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.
We are currently running Season 7, which began with a conversation with Alex Hovet.
This episode features a broad/deep conversation with Irish artisti Alan Butler. Butler was born in Dublin in 1981. He received his MFA from LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore in 2009 and completed his BA of Fine Art (specialising in new media) in NCAD in 2004. His work often conceptually reflects and refracts the inner-workings of the internet, the implications of new media technology, and the politics of appropriation. Butler’s artworks have been featured in projects and exhibitions at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore, Hatje Cantz, Con prefazione di Angela Vettese, Venice, and École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris among others. Recent activities include solo exhibitions HELIOSYNTH, Green on Red Gallery, Dublin (2017); We Were Promised Anarchy, But What We Got Was Chaos, Solstice Art Centre, Ireland (2015); Youth Outreach In N. Korea, Supermarket, Stockholm, Sweden (2015); The Parallax View, Ormston House, Limerick, Ireland (2014); and group exhibitions Scissors Cuts Paper Wraps Stone, CCA (2016) Derry/Londonderry; FUTURES: Anthology 2, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, Ireland (2015); Telling Lies, RUA RED, Dublin, Ireland (2015); Please return, Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland (2015), among others. Butler lectures in Fine Art Media at the National College of Art and Design.
His most recent project, ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE - a two screen video installation, featuring a synchronized presentation of Godfrey Reggio's KOYAANISQATSI (1983) & Alan Butler's KOYAANISGTAV (2017) - premiered at As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland (13 April - 27 August, 2017). Butler's work is a a shot-for-shot remake of Godfrey Reggio's classic KOYAANISQATSI (1983) using the Grand Theft Auto series. Running at 86 minutes, KOYAANISGTAV, is included in an exhibition featuring works by Hilma af Klint, Sigmar Polke, Wassily Kandinsky, Bruce Naumann, Steve McQueen, among others. The title of the piece comes from Jorge Luis Borges' eponymous short story, itself is a reworking of a passage from a Lewis Carroll's text that describes a fictitious ancient civilization that creates a 1:1 scale map of their territory. This fable was eventually mentioned by Jean Baudrillard in his seminal essay "The Precession of Simulacra" (1981).
The following conversation between Matteo Bittanti and Alan Butler took place via email in May 2017. As usual, the text features embedded links.
GameScenes: Can you briefly describe your education? How did you end up in Singapore for your MFA?
Alan Butler: I studied fine art, twice. I got my BA from the National College of Art and Design, in Dublin. I studied Fine Art Media, which for me meant making new media art. I explored simulation and virtual reality through the production of immersive installations controlled by custom software. I moved away from this activity after graduation, because Dublin didn’t really have an outlet for that back then. I did a couple of shows in Singapore around the same time I was shopping around for an MFA. There I saw an art school in a funny-shaped building, and I ate a nice curry, so studying there seemed like a good idea. In particular, my work was becoming more interdisciplinary in nature, and beginning to loosely look at the relationships between culture and power. Now, I don’t want to get your lovely website in a litigious kerfuffle with Prime-minister Lee, but I will say that I believed then, and I still believe, that people in Singapore do not have true freedom of expression. This is what attracted me to the country, and ultimately what pushed me away. I didn’t want to have to fill out a form and ask for permission every time I wanted to present my work in public. In terms of what I do, I feel like it would be like trying to make art inside the iTunes agreement. Come to think of it, maybe I should move back there. What’s most exciting about the place for me is that it is such a wonky simulation of the West. I am currently back in Dublin lecturing in Fine Art Media department at the National College of Art and Design, so things have come full circle.
Alan Butler, Stills from KoyaanisGTAV, HD Video, duration 86 min, 2017.
GameScenes: What is your relationship to video games? I'm interested to hear both Alan Butler as somebody who plays games and Alan Butler as somebody who plays with games.
Alan Butler: We always had computers at home in the '80s and '90s, but I never really engaged with video games. I was more into art software like Turtle Graphics on the Acorn Electron, Deluxe Paint on the Amiga, later it was Fractal Painter and Paint Shop Pro on the PC. My older brother was way more into video games, and I suppose watching him play games like Doom and Civ meant that I first engaged with video games less as an interactive medium, and more of a linear narrative. I did play video games sometimes, it’s not like I never played them, it’s just that I gravitated to software that facilitated creativity. I played the first Grand Theft Auto when it came out in 1997, and then GTA: Vice City, in 2002. That was it for me and video games for the best part of a decade. Although I did make a video work using Vice City in 2005. It was based on a glitch at the strip club and dealt with representation and objectification. It was primitive, but I just found it on an old hard-drive and re-uploaded it.
