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 this peculiar 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 interview with Hungarian artist Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy (b. 1984) aka SZNL concludes Season Five.
GameScenes: Gamers play games. Artists play with games. What is your relationship to this medium? What do you find especially stimulating, appealing or unique about videogames? What role did they play in your life as you were growing up? Do you consider yourself a "gamer" today?
Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy: A fundamental feature of videogames is that they all function as systems, that is, each videogame is a closed operating system with predetermined rules. This framework cannot be overruled out-of-the-box, so to speak. For example, in Tetris the tetrominoes plummet from the "ceiling"; in Pong, the ball bounces back and forth, in Space Invaders, if an alien spaceship or a missile hit your cannon, it's game over. A gamer plays a game, and therefore must deal with these insurmountable constraints. Digital games fascinate me because, as an artist, I can overcome, change, and rewrite those apparently non-negotiable rules. As an artist, I can discover or invent new paths, trajectories, and ways to circumvent the designer's original vision. This, to me, is the meaning of playing with games.
Growing up in Hungary in the 1990s, videogames represented a playful entry into the world of computers. For me, games were a kind of gateway into a different kind of reality. I was obsessed by classic titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990), Civilization (MicroProse, 1991), and SimCity 2000 (Maxis, 1994). One of my early pieces, Nuclear Bomb Test in the World of SimCity (2009), explores such fascination:
Another is Sid Meier's Civilization 3D Globe, which I developed this year:
For the past twenty years, I have played intensively the most diverse games. But I am especially intrigued by vintage titles. This is because my perspective is informed by a media archaeology framework. I am interested in the "magical" nature of such rudimentary games. They appear so primitive by today's standards, and yet they work fine, for the most part. What is their secret? What is their true message? I believe that only art can answer these questions.
GameScenes: Very few artists have turned their experiments with the GameBoy Camera into full projects. You, on the other hand, have explored lo-fi aesthetics with 0.43 Megapixel. Specifically, you have used the camera's limitations as a starting point to investigate the meaning of post-photographic practices in the videogame age. What led you to tinker with this technology?
Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy: At the beginning of my career, I was involved in experimental photography. Later on, I began exploring a wider range of technical media linked to different forms of imaging, their potential and limitations. Before developing 0.43 Megapixel, I had already created a project based on a Nintendo’s console; I hacked the Super GameBoy adapter cartridge of a Super Nintendo in such a manner that it could overwrite the possibilities coded into the games, creating a kind of special God Mode generator. I was experimenting with a Super Mario Land cartridge which, in addition to Tetris, was the kind of game that I love to play as I was growing up. Even though I did not own a Game Boy as a child, this little wonder machine had a huge impact on me. I thought it contained a micro universe. To me, the Game Boy was a mobile world that existed on its own. By hacking this simulated reality, I managed to create non-existent enemies, and also succeeded in condensing the elements from different game tracks into the same space. When I developed 0.43 Megapixel, however, I was much more interested in its aesthetics, in the visuality of lo-fi games, in the imaging possibilities of this tool.
GameScenes: Your fascination for vintage game technology is evident in another project of yours, The Invader (2013), which focuses on Space Invaders (Taito, 1978), a game developed before you were born. Why are you fascinated by "ancient" game technology? What do you find so remarkable about Space Invaders?
Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy: The very first computer game I played with as a child on an orange monochrome PC AT was a clone of Space Invaders. I remember being completely mesmerized as I sat in front of the screen to “fight” something that I did not know. I didn’t really understand how the device could respond to my inputs, my moves, and my decisions. Space Invaders was a true epiphany: for me, it represented the encounter with an alien, unintelligible technology.
The Invader stemmed from the desire to reinterpret and subvert the original narrative and goal of the original game. I did it by turning it upside down - literally and metaphorically. In this case by exchanging the invading forces from outer space with the player’s spaceship, thus subverting established roles (Good and Bad characters), we - Human Beings - become the aggressors, invading an “innocent” planet and ruthlessly attacking its defenders.
GameScenes: Virtual Memory Space (2011) is a fascinating project. It confirms, once again, that Kinect was made for artists and not for gamers. What makes your piece especially interesting is the idea of integrating glitches and visual distortions as placeholders for misaligned, deficient memories. Can you discuss the idea behind Virtual Memory Space? How long did it take to recreate Budapest in digital form?
Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy: The starting point was an apparently simple question: What happens when we mix game-reality with "Reality" using a technical medium that can scan real spaces in 3D, free from any creative influence? What happens when a machine, rather than a human, records, scans, and recreate the world?
Kinects creates a unique form of reality. However, due to the inherent limitations of technology, we also encounter flaws, glitches, mistakes that it produces. We trust the fidelity of the scan, but the outcome is a far cry from any recognizable “reality”. Nonetheless, these imperfections rhymed well with the original intent; they represented the gaps and holes in my memory. Things that meant so much to me at one point, faded in my mind as I grew older. The glitches are therefore metaphors, allusions, illusions. Moreover, I look at faults and imprecision as positive, constructive factors of any creative process. I like the randomness they may create, the abstraction of the unplanned, so the speak.
To develop Virtual Memory Space, I used the Kinect 3D camera. The process was relatively straightforward: the device projects a grid of infra points on the surface of the target. Using the distortions on the surface, the camera calculates the distance from the object. In addition, an RGB camera also records the object responsible for the texture of the surface. The visual range of the Kinect infrared camera is very limited, just ten meters, and in strong sunlight it does not work at all. These constraints caused considerable problems as I began working on the project. I operated the Kinect from a 12 volt lead acid battery while trying to walk round the target objects with a laptop in my hand.
Because of the limited amount of time available, I could only "film" for one and a half hour per day. I worked mostly at dusk. Unsurprisingly, the scanning process required several days. For this reason, only adjoining places could be “digitized”. Next, a mesh structure had to be generated from the point clouds. This process proved to be harder than I expected. When I was working on Virtual Memory Space, in 2011, using Kinect was a relatively innovative practice; there were no standards, best practices or well known techniques to achieve the desired results. It was a process of bootstrapping, for the most part. Everybody was trying to figure out how to hack this thing. Understanding the workflow and optimizing the results took me several weeks. The whole process - including research and testing - lasted between three to four months. I spend two months for pre-production, two weeks for production (i.e. the actual scanning process), one month to process it on the computer, and three days to put it together in the game engine.
GameScenes: How would you describe the Hungarian Game Art scene? Are there many artists using digital games as a tool, a medium in their creative practice? Is there a community or an established network?
Loránd Szécsényi-Nagy: To be honest, I don’t really know any other artists who only or mostly work with games. In our country, Game Art is not very common. There are few experiments here and there, but the practice is relatively underground, and not connected to any institutional framework, so we cannot speak about an established, recognizable Hungarian Game Art network.
LINK: Lorand Szécsényi-Nagy
Text: Matteo Bittanti
Images and videos: courtesy of Lorand Szécsényi-Nagy