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 document and discuss both the origins and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
The conversation between Josh Bricker and Matteo Bittanti took place in February of 2014.
Josh Bricker is a multidisciplinary visual artist based in Los Angeles, CA. At eighteen he served in the U.S. Air Force, guarding nuclear missiles as a member of a Security Forces unit. He recently graduated from Parsons in New York, receiving an MFA in studio art.
My video work utilizes media of high velocity, high social saturation—the internet, Youtube, syndicated television, WikiLeaks, interactive war video games, CNN, BBC—to interrogate social and political power structures. My approach is an inductive process that unavoidably begins from my personal background as a soldier in the United States Air Force and a childhood spent in a small, working-class town in California dominated by pop culture, chain businesses, high school sports and mixed martial arts (MMA). I employ conceptual strategies that slow down high velocity media in order to investigate the social ramifications of image saturation and to reveal the merging of simulacrum and reality brought on by the seamless merging among industry, entertainment, media and the military. Rather than viewing each of my works as discrete and finished, I view my works as developing, unstable forms of research, examining the plausibility and functionality of the internet as an artistic tool. Every piece of footage and sound is intentionally culled from Vimeo, WikiLeaks and YouTube in order to advocate the potential video sharing sites and the internet have to create social and political works in both content and form. My work embodies the egalitarian potential that virtual, communal spaces provide, as well as, their potential to become collective digital archives ripe for artistic investigation. Constructed to emulate the look and sound of viral videos in form, my videos reject the conventional relationship of the static viewer consuming traditional media; instead they act as a challenge to the highly regulated nature of consumer capitalism. My strategies are akin to those of the Open Source computer programming movement. Because I post all my work on YouTube—a fundamentally interactive and unstable platform—which may critique American Neo-Conservative military policy, there is a completely real potential for a Neo-Conservative to not only respond via commenting, but even by ripping my work from the site and reformulating it into a new work and then re-circulating it. It is precisely the instability of the media I employ that seems to have great potential for the advancement of research in the attempt to combat our contemporary culture of obedience and the forces of homogenization and globalization being spawned by neo-liberal capitalism. (source)
GameScenes: Your work examines the military-entertainment complex on a variety of levels and from different angles. You repurpose toys, games, video, found objects, and photography, to explore the fine line between propaganda, indoctrination, play, “fun”, and ideology. What made you decide to investigate this specific theme, both visually and critically? Any eye-opening experience or discovery - a book, a documentary, a film, a conversation - that you would like to share?
Josh Bricker: In short, graduate school happened. For the first time I was forced to critically examine my practice. As I slowly unpacked my military experience, themes of power, nationalism, social conditioning, propaganda, and play, began surfacing with greater and greater regularity. But only semi-consciously in partially articulated works too laden with personal meaning to be accessible. In the last critique before the summer break, one of my advisors, tired of my awkward, un-articulated tiptoeing around of the obvious blurted out something about my needing to read Foucault, Chomsky and Huizinga and hastily bolted for the door. To him, and probably every other faculty member it was blatantly obvious that my work needed to move beyond the personal. That to be of any consequence my focus necessarily had to expand beyond personal experience to include the social and cultural mechanisms that had led to my enlistment. In retrospect an obvious move, but at the time it was a major epiphany. I spent all summer reading and thinking. Armed, for the first time, with critical insights into these machinations I was able to analyze my experiences and articulate them clearly. I have always believed that the best art starts from a place of personal experience, allowing the artist to speak intelligently about things he or she knows. Thanks to the suggestions made in that final critique of my first year, l, for the first time, felt like I was on the path to doing that.
