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 COLL.EO and Carlo Ricafort took place in their San Francisco's studio in August of 2013. The full interview was published in CARJACKED, published by CONCRETE PRESS in 2013. What follows is an edited and abridged version of that conversation.
"COLL.EO is a collaboration between Colleen Flaherty and Matteo Bittanti established in 2012. COLL.EO creates media artworks, mobile sculptures, and conceptual pieces. With the use of appropriated materials which are borrowed from a day-to-day context, COLL.EO uses a visual vocabulary that addresses several different artistic, social, and political issues. The work incorporates time as well as space – a fictional and experiential universe that only emerges bit by bit (digital), piece by piece (analog). "(source)
Carlo Ricafort: How did you create these cars? You mention the Livery Editor in your artist statement. Is Livery a digital tool, like Photoshop?
COLL.EO: No, not at all. It is nowhere as flexible or versatile as Adobe Photoshop. First of all, the Livery Editor is not a stand-alone computer program, but a software tool used to customize the appearance of a virtual car in the popular racing game series Forza Motorsport, developed by Turn 10 Studios for Microsoft. This means that it does not exist outside of the gaming environment, specifically the Xbox 360 home console. Its design capabilities are considerably limited. For instance, in order to modify an existing model, the user must use an Xbox 360 joypad, rather than a mouse or a pen-tablet. This is very cumbersome. Additionally, the Livery Editor does not offer anything that even remotely looks like a free drawing mode: one must modify, combine or “layer” existing basic shapes known as “primitives” in order to achieve the intended goals. Available as a set of layers, the primitives can be selected in the main menu by either pressing a button or the directional pad on the controller. In both cases, the user can create a group and then select those layers to bring up a contextual menu. Basically, every design decision takes several steps. The process is very time consuming. Moreover, the number of shapes that can be used for a single design is limited. Let’s say that you want to create a specific outline… Well, additional shapes are needed. However, outlining a complex shape requires many layers and you can run out of resources very quickly. The maximum number of available shapes for a project is one thousand, which is not as much as it sounds. Also, the text adorning the chassis of the Car-telan car or the Kruger-mobile was created ad hoc as typing is not contemplated: the user must first select a single letter on a virtual keyboard, and then change its size, shape, orientation, and/or color. The palette of available fonts is, again, minimal. In short, the Livery Editor is counter-intuitive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming, but we liked the challenges and the constraints that it forced upon us. Customizing a car with this tool is a bit like painting. Virtual painting.
COLL.EO, CARJACKED (After Cattelan), digital video, 2012.
Carlo Ricafort: A peculiar way of painting... It sounds like holding a tiny brush with boxing gloves.
COLL.EO: It’s a great analogy. The interesting thing is that there are so many boxers-painters online. You can find a livery, pardon, lively subculture of virtual car-modders on the Web. Some of them are incredibly talented and they have fully mastered the art of painting with a joypad. YouTube hosts hundreds of speed-painting videos produced by Forza Motorsport fans. Creating custom-jobs is a form of meta-gaming, a practice with its own rules, values, aesthetics, and reputations… The results are published, disseminated, and evaluated online. Moreover, the Forza community has a virtual marketplace where gamers trade their own vinyls, shapes, logos, and more. Experienced designers also share their knowledge by creating video tutorials, and by posting tips and suggestions in forums. It is a very interesting community… The modders’ expertise and talent are not recognized by the Artworld. These practitioners are relegated to the cultural periphery. Their work is routinely dismissed as a mere hobby, craft, “Sunday painting”, outsider art and the likes. Although they lack any visibility and respect beyond of the confines of their subculture, the ingenuity, time and resources that some of these artists invest are nonetheless remarkable. In fact, their work can be compared to real car modding. In one case, the car, a quintessential byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, has been appropriated and transformed for social and/or political purposes. In the case of Forza Motorsport, the modified artifact - a digital simulacrum - is post-modern and post-industrial. There are also interesting social implications. As John DeWitt (2001) explains in Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture, car-modding appears to be a male-dominated activity: “This masculine subculture originally created largely by white working-class mechanics and bodymen, amateur and professional, has evolved over a period of more than half a century, producing thousands of significant works in a variety of styles.” (XII). DeWitt has coined the expression “Kustom Kulture” to indicate the culture revolving around (real) car-modding, a phenomenon whose history is intertwined with the invention of teen culture in the 1950s.
