Paolo Pedercini's artistic practice focuses on the relationship between electronic entertainment and ideology. His machinima Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2006) is currently on display in the level of GAME VIDEO/ART. A SURVEY.
Below is an exclusive interview for GAME VIDEO/ART. A SURVEY, produced by the second year students of the Master in Arts, Markets and Cultural Heritage at IULM University. Editing by Matteo Bittanti.
GVA: Can you briefly describe your education?
Paolo Pedercini: I went to a technical high school and I hated it. I studied in a Media Design University as an undergraduate but I kept myself busy mostly with activism and working on personal projects. I attended the New Media Art Program at the Brera Academy in Milan for two years. I enjoyed several courses but I couldn’t stand the administration and the improvised structure so I dropped out to concentrate on some marketing work. I moved to the United States to pursue an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
GVA: Can you name some influences - not necessarily artistic ones - that played a key role in your evolution as an artist?
Paolo Pedercini: My early influences mostly came from the realm of net.art and creative activism. From Franco and Eva Mattes to the Yes Men, from Indymedia to the MayDay network. Net criticism and post-operaismo sort of came along with them. Now I find the independent game community much more stimulating: there is finally an evolving discourse and an experimental practice that simply weren’t there back when I started in 2003.
GVA: When and why did you begin using video games in your practice?
Paolo Pedercini: I felt the lack of an alternative point of view within the video gaming field. I believe that if we want to have an effective impact on society we must influence pop culture. I've been making political cartoons and fanzines for few years, I dabbled with journalism and traditional politics. I even formed an anarcho-punk band back in '99. But somehow all these efforts seemed pointless to me, I always felt I was reaching people who already agreed with what I had to say. Also, consider that I grew up with Berlusconi's media empire so I learned very quickly that politics are not limited to what happens in the halls of power or in the sphere of public discourse. Berlusconi's unique mix of free market ideology, populism, xenophobia, and mafia-logic took root in the Italian minds well before his direct involvement with politics. And this happened through approximately twenty years of pervasive, idiotic pop culture.
GVA: Why did you specifically choose a video game to make art? What do you find especially fascinating about this medium? Its interactivity? Agency? Aesthetics? Theatricality?
Paolo Pedercini: Mainly the aspect of systemic representation (or simulation, if you will) and the potential of critical roleplay. My assumption is that is easier to understand an intricate web of cause-and-effect relations by manipulating a playable model rather than reading his description on linear text. Playing a video game is mostly the same as understanding its mechanics. Simulations push the user to consider the "modelled" object as a whole organism in which every part is interrelated with the others and possibly relate it to the mental model they have about the corresponding real world system. The hope is to use them as "cognitive maps" (After Fredric Jameson), as tools that help us think about the social or economic system we inhabit. Role-play in games is often used in an escapist fashion but there are more and more game creators dropping the standard teenage power fantasies to experiment with limited agency and moral dilemmas.
GVA: The creative opportunities afforded by machinima are greatly constrained by existing copyright law, which prohibits many possible uses, including commercial purposes. What’s your take on the paradoxical nature of this artform?
Paolo Pedercini: Dada artists didn’t ask for permissions to make their collages and photomontages. In most countries copyright laws have exceptions for artistic use and parody (fair use in the US). Issues may arise when machinima creators try to monetize their creations, so the question becomes: How transformative is a particular derivative artwork? How much value is the creator getting from an existing brand and community? The answers can only found on a case by case basis. Frankly, the commercial viability of an art practice should not be a chief concern for an artist.
GVA: Would you agree that machinima has democratized the art making process? Has it lowered the entry barrier for creators of video art, as some critics argue?
Paolo Pedercini: It definitely lowered the barrier for the creation of 3D animation, which can be very technical and labor intensive. I suspect it also provided an entry point for future film and theater directors since you can try out narrative ideas very easily and cheaply.
GVA: How do video game aesthetics affect the overall impact of your work? What comes first, the concept or the medium?
Paolo Pedercini: They have to come together: I always ask myself if it makes sense to tackle an issue through a game form. I have many formal ideas I’d like to play with but that I can’t imagine how to employ in a meaningful way. Conversely there are many issues I’m really passionate about but I can’t figure out a game that can address them.
Paolo Pedercini,Welcome to the Desert of the Real, machinima, 2006, 06' 37''
GVA: In your machinima Welcome to the Desert of the Real how and why do you use this particular video game?
Welcome to the Desert of the Real is a rather straightforward appropriation and remix of two sources: footage taken in America's Army and text from the “Post-traumatic stress disorder checklist (military version)”. The first is the successful first person shooter created by the US Army for recruitment and PR purposes; the latter is a self-diagnosis questionnaire for veterans potentially affected by PTSD. Both elements come from military institutions, but by juxtaposing them I hoped to challenge their order of discourse. America's Army is a propagandistic representation of war, because it's an action packed game that presents an ideal battlefield with no civilian or social fabric, where two symmetrical and clearly distinct teams fight each other in a paintball game fashion. And worst of all, this is presented as a realistic approximation of the military experience. You don't need to be deployed in Iraq to detect the multiple levels of mystification here.
The questions from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder checklist indirectly reveal the effects of real 21st century warfare on the human psyche. PTSD is mainly an effect of prolonged exposure to stressful situations. It emerges from days, weeks, months spent in an alien environment, where every passer-by could be an enemy and every pile of junk on the side of the street can blow you up. Which is exactly the opposite of the abstract, clean, thrilling battles of America's Army. To me, PTSD arises from the clash between the war we dream of, and the war we (they) are stuck in; between the images used to lure young people to war and the stressing, boring, messy reality of these conflicts. Note that the creators of America's Army always stressed that the project wasn't only about enlisting kids: the public relations component was also important. The Army wanted to have a friendly presence in public, ordinary spaces. They wanted soldiers and civilians to hang out and fraternize. To me this was the most interesting aspect of the whole affair because it showed a fascinating twofold strategy: on one hand you have images of war being normalized and trivialized, appearing in shopping malls, being infused with a generic hi-tech aura, presenting the soldier as just another career opportunity, being overall ingrained in everyday life; on the other hand you have a massive deployment of "technologies of separation" such as simulations, smart bombs and unmanned aerial vehicles to make the reality of war as distant as possible.
A longer interview with Paolo Pedercini about his work with machinima is included in Matteo Bittanti & Henry Lowood, Machinima! Teorie. Pratiche. Dialoghi, published in Italian in 2013 by Edizioni Unicopli. Click here for additional information.
You can watch/read additional interviews in this series by clicking here.