Also, I don’t want to suggest here that I had no agency in my own enlistment. I do, however, want to suggest that there are myriad competing cultural pressures constantly playing upon the decisions we make, influencing the paths we take. Without the analytical tools and time to critically examine these external pressures I was susceptible to the subtle, omnipresent forms of social conditioning that define much of contemporary life, particularly the brand of jingoistic rhetoric prevalent in many conservative households, of which mine was one. In my family any questioning of America’s indiscretions, particularly those concerned with the use of military force, was tantamount to an act of sedition. Graduate school provided the space I needed to critically engage some of my tacit and unarticulated assumptions (to borrow a phrase from Cornel West), about American culture and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. Allowing me to break free of the conditioning that had shackled me to a belief system not fully my own.
Josh Bricker, American Exceptionalism, digital photo, 2010
GameScenes: As a corollary, what role do videogames play in shaping contemporary culture, in your view? How do they differ from traditional, non-interactive forms of entertainment, like toys - e.g. toy soldiers - or board games? The reason why I am asking this question is because in your artist statement for Post-Newtonianism, you wrote that digital games “desensitized us further from the horrors of war”. If games are, indeed, desensitizing their users, what are the long-term consequences?
Josh Bricker: Well, I think it’s safe to say they play a huge role. In recent years the gaming industry has become one of the leading forms of entertainment in terms of revenue, often going toe to toe with or outright beating Hollywood for the almighty entertainment dollar. Highly anticipated game titles routinely gross more in the first 24hrs of release then the most anticipated films during an opening weekend. Stratospheric earning power, combined with discreet funding from military/government sources and the pervasive, global reach of the gaming industry make gaming one of the most important mediums in contemporary culture to understand and critically engage.
How that role manifests itself I can only speculate. Reading Henry Jenkins work has made me reevaluate my original contentions concerning the connection between violence and video games. When one considers personal agency and stops looking at the gaming community as homogeneous than connections between the two become tenuous at best. However, there does seem to be a clear connection between video games and propaganda. Games like Call of Duty raise interest and support for the U.S. military and have become a part of the militarization of society. A recent Call of Duty ad campaign reinforces this point with the tag line “There’s a soldier in all of us”, and depictions of gun battles in dystopian/war torn urban landscapes between what appear to be American citizens in work attire. Additionally in 2010, the U.S. military spent $50 million dollars developing combat training games and even developed a first-class shooter of its own, similar to Call of Duty called America’s Army, which is openly used as a recruiting device and is free to download from the Internet. As a medium, video games pose a danger in that their often violent natures are rarely, if ever, reflected upon meaningfully by users. Video games require active participation unlike other media such as music or movies, which raises their potential to distance user associations between violent actions and possible consequences.
Long term I think these games have the potential to harden a large section of the polis to violence. To normalize realist narratives that favor immediate military action while devaluing prudent intellectual analysis and political discourse. These games tacitly celebrate violent action over policy and ignore questions of jurisprudence and international law, not to mention questions of morality and ethics that come with killing, kidnapping, murder by remote-control and razing cities, virtual or otherwise. This is starting to get a little convoluted so I’ll stop here, but these are big question that deserve more critical analysis then I am probably capable of.
Josh Bricker's "Post Newtonianism" is a two-channel video featuring footage from a WikiLeaks video released earlier this year documenting a U.S. military offensive in Iraq. The video was part of YouTube@Guggenheim initiative. "Post Newtonianism" features two panels juxtaposing actual war footage on one side, and sequences from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on the other. The video also includes audio from the WikiLeaks videos gradually merging with audio from the video game. The title of Bricker's artwork was inspired by the writings of Edward Said. Below is the director's commentary: (SOURCE)
GameScenes: With Post Newtonianism (2010) you perfectly captured the zeitgeist - from Wikileaks to the New Aesthetic, from Post 9/11 Imperialism to the new digital panopticon. At that time, you wrote that the project was inspired by three events: a conversation you had in class about the original source (i.e., a Wikileak video), Edward Said’s Orientalism and Alan Lightman’s Reunion. Can you elaborate? I find these connections very interesting, especially in relation to Henry Kissinger’s eponymous essay.