Alan Butler, Walking into Wall, machinima, 1'33", color, sound, 2005.
Zoom forward to 2008, my housemate in Singapore insisted that we get a Nintendo Wii. I unenthusiastically agreed with her and we got a Japanese mod Wii console at Sim Lim Square. So I didn’t own a console until I was in my late 20s. It was then I discovered that I am the No. 1 champion of Mario Kart Wii, and no one can beat me, ever. From there, I got a Steam account and explored Portal and Team Fortress. I revisited some of the older GTA games on my laptop. When Grand Theft Auto V came out, my girlfriend bought me a PS3 and said goodbye to me for a few weeks. I played the game to death. From there I explored loads of those US military recruitment titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Probably the only game aside from GTAV that blew me away was The Last of Us. At some stage after a series of intense exhibiting and video production my laptop died. Being a cliche broke-ass artist, couldn’t replace it immediately and I turned to the PS3 and PS4 as a means to produce work. I had already been exploring the in-game photography aspect of GTAV, I didn’t have a title for the project, but I started producing the series which would become Down and Out in Los Santos. Engaging with a corporate virtual reality like the GTAV world, was presenting a number interesting propositions. This was around 2014-2016, so the world was changing too. I think the way the virtual world was beginning to erupt, leak and poison the ‘real’ world allowed for a popular critical use of video game simulations. In the post-truth Trump world, the virtual appears as the real. It makes sense to me that I should go deep into the virtual in an attempt to find a moment of reality. Video games like GTA have become these quasi-marxist critiques of late stage capitalist society, so I think they are perfect spaces to examine these ideas.
Stephen Shore, Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, chromogenic print, 1975, Source: SFMoMa.
GameScenes: What is your take on the practice of re-enactment? The idea of reactivating the Art Archive through different media is obviously crucial to your practice, and it's especially true of your playful recuperation of Ed Ruscha's Twentysix gasoline stations. What comes first for you, the medium - i.e. the video game as a tool/environment/material for re-enactment - or the message - i.e. the original artwork to be re-contextualised into a ludic environment? Or, perhaps, the medium is the message?
Alan Butler: I think the thing that comes first is that I am trying to unravel some notion about the current state of reality, so maybe the message. My consumption of culture is often a catalyst for how I engage with the idea - maybe I use painting, books, music, video games, TV shows, etc. But it’s not their content that I’m interested in, rather the critical relationship between the artefact and society, technology, economy, or technology. So it’s not a fetishism for the art object, rather the genealogy of art and representation is my focus. Even my painting practice starts at this point. I think this could be described as a conceptual framework, in which I want to look at the technologies and icons that affect our perception of the world. It’s not a coincidence that I have technological interests and skills that lend themselves pretty well to that territory. The process-concept relationship is symbiotic.
During the time I was exploring Down and Out in Los Santos, I was thinking about the details that make these simulations feel real. The homeless people, the weeds, the barking dogs, the joggers, the coffee-shops, the cranes, the graffiti - basically all the things that serve no function in the ‘narrative’ of the game. The idea is that in order for us to believe in what we are seeing, the vista has to be full of things that we are not even looking at. So there’s this narrative we are consciously following, and then the ambient reality in which it is immersed. And it is this ambient reality that became my area of exploration.
As a sort of guiding thesis, I thought ‘what if I treat these video games not as a simulation, but as reality itself?’ Can I make the same art that exists in our world, but inside the game’s limitations. Photography seemed like a good place to start, specifically because as much as GTAV is a simulation of California, it is also a stylistic homage to some of the photographic and cinematic history of California. Even the game-play ‘vision’ or ‘sight’ has lens-flares, chromatic aberration, and sometimes even long-exposure effects. So it’s not just simulating what it’s like to see in this world, it’s simulating what it’s like to see the world through a camera. There’s a gas station in the game, that in the right weather and time of day, becomes a doppelganger for ’Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975’, by Stephen Shore. Well it’s a doppelganger until you see the original photo beside it. It’s more like the memory of the photograph. This inspired me to make a GTAV replica of Ed Ruscha’s famous book, which I hadn’t seen in years. The process was straightforward enough, the only problem was if there was going to be enough gasoline stations. After days of driving around, googling and searching, I discovered that there are exactly 26 gasoline stations in the game. Co-incidence? Maybe, but it was enough mystic synchronicity for me to produce the replica.
