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 the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
The conversation between Jay Zehngebot and Matteo Bittanti took place via email between the months of October and November of 2013.
Based in Providence, Rhode Island, Jay Zehngebot studied printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In his practice, Zehngebot explores the blurring of boundaries between reality and simulation, fantasy and history, warfare and entertainment. Specifically, his work is:
"[M]otivated by the accelerating pace of technological development, our relationship to traditional print, shifting modes of communication, information distribution, and a 24/7 news cycle. I think often about data generation and storage on a massive scale – in tandem with issues involving energy/resource consumption and real vs. perceived personal/collective security. I’m fascinated with and concerned over the rise of remote systems, advanced simulation, mobile computing, the popularity of networked gaming, and the state of our schools. I’m into innovations in user interface, astronomy, and exploring augmented reality. Lastly, I feel formed, in part, by the fact that my secondary and post-secondary education has taken place against the backdrop of two ever-present, yet distant, wars – conflicts which concurrently span our last decade – the longest uninterrupted stretch of official military engagement in US history." (Jay Zehngebot)
GameScenes: Although you work with a variety of media and explore a flotilla of themes, video games feature prominently in your work. When and why did you decide to appropriate and reconfigure digital games within your practice? Were/are you developing these works in conversation with other artists at RISD?
Most of my drawings and prints in school stemmed from game-related concepts, but removing my hand-drawn lines - my emotional my emotional attitude - from the process and focusing exclusively on appropriation, composition, resolution and color was a step that took some time.
I wasn't plugged into game-art conversations at RISD, but the energy of my contemporaries James Mercer and Agata Michalowska was really instrumental. I was primarily interested in issues relating to printmaking's foundations - technique, multiplicity, and the static quasi-permanence of ink on paper.
GameScenes: Artists like Joseph Delappe and Harun Farocki have explored the military-entertainment complex before, but your approach is unique. I'm specifically referring to your preferred medium, screen print. Videogames are dynamic, fluid, moving, hi-res, colorful, and interactive artifacts. You, on the other hand, work by subtraction, consciously eliminating most of these attributes. In your world, games are eminently static, low-res, often monochromatic, and fixed. Can you describe the genesis two projects of yours, specifically American ProGamers (2012) and BF3-3D (2012)? Why did you choose black and white photography to address the ongoing fascination for war-based videogames? Also, can you contextualize the origins and development of BF3-3D? How and why did you go from the screen to paper, from 3D models to 2D prints?
Harun Farocki's work is super inspiring for its critical forward looking gaze. I discovered his work after I had settled into a similar dual(ing?) display format, which I found very affirming. Also, as a printmaker, discovering Christiane Baumgartner's work was similarly encouraging. Strategically, procedurally, and conceptually, these artists motivate me to embrace a slow burn.
American ProGamers was a result of Major League Gaming holding their championships in Providence, Rhode Island. I spent the weekend recording video without a concrete project in mind. My principal interest was to document kids playing Black Ops. This massive video backdrop was a perfect vehicle for the same spacial flattening that I'd been exploring through print. The final book helps to articulate my interest in gaming & training is as much or more about these kids than it is about war.
The BF3-D prints were a logical next step for my game-documentation based work, and were totally driven by newly-available software. The prints end up as a pseudo-recursive look into these hyper-realistic game spaces, with the computer performing sort of visual self-analysis. The process involved playing through Battlefield 3 as a documentarian and capturing unfolding scenarios in the round. These screen captures were then algorithmically scrubbed of all HUD graphics and imported into AutoCAD's 123DCatch for automated 3D Modeling. Within this digital 3-D model I have compositional free-reign. A select few perspectives, as stills, are exported into CMYK halftone separations for printing. For me, the final images get at this act of mapping memory to a disembodied experience in an eerily accurate way, and so I set out to document the other two "3's" - MW3, and ARMA3 - in the same fashion.
GameScenes: For your solo show, Our Sentry (2011), you juxtaposed mass media and videogame images. In Collisions (2011), for instance, screenshots of military-themed games are situated next to screengrabs of TV documentaries, creating an interesting epistemological short-circuit. Again, you decreased the resolution of the "original" photographs/screenshots as to suggest some kind of ontological homogeneity. Are you challenging or confirming the aesthetic & ideological sameness of apparently different visual discourses?
Jay Zehngebot: In the run-up to Our Sentry, I was mining personal libraries with upwards of 50,000 images. Amidst this, a handful of pairings, or collisions, really distinguished themselves. Beyond the aesthetic match and collaged coherent narrative, I think about presenting the obliteration of distinction, as a parallel to the "drone pilot heads home at night" conversation.
Jay Zenhnegbot, Collision 3 (Top: Game/Video. Bottom: Video/Game), Screenprint on synthetic paper., 40"w x 26"h. Edition of 3. 2011
GameScenes: In your video work Dark Dance Two (2011), the avatars of Modern Warfare 2 and ArmA II improvise funny dance moves on the battlefields, while the "war" rages on. How did you produce this work? Were you interested in exploring the logic of user-generated military-videos in the age of digital simulations?
Jay Zehngebot: Of all the game-based warsim stuff I look at and dig into, I feel that the gunfire-drumbeat youtube video genre is amongst the most violent. Juxtaposing this with scripted re-enactments of soldier dance-videos gets at the surreal relationship between a simultaneously connected/disconnected military/civilian culture. My involvement in the video was simply smashing the two things together and modifying the tempo to match the length of the two clips.
Jay Zehngebot, Dark Dance Two, 2011, 2' 49" -"Slightly screwed MW2 Gunfire + Arma2 Dancers."
Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media Entertainment Network by James Der Derian (2001). Updated book trailer.
GameScenes: I.V.A./N. (2009) deals with virtual bunkers of first-person shooters. What role does the topology of videogames play in your work? Were you reading Paul Virilio when you were working on this project, by any chance? As you probably know, his early work focuses on the archaeology and architecture of bunkers...
GameScenes: What are you working on these days? Are you still investigating the game medium?
Jay Zehngebot I've recently finished printing images from ARMA3, and am now working on WWW.BTCSC.NET - which is realtime Bitcoin Market Information Rendered as Dynamic Architecture inside Minecraft. The visual residues I imagine casting off look something like a proxy manifestation of Burtynsky meets Caleb Larsen.
All images courtesy of the artist
Text by Matteo Bittanti