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 artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed how game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
After two successful seasons, in May 2012 we launched the third.
To say that British artist Steve Manthorp (b. 1958) is "eclectic" would be an understatement. Manthorp's production ranges from woodcarving to Game Art. Curator of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Media Arts Officer, he collaborated with Shanaz Gulzar to create interactive digital artworks and public interventions. One of his most famous Game Art pieces is titled "Shooting Gallery" (2003 with Teddie Tapawan). Manthorp used the Unreal Engine to recreate an existing art gallery, specifically, the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, as a digital, navigable space. This practice has become a staple in Game Art. In fact, one of the evergreen genres of Game Art is the playful subversion of "real" art spaces, like museums and galleries. Examples include Palle Torsson and Tobias Bernstrup's “Museum Meltdown” (1996), Orhan Kipcak “ArsDoom” (1993), and Hunter Jonakin “Jeff Koons Must Die!!!” (2011). Other Game Art projects include "Plasticity", a multiplayer urban planning game (with Mathias Fuchs, 2004), "EarthHeart" a serious game (With DESQ. Awarded R&D funding from MELT, 2006), "The Middleton Mystery", a serious game (commissioned by English Heritage for Belsay Hall, Northumberland, 2007 a "Time Gate" (2009), a game commission for Renaissance Knaresborough with Lateral Visions. In april of 2012, Mathias Jansson talked to Steve Manthorp talks to Steve Manthorp about his "mod(e)s of engagement" with the Artworld.
GameScenes: What is your relationship with video games?
Steve Manthorp: I have played computer games from their very earliest days. My first game purchase was a Binatone Pong game which must have been in the mid-70s. It had four variants, all of which were almost identical. I still play computer games just as passionately. I’m currently playing Skyrim, Portal 2 & Amnesia on the PC and a couple of others on my Touchpad.
GameScenes: When did you begin to crate playful artistic interventions?
Steve Manthorp: In the late '70s and early '80s I was making kinetic sculpture, some of which were ‘proto-videogames’; one in particular, Light Painting, was a mechanical device which moved a luminous ball around within a cubic grid space – very crudely made, just a gantry & motorized bogey controlled with a home-made joystick. My first computer work was in the nineties, I guess, when I made a sculpture park in VRML. In the '80s I had been curator of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; a job that made you all too aware of the physicality of sculpture.
Sitting a Henry Moore bronze, a Dordeigne stone carving or a Rickey mobile – and making it look as if God had dropped it there - was a major logistical undertaking. It was, I think, a reaction to that; to create a park in which the exhibits had no weight, no matter how large they were. Indeed, I remember that several of my exhibits floated in the air. I’m still interested in web 3D – one of my current websites, www.manthorp.co.uk was an early experiment in Lateral Vision’s 3D web platform.
GameScenes: “Shooting Gallery” is one of your most famous artworks. For that piece, you re-created the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery inside Unreal. What were your goals, as an artist, but also as a game designer?
Steve Manthorp: "Shooting Gallery" was actually made in 2003, but became popular in 2004. I conceived the project as a marketing device for Cartwright Hall Art Gallery. The marketing officer there had undertaken some research among teenage boys and young men – a demographic that is extraordinarily hard to persuade into the art gallery – and had discovered that they didn’t think galleries were ‘for’ them, or wanted them to be visitors. Furthermore, they were quite intimidated by these imposing, generally Victorian buildings with big wooden doors; they didn’t know I what was on the other side of those doors.
I set out to design a project that would allow them to ‘visit’, familiarise themselves and even ‘own’ the art gallery before they had even set foot inside the real building. I knew this had to be on young people’s own terms; you could build a thousand web 3D galleries and no kids would willingly choose to visit them: but give them the opportunity to deathmatch there and I guessed they would flock to it. It helped that Cartwright Hall was a perfect building for a small, tight UT deathmatch map. It was on three floors, had a wide open courtyard, two staircases and a lift. Sadly, the jump pad is an addition by the map designer. In the months after the map was released, you’d be amazed how many kids looked round behind the statue to see if it was there. At the time I was aware, of course, of other digital artists – ‘computer artists’, we were then – but oblivious to any working in the same area that I was.
GameScenes: How was “Shooting Gallery” made?