As DeWitt writes:
The teen culture that emerged in a postwar California culture, already car obsessed and car dependent, embraced hot rods and customs, as the perfect expression of its rapidly forming new identity. Rods and customs helped teens positions themselves against the perceived conformity of the times.” (XIII)
Likewise, the virtual car-modding subculture is also predominantly male, at least judging on our anecdotal, but prolonged, experience. Racing games are mostly boys’ toys. It is also extremely popular among Californian teens where digital gaming is consistently used as a tool of identity-formation (Mimi Ito et al, 2009). DeWitt adds that car-mods were often meant as acts of symbolic resistance, rebellion, and self-expression, especially when they involved marginalized cultures such as the Mexican-American or African-American community. Addressing the popularity and significance of the lowrider cars among Mexican immigrants in the US, Ruben Ortiz Torres wrote:
With the advent of lowrider culture, the individualistic American dream of driving away to escape it all has been replaced with the notion of driving together. Lowriders organize in car clubs and go cruising on weekends on specific boulevards, updating the old Mexican practice of walking around the town plaza on Sundays in order to socialize and flirt with the girls. They drive slow, pumping their music and blocking traffic, messing with a social system that is not eager to accept them. Their cars are turned into political and aesthetic signifiers. No longer tools of efficient, modern transportation (which in fact they never really were), they become a medium of expression [...] During the 1960s, these machines became symbols of the Chicano civil rights movement. (37-38)
DeWitt examines the customization practices that involved the modification of American stock cars, noting that they were particularly popular in the United States from the 1920s till the mid-1960s. Can video game modding in Forza become an act of cultural resistance?
COLL.EO, CARJACKED (After Kruger, digital video, 2012.
Carlo Ricafort: That’s interesting. Is CARJACKED an example of cultural jamming, then? Why did you hijack the BMW Art Cars initiative?
COLL.EO Well, it is important to remember the BMW Art Car project had been hijacked before. For example, in 1987, Keith Haring painted a red BMW Z1 convertible at Hans Mayer Gallery in Düsseldorf, which is now housed in a private collection in France (John Gruen, 1992). Interestingly. Haring’s Art Car is not considered part of the canon and is not officially recognized by BMW. Moreover, the German artist, painter, and graphic designer Walter Maurer has been designing a series of “unofficial”, apocryphal, alternate BMW Art Cars, mostly M1 models, since the early 1980s. Some of his best artworks were featured in a 1990 exhibition. In 1998, Maurer designed the “Automobile-Sculpture”, a car without windows as the vehicle’s entire surface is embedded into the chassis. Finally, in 2013, Czech artist Andy Reiben made 3 Series Fluidum, a BMW 3 Series (F30) created with iridescent, fluorescent, and photo luminescent paint. In short, the list of artists appropriating and remixing BMW is long. And growing. The common denominator of all these interventions, from Haring to Reiben, is the need to belong, to become part of the elite, to be associated with the brand, to “make art that matters”. Moreover, one may say that BMW itself is the real hijacker as it appropriated the “art of the paint job” that flourished in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. I am specifically referring to the car customization practices of artists like Harley Earl, Von Dutch, Ed Roth, and George Barris, just to name some of the most prominent ones. After WWII, they began to decorate automobiles with their signature styles, symbols, and icons. For example, Barris adorned James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder with the now legendary lettering “Little Bastard”, prefiguring the customization practices of the Forza community. Von Dutch (née Kenneth Howard) is considered “the father of modern pinstriping. As Leah M. Kerr explains, he is credited with not only teaching a technique of automobile decoration, but also of inspiring surfboard designers, poster artists, and contemporary Surrealist painters.” (2000: 25). His artistic practice is really interesting. His studio was the garage, the body shop. “He did flames or stripes, whichever you wanted, for $6.00 an hour in 1956” (ibid.). The key difference between, let’s say, Von Dutch and Robert Rauschenberg is that the former was not interested in being recognized as an Artist. He saw himself as an artisan. He worked on the street although he was not a street artist.As DeWitt explains:
