This conversation is part of "Game Artworlds: The Early Years," an ongoing series curated by Mathias Jansson on the milestones of Game Art. It features interviews with seminal artists that changed the landscapes of Game Art. You can find additional information here. This interview took place in April of 2010 via email.
GameScenes: In 1998, you and Rebecca Cannon launched Selectparks which quickly became the essential repository of Game Art, documenting the most diverse artistic game-development practices. How did you embark in this project? And what is the future of the archive?
Julian Oliver: I founded Selectparks in 1998 but it was only later, with the addition of Rebecca, that the project grew as an art-game news and archiving project. Meanwhile Chad Chatterton, myself and others were busy making game-based art under the Selectparks name.
Selectparks was initially created in the interest of drawing attention to what we, at the time, saw as an extremely unique, emerging and under-represented scene, that of truly experimental game modification and development. Back then there were really only a few artists in the world expressly working in this vein; small beginnings indeed for what is now an ever important field within contemporary art in iself.
There's been plenty of talk of taking Selectparks and producing a searchable, useful archive of all the content there - much of which isn't publically visible right now. It's just a case of time really, something that none of us have since our respective careers have taken us off in different directions..
(Let it be known we're really interested in working with a third-party to help make this happen..)
GameScenes: What is in your opinion the most important/interesting Game Artwork currently available Selectparks? Why?
Julian Oliver: That's really hard to answer! As I've never been a person to have a single favourite colour or food I'm going to have to give you three favourites.
I think PSDoom is right up there with the best of them. PSDoom maps game events (largely the shooting of Doom's monsters) onto processes running on the host operating system: what you think is a monster in the game might actually represent Mozilla Firefox, your image editor or even the process responsible for your graphical display itself. By shooting these monsters you actually terminate these processes.
This is a very early example of a game design reaching out of itself and manipulating the host, a kind of dangerous promiscuity.
PainStation was and still is a very important contribution to what we call game art.
It lifts the abstraction of computer mediated game events, as perceived, and writes them onto the actual nervous system of the player; tearing at the skin, passing electricity into the body from the game system, bypassing the visual cortex and the emotional frustrations ubiquitous to computer gaming itself by feeding back into that which is unnegotiable in a player, their tissue, their wires.
PainStation is an important cybernetic perversion/revision of the human<->machine relationship, up there with Stelarc's Ping Body and other great works of cyborgian ambition.
My final pick would be Eddo Stern's 'RunnersEQ', 1999. Acting as an intervention in the once popular MMORPG EverQuest, Eddo subjects three avatars to run across the world indefinitely, witnessed (or annoyed by) countless thousands of committed players. All they do is run.
Three computer mice - joined together such that they cannot be moved independently - control the forward direction, but not speed, of all three runners simultaneously.
I see this game as example of a very early 'action', in the Situationist sense, in a multiplayer game. Brody Condon's 'Worship' is in a similar vein.
GameScenes: For "QTHOTH" (above) and "q3apd" (below) you used the Quake engine to experiment with music. There were not that many artists who used FPS engines for creating music with videogames – one of the examples that comes to mind is Sylvia Eckermann and Matthias Fuchs’ “Hotel Synthifornia” (1998). Today, music games have become a mainstay, an established genre, eg Guitar Hero, Singstar, Rock Band... In a sense, you were a pioneer... Why is the combination of music and videogames so interesting to you?
Julian Oliver: I used to make a lot of noise music and was somewhat frustrated with a performance context limited to a laptop running software like Pure Data or SuperCollider. Around 1998 I discovered that it was relatively trivial to repurpose a moddable game as an instrument in itself. This coincided three interests for me at the time: hypothetical architecture, experimental music and computer gaming. I have always conceptualised sound spatially; for me it more interesting (and convenient) to map properties like sustain, delay and pitch to events and ideas in a synthetic 3D environment than a physical sound-installation as such.
GameScenes: You’ve always used open, free software to create your artworks. In the early days, many game engines were freely available and users could modify them to create their own games/projects. In today’s fiercely competitive scene, however, game companies are not so eager so share the source code of their best titles with the community. Would you say that the hacker’s ethic, the ideology of open-source code was essential to the genesis of Game Art? What would have happened if Nintendo’s mentality – a mentality of closenness – had prevaled in the PC market as well? How has the situation changed in the last decade? What are the ripercussions on the Game Art scene? How crucial was the open-source philosophy to your own artistic experimentation?
Julian Oliver: I think the 'moddability' of those early engines was not just important but simply vital to the growth of the field. Having game-code exposed for manipulation and/or being able to load in custom art was seen as a creative boon for many of us. While many of us already had Amigas, development was often quite cumbersome, innaccessible for many. Being able to make such rich, complex game-based art at home on your cheap Pentium II and 64Mb of RAM really opened things up.
Over the years I became a better programmer. As my curiosity and skill-levels increased so did my need to reach beyond the interaction models, player subjectivities and other creative restrictions 'moddable' games represented: I started to ask: "Am I creating through this tool or is this tool creating through me?" I wanted access to engine source code, even to try to implement whole games myself working from code libraries found online.
Linux based operating systems were a big deal for me in this regard, and still are. I've learnt a huge amount from reading other people's source code, beyond game engines themselves. I realised it was possible to 'glue' just about anything to anything else, to arrive at truly weird and unusual outcomes. It was at this point I started to make more 'computer art' than 'computer games'.
I do think that we artists need to be very suspicious of the habits of style, method and technique conveyed by the tools we use - something that extends to truly independent game development. Every tool engenders unique use patterns and aesthetic expectations, a reason to be be wary of 'standardising' on software and operating systems like those of Adobe, Apple, Discreet, Idsoftware and so forth. We need to remember that these ways of working are not uncontestable givens, just particular ways of working with a computer designed and implemented with a mass market in mind. 'Think Similar (TM)'.
I believe it's significantly more fruitful to celebrate the unusual, complex unexpected in software and have higher expectations than merely 'intuitive' tools and 'sexy' interfaces. Would the greats of painting have accepted such restrictions or the persistent presence of a Microsoft or Apple logo in their studios? I don't want that. Computers are a raw tool for me and I bend them to my needs, right down to the look and feel.
Free and Open Source software provide a great platform for independent development, even if only to shake the creator out of their 'industry standardised' assumptions. Hacking and modification are a great start, but just the beginning of a truly rigorous practice!
GameScenes: You also work as teacher. If you compare your own research and teaching practices with the your current students, how is the notion of Game Art perceived?
Julian Oliver: I think the expectations of students are both greater and smaller than they were 10 years ago: students now seem to want to get back to gaming's roots (like making 2d platformers for a mobile phone) or creating complex projects like augmented-reality, socially-networked MMOs. As what people consider a 'computer game' has significantly diversified over the last decade, so have students' interests and expectations.
GameScenes: Can you tell me some about your latest work “New Arena Painting”?
Julian Oliver: This project ultimately began in 2003 with me experimenting developing visuals for my experimental music performances. While experimenting with the Quake III renderer I saw what looked to me like the beginning of a platform for generating rich, abstract expressionist paintings. So, 'q3aPaint' was born.
Since then I've refined it significantly, the most recent result of which is The New Arena Paintings, recently appearing at a solo show in Dundee, Scotland, as high-quality, large format prints. This new system is built atop the free and open source implementation of QuakeIII, 'IOQuake3'.
I hope it will soon be available for download as a standalone project.
New Arena Paintings, 2010
Game-Hack (Original Game: Quake III)
All images courtesy of the artist.