Alan Butler, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, multimedia project, 2017
GameScenes: You describe Twentysix Gasoline Stations as a "simulacrum" of Ruscha's eponymous project, and yet according to Jean Baudrillard, a simulacrum is not a mere copy or imitation of the real, but something that acquires a degree of truth in its own right, the hyper-real. Is your version of Ruscha's seminal project an update, like a new patch of software that alters, extends - or even fixes - the function of a previously released program, or a radical appropriation, one that simultaneously references and erases the "original", à la Sherrie Levine, so to speak?
Alan Butler: Yeah, I think the Twentysix Gasoline Stations project became ‘more than real’ in the first instance where this work also has a moving image component in circulation. The assembling of the book is just a practical demonstration of a thesis. With the moving image accompaniment, you get this extra sense of how life happens in each area for ten seconds or so. Furthermore the qualities of the HD resolution implies a something that the Ruscha’s grainy photochemical shots cannot. The resolution implies further exploration, and the video confirms it. These are pretty hyperbolic representations of american gasoline stations, their brands, their shops, their rust. It’s like Americana+. Their production is a metaphorical road trip of sorts, as well as a literal one, and producing a video version of the book begins to unravel the production process. It permits the viewer to see into the other living world.
In a way, it’s an update or extension of the ‘original’, although I probably shouldn’t use that word. One of the most Baudrillardian things about the Ruscha version is that it wasn’t really original either. Ruscha is supposed to have based this work on unironic photographic survey books of Eastern European petrol stations from the 1950s. Perhaps the duality of the East versus West paradigm of post-WW2 America presented the artist with a similar proposition to me. How would such a thing perform back in ‘our’ world? Again these projects are about bringing the ‘real’ into the virtual as a modality to attempt to question, or even locate something we could perhaps describe as the ‘contemporary real’.
The Sherrie Levine reference is totally appropriate, particularly in relation to photography. However, I think a better reference would be Elaine Sturtevant, who was making memory-centric replica works of the macho male painter brigade about 20 or 30 years prior to Levine. She ended up replicating shows by lens based artists, and continued exploring critical contexts of replication and memory in the digital era, well into her late 80s. She died in 2014, after making work that questioned cultural hegemony for something like 50 years. She was amazing. Some of her works ended up being worth more than the thing she was replicating. But her work isn’t really about money. Her work rightly proposes that appropriation must remove itself from the pictorial, and be mediated through a new conceptual framework. I believe that transgression is essential for appropriation to work properly, so it’s why I think she is important to these ideas. She never slowed down, and towards the end it became very much about digital mediation and cybernetics. Now we are perhaps still moving beyond this, or through this. So there is a reason to continue her train of thought. Aside from being the authoritative figure in this field, another reason I bring her up is that I am nearly convinced that one of the homeless women in Grand Theft Auto V is Elaine Sturtevant. If it’s not actually based on her appearance, it’s a spooky synchronicity. This woman is all over my Down and Out in Los Santos project, and will be the subject of a future work too, I hope.
[top] Elaine Sturtevant in 2008. Photograph: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
[bottom] Alan Butler, Down and Out in Los Santos, digital photographs, 2016-.
GameScenes: Down and Out in Los Santos (2016-) is an ongoing investigation of homelessness within the urban environments simulated in Grand Theft Auto V. Such investigation is articulated through the practice of in-game photography . The project consists of a series of screengrabs of the marginalized avatars inhabiting Rockstar Games ' open world. You write: "Adopting a photojournalistic approach, the series aims to engage in a sort of social-realism for the software-age, documenting poverty and the lives of the homeless within video game environment’s socioeconomic hegemony". Your approach is simultaneously satirical and deliberately exploitative, in a Nightcrawler sort of way. What prompted you to examine the homeless population of GTA V?
