GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an 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.
In October 2011, Mathias Jansson talked to Antoinette LaFarge via email.
Antoinette LaFarge is an American new media artist and professor of Digital Media at University of California Irvine. She was among the first artists to choose online performance as her means of expression in the emerging world of the web. Together with Robert Niedeffer, LaFarge curated one of the first collective exhibitions entirely devoted to Game Art. Titled "SHIFT-CTRL: Computers, Games & Art”, the event took place at the Beall Center for Art and Technology, in UC Irvine's University Gallery, and on the Internet in 2000.
GameScenes: In 1994, you founded Plaintext Players, an online performance group inspired by MOOs text-based online experiences. Where did you get the inspiration to create a series of performances in virtual spaces?
Antoinette LaFarge: I got involved with MOOs in early 1994 while I was in graduate school. I was initially entranced by the immersive quality of these spaces and the way they straddled a line between performing and being, and between writing and doing. From the outset I had a strong impulse to play in MOO, to make up stuff, to not take part under my own name and history. Some of my fellow students had a similar impulse, and at first we would just meet up online and improvise very loosely. For instance, we might change our avatar names (@rename) 4 or 5 times an hour just to prod each other to change how we were interacting. We were the puppetmasters and the puppets.
From that, it seemed an obvious step to try to organize the spontaneous performances in a way that would highlight what I saw to be the affordances of MOO (role play, fluidity of language, polyphonic discourse, group invention) and downplay some of the issues (spamming, incoherence). So I started writing scenarios for the group to structure the improvisations, and I started live-directing the pieces as they unfolded.
GameScenes: Were the performances somehow connected to early text-based adventures such as Colossal Cave or Zork?
Antoinette LaFarge: At that time, I had not yet begun playing computer games to any great extent, so there was no direct influence from any of the early text-based adventure games or even from MOOs’ first cousins, the MUDs. I was influenced much more by my (admittedly limited) history of working with live performance and my growing interest in traditional forms of improvisation. And even more by the tradition of gamelike activities in 20th century art— Marcel Duchamp channeling Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Broodthaers pretending to be a museum all by himself, Lynn Hershman creating her Roberta Breitmore alter ego. But one of the things that kept me going was that none of the rules of either performance or writing mapped perfectly over to this new space—indeed, this was the primary factor that convinced me it was a genuinely new art medium. For instance, unlike theater, there were no physical limits on what the characters could ‘do’, and it was much easier to enact doppelgangers and other kinds of doubling. The performed texts were much closer, grammatically, to spoken than to written language even though they appeared in the form of writing. We had to experiment extensively to determine what worked and what didn’t—we could take almost nothing for granted. I should add that part of this experimentation involved working with code—reprogramming MOO to better support the work—though this level of activity remained almost entirely invisible to our audiences.
GameScenes: How did you publicize your performances and events? Back then the pool of potential participants and spectators must have been quite small…
Antoinette LaFarge: The group I founded, the Plaintext Players, was limited by (a) who was online at that early stage in the evolution of the internet, (b) who was interested in live role play in a text-based environment, and (c) who knew about us (or whom I could recruit). That meant that most of my early performers were either artists and writers I knew offline or other inhabitants of MOOs, especially people I met on either LambdaMOO or PMCMOO.
Our audiences were of two kinds: those who congregated in our on-MOO performance space (usually no more than a few dozen) and those who watched our performances in ‘real world’ spaces through large-scale projections. These were set up at places like art galleries, universities, or conferences, and I (or occasionally one of the other performers) would usually be physically present at the location, in order to talk to the audience afterward about what was happening. At that time, most of our audience was extremely puzzled about what was going on with the scrolling text that they saw as our performance took place. Was it live? Was it computer-generated? Where were the people? were common questions. These audiences ranged from a few dozen to several thousand. We spread the word through email listservs as well as through traditional publicity materials like postcards, flyers, posters, and so on.
GameScenes: For how long did you perform online? What was the next step?
Antoinette LaFarge: We did these kinds of performances for several years. This was around the same time as Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis were doing performance interventions in the Palace, and the Hamnet Players were working in IRC channels. I think that the artistic potential of social environments has not yet developed to its full—though such efforts continue, primarily in Second Life—in part because the culture moved too quickly to map normative behaviors onto these pseudonymous environments. In other words, they didn’t treat them as fundamentally theatrical and fictional (as I did)—that is, as areas formally marked off for play—but as analogous to or extensions of ordinary social space. A good deal of the contest over Facebook, I think, arises from this very tension. We’re still learning, in effect, how to create and live with a playful social space.
Anyway, a little after that, around the mid-1990s, I got interested in mixing online performers (like the Plaintext Players) with ‘real space’ actors. All performance is essentially artifice, no matter now ‘natural’ we try to make it look, so I thought it would be pretty interesting to bring together a group of performers used to working deeply through their bodies with another group whose physical bodies remained ancillary to their performances. Beginning with Still Lies Quiet Truth in 1997, and then more ambitiously with the two Roman Forum projects (2000, 2003) and Demotic (2004, 2006), I started integrating these two universes through different channels: live text, computer-generated text, live audio, synthetic audio, live video, canned video, etc.
"Demotic included a great deal of special-purpose programming using Max/MSP/Jitter to control sound files, to process the actor's miked voice, to generate MIDI sounds, and to handle the speech synthesis of the improvised texts in real time." (Antoinette LaFarge)
These performances took on a gamelike quality in that they were all structured to some degree around improvisations on varying sets of rules and goals. It was really driven by an aesthetic of limitations—one group not being able to see the other, who maybe couldn’t hear the first. I got sick of people assuming that working with “just text” (or “just” anything) was a bandwidth issue— when it wouldn’t occur to them to ask Herman Melville, for example, if he didn’t think Moby Dick would be so much better with pictures.
GameScenes: ‘Christmas’ was Plaintext Players’ first set of performances. How did the series develop over time? Was it heavily scripted or was it mostly improvised?
Antoinette LaFarge: The Christmas series of 19 performances were all based on a very short scenario entitled Christmas: Ein Schauspiel that my longtime collaborator, the director Robert Allen, had written a couple of years earlier for no particular reason. I had just started looking for ways to develop my group’s improvisational methods, and Robert offered us the scenario as a possible basis for more structured work. Robert also took part as a performer in some of the Plaintext Players pieces.
GameScenes: Why did Robert’s scenario appeal to you?
Antoinette LaFarge: Robert’s scenario seemed ideal to me because it was a very simple story with three archetypal figures in an unresolved relationship: there’s Big Man, who occasionally gets so angry he runs amok; there’s Little Man, his keeper and friend, who tries to keep Big Man in control; and then there’s Bloody Zelda, who is always trying to push Big Man to extremes. (Bloody Zelda’s name was not based on the Legend of Zelda character, by the way; it’s just one of those coincidences.) Using this trio as the key, I wrote detailed scenarios for each of the 19 performances that developed their relationships in various ways.
Even with written scenarios as a guide, every performance would develop in wholly unexpected ways, and this unpredictability remained hugely appealing to all of us and was a major factor in keeping the Plaintext Players going as long as they did in their ‘obsolete media’ corner of the internet. In one memorable performance, for example, BloodyZelda and LittleMan went to court to battle over legal custody of BigMan, but their trial was invaded and almost completely derailed by an assortment of characters from the then-recent O.J. Simpson murder trial.
""SHIFT-CTRL" (2000) focused on three areas of contemporary practice: role-playing games and social networking environments; evolvable and emergent systems; and 'world hacks' and similar projects that recode existing software.° (Antoinette LaFarge)
GameScenes: "SHIFT-CTRL: Computers, Games & Art” is remembered today as one of the first exhibitions entirely devoted to Game Art in the United States. What was your goal, as a co-curator? What were the selection criteria that you and Robert Nideffer select?
Antoinette LaFarge: Both Robert Nideffer and I believed that computer games showed enormous potential as a rising art form, and we wanted to highlight what we thought were the most interesting kinds of work being done, as a pointer to the future. Even then, it was clear to us that the computer game industry was following the trajectory of the movie industry—from independent artists to megacorporations—but in a much compressed time frame, and that this would drastically limit the range and quality of what could be produced. So we thought it was important to highlight some of the paths gaming could take that didn’t just lead to a thousand cookie-cutter versions of Doom aimed at a single demographic (young American men). We chose three areas we were particularly excited about to focus on: role-playing games and environments; AI-based and game-like systems; and user-generated software hacks.
We also wanted to underline that computer games don’t exist in a cultural vacuum but are part of a much larger and richer history of games and their overlap with the fields of visual art, performance, design, and literature. The essay I wrote for the show, WinSide Out (available online) reflects this point of view and was intended to serve as a kind of primer for people new to the idea that games and art had a large zone of intersection.
One of the things I’m especially proud of is our inclusion in this show of a number of artists who were pioneers in the field and have since become well-known names: Perry Hoberman; Natalie Bookchin; RTMark; Eddo Stern; Negativland; jodi.org; Rebecca Allen; Mongrel; Christa Sommerer; Adriene Jenik; Lev Manovich; Ken Feingold; Eric Zimmerman.
"ALT+CTRL was a new festival celebrating the most passionate and experimentally minded game artists in the world and showcasing innovative concepts in game genres, designs, methodologies, and game play. Over 20 works were shown, including modded games, hot-rodded game machines, net-based games, and installlations." (Antoinette LaFarge)
GameScenes: The follow-up exhibition, ALT+CTRL, took place in 2004 at the Beall Center for Art + Technology at UC Irvine. How did Game Art evolve during that interval?
