
'Irish Dance' and 'Fake Ladder!' on YouTube.
GameScenes: In contemporary art discourses, a recurrent meme is that "painting is dead". And yet, painting figures prominently in your work. What is the role of painting in a world dominated by digital art? What do you find in painting that no other media can provide?
Michiel van der Zanden: It’s obvious the function of painting has changed in the course of history and by that, declared dead regularly. The degree of interest from the public in painting may vary, but the existence of other (new) media doesn't make painting less important. All over the world major museums are still presenting painting exhibitions, also with work from contemporary painters. Of course, a painter needs to work with a continuous critical eye for his own motives and targets. He has to ask himself questions like: “Is this method relevant to what I want to carry out?”
Mainly because of the digital era, painting is very much alive. It offers all kinds of new possibilities. The 'traditional' and 'new' media have distinct differences, but also similarities. Therefore, the material expression is as important in a realistic 'Computer Generated Image' , as in painting during the 17th century.
Another consequence of the new possibilities, is the ongoing discussion about how to use the same 'new media', being a painter. Because the internet and the mass media offers us an inexhaustible source of material, the risk of casualness is now lurking: quoting without context, painting of ‘pretty pictures’. Some painters say we should work more from out our inner world. But even this is an attitude that relates to the era we live in.
The explanation of what painting makes interesting, is like explaining how a joke makes you laugh. You feel it, or you don’t. Foremost, I'm a painter, but I have always used different imagery, from outside the painting territory. During my study at the art academy, I liked working with photo collages as a basis for my paintings. Later on, I got interested in modeling; painting from composed (train-)modeling imagery. (the wonder of imitating an imitation). Meanwhile I played computer games regularly, in particular from the 1st person genre. Because games lived through a revolution, graphically and in gameplay, I realized that- similar to modeling - the real world around us, was simulated in these game worlds. Besides, the idea of 'realism' in games, was getting more and more the upper hand, but on the other side this ‘game reality’ had a kind of naive charm about itself, due to the shortcomings of the medium.
The moment I definitely knew I wanted to paint, was when I visited the Twisted exhibition, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) in 2000. I already studied at the art academy by that time. I saw great works by Peter Doig, Dexter Dalwood, Michael Raedecker. I was completely overwhelmed and realized that painting wasn't sleepy or oldfashioned.
A render, or print never ads up to the soul of a painting. This may sound romantic, but where can you read the physical action, or the personal handwriting of an artist so well? A fusion of matter and imagination. I often hear the question "Why don’t you stick to making photo prints?" But I intentionally choose digital images as a starting point, because they possess a specific quality, they have their own character. But why would I settle only for that? Isn’t there also a difference between a canvas print and a real painting ?
Cristobal Vila, Etereaestudios, 2003, Computer Generated Image
GameScenes: What was the intent behind the Next Level series?
Michiel van der Zanden: Next Level belongs to a series of paintings that were created directly from game images, mainly in the period 2006-2008. Many of these works are a combination of various screenshots. I collected these screenshots during gaming, as a sort of tourist or reporter in virtual reality. I placed objects/people/situations in a different environment and changed the context in which they found themselves, often with an ironic undertone. For instance in Paint Noob, which is a combination of Full Spectrum Warrior and Sims 2. Here I also question the relevance or function of art/ painting and the banality of ‘playing war’. The setting creates an outlandish atmosphere.
In Pizza Delivery @ CT spawn, pizza is delivered by a company from Sims 2, in an Italian-style setting from another game: Counter-Strike: Source. Next Level has been created from one screenshot (Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Lockdown). Like this particular level in Rainbow Six: Lockdown, it struck me that traditional art forms sometimes occur in game worlds. In that reality, art only has a decorative and practical function: a live performance can make a theatre even more realistic and vivacious (like a level in Hitman Blood Money). Another example is the interior of a museum (Mafia), which has fifteen different paintings, but in a multiplication of five: every room shows the same paintings. This doesn’t interfere with the gaming experience, because the player is not expected to look at the paintings attentively. In fact there’s no time for that, if you want to survive in a shooter. I thought it would be interesting to bring these new phenomena back to the medium of painting, one of the first art forms in the history of mankind.
