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 conversation between Cable Griffith and Matteo Bittanti took place via email in July 2013 and it is the first of Season Five, which will run until the end of the year.Cable Griffith is an American painter living in Seattle, Washington State. He has received an MFA in Painting from University of Washington in 2002 and a BFA in Painting from Boston University in 1997. Additionally, he is also the Gallery and Exhibitions Curator at the Cornish College of the Arts and teaches in the Art Program at the Cornish College of the Arts. In Griffith's practice, video game influences are manifest, especially in his new, stunning, works. As he writes on his website: "Influenced by modernist painting and early video game imagery, my recent work explores the connections and potentials of both. Notions of play, practice, improvisation, and exploration add an additional narrative to the relationship of symbols, actions, and reactions". Griffith is now curating, with Violet Strays, a new exhibition titled First-Person Traveller (see below). His latest solo show, Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start, took place at Kittredge Gallery, in Tacoma, Washington State, in 2013.
GameScenes: Videogames play a prominent role in your work. Could you describe your personal relationship to this medium? How and why did you become fascinated with playful simulations? Do you still play videogames today? If so, which ones? You wrote that your dad worked as a "copywriter for early Atari commercials" and that you were fascinated by the little box that displayed brand new worlds on the tv, the Atari 2600. Was electronic gaming an epiphany for you? Or more like a gradual process of discovery?
Cable Griffith: Playing videogames for the first time blew my mind. In 1982, I was 7 years old and the Atari 2600 was a portal to another world. Or multiple worlds, really. In retrospect, I find it really interesting how game designers interpreted the medium in such creative and different ways. Especially considering the technological limitations of the time. But it’s often those restrictions that birth ingenuity. At first, I played any game I could get my hands on. They all seemed magical. Especially when you’re seven. The colors, the noises, and the fact that I could affect what was coming out of the TV. My favorite games seemed to share a promise of continual discovery. Frogger and Pac-Man were fun, but repetitive. Atari’s Adventure was one of the first that provided a virtual world to explore, suggesting a world that expanded beyond one static screen. Pitfall and River Raid were exciting because there was much more to explore than what was on the screen at that moment.
After writing ads for Atari, my dad wrote ads for IBM. And similarly, a new system entered our home. At the time, all I was interested in was that our IBM PCjr played Sierra’s King’s Quest. That was probably the first game that I obsessed about. And one of the first “open world” games that could be explored at your own pace. And then I moved from the PC, to Nintendo (Zelda), and later to the Xbox. And I do still play videogames today. It’s harder and harder to find the time, but I do go through occasional binge-sessions of Minecraft. I think Minecraft is completely brilliant.
Cable Griffith: Fundamentally, my paintings are a reflection of things I’ve observed and experienced. Growing up just a 45-minute train ride to New York City, I was exposed to a lot of great artwork throughout my childhood. I also spent a lot of time exploring the woods behind our home. And I played a fair amount of videogames. All of these things have made their way into my own artwork- in the form of imagery, systems of pictorial representation, the concept of virtual reality, and a thirst for exploration. But before I was directly borrowing video game imagery, I was developing my own painted virtual reality. Some paintings depicted an invented landscape “on the ground” and others took an overhead view, describing the lay of the land. All of this was an attempt to make an imagined place become more “real” to me. I still track and map improvised spaces with an intention to re-visit certain places. World One Overview (2009) was probably the first painting I made that was a direct reference to videogames. But it was more about that common feature in games to press ‘start’ and pull up an overview map of where you are. World One Overview became a place I travelled around, through making other paintings of the places depicted within it.
Eventually, I recognized certain forms in my paintings that seemed like equal parts Philip Guston and Super Mario Bros. And that made a lot of sense to me. A recent exhibition of mine, Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start was a very direct embrace of the influence of videogames on my work. The work in that show is probably more about video game landscape, narrative, navigation, and image construction, than simply borrowing imagery. But I couldn’t resist pulling in tributes to Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers to the Side-scroll World Oneinstallation, mashing them up with references to Adventure and Mario Bros.
In many ways, Philip Guston’s influence is consistent in my work. But not just in terms of imagery. I’m inspired by his daring (at the time) appropriation of comic book imagery in 1970, leaving his abstract expressionist pals in the dust. Art folks hated that he lowered the lofty and “pure” intentions of the movement. But it was real and relevant to the time. And now, those are the paintings he’s most known for. I’m inspired by his ability to tell stories with a visual language that reflected an awareness and responsiveness to the time he was in.
