ArsDoom is widely regarded as one of the first examples of artistic modifications of videogames. Created in 1995 by Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban, ArsDoom was shown at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz the same year. Using the Doom II engine and Autodesk' AutoCAD software, Kipcak and Urban created a virtual copy of the Brucknerhaus' exhibition hall and invited artists to create or submit virtual artworks that could be displayed in the new map. Armed with a shooting cross, a chainsaw or a brush the player could kill the artists and destroy all the artworks on display. Among its many merits, ArsDoom is remembered for redefining the very notion and role of the visitor: the user could become curator and critic as well, deciding which artists were to stay and which were to be destroyed, what to keep and what to erase for public display (and therefore memory). Parody? Satire? Pungent commentary on the artworld? Fourteen years after its inception, it's time to reassess the relevance and meaning of ArsDoom.
GameScenes: Can you tell me something about the development of ArsDoom? How and why did you decide to modify id Software's first-person shooter?: My approach to ArsDoom was somehow framed/influenced by my background as an architect, as well as my work as an interaction designer and computer artist. In the early '90's, I began working on a series of research projects focusing on the virtualization of the exhibit experience. Back then, museums and galleries were interested in using the web in innovative ways. Around that time, I also also worked on various projects for the Styrian Autumn Festival and the Venice Biennale. I created physical art for the Biennale but there was also a spin-off for the web. Back then I used VRML to create 3D simulations. VRML worked quite well but it had some limitations. An then Id Software opened up the Doom engine, allowing everybody to tinker with the Level Editor. It was such a powerful tool! It was an epiphany: I decided that I would use that technology for my next project and did not go back to VRML.
When Ars Electronica invited me to produce an artwork for the 1995 festival, I proposed and subsequently developed ArsDoom, a project that extended a virtual exhibition into the space of a computer game. This hybrid of virtual exhibition and first-person shooter was accepted and funded by Peter Weibel, the festival director.
The concept, the interaction design, the character design and its assets were created in my studio with a staff of eight assistants. Game artists and sound designers worked on the project as well, including Curd Duca, who ent on to become a recognized artist in the ambient music scene. All the modules were then assembled technically by Reini Urban. Reini also programmed a little extension that bypassed the limitations of the Doom Level Editor: the original editor could only design squared rooms. But we needed a room with pointed angles in order to reproduce the complex geometry of the physical design of the Ars Electronica center, the Brucknerhaus.
For the virtual exhibition, I invited several artists to produce virtual art pieces which could be displayed within the game level. Furthermore I let my students of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna design a whole room in the virtual Brucknerhaus. Every artist was told that their art pieces would be shown only to be destroyed. I'm happy to report that all of them agreed.
What made you decide to use game-based technology to create an artwork?
First: I think that using a technology in ways that the designer/producer did not plan or expect is a very interesting and innovative strategy – using a first-person shooter to create an art exhibition allowed us to broaden the cultural spectrum, to subvert some of the expectations associated with an art event/experience and to introduce new formats.
Additionally, i was fascinated by the metaphorical power of computer games in general and first-person shooters in particular. The idea of using this medium was very appealing to me. There are obvious similarities between a battlefield and the Artworld. The competitiveness of the artscene reflects the darwinian nature of videogame landscapes - in a sense, the videogame made the invisible conflicts of the artworld "real", explicit and visible, albeit in a playful way.
Also games were - and still are today - a vital part of our culture. Their aesthetics is the aesthetics of our culture. Using a game engine as a creative tool was for me also a polemic and offensive statement, a design choice meant to attack, frontally, the computer art scene.
Last but not least: I chose a videogame for technical and practical reasons. The Doom Engine was an open-source solution, easy to handle and very popular at the time. It made our life so much easier!
Why did you choose Doom for your art project?
What's your own relationships to videogames?
I've always seen them as an important catalyst for new developments in the field of human – computer interaction. Computer games are the true avant-garde of many cultural and technical innovations. Moreover, as an interaction designer I consider computer games as a very attractive design material.