Steve Manthorp: A great part of the success of the project was the talent of the map’s designer, Teddie Tapawan. He was an American, a passionate amateur UT map designer, one of whose maps was included in UT’s official add-on map pack. He did a phenomenal job, just working with building plans and photographs. He’s never visited Cartwright Hall, but the map is uncannily accurate & captures the feel of the building just as successfully as its architecture. As planet Unreal said at the time: ‘This is one really unique, amazing looking map. So download it!’
GameScenes: The new map was a great success. Can you tell me about the response on the game?
Steve Manthorp: When it was released, it was given a double page spread and included on the cover DVDs of two of the leading UK games magazines which had supported the project. It was also covered by Edge and several national newspapers. Partly because of this good publicity, but mainly, I think, because it was a bloody good and very unusual map, downloads went through the roof. I can’t remember the figures, but I think it had 13,700 downloads in the first three weeks, and that was just through the download sites we were monitoring.
We realised that we had a runaway success on our hands when the pornographers started using ‘shooting gallery’ and ‘Cartwright Hall’ as metatags on their home pages to dupe custom to their sites. It has been downloaded literally hundreds of thousands of times since its release. It’s a great little map. It’s still available from many different download sites. Just search for dm-cartwrighthall[fut] for the original UT2003 map or DM-TDB-Cartwright Hall for the UT2004 update.
GameScenes: You have also created “PlastiCity”, a multiplayer urban planning game with Mathias Fuchs. Can you tell me more about this project, the background and how it was done?
Steve Manthorp: One of the great regrets of my life is that we were not able to take PlastiCity beyond the proof of concept stage. I believe that the fully realised project would have been a genuinely useful tool in facilitating democratic engagement with the city planning process. Mathias and I had been introduced, I think, through a mutual friend. Mathias had been working on his pioneering project Expositur using the UT engine.
As soon as we met we started geeking out in the most hideous way and we knew we wanted to create a project together some time. Three Bradford Institutions - the National Media Museum, the University’s School of Informatics and Bradford Council – were exploring the creation of a new collaborative creative industries crucible to be called Lightwave. They had some seed-corn funding and wanted to commission some exemplary content to iconise what a fully realised Lightwave institute might do.
We proposed a proof of concept pilot for PlastiCity. PlastiCity was a total conversion of UT which would allow local authorities to model their own city as a multiplayer environment and which provided a suite of tools to change every aspect of the urban environment. You could delete buildings, re-skin them, grow them, shrink them, replace them from a library of other buildings – there was even a ‘listing gun’ which prevented other players from changing a building for a period of time. You could ‘green’ areas, raise the water level, make pretty much any change you wanted. You could experience the city environment in a range of avatars, experiencing it from a buggy or a wheelchair to explore the implications of your decisions from a range of human perspectives.
The idea was that you would set up a multiplayer LAN in different community spaces and then populate it with city planners, urban architects and citizens; maybe even a few, brave, local politicians. We anticipated that there would be an hour of anarchy – great fun, but anarchy – but that after that, people would start conversing, using the toolset constructively and making collective decisions for the greater good. Unfortunately, the Lightwave project floundered for a number of reasons & we were unable to find the – relatively small – project funding to take the pilot to whole city centre scale. That is when it would have either proven itself to be a valuable tool or not. I’d love to revisit the idea with a more recent game engine. The principle is as valid now as it was then; equip city-makers and city-dwellers with a sandbox and the tools to explore ways of making their city a better place for living in.
GameScenes: How do you see on video games as an artistic tool and expression for future projects?
Steve Manthorp: I work mainly now as ADEPT in a co-practice with video artist Shanaz Gulzar. We work across the range of media arts and have made two videogames for heritage properties - The Middleton Mystery for English Heritage and Timegate for Knaresborough Castle, both with Carl Gavin & Lateral Visions. Games are powerful tools for what I call ‘stealth education’. In a cunningly designed gamified environment, learning can be smuggled past players before they know what has hit them.
We believe that there would be a very exciting project in creating a real time ARG around a heritage property or number of heritage properties, with a narrative combining stealth education and tasks that would take the player around the sites. We’re actively seeking a heritage trust partner for such an experiment. One of our key aims as artists is that we want to make work that does not compromise on quality and ambition, but which nonetheless appeals to the widest possible public. Games are engaging, immersive and fundamentally interactive artefacts which allow a particular, unique relationship between creator and player.
The game creator can guide and attempt to pre-guess the behaviour of the player, but can never determine how the player will navigate the game. Each player brings their own creative response to a playful environment. As a consequence, the artwork is to an extent a hybrid creation, experienced uniquely every time.
LINK: Steve Manthorp
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti