ART GAMES ABOUT ART
Critical Observations of the Art World in the Work of Pippin Barr
The art world is no stranger to meta-referentiality. From Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917 to the Appropriation Art of Sherrie Levine in the '80s, artists have consistently found ways to question the meaning, function, and role of Art, as well as the formal and conceptual qualities needed for a work to be considered “Artistic”. Pippin Barr, a game designer, philosopher, and artist from New Zealand, is expanding, if not reinventing, this meta-referential practice by using the medium of videogames in unexpected, creative ways.
Pippin Barr: An Introduction
Barr currently practices and teaches game design at the University of Malta. He taught previously at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Wellington, where he also got his Doctorate in Philosophy and Computer Science, with a dissertation on the ethics and values of gaming. Barr stated that he likes making what he calls “Curious Games,” that is, games which present every day, mundane situations in a new light and/or focus on subject matters like death, depression or, indeed, art.
In his games, Barr appropriates and subverts a medium constructed around rule sets and rigid expectations, and he disrupts the assumptions of what can and should happen in them. He also takes life as his subject, creating works that often ask the player to perform incredibly prosaic tasks, restricting play to operating in real time, or creating scenarios that, despite displaying a lo-fi, unrealistic, pixelated style, closely resemble, or at least evoke, common situations, creating a new kind or Realism. In other words, Barr creates work that not only invites, but requires a level of participation that is often only tacitly accepted or explicitly forbidden by art in a gallery space, which tends to operate under a logic of distancing, contemplation, and passivity.
By demanding participation, Barr delivers a sharper critique or deeper expression of the subjects his works are referencing because, through the interaction afforded by the game medium, he forces the player/performer to become an active part in the criticism or performance. This is apparent in all of his games, but is especially relevant in his critical games dealing with the art world: The Artist is Present (2011), Art Game (2013), and the Digital Marina Abramović Institute (2013).
Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, online game, 2011
The Artist is Present: Performing Non-performance
As a creator of works that require players to be performative in nature, Barr is a fitting partner to performance artist, Marina Abramović. In his game The Artist is Present, Barr recreates the Marina Abramović performance piece of the same name. In her piece, Abramović sat in a chair and, one by one, viewers would sit opposite her for as long as they liked, with both the artist and the viewer simply being present. In this way, Abramović turns non-performance into performance, and as pointed out by Devin A. Wilson, Barr does precisely the same thing in his piece.
In the game recreation of The Artist is Present, Barr reconstructs much of the actual experience of seeing Abramović’s work. Players start outside the MoMA, go inside, purchase a ticket, walk past famous works of art and then wait in line. The queue moves sporadically and slowly, and the player is made to wait through this in order to experience the piece itself. Eventually, the player sits across from Abramović and can select when to end the experience.
The realism in Barr’s reconstruction is paradoxical, with the pixelated aesthetic belying the sharp reality of the actions the player must take. Even a step as simple as getting into the museum can be hampered by reality, as Barr ties the actual opening and closing hours of the MoMA to the game, which implies that it can be possible to play only when the museum is open for business in the "real" world. This synchronicity between the real and the simulation creates interesting outcomes. The synergy is validated by other elements. For instance, once inside, the realistic action’s of purchasing a ticket and waiting patiently stand at odds to the frenetic or even exploratory actions of many mainstream game experiences.
By constructing his experience the way he has, Barr makes the player practice things like patience and inaction, which are contrary to the quick, active response so many games require. By asking the player to perform such realistically mundane actions at such realistic speed, Barr calls attention to the virtuality of the space he has created and which the player occupies. Barr does not attempt to distract the player with mini games to pass the time, nor does he present an unrealistically condensed time frame in which the game takes place. Instead, he forces the player to stand and wait, and in so doing, he asks the player to perform with him, because in a way, the player’s actions such as they are in the game (standing and waiting) are being performed both in the game and outside of it. The Artist is Present pulls the player into a state of quiet non-performance that cleverly, by creating a narrative around seeing Abramović’s eponymous piece, mirrors many of the same feelings that the original piece must have engendered.
In its strict adherence to the particulars of the real performance, Barr’s game raises comparisons to the Appropriation Art strategies of the 1980s, especially that of Sherrie Levine, who in her exhibit After Walker Evans exhibited photographs of Walker Evans’ famous photographs of migrant farmers in the Dust Bowl from the 1930s. Levine was asking powerful questions about the commodification of art and whether an artistic idea carries through untarnished when it’s repurposed, if its Platonic form as Art is kept intact or diminished by being mechanically reproduction. Barr, by recreating an artistic performance, is in a way asking similar questions.
Obviously there are differences between Levine’s work and Barr’s. For one, Levine used the same medium of photography to appropriate photography, whereas Barr is using computer games to appropriate a physical performance piece. Another crucial difference is that, whereas Levine focused solely on the photograph, Barr creates a narrative experience of the piece itself but also the time of anticipation leading up to the piece.
Despite these differences, The Artist is Present still raises similar questions, specifically regarding the quality of an idea in a reproduction. Interestingly, Eva and Franco Mattes, in their series Reenactments (2007-2010), address the same question, by recreating famous performance art pieces in the online game Second Life. Originally performed in an art gallery, before a "live" audience, Reenactments now exists only a set of videos and thus as a non-interactive, documentation-only piece. It borrows the same appropriation strategies encountered in After Walker Evans: by focusing solely on the piece itself. This, along with Second Life’s three-dimensional space, causes the viewer to pay closer attention to the actions being performed. The viewer becomes transported to a space where these performances are occurring and, depending on how willing he is to "play" with it, develops a feeling of empathy with the avatars.
In The Artist is Present, this projection simply does not happen. Firstly, the graphic abstraction of the space keeps the player from being able to fully enter it as readily as in Reenactments. What is emphasized, here, is the actions involved. Barr's game redirects the player’s attention to the emotions and feelings of the experience, of waiting in line for ten minutes without moving, of being forced to talk to yourself and listen to your mind wander. In a way, Barr may have, by more tangentially addressing his appropriation, created a more legitimate facsimile than if he had taken the Mattes’ approach. Ultimately, The Artist is Present pulls the player not into the virtual space of the performance, but rather into the mental space of one’s own head, forcing a mental awareness of the present moment that was a large part of what Abramović herself had hoped viewers would achieve from her piece.
Pippin Barr, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute, online game, 2013
The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Digitizing Performance
Taking Barr’s endeavours with Abramović further, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute (DMAI) works as an experiment in every sense of the word. Whereas The Artist is Present operates almost as a metaphorical narrative of performance art, the DMAI is an experiment in conceptual art and digital performance itself.
Created with the blessing and backing of Abramović, the DMAI is Barr’s recreation of a project that Abramović hopes to open in upstate New York as a space for people to experience long-duration performance artwork. The actual Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) has been funded and exists in "meatspace", that is, physically, but it is also "augmented" by an online component, created by Barr.
To start, the player enters the DMAI and has the option of watching a performance or participating in a series of performance exercises. Regardless of which choice she makes, the person behind the controls is quickly moved from the act of play to that of performance, as the required inputs quickly become either limited or disappear completely.
Throughout the exercises, the performer is required to continuously hold down the SHIFT key as a way of showing diligence; a failure leads to her digital self falling asleep for an hour, displayed visually with a black screen for an actual hour. The first few exercises ask the performer to move her body as slowly as possible, to be aware of all of the tiny individual movements that need to be made in order to take a single step or swallow the smallest amount of water. Ironically, this is achieved by the smallest of actions: tapping a single button. Those who try to rush through each exercise are forced to wait until a virtual gong sounds, after which they can proceed to the next area. At a certain point, even the miniscule input of tapping a button is removed, as the performer is asked to press her body against a wall of crystals. Though she can choose to ignore the instructions and walk around the room, the performer can also accomplish this by walking to the wall and not pressing anything at all.
This seeming lack of agency caused critics in the video game sphere to respond with varying levels of exasperation. Kotaku's Owen Good described it as “colossally boring performance art [piece] that leaves you with a vague sense of being trolled,” referring to the act of being deliberately provoked, incited or harassed on a message board. Other critics were content to admit that is a decidedly unique digital experience with Barr himself even cryptically acknowledging that “It may not be to your taste. But it also… may. Be.” Even Good does admit that there might be an “enriching experience awaiting those who subdue their urges for instant gratification in interactive entertainment.”
