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 Paolo Pedercini took place in August 2011 via email.
Born 1981 in Italy, Paolo Pedercini is today a well known artist and game designer. In 1993, he founded Molleindustria, a collective of artists and game designers whose aim is to create “radical games against the dictatorship of entertainment”. In the last eight years, Molleindustria has produced an impressive number of highly controversial Flash-based titles such as Oiligarchy, McDonald's Videogame, The Free Culture Game, Operation: Pedopriest, and Phone Story, which was recently banned from the Apple App Store. All these games are example of culture jamming that use videogames as means of expression.
GameScenes. Italy's reputation in the videogame industry is not exactly strong. On the other hand, the Belpaese has produced a remarkable number of groundbreaking artists who use digital games as their medium of choice. How do you explain this apparent paradox?
Paolo Pedercini: It makes some sense: in other contexts some of these artists may have been absorbed by the industry. But since the local game industry is small and marginal, these individuals found other ways to engage with games, either by developing independently (see the critically acclaimed Fotonica by Santa Ragione) or by making game-related art. Another more practical reason is that in Italy there is a small but active group of critics and curators that are passionate about game art. They invested quite a lot of energy in producing events, festivals and publications. That's pretty much what it takes to create a "scene". [For additional information, check Paolo's postcard, Ed.]
GameScenes: Games like Every Day The Same Dream and Inside A Dead Skyscraper have more existentialist subtexts than more overtly political titles of the recent past. Are you using videogames as a tool to reflect upon the meaning of life? Is this what it takes for games to be accepte as a "true form of art", whatever that means? Would it take a Game Art superstar - a 21st century Andy Warhol with a joypad, so to speak - to make it finally happen?
Paolo Pedercini: Tackling supposedly deep themes is in no way a pre-requisite for reaching the status of "high art". You mention Warhol, which is the perfect example of an artist who didn't (overtly) speak to the human condition. He became extremely relevant by doing the opposite, by embracing the aesthetic and the shallowness of Western consumer culture. Besides, pretty much every attempt to address themes like "the meaning of life" is doomed to fail. It's a very backward, pseudo-universalistic way of thinking about the function of art that somehow persists outside the art circles.
It's true, "Every day the same dream” and “Inside dead Skyscraper” have existentialist overtones but what makes them different from my previous games is just a more emotional, maybe narrative, approach. The theme of workers' alienation or the tension between agency and disempowerment are present in most of my previous, more satirical, games. The truth is that I've been interested in games-as-systems and in the possibilities of messing with games' language for a while, right know I want to try different modes of expression.
GameScenes: You are currently teaching game design and Game Art at Carnegie Mellon University. From your vantage point, what do you think will be next development in Game Art? What are your students mostly interested in nowadays? Augmented reality, smartphone apps, retro games?
Paolo Pedercini: When I hear the term "game art" I think about a) the production of assets in commercial game development and b) the variety of game-inspired or game-related fine art. The latter kinds of art rarely assume a game form; it generally employs established and gallery-friendly formats such as sculpture/installation, video, digital print, painting and so on. It's basically a branch of pop-art that manipulates images and icons taken from the mainstream game culture. While there are a handful of interesting works, it's overall a faddish epiphenomenon of the declining post-modern art. I don't really cover that in my course.
The class is basically about making games starting from artistic perspectives and sensibilities - pretty much in the same way video-artists approached video or net.artists approached the Internet.I'm sure all the emerging technologies you mention will be promptly adopted and dissected by media artists, but if I had to make a more general prediction, I'd first consider that we are facing decades of economic decline and major cuts to art funding. Of course, a fine art market for the ruling class will continue to exists - these people accumulated an immense amount of wealth while wrecking the global economy - but besides the an elite of (mostly deceased) art super stars, the majority of trained artists will be unable to survive by doing what they studied. In a way, it's already like this, but things will get tougher.
So what I foresee is a convergence with the creative industries and more hybrid figures of artists-entrepreneurs. In the context of artistic games I picture more artists competing in the proper game market. Which is not necessarily bad, we may just end up having emptier galleries and better games.
GameScenes: Unlike other game designers, you do not charge a single penny for your work. In fact, most of your titles - aside from Phone Story - are distributed for free on the net. Why did you choose this policy? Is there any market for art games, and are there any collectors, galleries or museums actively buying your games?
Paolo Pedercini: There is room for independent, artistic games in the digital download market. Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death was a commercial success despite the fact it's an insanely odd and inaccessible work. But I'd rather not have this kind of pressure as long as I have other ways to make a living. Also, I wouldn't have nearly as many players if these games were not freely available. I suspect the day a collector offers me to buy one of my games, will be the day I'll decide the project Molleindustria have exhausted all of its potential. And I'll be ready to move on to something else.
Link: Paolo Pedercini
Related: Paolo Pedercini's Postcard (2011)
Text by Mathias Jansson
All images courtesy of Molleindustria.