Alan Butler: So first off, this project includes no screengrabs. Instead I am using a feature provided by the manufacturer of the game, which is a camera app on the player’s in-game smartphone. There is a huge difference here. So within the game, as a photographer, I am bound to real world physical or bodily constraints. That is to say, my character in the game is restricted to carrying a camera in its hand. Photographs are taken in the same way a street photographer does in our world - which is walking around streets and pointing a camera at things. Zooming, composing, focusing, setting the depth of field, and clicking the shutter. This is exactly how the in-game camera of GTAV works. It affords the compositions an extra sense of realism, as the images are bound to a body in their point of view. Screengrab works operate differently because one can be floating upside down and take photographs by exploiting that video game 3rd-person, out of body experience. My thesis suggests that these images are a new sort of social realism. I’m trying to orbit a standpoint that proposes the idea that in order to examine the world in which we live, we should look to the simulations like Grand Theft Auto. Through these expressions we experience both the real and the warped prejudicial bubble in which its creators live. It’s a proxy, and if our world is one mediated by technology bubbles, then new realist photography should be accessed through one of these corporate fantasy machines. In the reality of the game, I spend my time performing the role of a photojournalist. Back in our world, this aims to question the role of photography in journalism. I think my version is less exploitative than photography of ‘real’ homeless people. I cannot offend these wire meshes, there is no need to worry as they have no feelings, independent thought or real intelligence. It would be like feeling guilty about using MS Word to write an essay about Mr. Clippy. With ‘real world’ street photography today, I find a lot of it questionable. If we are using the images of real people, I think we have to ask, is it really exposing power and the unjust in an effective way? Or does it rely on dramatic black and white stylisation, or wide angle lens to enhance the poverty-porn aspect? Who benefits from the dramatisation of their lives? I’m not sure if it is a question worth asking in my project considering the current state of this simulations. In a way, I’m engaging in the ‘Westworld’ version of street photography. Perhaps there’s psychopathy to it, but no bots are harmed in the process.
My photographs in this series are unfiltered, they have no fancy lens attached, there are no special effects. In a weird way this makes them realer than all that deep contrast, black and white poverty porn stuff. They are reporting back to our world with less distortion of reality. I even download my images in the way Rockstar railroads the user to do so - by accessing a downsized, compressed version through a social networking site. The compression artefacts live on the surface of the images like a scar from their journey through the network. It is part of what I consider to be the true contemporary condition of the digital image. Images are scarred as they move through the parameters of the corporate file-sharing network. I love all of these side effects.
But to answer your question, why did I start examining them as a subject? I didn’t notice these communities of homeless people existed until about 18 months into playing the game. One day I was driving around doing nothing, and I saw them out of the corner of my eye under a bridge near Strawberry. I got out of the car an approached them in a non-violent way. It was spooky, they seemed to notice me, but not really. I thought it was fascinating that this kind of detail existed. They serve no function in the narrative of the game. I don’t think they are ever referenced by the story characters either. In a way, what made them so real was that they didn’t register in my consciousness until so late in the game. I had this awful sinking feeling that I don’t dignify homeless people in the real world either. My studio is literally next-door to a homeless soup kitchen. I’m jumping over the hungry, strung-out people every morning on the way into my studio where I use virtual reality to take photographs of virtual homeless people. I think it would be fair to say that I must have made some very questionable life choices to reach this point, but the series is compelling and people seem to like it. There’s a discomfort for me in this, which I hope to resolve at some point. I don’t want these images to ever replace or obscure the issue of homelessness. I hope it is more of an emotive device to examine our feelings about immaterial, cyber things. Maybe sometimes this needs to be a little iffy to work. I think it best collides with reality through Instagram, where many of the series’ followers are.
Alan Butler, Down and Out in Los Santos, digital photographs, 2016-
GameScenes: You mention that "dozens of bots have been ‘liking’ the images" of homeless avatars you posted on various social networks, including Instagram. But what about meatware? Did you receive any other kind of feedback?
Alan Butler: The bots liking the images, and therefore being the first audience for the photos of software homeless people, was an accidental moment of cyber-sublime. Maybe it’s obvious now, but it was too perfect to foresee. In terms of the human audience, it’s been amazing. It’s been far more positive than I expected, but my favourite is when, every now and then, some disgruntled photographer leaves a “this is a computer game, not a photograph” comment. As if I haven’t realised, and they are trying to set the record straight. I don’t really want to trick people in a sinister way, rather each photograph is an invitation to join me in some make believe. However, every other week there are a couple of people who leave legit heartfelt comments about the homeless people in the images. Some have asked if the subjects are okay, and thank me for bringing their plight to Instagram. Most interestingly there has been a couple of comments publicly and privately from people who have stated they are on the autism spectrum. I’m not sure where on the spectrum they lay, but a couple of people have expressed a desire to use this project as a means to test their own boundaries of reality and empathy. This is most fascinating, but I’m happy to have it as a by-product. It’s not something I plan to exploit. Maybe in a way they are experiencing an extreme version of when I am hoping to do with everyone else, which is create these moments where boundaries of reality expand, contract and mutate. If only for a brief moment in time, a disorientation can take place.