Part of Kustom Kulture’s reluctance to embrace the term art comes from the general conception that Americans have of artists. [...] The media have reinforced characterizations of artists as self-absorbed eccentrics, frauds, sissies, hypocrites, parasites, and pretenders. [...] Excluded from public discourse on almost everything but their own lives and celebrated more for the scandal of their lives than the accomplishment of their work, American artists remain somewhat alien creatures, a situation the Beats took great advantage of, celebrating their difference rather than lamenting it. For working-class males, the idea of being an artist often seems to be something to be avoided rather than sought after, despite the fact that what is clearly visible in their work is artistic achievement. It’s safer to shrug it off, not to have it matter. But it does matter. (38)
There is another crucial affinity between the practice of car modification that DeWitt calls Kustom Kulture and the BMW Art Car initiative. In both cases, the cars were meant for the race track. The first three BMW Art Cars were indeed raced. So were the first hot rods. Things changed with the invention of pure art decoration, chassis customization, paint jobs. At that point, cars became pure artifacts, that is, objects to be looked at, contemplated, sculptures on wheels. This shift marked a reconfiguration of the roles, functions, and values of all the parties involved. Consider this passage:
The first hot roads were meant to be raced. Those who watched were participants and spectators, fans at a sporting event, not art lovers. But the first customs were built to be viewed. They were intended for an audience, on display or in performance, whether sitting in a parking lot, slowly cruising the strip, or rapidly accelerating from a stoplight. [...] As it is in art galleries and museums, the best cars present to a knowledgeable audience new designs, new strategies, and new combinations that continually revise and extend current practices. There is an art history here, not so different from the succession of styles one finds in modern art. (39)
Carlo Ricafort: It seems like the BMW Art Car initiative is spinning out of control...
COLL.EO: Not necessarily. But it is definitely expanding, often in directions that BMW could not anticipate. What is clear is that BMW has successfully co-opted the “official” Artworld. On one hand, the brand exerts a tight grip on the “canonical” art cars that are commissioned to a selected number of artists who best express, embody, and communicate its ethos, values, and aesthetics, so to speak. On the other, BMW is experimenting with alternative formats, venues, and art markets. For instance, in 2009, BMW Indonesia invited a series of local artists, like Nus Salomo, Rangga Oka Dimitri “Herdé”, Ugo Untoro, Agus Suwage, and Radi Arwinda, to decorate and paint miniature BMW models - yes, toy cars - which were then auctioned and the profits donated to the Indonesian Arts Foundation. Although remarkable as another marketing coup, the initiative is not new per se: between 2003 and 2005, BMW released the first fifteen Art Cars - at the time, that encompassed the entire series - as 1:18 scale miniature diecast vehicles, manufactured by Minichamps. The first two releases were Alexander Calder’s BMW 3.0 CSL and Jenny Holzer’s BMW V12 LMR. The mini-Art Cars were sold through BMW automobile dealerships, select museum shops, as well as directly from BMW in a limited edition of 3000. More recently, BMW has been working closely with some of the most powerful art institutions, like the Guggenheim Museum. In 2012, the two companies launched the Guggenheim Lab project, a “mobile think-tank that will travel to nine cities around the world over six years. The project aims to bring together creative thinkers across various artistic, scientific and industrial disciplines to engage with the public in programs based around issues of contemporary life.” (Melinda Williams, 2011). Bottom line: BMW owns the artworld. However, BMW was not the first company to hire world-renown artists for marketing purposes. In 1972, Datsun recruited Salvador Dali, Robert Rauschenberg, and many other artists who went as far as incorporating the carmaker iconography into their works. By doing so, the artists themselves became “branded”. As Gerald Silk (1984) explains:
Dali put an image of a 610 Wagon on one of his characteristic melting watches, which was growing out of a hairy tree and suspended below a huge spider. The watch spelled out the number “610,” the model of the car, and the name of the car. Rauschenberg’s Engineer’s Landscape consisted of a collage photo image of a 510 Datsun and its parts, as a way of suggesting its fine engineering. (162)
In cinema and television, this practice is known as product placement.