Good may have grasped the essence of what Barr and Abramović were trying to accomplish with the DMAI, that is, asking the performer to subdue their need for instant gratification. Certainly, Barr does this in The Artist is Present, but by wrapping it in a narrative wherein there is a more clearly defined win-state (i.e., sitting with Abramović) he causes the player to experience it more tangentially, more passively. With the DMAI, the win-state (enduring the exercises) makes this suspension of instant gratification much more apparent.
Also, by paradoxically asking the performer to concentrate on her movements or the physicality of her environment, while requiring only the simplest action to do this, Barr exarcebates the gap between the digital and the actual. This gap not only reinforces the role of the player as performer, but also calls into question the power of the mind to fill in the gaps left by digital representations of physical objects.
Interestingly, this was a key component of Conceptual Art in the ‘60s. Conceptual artists were interested in asking how much the artist was required to activate, to enact, to do. They questioned whether art had to be tied to material artifacts or if it could be as intangible as an idea. Often, their work would take the form of language, evoking images or emotions within the viewer.
With the DMAI, Barr and Abramović use similar tactics. Indeed, although the DMAI is largely about remaining present and focusing on one’s body, all of the sensations upon which the player is asked to focus are delivered through text. Even the “audio” instructions are delivered through a scrolling text band across the top of the screen. This creates a vacuum of sensation that asks the player to focus on her senses while giving her no sensory input, inviting the player to use only the text to create a mental rendering of all the other senses her avatar is experiencing in digital space. Therefore, Barr and Abramović created what may be the first conceptual performance piece, asking how little the artist needs to provide in order to create an artistic experience within a player.
Pippin Barr, Art Game, online game, 2013
Art Game: Playing the Art World
While The Artist is Present and Digital Marina Abramovic Institute look at the nature of watching and participating in performance art, Art Game takes a different approach to art commentary. Billed as an art game about playing games to make art, Art Game is an analysis and commentary on the creators, consumers, and decision makers that operate in a given art world.
In Art Game, the player (or players) assumes the identity of a famous artist who has been contacted by the MoMA to submit works for a new exhibit. The curator of the show stops by and then leaves her to do her work. Depending on which medium the player’s artist specializes, the creation of work is represented by playing one of three classic games: Snake if he’s a painter, Tetris if she’s a sculptor or Spacewar! if she’s playing with a partner. Once the player’s playthrough of the minigame ends, the screen is frozen and results in a new work of art, which she can choose to keep and name, or throw away.
Art Game offers an excellent subversion of the methods of making art. As such, it provides an example of what Mary Flanagan has called "Critical Play" (2009).
Critical play demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversitities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive. Critical play is also a new discipline of theory and practice that embodies a set of methods and actions. The critical play method is intended as a tool for future game makers, play designers, and scholars. The desired results are new games that innovate due to their critical approach, games that instill the ability to think critically during and after play. (Flanagan, 2009, p. 261)
The key question is: Is Barr offering a critical assessment of how art is created or is he just building a mechanic familiar enough to most players that they can really begin to express themselves through it? It certainly seems that the latter is what begins to happen. As Rock, Paper, Shotgun's writer Alec Meer puts it,
To begin with, it all seems silly, or arch, or both, but then something happens. Eventually, you become proud of the strange, abstract, simple shapes you’re submitting to the gallery. For instance, failing at Snake in such a way that you create a perfect square. It looks good. You feel proud. 
Barr’s art-making-through-games mechanic allows players to exhibit a level of creativity and control that is beautifully simple and leads to creation and visual expression within a medium that tends to favor reaction and logical solution. In this way, Barr brings the player into the performance space by giving them accessible tools in an easily understandable system.
The critique of the art world becomes more pronounced once the player submits her works to the critical eye of the curator and then the public. As the player soon finds out, the curator will quickly disregard a work upon which the player may have spent a great deal of effort, and praise something that happened quickly or accidently or which the player almost threw away. Barr admits that he made the curator’s approval randomly generated, because he worried about having to quantify and distinguish good art from bad, but in doing so he’s arguably more successful at critically commenting on the way art is consumed.