Originally, one of the possible exciting by-products was that it would annoy photographers. I would use their hashtags like #streetphotography or #photojournalism, with the hope that my images might puncture a hole in those microcosms. To a certain extent this worked. The project was featured on few photography accounts, including Getty Images’ reportage spotlight on Instagram alongside ‘real’ photos. Although using the term ‘real’ in the same breath as Instagram is farcical. Even if we leave all the special effects filters aside, almost every photograph on Instagram is a trope or a constructed view or composition. Whether it is a selfie, a breakfast, or a gorgeous sunset, it’s just a version of what the photographer thinks a ‘proper’ photograph is. It’s an app in which the user is always caught in an act of photographer role-play. So I think working in a totally constructed world like GTA fits in nicely with these networks. Questioning the very material foundations of the medium, is a way of shaking up these dialogues. In this way the series is not about video games. The first ‘meat world’ outing of this project is actually taking place at the Malmö Fotobiennial, in June 2017. I wanted to hold out for an invitation like this, so that it could properly participate in photography discourse.
GameScenes: You are probably aware that there is a heated debate around the nature of in-game photography within the field of photography and game studies. Some critics argue that the term "photography"is incorrect to indicate what essentially amounts to a screen grabbing practice. Others suggest that photography is a process (and not a product) that exists beyond the so-called apparatus, thus in-game photography could be regarded as an instantiation of a plethora of post-photography practices that emerged after the digital turn. As both a practitioner and a scholar, what's your take on this ongoing conversation?
Alan Butler: For me this is such an interesting philosophical question. Photography hasn’t had many of these foundation-shaking questions since it was accepted by the academy. Maybe the advent of the verb ‘to photoshop’ was one of the last ones. Maybe AI and machine-generated vision will be another. I have had photographers question the validity of my in-game photography in terms of the right to use the term. They are right to question it, but incorrect to make such an assumption. If we think how photography works: Light (the sun or an artificial source) is emitted, it travels until it hits an object, it bounces from this object, through a lens on a camera and hits a photosensitive film or digital sensor. Through a chemical or algorithmic process, an image is formed which we call a photograph. In 3D simulations (Maya, Blender, Cinema 4D, Mario Kart Wii, Grand Theft Auto V, etc.), the same thing is happening. Light (a sun sprite or an simulated artificial light source) is emitted, it travels until it hits an object, it bounces from this object in the direction of the viewer, is made viewable through a lens of sorts - the screen. The in-game camera is sort of positioned between the virtual world and the user’s screen. This is the virtual lens. To hammer this point home, it would be possible to take a screen grab of this camera interface in the act, so it is different from what many assume is just an act of screen capture. I believe that screen capture can still be photography, but with an in-game camera, the performative act becomes something more.
The GTAV world certainly matches up to it’s real world counterpart in terms of the uniqueness of ‘the moment’. I still think the Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment holds up, as does Barthes’ idea of ‘punctum’. Take any image in the Down and Out in Los Santos series, it would be basically impossible to recreate these. It’s about getting to know a space, a subject and finding the right time to click the shutter. The time of day, the lunar cycle, the weather, the homeless person, wearing these particular clothes, walking in this particular animation cycle, maybe they are saying something to me as they pass, or standing in a specific place. The photograph is made by me, standing in this exact spot, at this exact angle, with this zoom, focus, exposure. The variables become as good as infinite. Each photo is entirely unique. This isn’t a screengrab of a SNES side-scroller. If photography is art, then this requires similar artistic autonomy. So yes, it is part of the post-photography soup, and I hope it’s just early days yet.
Alan Butler, Haifisch trailer, machinima, 1'29", color, sound, 2016.
GameScenes: Can you talk a little bit about Haifisch? I could not find much information on your website but the trailer looks fascinating.