Carlo Ricafort: Is CARJACKED a parody or a celebration of the BMW brand?
COLL.EO: We developed this project in San Francisco, the so-called epicenter of the high tech world. According to that neo-liberal bible of the Silicon Valley otherwise known as WIRED magazine, in the last few years the bold, the powerful, and the beautiful that own our digital lives have ditched BMWs for Audis, which are considered “classier”. In a phenomenal, 100% irony-free article published on WIRED.com in September 2012 titled “Across Silicon Valley, You’re In With An Audi”, Senior Writer Ryan Tate writes that BMW is being disrupted by its arch-rival. Consider this quote from Emily Armstrong, a product manager at SYPartners: “I feel like, in San Francisco, everyone has [an Audi] [...] My God, there are a million of them”. “Audi,” Tate continues, has “uniquely captured the attention of the young and elite in Silicon Valley, where elegant user interfaces count as much as raw performance and where status symbols should be as subtle as an unreleased iPhone in the pocket of your Japanese-denim jeans.” Tate quotes Google-man Andy Rubin, whose soundbite is like an haiku: “[Audis] are technologically advanced, but understated.” One must resist the temptation to dismiss Tate’s rant is just one of the many advertorials disguised as journalism gracing the cluttered, chaotic, and generally unintelligible pages of WIRED. After all, this “article” both in form and content, perfectly exemplifies the Silicon Valley ethos and the toxic influence of the Californian ideology. Quoting Spencer Chen, head of business development at mobile software company Appcelerator, Tate adds that Audi is “the new entry car into the venture capital class” and that, as serial tech entrepreneur (sic) Matt Branzina says, “if you’ve lived in the Bay Area very long, the [BMW] 3-series is like the Honda Accord”. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a quote from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), although it reminded us of Blake’s (Alec Baldwin) infamous monologue. When one of his employees, Dave Moss (Ed Harris), interrupts him with a sardonic question, “What’s your name?”. Blake’s abrasive rejoinder shuts him off: “You know why, mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name.”
Sidney Lumet, Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992. Blake's monologue.
Isn’t it fascinating that Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs talk exactly like David Mamet’s car salesmen? It is one of those cases when fiction and reality coincide. In fact, there is no difference between Blake and Jacobs Mullins, a senior associate at Shasta Ventures, who argues that BMW has “a really high douchebag factor”, just another gem of Tate’s piece. Tate goes as far as suggesting that there has been a “Paradigm shift in how hard-chargers throughout the country tool around town” (we are not making this up, we are quoting verbatim). In short, we felt that BMW needed to be protected from this mixture of techno-bohemian rhetoric, internet hubris, and brand disloyalty. During the production of CARJACKED, we were shocked to discover that “Audi sales in Northern California were up 20 percent from 2011”. A true “paradigm shift”, according to Tate. Therefore, CARJACKED asks: What has Audi done for the Artworld? At least Mercedes-Benz recruited Andy Warhol and Robert Longo. FIAT bought Mario Sironi. Renault co-opted Arman and tried to work with Rauschenberg, who dreamt of making an invisible car, but could not, so he ended up collaborating with both Datsun and BMW. Paraphrasing American contemporary philosopher Chris Crocker, leave BMW alone!
Carlo Ricafort: In this sense, CARJACKED is a meditation on mediation, representation, and simulation. What happens to “reality” in the age of videogames?