As Howard Becker (1982) argues in Art Worlds, the creation, consumption and valuation of art is dependent on a number of (often unseen) connections amongst several groups of people. Becker also emphasizes that the creation of art, which the art-viewing public tends to view as the ultimate point of artistry and creativity, is just a single phase in a complex connection of jobs and systems necessary to produce a work of art. Art Game seems to understand and agree with Becker on this, and through its gameplay it critically demystifies the production of art. Once the player creates a work that she holds as valuable, she quickly realizes, through the random aesthetic judgments of the curator, that it’s simply a single piece in a larger whole. The value a player ascribes to a piece she has made will not be the same as the value a curator places on it, and the curator’s decisions and evaluations further affect the response the greater public will have towards it. What one slaves away to produce might be worth nothing to the curator and will therefore be largely unseen or ignored by the public, even though it’s loved by the creator.
This illustrates a peculiar aspect of the art worlds described by Becker, in which creation and evaluation does not consistute the "value" of the artwork. By creating such an apt metaphor for the art world, Barr brings the player into a role not of simply a creator, but of almost an artist in full. One who has to not just create, but must also submit his creations to the whims of a system that both glorifies and sharply criticizes his work.
Contrary to the explicit goals of most mainstream games, Barr’s work does not invite the player tofully immerse and lose herself in a world of his construction. Instead, it asks her to recognize that she is playing a game and to question its artificiality. He mentioned more than once that his goal is to design games that “controvert the standard rules,” and by being so critical of games and their standards, he creates a space where their subjects can be examined.
By combining this subversion, or better, controversion, with the subject matter of performance art and art criticism, Barr adds himself to the growing number of artists raising critical questions of the world in which they and their works are encased, questions about appropriation and repurposing, questions about conceptualization and the power of idea, questions about commodification and artistic creation, questions which have rebounded around the realms of modern art for over a century, and which place Barr in the realm of critical art and play.
Barr, Pippin. Art Game. 2013. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. The Artist is Present. 2011. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute. 2013. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. “Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Institutionalized”, Pippin Barr Blog, October 23, 2013 [LINK]
Becker, Howard. “Art Worlds and Collective Activity.” Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Conditt, Jessica. “Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games.” Joystiq, April 11, 2013. [LINK]
Danto, Arthur C. “Sitting with Marina.” New York Times, May 23, 2010. [LINK].
Flanagan, Mary, Critical Play. Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Good, Owen. “Absurd Performance Art Flash Game Gets Highly Unanticipated Sequel,” Kotaku, October 27, 2013. [LINK]
Marina Abramovic Institute. 2013. [LINK]
Mattes, Eva and Franco. Reenactments. 2007-2010.[LINK]
Meer, Alec. “Art Game, A Game About Art About Games.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, February 5, 2013. [LINK]
Wilson, Devin A. “‘Duchamping in Game Making’: An Analysis of Pippin Barr's Parodic Computer Games.” [LINK]
 Arthur C. Danto, “Sitting with Marina,” New York Times, May 23, 2010, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/.
 Pippin Barr, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute, http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/dmai/.
 Marina Abramovic Institute, http://www.mai-hudson.org/about/.
 Owen Good, “Absurd Performance Art Flash Game Gets Highly Unanticipated Sequel,” http://kotaku.com/absurd-performance-art-flash-game-gets-highly-unanticip-1453024969.
 Pippin Barr, “Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Institutionalized,” October 23, 2013, http://www.pippinbarr.com/blog/?p=3508.
 Pippin Barr, Art Game, http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/artgame/ArtGame.html.
 Alec Meer, “Art Game, A Game About Art About Games,” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, February 5, 2013, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/02/05/art-game-a-game-about-art-about-games/.
 Howard Becker, “Art Worlds and Collective Activity” in Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982), 2–5.
 Jessica Conditt, “Pippin Barr’s philosophy,” April 11, 2013.
 Jessica Conditt, “Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games,” Joystiq, April 11, 2013, http://www.joystiq.com/2013/04/11/pippin-barrs-philosophy-of-developing-curious-games/
 Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011 http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/theartistispresent/TheArtistIsPresent.html.
 Devin A. Wilson, “‘Duchamping in Game Making’: An Analysis of Pippin Barr's Parodic Computer Games,” http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/mllgradconference/2013Conference/MLL2013/3.