GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and 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 changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The conversation between Mathias Jansson and Eric Medine took place via email in September 2010.
"Eric Medine is a Los Angeles area artist working in multimedia and video art. He received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996 and his Masters degree at the the Otis School of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California in 2006. While in Chicago he ran Drivethru Studios, a not-for-profit art gallery a dedicated to emerging artists working in painting, video, and sculpture" (Eric Medine, full profile)
GameScenes: One of your first artistic interventions featuring game-based technology is “Golgotha” (2002), a hacked arcade cabinet reprogrammed to mix video. Can you explain why you titled your artwork Golgotha, i.e. the hill where Jesus was crucified?
Eric Medine: Well, “Golgotha” is not the entire title: it was originally called “Video Artcade”, which I always thought was descriptive, but kind of weak-sauce. The project was originally done for gallery exhibition that opened Halloween night, so the video footage I selected for the mixer was mainly horror-movie, zombie, slasher, werewolf, Ken Russell (the guy that made Lair of the White Worm) type video footage. The resulting mixes were hallucinogenic, pseudo-pagan-christian, so I wanted to come up with a title that was related to that. Since I saw the project as being a type of “exquisite corpse” (an artwork made of different, unrelated parts done by many artists) in that you could make a single narrative from sacrificing the narratives of other movies, I thought that the Christian concept of crucifixion, with the idea of sacrifice and its fixation on death and resurrection, would be appropriate and creepy at the same time.
The reason I picked an arcade cabinet was that since during the testing phase of the project, when I was using computer monitors and QWERTY keyboards for the interface. I found that people were a little apprehensive about approaching the piece-- it looked too “hi-tech” for some. I decided that making the interface something that people were used to using was the way to go-- everyone knows what a video arcade cabinet is, and how it works. As soon as I did that, I had people standing in line to play with it.
GameScenes: “Christ Killa” (2007) is a curious mash-up. It reinvents Christianity by using the conventions of first-person shooters. This interactive piece allows the user to play the role of a homicidal Jesus Christ. What was the intention behind an artwork that playful combines ultra-violent gameplay with Jesus' peaceful messages?
Eric Medine: At the time I came up with this project there was a lot of what I felt was hysterical, self-righteous posturing among media types about the U.S invasion of Iraq that had a religious angle. If you questioned the war you were somehow against “Team Jesus”, if you supported the war it would would somehow be pleasing to a higher power. I thought that putting any war in the context of “good” Christianity vs “evil” Islam to be completely against the message of peace that I was brought up with-- I was raised a Baptist. Not that Baptists have a monopoly on the message of Jesus being peace and love or anything-- it’s in the Bible, after all. So, I thought it would be amusing and interesting to literalize this idea-- make an army of Jesus that had to kill or be killed.
Does playing the game mean that you should shoot Jesus, or that Jesus should shoot you? I don’t think so, any more that reading a book about crime makes you a criminal. Is this project a form of blasphemy? Once again, I have to say no-- the Bible has some pretty specific instructions on not worshipping graven images. It would be an impossibility for someone who believes in Jesus enough to be concerned about blasphemy, to be able to break the 2nd commandment by worshipping a video game as the literal incarnation of Jesus. It’s a logical contradiction. Is this project disrespectful to the idea of Jesus? I don’t see how-- the representation of Jesus in this video game is completely anti-ethical to the message spread by Jesus in the Bible. That person (as far as I know) never ran around killing or shooting people with an AK47. It raises the question-- could a video game be imbued with a spiritual presence-- can a priest perform the rite of “transubstantiation” on a video image, or an object that is neither food or wine? Can you perform transubstantiation on a cloud, or a rock? Could you take communion through an email? To me, these kinds of questions are essential to any person of faith-- asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not a stupid, blasphemous, or irrelevant question. If you’re afraid to ask these questions, then you are really afraid to explore your faith.