In my machinima videos I approach these matters the other way round. But it is always about the encounter of high and low culture, new and traditional media. A funny situation occurred when I was making screenshots for the portrait series 'Enemy Spotted’. For this I was meeting a friend on a Counter-Strike server, where he would serve as a model and I would take pictures of his character. Meanwhile other players joined and started shooting at us. So we asked them through the chat service if they would leave the server because we were doing a photo shoot. The instructions for the shoot were also given through chat, with directions such as: “a little to the left and now bend..”
GameScenes: Painting LargeFlatMap100 is a machinima video made with The Sims 3. In this video we see a man painting a landscape in a vast field. To me it looks like meta-art: you, as an artist, are creating a landscape using videogame technology, and you are depicting a virtual artist creating an old fashioned painting of the landscape surrounding him. Is self-referentiality the main theme of Painting LargeFlatMap100?
Michiel van der Zanden: It is indeed ‘meta’ to extent that I make it seem like the Sim interprets the landscape (more generally, metaphysics and games are connected anyhow). However, there is little random about this work, since during its creation, I’ve had control over everything: the character was composed in the game and the scenery was created with SIMS Create-A-World-Tool. After that I took a screenshot of this world and added this with the S3PE modding editor as one of the available images of the game. So the character doesn’t actually paint from observation. In this regard, the A.I. of observation has not been enhanced in the game. You can see that he makes movements that don’t correspond with the painted image. Also, he takes the wrong colours from his palette and he uses brushes which are too small. What’s funny is that The Sims repeat the exact same routine with each painting. This emphasises the pre-programmed identity of game characters. Furthermore, the alienation of such a goofy old man (an anti-hero in the world of videogames) painting in an abstract landscape really appealed to me.
Michiel van der Zanden, Painting LargeFlatMap100, 2010, digital video, 4:41 min
GameScenes: In your machinima Pwned Paintings #2, a museum visitor is shooting paintings hanging on the walls of a gallery with his gun. Pwned is an expression used in the videogame Counter-strike to express "domination" or "to humiliate an opponent". Is Pwned Paintings #2 to be intended as a statement about traditional art being "pwned" by videogame art, as if games are replacing paintings and screens are the new canvases?
Michiel van der Zanden: First of all, the term 'videogame art' troubles me. It implies a limitation. I wouldn’t want to call myself a 'videogame artist'. I would rather label it ‘contemporary art based on videogames’. Otherwise it would create the impression that it always has to take place within the platform.
But taken literally, it is indeed an attack on classical art, within a digital medium. As explained above, I exaggerate the role of the art, which usually merely functions as decoration of a game environment. That way I don’t use the game as it was intended originally. In an indifferent, almost juvenile way, the paintings are being pwned. Perhaps it could also be interpreted as a charge against violence in our modern society, but on the other hand it’s just a logical consequence of the limited interactive possibilities of such a linear game.
Michiel van der Zanden, Pwned Paintings # 2, 2008, digital video, 1:10 min
GameScenes: Will you continue to experiment with videogames in your artistic production? Where do you see yourself a decade from now?
Michiel van der Zanden: Lately I’ve been focusing less on the existing, mainstream games from which I generate images or in which I make adaptations (machinima). For about two years I have been working with Blender 3D (3D software) which means that the game aesthetics I love so much, are maintained. This was a conscious choice. I wanted to quote less literally and use my own experiences and fascinations to come to the images, so instead of being dependent on what I came across in game worlds, I now construct the images myself. Besides, Blender has a game engine and it’s possible that I’m going to work with that in the future, who knows... Right now I am working on an animation, but I don't want to reveal anything about that just yet :)
All images courtesy of Michiel van der Zanden Ⓒ 2011 www.michielvanderzanden.nl
Extra special thanks to Sabrina van Veen and Peter van der Zanden
link: Michiel van der Zanden
Text by: Mathias Jansson