GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with the artists, critics, curators, gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of our ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that altered the way game-based art is being created, consumed, and criticized today.
In August of 2010, Mathias Jansson talked to Stephan Schwingeler (b. 1979) a German Game Art PhD researcher, about the present. past and future of Game Art. The interview took place via email.
GameScenes: Your MA thesis focuses on space and perspectives in videogames, framed through the filter of Art History. What did you conclude?
Stephan Schwingeler: Speaking with Espen Aarseth every video game is about space. It is the raison d'être of digital games. Every game is about manipulating configurations of space, which the player mainly perceives in the form of images. I wondered if these kinds of images have an art-historical tradition – and of course they do! Foundation for my research was Erwin Panofsky’s influential essay "Perspective as symbolic form" from the year 1927. In this essay Panofsky argues that the technique of perspective, which was invented in the 15th century, is a mathematical-geometrical abstraction from human perception and eyesight. With the means of perspective the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface is created. The new images we see today in video games have a long tradition but new qualities as well. To ask what these new qualities are is a very interesting question. Currently I am working on my PhD which deals with the medium of the video game as artistic material.
Stephan Schwingeler: Die Raummaschine - Raum und Perspektive im Computerspiel. Boizenburg 2008
GameScenes: Did you trace the evolution of images from the tradition of Renaissance perspective painting and trompe l'oeil to the emergence of 3D videogames?
Stephan Schwingeler: The three-dimensional images we see today in video games are constructed in the same way as a renaissance-artist would have constructed his painting in 1460. Modern computer graphics use the same mathematical and geometrical principles. But of course they use these principles automatically in the form of algorithms. One could say these special algorithms behave very much like renaissance-painters who paint a very well constructed perspectively correct image 60 times a second or even faster. The technique of perspective could be described as a constructional recipe or an algorithm itself. Besides that, images in video games can synthesise every technique of representation ever invented: be it aerial perspective known from painting or in-motion unsharpness known from photography. In the specific aesthetics of video games we can even see that developers include glitches and errors from photography like the lense-flare-effect to be closer to the paradox thing of mediated reality. In my opinion a large amount of video games do not tend to mimic "reality" but to simulate photographic realism.
A new trend in video games is stereoscopy and recently even auto-stereoscopy. Just like the trompe l'oeil these new images tend to reach out of their frame or reach deeply inside of it. This has a tradition in art of its own to be sure.
But images from video games do not only copy known aesthetics and techniques: these images’ new qualities are that they give us the illusion of movement and interaction. As a player I think that can literally manipulate the image, which is always connected to my subjective perception via the means of perspective and its vanishing points. The fascinating thing about this illusion is that I as a player think that the image does exactly what I want. I have power over the image. In my opinion the illusion of power over the image is the core of fun in gaming. I can stare at a virtual wall for hours for example or look wherever I want. With Lev Manovich I like to call this phenomenon "arbitrary perspective".
GameScenes: What are the most interesting videogames in relation to Art History? Which games have changed our own understanding of the world?
Stephan Schwingeler: Everybody is talking about REZ. It is indeed a huge milestone considering the convergence of art and video games. But it is little known that REZ has an unofficial predecessor, which is at least equally important. The game Otocky from 1987 by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai is – as far as I know – the first example of an artist using the medium of the video game as his material. The game is a side-scrolling shooter but also some kind of odd musical instrument producing generative music. What makes Otocky so interesting is that it is a commercial video game produced by a renown media artist outside the context of art. (That resembles Bill Viola’s rumoured plans to distribute The Night Journey over the PlayStation Network. Iwai was first!)
By the way: there are a lot of games out there that look beautiful and use every technique of artistic expression known to mankind. But frankly I do not think judging the visual surface of video games as artistic is enough. Just because video games are beautiful and designers have to paint and draw a lot does not mean we are dealing with pieces of art. I think the artistic value of video games can lie inside the very structures of the medium: having the ability to create certain aesthetic experiences consisting of audiovisual interactivity. The synaesthesia created by REZ is a good example for that. The metaphor of struggle created by Shadow of the Colossus is another good one. The best pieces of art using video games as their material (e.g. JODI’s work) are literally playing with these aesthetic experiences and often lead them to absurdity.
As a player I personally had the best aesthetic experiences with Tetris, the Super Mario and Zelda series and Street Fighter II. Shoryuken! These games changed my way of seeing the world for sure.
GameScenes: This year you have organised the conference "Next Level: Kunst und Kultur der Digitalen Spiele". What was the goal of this event? What were the highlights?
Stephan Schwingeler: The conference was organised by the cultural department of the government of North Rhine-Westphalia (a German "Bundesland“ or federal state) together with a cultural organisation called NRW KULTURsekretariat. So it was not an underground thing but a highly official event. We tried to transport the idea that playing video games now is a cultural technique of its own: a phenomenon deeply rooted in ludic information society. Gaming has a lot of different, culturally important facets that we tried to show: the whole prosumer-culture consisting of modders and machinima-makers organised in huge communities for example. Another aspect is the demoscene, which is strongly linked to gaming as well. Last but not least we can identify a lot of artists working with video games independently. So considering video games to be industrial products for the purpose of entertainment is not enough. We are dealing with a big cultural phenomenon.
One highlight of Next Level was the keynote by Herbert W. Franke who happens to be the co-founder of Ars Electronica in 1979. Franke is not only a pioneer in the fields of computer graphics and digital art but also a renown science-fiction-author and speleologist!
Altogether we managed to gather the German experts in the fields of media art, artists dealing with games and a lot of people who just wanted to play: Next Level was not only a conference but also a festival with workshops held by artists and artworks on display. I hope we can repeat the event in 2011. In the meantime I am still writing a small article at Next Level’s blog once a week (only in German, though).
GameScenes: What is that state of the German Game Art scene?
Stephan Schwingeler: As you know there have been at least two very important exhibitions in Germany between 2003 and 2005. We had “Games. Computer games by artists” in Dortmund. In 2005 there was the exhibition “Artgames” in Aachen. Back then the curators and critics managed to open new roads theorising art and video games. The curator of “Games” – Tilman Baumgärtel – for example wrote some very important texts about the topic, which still receive attention internationally and get a footnote in almost every text I know about the subject.
Today there are artists working with video games like Aram Bartholl or Olaf Val and even institutions like the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM) or the ZKM in Karlsruhe where games play a significant role on a regular basis. Another important example for a German institution having helped cultivating art and games is the Edith-Ruß-Haus in Oldenburg: They gave a scholarship to Israeli-born artist Eddo Stern in 2007 and he developed DarkGame in succession.
In the last couple of years a group of people in Berlin managed to establish a festival called A MAZE. which is always a good address for art and games. The events range from parties with renown DJs to symposia with personalities like Julian Oliver and Eric Zimmerman. Even Ralph Baer showed up once! Another important institution would be the Computerspiele Museum Berlin. Director Andreas Lange opened the first permanent exhibition about the culture of digital games in 1997. In the past the museum organised such exhibitions like pong.mythos (2006) and Space Invaders (2008). Later this year the museum will reopen in Berlin situated in a new shiny building! The last exhibition showing Game Art I am aware of was “GaMe!” in the [DAM] Gallery in Berlin. Last but not least there are a couple of journalists who try to establish a kind of cultural game-critique in German mainstream-media like Thomas Lindemann from the newspaper Die Welt. Lindemann laudably deals with digital games the same way as literature, theatre and movies.
You see: there is an active scene, I suppose. The intermixture of art and video games is a topic in Germany but still largely unknown to the average visitor to the museum and the average reader of the feuilleton.
link: Next Level Conference