GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an 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 interview between Mathias Jansson and Myfanwy Ashmore took place via email in the Summer of 2011.
Gamescenes: Who is Myfanwy Ashmore?
Myfanwy Ashmore: I am a mother of 2 children – with a 9 year gap between them. A partner. An artist. A gamer. A retired IT technician. A high school drop out. A high school graduate. An art college drop out. An art college graduate. A Master of Fine Arts. A frequent university instructor. A breast feeder. Programmer. An ex punk. A hitchhiker. An occasionally funded artist. A former dreadlocked wizard. A sewer, a knitter. An electronics enthusiast. An occasional Dungeons and Dragons player. Pretty good at Scrabble. A walker. A cyclist. I don't have my drivers license and never have. A sneaky rule breaker.
Gamescenes: When did you interest for videogames start?
Myfanwy Ashmore: My interest in using video games for cultural expression started while I was working at the Ontario College of Art & Design as an IT technician in the Academic Computer Lab. It was there between 1998 and 2000 that while immersed in new technologies I was witnessing the immense changes happening in our culture – how technologies were changing us. This was when I made mario battle no.1 and subsequent iterations.
Gamescenes: Where do you find inspiration for your Game Art?
Myfanwy Ashmore: I looked to my own personal intense first experiences of technologies which were mainly game related. It was during a big recession with high unemployment rates that I spent an entire summer playing the various Super Mario Bros games – after having sent out over 200 job applications with not one interview. But earlier than that, on my Vic20 in the early '80s I spent many hours teaching myself how to program little hearts to move across the screen. At the time, I was struck by my “girl imagery” in contrast to say, Gorf or Cyclone. This was far different than the visuals I was used to in the various games we had. And although I was having fun playing the games, I found the repetitious nature to be less interesting than figuring out how it was made or the process of making them. I was also extremely empowered by being able to program. I remember enjoying the process of discovery – in particular one time I put the data cassette tape used to store the programs I had written on our family Commodore Vic20 into our stereo system and played it back. It was a series of squeaks and beeps and at that point I had a different understanding of data. Oddly, even after winning two regional science fairs in my city – I was never really encouraged by anyone to pursue the sciences. This was also something to come back later in my work – being a girl interested in science, technologies led to a kind of hybrid identity – which proved problematic for many years – it was not easy to move around in the world at that time and so at some point I also became somewhat of an enfant terrible.
Gamescenes: You have created a trilogy with hacked Super Mario games? Why Super Mario?
Myfanwy Ashmore: In the mid '90s I was in graduate school with free internet access. I started hanging out alot on IRC (internet relay chat). I met a bunch of game modders, hacktivists, programmers, electronic & linux geeks and body modification enthusiasts. My world started to make more sense as I connected with others who also had divergent interests and who were outcast (or felt so) or on the margins for one reason or another. Now, so many years later, it feels a little like the tales of phreaking history- and the 2600hz tones, deaf kids camp & Cap'n Crunch stories from early BBS days. I had finally found my people! Through the magic of the internet – I learned new skills, made new connections and friends.
In "Mario battle no.1" – I removed the game playing elements so all you can do is go for a walk in the landscape. I think at the time, I was so overwhelmed by the excesses of North American culture, and to the waste of computer technologies going into the dumpsters and into the landfill and thought about all the extraneous elements in my life and what would happen if one reduces or removes them. But of course this is fiction, and mostly impossible or so hard that the hardship would be unbearable. just like the video game.
I enjoy deconstructing, rebuilding, modifying and repurposing objects to create enriched and complex experiences. I create human centered experiences that explore play and communication through interventions and interfacing consumer technologies.I believe that the examination of our relationships to our technological systems and objects can reveal significant social and cultural elements in terms of who we are and how we communicate.How these objects modify our human connections and communication paradigms is integral to my work.I choose the technologies that I work with not for their industry currency but for their relevance to a discourse around human connections and communication.I enjoy deconstructing ideas, machines, software, code and objects, playing with them, making them do things they were not designed to do. By modifying the object we can alter the signification, create new ways to access material knowledge and add new layers to our meta communication.This process facilitates a deeper understanding of the objects, how they were made, what we use them for, what are their effects and I feel it allows for interesting things to emerge.I like to take things apart and put them back together – not exactly as they were. When choosing objects to modify, I think about what they signify to me as well as broader cultural associations. What might a broken coffee cup signify? What further modifications can I make to this object? We can empower ourselves to understand technologies by deconstructing its parts, by engaging with it in a tactile way.