Antoinette LaFarge: What mainly happened in those four years was that the Hollywoodization of the computer game industry really took off, even faster than I had thought it would. At the same time, an independent game movement arose in opposition to this industrialization of the field. And this all happened at a time when the mass media were publishing sensationalized reports positioning computer games as a cultural menace (typically: they make people violent).
So for ALT+CTRL, we deliberately set out to showcase the independent game movement, especially those artists who took the position that games could be a positive force for social change, like any other art form. Not through propaganda but through its antidotes: informed criticality, expansive imagining, thoughtful tinkering, and original research. Where SHIFT-CTRL had been an invitation-only show, we organized ALT+CTRL as an open festival to draw in as wide and international a pool of artists as possible. Our one disappointment with this show is that we didn’t get as many proposals from women as we wanted. On the other hand, I’m happy to say that we did have an early version of Auriea Harvey and Michaél Samyn’s wonderful Tale of Tales in this show.
GameScenes: Did you grow up playing videogames? What is your personal relationship with this medium?
Antoinette LaFarge: I grew up playing all kinds of traditional games, especially those with strong elements of make-believe— Clue, Monopoly, Murder, Charades. But I was much more interested in books as a child, especially illustrated books. So I wasn’t at all taken with the early computer games, which primarily rewarded speed of reflexes and rote learning of levels. I didn’t find out about the Adventure-style text-based games until I was already involved with text-based RPGs.
The first computer game I really admired was the Myst/Riven series; I played that all the way through. I’ve played more MMORPGs than anything else, but much as I’m drawn to them I have huge issues with how they’ve become dominated by a self-reinforcing culture of viciousness that is most evident in the endless trash talk. The early RPGs were quite different in spirit, but you might not know that from the way the current discourse assumes people will ‘always’ behave badly in pseudonymous environments.
GameScenes: What is your take on the game and art connection, today? What is the role of digital gaming in our culture?
Antoinette LaFarge: Today I see computer games as just one (albeit commercially successful) form of playable media, along with user-driven installations, database art, simulation software, responsive robotics, and so on. The differences turn mainly on what kinds of rules are in place, how visible and constraining they are, and where the locus of power and control resides.
In my opinion, the most interesting areas of game development of the past few years are these:
• so-called ‘serious games’ that simulate aspects of our world as a form of experiential learning and/or user-centered research
• games that move away from the desktop mode, that rethink the relationship of interface, body, and place—e.g. Wii games, geocaching games
• alternate reality games and ‘transmedia’ games, with their blurring of boundaries between games and other forms of cultural production. (It’s too bad that ARGs have so far been used almost exclusively as advertising by large corporations, but there’s clearly a long way to go in the development of this format—most people still haven’t even heard of them.)
"Playing the Rapture is an original hour-long performance work that examines American evangelical belief in the Rapture—a moment when every true Christian will suddenly vanish from the earth, leaving the rest of humankind to struggle through a period of extreme tribulation." (Antoinette LaFarge)
GameScenes: What are you investigating these days, both as an artist and as a scholar?
Antoinette LaFarge: My own work has continued both to use gamelike, performative, and computational elements and to be about games as a cultural phenomenon. For instance, my 2008 performance project called Playing the Rapture was inspired by a really terrible computer game about the Christian Rapture in which the player must battle the forces of the Antichrist in a post-Rapture world. In my piece, the plot revolves around two gamers who are creating and beta-testing a very similar game; their contests over and within this game are a proxy for their larger struggles over the necessity of rules and the problem of belief. I designed the environment for this piece to be almost entirely virtual—primarily large-scale projections of the game world the two gamers are testing. These projections were controlled through a pair of Max/MSP/Jitter patches that I wrote, and most of them were machinima videos that I created using the actual computer game, which was called Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
Another recent game-related project was World of World: The Adventures of Malbec and Player, commissioned in 2009 for a Laguna Museum show. It took the form of a 2 x 12-foot digital print that collaged screenshots from World of Warcraft with webcam images of a WoW player in his gaming den to create an implied narrative.
This project reflected my combined fascination and frustration with World of Warcraft, which I had been playing for several years at that point. In particular, it was a look at the relationship between players and avatars—a relationship that seems to me to be always troubled and generally oversimplified in writing about all kinds of virtual environments, not just that of WoW. The discourse around WoW has been very other-directed (e.g. how players behave towards other players, how they enact stereotypes), but what interests me is what we are doing to ourselves in virtual social environments like WoW. If avatars are sometimes less play than a form of self-enslavement and self-violation, what does that imply?
This piece reverses our usual perspective to consider the player through the avatar's eyes. It is as if a female Night Elf Death Knight (named Malbec) were looking back through the interface at the artificial (to her) world of the Player. In the way it encapsulates their joint experiences, it represents her view of him— and this is enhanced through an overlay of text fragments from an internal monologue in which she questions all aspects of their interaction.
Link: Antoinette LaFarge:
Interview archives: Contemporary Practitioners; The Early Years
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti
All images courtesy of the artist.