Josh Bricker: Sure, so when the WikiLeaks video was leaked I was a graduate student at Parsons taking a class called “American Modernity”. Needless to say in the following weeks a fair amount of class time was spent discussing the footage, U.S. military policy, and the inevitable avalanche of negative responses the footage was going to illicit in the Arab world. As an artist and former soldier, I felt compelled to try and make sense of the violence and desensitized language employed in the video. I began to replay the video footage over and over in my mind and sensed a familiarity between the voices and language on the WikiLeaks video and the types of things my friends and I said when we played Call of Duty.
At the same time I had been reading Said’s Orientalism and immediately drew a connection between the two, particularly to Henry Kissinger’s essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy” referenced in the text. In his essay Kissinger surmises that the inferiority and backwardness of the East lay in its refusal to acknowledge the Newtonian (read scientific) revolution. Watching the WikiLeaks' footage and thinking about Kissinger’s essay it occurred to me that the legacy of exceptionalist rhetoric espoused by Kissinger and many others before him continues to dominate Western policy. As a result, our relationship with the East post-Newtonian physics (scientific revolution) could be characterized by bullying less technologically advanced nations in order to maintain antiquated imperialist policies and agendas.
In Alan Lightman’s novel Reunion, the main protagonist, while watching news footage of a deadly natural disaster on television realizes that he feels nothing for the people he sees on t.v. Thinking about his lack of compassion he says,
"I've decided that has been the great achievement of our age: to so thoroughly flood the planet with megabits that every image and fact has become a digitized disembodied nothingness. With magnificent determination, our species has advanced from Stone Age to Industrial Revolution to Digital Emptiness. We've become weightless, in the bad sense of the word.”
Post Newtonianism was my attempt to put these three disparate elements together in a coherent way, expressing the “digitized disembodied nothingness” articulated in Reunion with my reading of Said and the Wikileaks footage.
Josh Bricker, Programmed Dreams of Bravery, 2009
GameScenes: In your statement for Post Newtonianism, you use the term “simulacrum” twice. How influential is Jean Baudrillard in your work and practice? Are your familiar with James Der Derian’s research, by any chance?
Josh Bricker: Baudrillard is definitely an influence. I recently wrote an essay about the explosive rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Mixed Martial Arts using his notion of America as ahistorical as a provocation to examine America’s social relationship to martial arts, particularly as it compares to that of China, Thailand and Japan. So, he’s certainly on my radar, but in my pantheon of critical thinkers, ranking them based on their importance to my work, I would put him somewhere in the middle. Of much greater importance have been the works of Virilio, Der Derian, Roger Stahl, Said, West, Chomsky and media theorist Henry Jenkins. James Der Derian's Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, has been extremely influential. I think he’s one of the more underappreciated intellectuals of our time. He so clearly elucidates what are often very esoteric concepts and applies them effortlessly and comprehensibly to the contemporary moment. I’m glad you brought him up; maybe this is misguided but it makes me feel like my work is engaging the conversations I’m interested in and trying to have.
Josh Bricker, Study(Masters of the Universe #1), single channel video, 2014
GameScenes: A few years, while driving to California College of the Arts to give a lecture about the relationship between videogames and the military I was shocked to see a giant billboard of the latest Battlefield game featuring an “alleged” virtual terrorist holding an AK-47. I was driving through Oakland, California, which, at that time, was the third most dangerous city in California and here it is, an advertisement blatantly glorifying gun culture, in-your-face, so to speak. In Europe, companies cannot depict weapons in an advertisement, let alone a billboard, but in the US is considered absolutely normal - in fact, none of my students found the billboard "unusual" or "questionable". If you needed a further proof that ideological warfare is incredibly effective, here it is. My question is: How can artists contribute to change such nihilistic and critically lethargic culture? In 1964, Marshall McLuhan argued that the games we play say a lot about a society, that is, games are a cultural barometer and a mirror. What do the ongoing success of militaristic first-person shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield say about the United States of America, today?
Josh Bricker: I get asked this question periodically and I always have the same answer, which often surprises; I don’t think artists can contribute, at least not with any real impact. I have a rather pessimistic view of art with respect to its ability to promote or actively generate meaningful change. I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary and until I do I will maintain that they can’t. I think it’s primarily a matter of audience and obscurantism on the part of many artists. Social practices are such a specific subculture, locked within the ivory tower of the art world, that their exposure to the general public is limited at best. The end result is often a stilted, esoteric discourse, predictably circular and insulated amongst a sympathetic intelligentsia. Despite my previously stated cynicism I do my best to make work that communicates with a larger audience, independent of the often restrictive and exclusive art world. As a corrective mechanism and guided by an egalitarian impulse I upload every video I make directly to video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo in hopes of expanding the discourse. Which begs the question: Why the effort if I’m so convinced no good will come of it? Answer: Because it’s the only way I know how to ward off the persistent nihilism that fills me every time I make or look at something.
To your second question, I think it says we are a violent, war hungry nation. I think history, particularly recent history would only support my claim. We’ve always lived in a violent culture. First person shooters like Call of Duty offer virtual military adventurism; an opportunity to act out our most perverse desires with little to no consequences, while allowing us as a nation to maintain our self-image as reluctant warriors, defenders of civilization sanctioned by God and a superior set of Christian mores. I think McLuhan was dead on. That’s partly why I refer to games so often in my work. Games are a mirror, a popular cultural point of reference I exploit to engage a larger audience, who may or may not understand or even have an interest in the esoteric discourses within the art world.
Josh Bricker, Tower, single-channel video, 2014.
GameScenes: Guns feature prominently in your work - videos, collages, photographs... What is a gun, exactly? Aesthetically, culturally, critically? Are guns "programmed dreams of bravery"? A signifier of American Exceptionalism?
Josh Bricker: In Tower, guns represent the phallus, the soldiers comprising the structure engaged in a never-ending stroking/cocking of their guns. This motion expresses a sort of mania, even after the structure falls and they lay on top of one another in a heap of humanity, their masturbation continues uninterrupted, an expression of repressed sexual/libidinal energy. In Programmed Dreams of Bravery they indicate the social conditioning and normalization associated with the games children play, while in other pieces guns have symbolized America or act as signifiers for American policy. So the meanings vary piece by piece.
Josh Bricker, Deterrence Machine, single channel video, 2011
GameScenes: Deterrence Machine (2011) reminds me of that famous 100% non-ironic - quote from Salman Rushdie, "Drop Nintendos and MacDonald's on Iran is the most effective way to liberate them" (2010). Is Deterrence Machine a responde to Rushdie's claim?
Josh Bricker: Not exactly, but I think that reading is there. I was trying to examine the mechanisms and ease in which the culture industry – videogames and films in this instance – distract, depoliticize, and insulate us from the atrocities of war.
Josh Bricker, The Rabbit Holes Canaries, sculpture, 2009.
GameScenes:Are there artists working with videogames that you find particularly inspiring or stimulating?
Josh Bricker: I recently came across an Australian artist, Baden Pailthorpe that I like a lot. But to be honest I don’t look at a lot of art or follow many artists. I prefer popular culture.
Josh Bricker, A Solderi Reward, digital photograph, 2009.
GameScenes: What are you working on these days? What are your current obsessions? What are you reading? Or watching?
Josh Bricker: I’m thinking my next project is going to be a series of paintings that touch on similar themes of military adventurism, gaming, play, American exceptionalism, etc., as in previous work. I just started teaching Introduction to Art at Long Beach City College so at the moment I’ve been reading Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment, looking for inspired assignments. I just started reading Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, and recently finished Zealot, by Reza Aslan, Fashionable Nonsense, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, A toxic Genre: The Iraq War Films, by Martin Barker and Richard P. Feynman’s, Surely You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman? Much to wife’s chagrin, I’m obsessed with the British sitcom Peep Show - which you can find on Netflix - Dexter and Sherlock.
LINK: Josh Bricker
Text: Matteo Bittanti
All images courtesy of the Artist