One could argue that the relationship between labour and play hinges on enjoyment yet there are many games in which frustration and perseverance carry weight. At what point does play become work and work become exploitive? One could argue that imposed regulations and arduous tasks de humanize the worker but gamers will spend hours seeking out specific items and fulfilling repetitive task completion. So how are labour and leisure related to play? Perhaps it is the process of seeking that differentiates play from labour and play from leisure. So then, how do we as a culture decide how and what we want to seek? Although I am critical of the effects of technology on our relationships, I am also amazed at the potential ways in which we can connect, change and organize through new technologies and the potential for play and new experiences.
GameScenes: With "Gameboy Poetry" you combined videogames with poetry in fascinating ways. You are fond of mixing different aspects of culture in your work - from the sublime to the vernacular...
Myfanwy Ashmore: I like playing with things that seem incongruent. I find that it can often lead to interesting moments or occurrences that hover between humour and cultural critique or observations. I also look to my own experiences for things to extract and put together. I have approached my work as a series of cut-ups, reverse engineering or modifications akin to a hackerly ideology.
I guess poetry on a Gameboy or Nintendo DS could be considered ironic – for the machines are often used for more goal oriented pursuits than introspective, critical or melancholic musings. My poems are personal, intimate, and reflect a vulnerability that is not usually present in video games or are too subject to personality glitches to be believable when characters are embodied with vulnerability. I guess too, there is some sort of examination of some aspects of our culture that we may be losing to the ubiquitousness of technology. As someone from who has lived both before and within the burgeoning of the internet, I feel a deep connection (and pull) to a way of life before email, before the internet, before cell phones but I am also fascinated by machines and their ability to do things and they can express.
GameScenes: You have also experimenting with machinima. One of your most celebrated artworks is "Grand Theft Love Song"...
Myfanwy Ashmore: I am not committed to making machinima or even video games but rather using the various technologies in a way that subverts, or hijacks the medium and content. This is why even though I am often invited to indie gaming events and collaborations I am hesitant to participate. I am not really a game enthusiast as many might expect. I am usually still a little on the outside of what is going on and I position myself more on the edge or spaces between which transgress the boundaries of gaming, art, academia and culture.
"Grand Theft Love Song" uses the game Grand Theft Auto as a choreographic vehicle. Nico Bellic is made to dance in his safehouse. I moved him around using the game controller to make him dance. "Grand Theft Love Song" is a machinima video work where the video game Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City was played in order to create specific movements that elicit a sense of contemporary dance. The game controller and video editing software are used to create a new kind of machinima choreography. The video is set to a public domain song with a history of disputed copyright pilfered from Archive.org titled Creole Love Call. This incarnation was sung wordlessly as scat singing where the human voice is made to sound like an instrument by Adelaide Hall in 1927 with Duke Ellington as accompanist.
Nico Bellic pushes invisible enemies and there is an implied internal and parallel systemic struggle. He is unable to move out of the place he is in, stuck in the choreography that he has been given by the game programmer and stuck in the character given to him by the programmers in a kind of video game determinism.The video game player/choreographer attempts to liberate him from these constraints, even if only for a moment. He literally is climbing the walls inside his safe-house. With nothing on television but static, in the end he returns to the place where he awoke, to go back to his slumber - to repeat the algorithmic process tomorrow in a deterministic game loop.
Gamescenes: What would you say is the main focus in your art?
Myfanwy Ashmore: I am interested in algorithms – where they fail us, where they define us, and where the slippage is. Where we might find human moments that squeeze through the expected actions. By restraining or defining certain behaviours – other results and actions come into focus and have the potential for expanding our understanding of our lives and the cultures we live within.
Link: Myfanwy Ashmore
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti
All images and videos courtesy of the artist