Did you play a lot of games back then? Were you a "gamer"?
Yes, but my interest was mostly professional.
How did the public and the media react to ArsDoom?
The reactions were extreme in both ways, good and bad. The project was harshly attacked by Linz' media as well as by some art publications. Interestingly, their arguments were very similar: ArsDoom was equated to Doom and condemned as a "fascist orgy of violence". The fact that Doom's predecessor, Wolfenstein, also created by id Software, had a rating of 16+ and older was often mentioned.
I remember a furious very personal attack: An art magazine had the headline "Orhan Kipcak – Dumm wie Doom" (literally, "Orhan Kipcak- stupid like Doom'). I was very pleased with the opponents of the project: narrow-minded dogmatists and moralists without any sense of humor. On the other hand there were very positive mentions; The BBC, RAI, ORF, Der Spiegel, numerous magazines and journals covered it in a more positive light. They seemed to appreciate and grasp the burlesque and anarchistic aspects. They also "got" and appreciated the subversive-affirmative element. Overall, the positive reactions overcome the negative. The same can be said for the visitors' feedback. ArsDoom was shown on several workstations.
It looks like you had a lot of fun creating ArsDoom...
That's correct. My approach was certainly anarchic. I developed this project with the intention of making a point about the artscene, using a game to deliver the message. I had taught in art schools and therefore I was familiar with the rituals, the conflicts and do's and don'ts. I saw ArsDoom as an inside joke, a tongue-in-cheek take on the Artworld.
In the game you can pick up objects as Herman Nitsch's blood, Arnulf Rainer's pencils and you could flip the artworks in a George Baselitz style. What is your relationship to these artists, and why did you choose them?
Nitsch, Rainer and Baselitz didn't provide any artworks, only the weapons that you can use in exhibition to destroy the artworks. I chose those artists because they were well known and their art had a brutal aspect to it. This is important for an ego shooter: With Arnulf Rainer you paint over artworks, with Nitsch you soak them in blood, with Baselitz you turn them upside-down. Those are significant interaction facilities for the gamer – the gameplay becomes more appealing.
When you created ArsDoom did you think you were doing something completely new fort the art world?
I knew that at that time no one had thought about using game engines as an art tool. But I wasn't surprised that in the following year other projects like this popped up almost everywhere. As Adorno wrote: "The art needs to evolve in order to reach the level of the technology of its times". And games are a medium that has defined the state of the art of digital design for more than twenty years. Anyway, in the field of media art it's some kind of a natural law that the gadgets used by teenagers today will become festival-material tomorrow.
By the way: that year (1995) I develop a series of projects with my students in Graz which used Doom as space-simulator. The Doom Level editor was a great tool and not using it for other projects felt like a missed opportunity.
Last but not least: are there any easter eggs in ArsDoom?
There's a room in ArsDoom in which a misshapen “monster“ (A futile attempt by Reini Urban to design a monster) is hidden. If I remember correctly you can get to it by passing the gallery.
Some closing comments about the follow up ArsDoom2:
A decade after ArsDoom I told Peter Weibel, back then head of the Ars Electronica and fiunder of ArsDoom, that I would have loved to create a new version. I persuaded him with the argument that, with the original ArsDoom, we'd created a new art genre, a genre that was still fresh and popular ten years after its debut.
Weibel, who is by now head of the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien) in Karlsruhe, accepted and funded the project: we followed the same formula that we developed for ArsDoom from 1995 (virtual exhibition/kill the artist/destroy the artworks) and the same artists were involved, but this time we modeled the ZKM and used state-of-the-art authoring software. I finished this project in 2004 using Virtools. The technical implementation was made by Immersive Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. After solving a series of technical problems with Immersive the Virtools-job was finally well completed in Leipzig by Günter Baumgart, a very good software engineer. The updated interaction, character and environmental design were produced by my studio in Graz, Austria.
All images courtesy of the artist