Naturally I got death threats, an invitation to appear on “Hannity and Colmes” on FOX news, and all kinds of extreme reactions. I tried to respond to them all, but very few people seemed interested in the conversations I wanted to have. There were three main types of reactions: I was an asshole for making fun of Jesus, I was awesome for making fun of Jesus, or I was chickenshit for not making the same game about Islam. I may be all of these things, but as a matter of fact I had previously done an art project about Islam-- I made a book of every single image of the prophet Muhammed I could find online called the “Big Book of Muhammed” for an exhibition about blasphemy. Regardless, none of those reactions led to conversations I was interested in having, so I consider the project to be kind of a failure. Let’s face it, most art about politics and religion is going to be deeply, deeply corny and cringe-worthy, and this one is certainly no exception. On the other hand, I still get a little chuckle when I see the speed run of this game, with it’s little loin-clothed Jesuses running around with AK’s saying “God is love” over and over. To me, the absurd irony of a Jesus with a gun is perfectly aligned with the message of Jesus that’s in the Bible-- irreverence to authority, hatred of hypocrisy, critical of war and violence.
GameScenes: How did you create “Christ Killa”?
Eric Medine: “Christ Killa” is actually re-skin of a game running the Torque engine called Quest for Saddam, made by Jose Padilla-- a founder/member of the United American Committee (UAC), a political action group focused on "promoting awareness of Islamist extremist threats in America." I guess their claim to fame was hanging an effigy in front of some mosque in California. In Quest for Saddam you run around, shooting Iraqi soldiers until you get to kill Saddam Hussein. I had first heard about it from a news article (can’t find the link) about how the game got hacked/re-skinned into a game called Quest for Bush/Night of Bush Capturing, supposedly an al-Quaeda recruiting tool.
Gameplay was exactly the same, except now you could run around killing American soldiers and eventually George Bush. Gameology.org has quite an interesting take on these projects as game engine ideological battles, you can check it out here. I thought it was really interesting to use a game engine like records in a DJ battle-- like playing “dozens” with a game engine! It was super easy, all I did was re-skin the textures, I didn’t even bother to change the names of the source files! How cool is it that one game engine can be so easily changed to push such charged ideologies at opposite ends of the political spectrum? It’s so easy to turn virtue into evil and vice versa! What does that say about the nature of morality, and in particular, moral absolutes? How can a .jpg be evil to one person and good to another?
GameScenes: More playful hacks with "Crazy Zombie Robot Golf Madness" (2007) which features a hacked Wii controller inside a container...
" Eric Medine: I've done a few different projects using the Wiimote. When it came out in 2006, it really generated a lot of enthusiasm in the hardware hacking/circuit bending community-- an easily-hackable bluetooth enabled accelerometer for twenty euros is a really good deal! A lot of performers and artists were quick to take advantage, among them the Johnny Cheung Lee, who built some head tracking software for VR projects and Anti-Vj whose work on using GlovePie to parse accelerometer values for use as a video mixing platform was a real inspiration to me.
"Crazy Zombie Robot Golf Madness" was a project I did with the Port of Los Angeles for the Art on the Waterfront festival, an exhibition by twenty-four commissioned artists doing installation, performance and video art, in shipping containers. Marshall Astor of the Angel's Gate Art Center and the San Pedro Arts Association put the whole thing together-- I’ve worked with him a few times in the past, and I always felt like he is one of those curators that gives the artists enough space to do their thing without having to deal with any of the headaches associated with curating.
For this installation, I built a putting green inside a freight container with a video screen at one end, with footage of landscapes, crowd scenes, and various outside environments projected on it. The Wiimote was attached to the screen in a way that it could track where the ball was hit, how fast it was moving, etc. As golf balls were hit into the screen, a motion sensor (the Wii controller) recorded the movement and transmitted it to a computer running ”Isadora”, a software program written by Mark Coniglio. The more rapidly the “golfer” hit the ball into the landscape imagery, the slower the landscapes would move on-screen. Normally video games encourage you to speed up the pace as you progress-- ramping up movement is an easy way to generate tension-- and I wanted to make a game that would do the opposite. It was like a life-size Chinese finger trap, the more frantic your activity the more claustrophobic and sludgy the environment would become.