Alan Butler: I took the full movie off my website a while back, it was doing a number of screenings around the place. I may flick the on-switch again soon. It was kind of an experiment. In Haifisch, I wanted to make a linear moving image work where the narrative would be dictated by the boundaries of the in-game physical reality. It starts off with a GTAV NPC filling his car with gasoline. The car is ridiculous too, it’s like a Louis Vuitton Takashi Murakami Bentley. The protagonist drives to the beach, gets on a jet ski and heads away from land for as long as the game allows. I’m not sure about the distance, but it’s about 8 minutes at full jet ski speed, whatever that means. After a certain point, the edge of the universe is reached. Instead of hitting a wall like in The Truman Show, the game is programmed to intervene and put an end to this attempted escape. A sequence of events is triggered and ultimately our hero meets his demise. I guess it’s a tragedy about mankind, about our place in the universe. In an other way, it’s about the oppressiveness of software.
I see the video operating in the same way that Cory Arcangel’s spectrum gradient c-prints work. If we use third party tools to produce work, then we must succumb to their boundaries and produce the the things it wants us to produce. The production of Haifisch utilised director mode and the Rockstar editor, these are off-the-shelf features. Again, it proposes that I am doing my duty as a diligent consumer, as much as I am an artist. Perhaps this is the continuation of something utterly Warholian? Maybe it’s about pathological production? The soundtrack is an ultra-slow version of a pre-democracy Korean pop-song that depicts these women working in a factory who feel their life is passing them by, season by season. Maybe I should mention also that the title is the German word for shark. The German word idiomatically implies a hierarchical system, as much as it describes a creature. Softwares are like languages one must learn and become fluent, but in that is the implication that it manipulates and restricts our ability to objectively experience the world. There’s a load of things going on in there, but it was mostly an experiment.
Alan Butler, KOYAANISGTAV trailer, machinima, 2'53", color, sound, 2017.
GameScenes: In addition to re-enactment, you also seem fascinated by the practice of remake. This is especially true of your appropriation of Godfrey Reggio's classic KOYAANISQATSI (1983), which culminated in a 86 minute machinima titled KOYAANISGTAV. Again, following your lead, I'm tempted to call ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE a simulacrum. After all, the title of your artwork evokes Baudrillard, via Jorge Luis Borges and Louis Carroll. And yet, rather than a remake, it seems more like radical reinvention. It reminds me of Phil Solomon's homage to Andy Warhol's Empire. Can you share some insights on the making of KOYAANISGTAV? Why did you choose to update Reggio's film with GTA V?
Alan Butler: I’ve just Googled Phil Solomon’s Empire, it’s blowing my mind. A text about the work includes references to Thomas Cole, one of the Hudson River School painters. In another project, I have been exploring the Hudson River School through Albert Bierstadt’s works. I’ve been reading these paintings as a proto-VR experience, and a precursor to cinema. Solomon, also references Elaine Sturtevant (who I mentioned previously) as she made a Warhol Empire work too. In GTAV, ‘Solomon’ is the first name of a famous movie producer in the game story, so when KOYAANISQATSI opens with ‘Francis Ford Coppola Presents’, my KOYAANISGTAV film reads ’Solomon Richards Presents’. So there’s a nice synchro-conspiracy theory for you. Maybe this can be a subtle, retroactive shout-out to Phil Solomon?
In 1972, Sturtevant completed Warhol Empire State, a black-and-white remake of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964). Photo: Austin Kennedy/High Line.
Anyway so yes. The work that is in The Irish Museum of Modern Art right now is called On Exactitude in Science. This is essentially a two- screen synchronised presentation of Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and my shot-for-shot remake KoyaanisGTAV. As you mentioned, the title comes from a paragraph-length short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The story explores map-territory relations by depicting a fictitious ancient civilisation that make a map so detailed that it perfectly covers the entire area it describes. Essentially a 1:1 scale map. The story itself is a re-versioning of a paragraph from at 19th century Louis Carroll text. There’s a sense of mischief in the Borges work that I love. He writes it under a pseudonym and predates the original by a few hundred years. Anyway, I was on reddit one day and I was reading through some new rumours about GTA6, which no one knows about quite yet. There was an interview with one of the main guys at Rockstar, where he suggested that the next GTA would be a scale replica of North America. The rumour is probably bollocks, but it reminded me of the Borges story. One thing lead to another and I started to think it would be cool to explore this idea with the current game versions. So I thought about the idea of remaking a work that could be loosely considered a ‘map’ or even a ‘portrait’ of our world. I had once talked myself out of making KoyaanisGIFsi (you can guess what that entailed), so I had been thinking about Reggio’s film in this way already. I also wanted to further explore the GTAV’s potential for motion picture production. And there are a number of reasons why Koyaanisqatsi became such a perfect fit.