Cable Griffith: Each Side-Scroll installation begins with one painting. And similar to side-scroll games like early Mario, one can choose to go right, left, up, or down. I’d work on the one painting until I felt the pull to explore further, then add another canvas to the wall, flush to the edge of the first, and continue onward. The paintings go from one to the next, moving step by step, navigating freely around. But occasionally, I’ll paint something that seems more of a destination, and place it on the wall, far from the others. Then it becomes something that I need to find my way towards, creating sometimes 3-4 paintings on my way to get there. The paintings are worked on together as a group and individually. Although they are all one piece, it’s important that they hold up as separate paintings as well. Similarly, there are narratives in single paintings, and narratives that take place over many.
You know, there’s one big connection between videogames and painting that I haven’t mentioned, and that’s play. To me, experimentation is play, plus reflection. And both are essential for our development, both as humans and creative beings. I take art seriously, but it can also be joyful to make. The side-scroll installations have probably been one of the more fun series I’ve ever made.
GameScenes: In a seminal essay titled "Complete Freedom of Movement: videogames as Gendered Play Spaces,", Henry Jenkins wrote that "The scroll games have built into them the constant construction of frontiers--home regions--that the... player must struggle to master and and push beyond, moving farther and farther into uncharted space" (279) Do you believe that this kind of games propagate the myth of the frontier? A colonizing principle that is both ideological and eminently visual - Visual studies folks would say "ocularcentric"?
Cable Griffith: I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Jenkins’ essay before this interview. But I’m glad you shared it with me, and through the magic of email interviews I was able to read it before answering. It’s an interesting read and he brings up some very valid issues. Honestly, the essay is too fresh for me to draw any firm conclusions of my own right now, but the desire to explore a territory (either real or imagined) and its relation to manifest destiny and colonization feels a little like the “chicken or the egg”. As Jenkins points out, it is natural for children to seek spaces in which they can experiment with decisions, actions, and consequences freely- without the constant scrutiny of a protective parent. And I see the need to “push beyond, moving farther and farther into uncharted space” as more of a metaphor for life. To me, that is the reality we all have ahead of us. Some of us play the game of life more or less conventionally, but to me, it is all uncharted. With or without conquering tendencies, we seek confidence in adapting to whatever lies ahead. Play serves that purpose in humans and animals. Manifest destiny of the imagination, perhaps.
One of the challenging things about the Side-scroll series was dealing with the exquisite corpse problem of resolving a loose end of a previous decision. What I mean is that one painting could reach a state of resolution, but a new blank canvas added to the side had to connect and carry over some element from the prior piece. And usually those shapes, marks, or colors could feel initially awkward in the space space by themselves. So there is a continual need to create balance out of the unexpected. And that feels like an appropriate metaphor for life, in general.
Cable Griffith: I don’t think I can answer how videogames fit into the trajectory of Art History. As time goes on, it will be interesting to see how that will play out. To me, videogames rarely push the potential of the medium. Not in terms of entertainment, but as art. But I think they can be successful as both. My painting The Mountain was directly referring to the Tower of Babel as a critical metaphor for Art History. I’d like to make a distinction between a history of art and Art History. But that’s another conversation.
GameScenes: What kind of works will you display at your upcoming exhibition, “First-person Traveller”? Are you using the metaphor of gaming as simulated tourism/travel as a driving principle, so to speak? By the way, I have noticed that your paintings include several cartographic elements - consider, for instance, World 1 Overview, World II Overview or Return to the Source. Are these paintings maps of imaginary places? Or are you more interested in exploring - and advancing - the genre of landscape painting?
Cable Griffith: “First-person Traveller” is a project I’m currently working on for the online curatorial space, Violet Strays. The nature of Violet Strays is temporal, in contrast to constant archiving of most things online. After a show is over, it’s gone for good In that spirit, I’ll be showing a series of digital images, created from scanned oil paint marks. The marks will be altered and arranged in patterns, describing the landscape that my wife and I travelled through on our recent honeymoon in Europe. Each day, there will be a new image added that the viewer can click through, moving farther into space. The completed journey will be a patterned translation of the landscape through Switzerland, Italy, and France. It will be viewable online from August 2 - 15.
I probably addressed the cartographic part of the last question above in my mention of World One Overview. I consider the Overview paintings maps because I use them as tools to track and develop imagined spaces. I feel that they can’t be maps unless they’re used for navigation. On your last question, I don’t think there’s an” either/or” answer to that. But I can say that my notion of landscape feels equally influenced by the real landscape around me (living in the Pacific Northwest is inescapably inspiring) and the often-idealized and translations of landscape painting and videogame space. In my opinion, some of the most fascinating depictions of landscape over the last 20 years have been created for videogames. For me, that’s impossible to ignore.
All images courtesy of the artist.
LINK: Cable Griffith
Text: Matteo Bittanti