GameScenes: What's your take on Game Art or using videogames as an artistic tool, a means of expression and not simply of recreation? What do you find appealing (or challenging) with this particular medium?
Eric Medine: As an artist, I think it’s crucial to be aware of the context your work is viewed in, and the audience it’s made for. When I show video or programmatic work in a gallery or museum, the fact of it being a video (game) project is usually the point of entry for the viewer-- it’s as if the game aspect is a train of thought that will take you somewhere “serious”. When I show the same project in a setting where people are expecting to be entertained (clubs, music performances, etc), there’s very little expectation of anything beyond the surface-- if it “looks cool”, that’s fine, if there’s more to it than that, it’s a welcome surprise. Not that one situation is better than another, it’s just important to be able to know which playground you’re playing in.
I would have to say that fine art certainly has the advantage of not needing to be entertaining. Making work for a viewer that is prepared to allow themselves time to sit with a project, to be receptive to it, gives me a lot more room to explore ideas that don’t necessarily have to be “fun”, or even interesting! There’s some amazing things that can happen as an artist when you’re not scared to be bored, or boring.
However, the nature of experiencing fine art tends to be deferential to, and overly concerned with, a very specific history and language. Contemporary art in particular is insanely self referential, recycling the last hundred years of gallery/museum exhibition-- if you aren’t familiar with this history, you will get left out of the conversation. More often than not there is no other conversation to be had at all. Since games are, in essence, a collection of rules meant to be interacted with, the act of playing (or not playing) by the rules can lead to exciting acts of intellectual discovery on the part of both the artist and the viewer. If you don’t feel like interacting with the rules of language and context of fine art, there really isn’t much for you to experience-- “breaking” or “griefing” a fine art project doesn’t take anyone anywhere.
Every so often I’ll come up with a project that overlaps both worlds-- for instance, my last project “Culturally Biased Data Sets” was deliberately built to be articulate in both contexts, and I had a great response from the art world as well as the average person on the street. Literally on the street-- it was an installation set in a storefront, video-monitors-set-in-a-gallery wall-style, so I would sit and watch to see how passerby would interact with it. The monitors showed an animation of a walking stick figure that would get bigger/smaller, walk faster or slower, etc, corresponding to data about different countries. For instance, the head size of the stick figure represented the literacy rate of the country, body size represented the population, the posture represented the total gold medals that country had won, etc. It was basically a graph that displayed information as movement rather than information as pie charts. I found that although it was presented in a strictly gallery context, the visual language it used seemed accessible to everyone-- everyone got the relationship between the data sets and the movement, which was surprising to me considering how abstract the connection was.
Eric Medine, Culturally Biased Data Sets, 2009, video installation
Besides the nature of the medium, of course, there’s the question of how video games as an art project functions in terms of being a “successful” artist, and what exactly that means. I’ve found that the measure of success in the game world tends to be commercial rather than critical and to achieve financial success it’s usually necessary to make pleasing work rather than interesting work. I’m not sure how I feel about that-- it’s sure nice to be able to eat food rather than ideas for dinner if I work in multimedia/game design, but there’s more to life than money. “There’s no Citizen Kane of videogames” is the most common complaint I hear, as if videogames have to follow the same trajectory as film, as if every form of media has to follow the path of every other form of media. I think that ultimately video games are just that-- games. And games have a specific function, a specific role. Making art about chess or checkers does not change the function of chess or checkers as a game-- it becomes art project that uses chess or checkers.
Link: Eric Medine
All images courtesy of the artist; Eric Medine's photograph by Angels' Gate
Text: Mathias Jansson