In July 1999, artist and scholar Anne-Marie Schleiner curated the exhibition “Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art" at San Jose State University in San Jose, California. The exhibition featured both artists and game hackers and presented artistic modifications of commercial videogames. Ten years later, GameScenes talks to Anne-Marie Schleiner about that seminal event. What's the legacy of "Cracking the Maze"?
GameScenes: How did "Cracking the Maze" come to be?
Anne-Marie Schleiner: Back in the mid-1990's my thesis in Computers in Fine Art, at CADRE program at San Jose State University in California, was a game modification and sculptural interactive installation based on the modification called Madame Polly (Polly from Polygon--the planes that 3-D game space is built from.) In the process of making this mod I encountered the world of game hackers, skinners, patchers, wadders and whatever else people who would make alterations in games in micro and macro ways were called. They shared their mods online and also shared the software tools and techniques that they used to make them. So my first contact was technical but when I discovered the underworld of modification, which seemed much more experimental in many ways (culturally, gender-wise, thematically, and potentially ludically) than the original commercial games they modified, it occurred to me it would be interesting to invite artists to get their hands on these tools and to make modifications with them.
Anne-Marie Schleiner: I circulated an online call for entries describing the curatorial concept of "Cracking the Maze" and over the course of 9 months artists responded. For instance net art duo JoDi were already working on modifiying Wolfenstein, 3-D. Jason Huddy's Los Disneys was already completed and I contacted him directly to ask for his participation, and some of the other artists who responded to my call were in the midst of creating pieces. For other interested artists like Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmeleiwski I helped procure free games and modification software and games, writing to a couple game companies like ID software to see if they would be interested in sponsoring the show in some capacity. Bungie, makers of Mac game Marathon (later fated to be bought by Microsoft and to make Halo), offered free copies of their games and modification software to the “Cracking the Maze” artists, which luckily was the same game I had modified to create Madame Polly so I was also offering the artists some technical advice. Feeling like there was still a lack of mods intervening in more aggressively artistic and aesthetic ways, I snuck a new mod of my own into “Cracking the Maze” called Epilepsy Virus Patch under an artist persona of mine Parangari Cutiri (in those days, before social software tied down our identities, it was common for digital artists to have anonymous extra artist personas) . So I was technical support, curator and an artist for “Cracking the Maze”, a mix maybe as unholy as the relationship between the commercial PC game industry and the gift ecology of game modding.
Anne-Marie Schleiner: Of course there are differences but in “Cracking the Maze” it seemed strategic to blur those differences. I think many online creators, whether they are posting remakes of Youtube videos or customized game avatar skins, do not consider themselves artists and they do not have artistic training. They remain innocent (maybe happily) of previous artistic tactics which foreshadow their creative processes, such as the collaborative cafe games of the Surrealists or Marcel Duchamp's found objects. These processes, which I am calling "ludic mutation" in my current Phd research, are about changing the given, metamorphosis, cultural hacking that has the potential to travel along contagious vectors, especially in the online medium of culture. Fine artists' game modifications, on the other hand, I often wish were more contagious than they have been so far. The game industry has yet to adopt a more fragmented, less mimetic experimental approach to virtual 3-D space, with few mostly Japanese exceptions like the PlayStation music game Rez or Katamari Damacy. In fact one encounters the opinion that good art cannot be a good game. This reveals assumptions about what constitutes good game play, however play is not necessarily rule bound but also chaotic (paidia), destructive and creative. Generes such as sandbox games indicate a broadened approach to play appearing even in the industry..well I can go on and on about theories of play etc from my current writing for my dissertation and from my classes teaching game design at the National University of Singapore so I will stop here.
GameScenes: In your curator’s note, you wrote: "Many artists, art critics, new media critics and theoreticians have expressed a disdain for games and game style interactivity, in fact, to describe an interactive computer art piece as "too game-like" is a common pejorative." So how did the public, critics, and the visitor react to the exhibition?
Anne-Marie Schleiner: If imitation is flattery yes there were some exhibits that borrowed a very similar line-up of artists as "Cracking the Maze", which was originally created outside the umbrella of any art intuition or festival as a purely online art show. Terms such as "patching" which appeared in my curatorial statement and that were actually not common vernacular in the game mod community were key indicators of unrefer nced influence in the descriptions of other shows :). There was a response from the press, some mention in articles in the art section of the New York Times. American museums never did seem to keen on the idea of games as art but some European digital art festivals were interested, for example I got an invitation to curate a small online show for the Sonar digital music festival in Barcelona which I called Snow Blossom House and I managed to bring a couple of the same artists with this show, although Snow Blossom House was not exclusively focused on games.
Anne-Marie Schleiner: I thought more people would have exposure through the Internet than if the mods were installed in a local gallery in one location, even if online one only could experience the small animated gifs(Internet pages have grown in resolution size since then), game mod screenshots and descriptions. At the time this was also a conscious political decision to privilege the Internet as a medium over what I saw as more limited elitist art world venues.
GameScenes: At that time, did you believe that videogames could become a new important medium for artistic expressions? Could you foresee that digital games were bound to become one of the most popular forms of entertainment and an academic discipline?
Of course I envisioned games as important medium for artmaking, thus my efforts to get game software modification tools into the hands of other artists besides myself for "Cracking the Maze". And yes even back then in the late 1990's I was interested in games as a subject of serious academic research. I submitted the short rationale I wrote for my Madame Polly game patch creation to the journal Leonardo who published it later as a revised article called "Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons" in 1999. I have always been critically fascinated with games but I could not foresee how the field of ludology would take off, and in many ways I am critical of a thread of reductionism structuralism within ludology that forecloses artistic intervention and creativity in relation to play -this is another area I have found it necessary to entangle with in my current research.
GameScenes: “Cracking the Maze” is still available on the net, but for how long? Games and technology are changing so fast... Will it be possible to preserve the history of the early Game Art for the generations to come?
Anne-Marie Schleiner: Yes, I am grateful to my alma matter, CADRE and their online graduate student journal Switch for continuing to host "Cracking the Maze". The ephemerality of digital art is a big problem that has not been adequately solved, and maybe this also has something to do with its charm. I leave this question to more capable people like Jon Ippolito or gallerists of digital media art to resolve these issues... I have sold a few collectable betacam SP videos and screenshot prints of my own software art to collectors but how long does video really last and is this really an adequate representation of interactive works? It takes a lot of effort to look at my own work from older platforms even. It would be nice if people in the cultural industry could do something about the longevity of artworks in this variable medium.
Text: Mathias Jansson
This interview took place via email in early December 2009.