In 1998, Austrian collective Netbase t0 organized an exhibition about the potential of the emerging hyperspace called “Synworld”. “Synreal: The Unreal Modification” was part of the main exhibition, and it is now remembered as one of the first collective shows where artists were invited to create Game Art-based installations, in this case Unreal (1998) by Epic Games. The artist line-up featured, among the others, Axel Stockburger, Basicray, Dextro, fuchs-eckermann, Glow, jodi.org, Margarete Jahrmann, Kandyman, Max Moswitzer, Robert Adrian X, August Black, Markus Seidl, Synreal t0 and Vuk Cosic. That exhibition was curated by Konrad Becker, a hypermedia researcher and interdisciplinary content developer, Director of the Institute for New Culture Technologies/t0 and initiator of Public Netbase and World-Information.Org. Since 1979 he has been active in electronic media as an artist, writer, composer, curator, producer and organizer of numerous intermedia productions, exhibitions, and event designs for international festivals and cultural institutions.
A decade later, GameScenes talked to Becker to re-assess the relevance and the legacy of that seminal event.
What were Netbase t0’s goals?
Netbase started out in 1994 as the first internet venue for artists in Austria as well as a platform that provided services to cultural workers, mediation, debate, and lobbying for media culture. (Public) Netbase was forced to shut down after many years of intense political struggles... You can read the details of that battle here.
What was “Synreal”?
Synreal was a part of “Synworld,” an exhibition and conference, about the interrelations of play, work, and hyperspace. Synworld was not just about gaming, even though electronic entertainment played a major role in the show, and there were other games and 3D spaces not based on the Unreal. Going from a “flat” 2D image to 3D significantly augments the information space. For visualization and information architecture, which functions with large data sets and dynamic complexity, the expansion of Euclidean space into the field of hyper-dimensionality, even more than 3 dimensions, has become a necessity.
How did you select the artists to the exhibition? There were not many Game Artists back then...
I choose some of the artists that were using games as a means of expression and that I thought might be interested in the project. It is true, there were very few artists working with games or even 3D games back then. As a matter of fact, we specifically commissioned them pieces or projects. We also persuaded some of them that games were artistically interesting... Not all the artists recognized the potential of gaming. Some, however, are tinkering with games even today.
“Synreal” features a series of artistic interventions based on the Unreal engine. Why did you choose this particular game?
Well, I have been experimenting with the rather unreliable Quake engine/editor before, only to discover that it was very, very tedious for more complex levels. We had so many crashes which obliterated hours and days of work. Unreal provided a much better design experience. It was better on every level. Plus, it was free. I first build a level and then we offered support to all the artists that might need assistance.
Was there a discussion at this time about how videogames could be used by artists in the future?
There was no doubt that gaming was bound to become “the future” of artistic experimentation. This is why I pushed the artists since day one. Multidimensional visualization and engineering was one of the key topics of the conference.
But there must been others around you thinking that videogames were nothing more than entertainment, something for kids, right?
Oh, yeah. And they still do think they are nothing more than a pastime, a trivial pursuit, sometime to entertain kids.
What is your own experience with videogames?
My first videogame experiences can be traced back to the Commodore 64. I have been exploring all the different kinds of electronic arts, from music to first digital video/animation. At that time, I was still very much following what games are out and what options the could open up. For me, to start with, it was very exciting to create “live” 3D “video”. Originally, I created VRML files which could be used as a “walk-trough” as part of my settings and performances. Think, for instance, of “Next5Minute”, 1996, which was shown at Paradiso Amsterdam.
Would you say, in the Nineties, artists used videogames mainly because they offered a cheap and easy way to create and navigate 3D spaces, unlike more expensive, dedicated 3D applications?
Well, that was definitely one of the appeals of using games! Even if you had accesso to expensive 3D software that wouldn’t help you much in creating complex “_live_ 3D” and at that time, huge workstations like SGI machines were already on the way out. Second, editors for narrative gameplay and AI programming are necessary. I personallydeveloped a computer game for a SGI machine which debuted at a festival in Iin 1994, called Brain Vader, a “brainwave-controlled virtual environment, musical shoot’em up and man-machine adventure” but not a mod.
Finally, do you think that artist and game designer today are using the full potential in videogames?
Gaming today is huge industry, akin to the film business. The standards and quality trademarks have become very high. At the same time, it feels that the genres have become quite narrowly defined and there is much less experimentation. At the same time, independent projects are starting to appear here and there. There is definitely more funding available in the so-called art-house cinema than in Game Art, mostly because we rely on archaic nature of what constitutes “art” and “culture”. But it will change.
Text: Mathias Jansson. This interview took place in November 2009.
Link: The exhibition is still available online