First off, Reggio’s film doesn’t rely on a screenplay. Is it not driven by characters or a traditional narrative. Instead it is a film that could be considered more experiential. It is a film that is done to you, the viewer must let themselves go in it. Its production involved the creation of a pictorial sequence that was symbiotically arranged alongside a hypnotic score by Philip Glass. It depicts modern life and our relationship to whats being called the Anthropocene - the geological age where mankind’s presence has affected the physical make up of the planet, and its climate. It is at once a thrilling and devastating portrait of our planet. There are sequences of sublime landscape cinematography which would rival the Hudson River School in their majesty. We are presented with the hyperreal documentation of monotonous routine in the urban environment. We see the theatre of cruelty within capitalism. All singing and dancing, as they say. In terms of the procession, it seemed entirely appropriate that the film without a screenplay would become a screenplay itself. I started making some test shots as an experiment and it showed some potential. The more minutes of footage I produced, the more perverted and exciting it became.
Alan Butler, Still from KoyaanisGTAV, HD Video, duration 86 min, 2017.
How it had to be constructed was a little different from the previous GTAV works. The film is mostly made in GTAV, but it included parts of all the GTA games from the last 20 years. About 75% of KOYAANISQATSI could be remade in the video game in its pre-packaged state. This meant I needed to open up the project to include materials produced by the mod communities. This worked out really well. If the project required a specific livery for an early-80s commercial airliner, some aviation super-fan out there has produced it. B1 Lancer fighter jet? No problem. Custom in-game camera rigs to produce long exposure shots? Take your pick. Map editors to spawn and re-arrange objects, NPCs, and even the landscape itself. Time editors to reset the dates and get the correct lunar cycle positions. Traffic and pedestrian hacks. The mod community realm meant I could become an entire crew of camera operators, technicians, actors, location scouts, producers, casting, set designers and builders, and a post-production team.
Seventeen months of production later, I had made a shot-for-shot, frame-for-frame remake of the original. It was an utter maniacal, insane undertaking. There I am using that word ‘remake’ again. Maybe it engages in the process of ‘remake’ in order to create something new? It’s definitely not the same of the original, but it also requires going beyond the surface to understand its true value, I think. The result is a really spooky and warped film. The new work has a sort of wonkiness that feels like a zombie world, but then oscillates to this near perfect replication of our own. There are moments where even I forget which one is the original. I guess it does something perverted too, which is that is asserts that Reggio’s film is ‘Real’. It positions the original as reality, which is crazy because of the amount of manipulative, reality-bending editing, special effects, time manipulations, and camera tricks going on. At the museum, I’ve seen parents explain the installation to their kids - “that’s the real one, and that’s the computer one”, they say as the point at either screen. Perhaps here lies the re-invention - and it’s not mine that is re-invented, but Reggio’s. His work is reborn as less a commentary about reality, and is now the foundation of a reality itself! Maybe this is deep into the Baudrillardian mind games you are referring to? But simulacra is now truth. It’s the procession. But who cares if my installation manages to say any of this? I hope that the length of this piece, 86 minutes, gives the opportunity for the viewer to reflect. But maybe it comes back to Sturtevant too? The work that rewrites both the past and the future, the hierarchies are reversed, and then the viewer needs to reconsider the cartography. Borges did this too in his credits as part of his On Exactitude in Science text.
Reggio’s film is extraordinary in terms of the impact it has had on people’s lives. I showed my trailer at a talk in Belgrade a couple of weeks ago and for days afterwards I had people come up to me to tell my their personal experience or connection with the film. It was crazy. Everyone who came up to me had this life-altering encounter with the movie. Often involving a student apartment and mind altering substances, but nevertheless it is something that really significantly resonated with its audience. It definitely already exists in some deep foundational register of its audience. I’m not sure what the future of my work will involve, I need to talk more to Reggio about that. Before any of your readers ask, its not available online, and I have no plans to release it this way just yet. For now this is trapped in this reality.
LINK: Alan Butler
LINK: As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland, 13 April - 27 August, 2017).
All images and videos featured are (c) Alan Butler unless otherwise indicated.