COLL.EO: First of all, there is nothing real in real cars. After all, what we call “cars” are simply physical manifestations of a brand, a virtual construct with some kind of material consistency. A car is not a car, but a mobile signifier, a cluster(fuck) of meanings. But a “real” car is always more and less than the combination of metal, rubber, oil etc. Moreover, its seductive power - the car as a virtual/visual construct - is in deep crisis today, as the now persistent economic crisis has made it much harder, for younger generations, to purchase one. Wealth inequality has been normalized and has become the de facto standard for the vast majority of Americans and so the link between ever evanescent incomes and car ownership has been severed. The rise of car sharing services around the world and especially in the US can be seen as a direct consequence of this phenomenon. The American Dream is going nowhere. The American Dream is in a ditch. Researchers have suggested that the cultural turn from autophilia to autophobia is generational. As the story goes, Millennials don’t drive. Phineas Baxandall, author of a report published in 2013 by U.S. Pirg, a nonprofit advocacy organization, argues that changes in driving behavior “preceded the recent recession and appeared to be part of a structural shift that is largely rooted in changing demographics, especially the rise of so-called millennials — today’s teenagers and twentysomethings.” (John Schwartz, 2013). In her eulogy (obituary?) of car culture published in The New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal (2013) argues that:
America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling. When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company. As of April 2013, the number of miles driven per person was nearly 9 percent below the peak and equal to where the country was in January 1995. [...] Demographic shifts in the driving population suggest that the trend may accelerate. There has been a large drop in the percentage of 16- to 39-year-olds getting a license, while older people are likely to retain their licenses as they age, Mr. Sivak’s research has found. (Rosenthal, 2013).
There are additional factors to consider. For example, car-ownership has reached the point of saturation in most parts of the world, thus all is left to conquer is the virtual frontier. Consider Italy, which has the highest ratio of car ownership in Europe. The nightmarish opening scene of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is a daily reality for million of Italians, stuck like canned meat in their mobile cages, trapped in a perpetual commute, in an endless line, like the characters of Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue.
Federico Fellini, 8 1/2, 1960, opening sequence.
But the illusory exodus into virtual reality is symptomatic of a deeper crisis. Today people do everything online, from buying nothing (Windows shopping is the favorite pastime of the New Poor) to fucking themselves (literally and metaphorically). Driving luxury cars made of polygons and textures is just part of the process. For many, the virtual cars of videogames are the only automobiles they will ever own in their lifetime. For these individuals, virtual = real. Thus, the digital BMW of Forza is the matrix of all the possible BMWs. Racing games are simply glorified, interactive advertisements. All racing video games are, de facto, advergames. A third factor to consider is that nowadays cars are basically computers with wheels. That is, even the so-called real cars have become digital, more machinic than ever, almost sentient. It is as if the computerized, computer-controlled videogame cars had transcended the screen and invaded our streets. Consider, for instance, the 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Performance Data Recorder Interface, which
"Incorporates a high-definition 720p video camera in the windshield header, a microphone in the cabin and a GPS receiver that tracks the vehicle's location five times faster than the navigation system. The system allows drivers to record their pedal-to-the-metal romps behind the wheel of their Stingray, overlay the footage with telemetry data (in Track, Sport, Touring or Performance mode) and save it to the SD card in the glove box. They can then review it by the side of the road or track on the Corvette's eight-inch dashboard display, or load it onto their computer to share with other enthusiasts and analyze with the Cosworth Toolbox software." (Noah Joseph, Autoblog, 2014)
Basically, this is Forza Motorsport in real-life.
This scenario introduces new challenges: carmakers are now investigating possible ways of making sure that viruses or glitches will not allow hackers to remotely hijack automobiles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is studying how to thwart future attacks on those computers on wheels otherwise known as “cars” (Nick Bilton, 2013).
Last but not least, automobiles are becoming fully automated, robotic, self-driving. The last thing they need is incompetent human drivers. Unsurprisingly, at the recent CES in Las Vegas, BMW introduced a a new autonomous driving technology, allowing an M235i to drift itself independent of driver input.
We predict that driving virtual cars will be our only way to experience the adrenaline rush of speed celebrated by Marinetti and the erotic pleasures of the orgasmic car crash described by J.G. Ballard.
The full interview is available in CARJACKED by CONCRETE PRESS.
All images courtesy of the artist
Text by Carlo Ricafort
Editing: Matteo Bittanti