The conversation between Ben Chang and Mathias Jansson took place in October 2011 via email.
"Ben Chang is an electronic artist whose work explores the intersections of virtual environments and experimental gaming with contemporary media art. Using materials ranging from immersive visualization systems to modified surveillance cameras, hacked video games, and antique telegraphs, his work brings out the chaotic, human qualities in technological systems. His installations, performances, and immersive virtual reality environments have been exhibited in numerous venues and festivals worldwide, including Boston CyberArts, SIGGRAPH, the FILE International Electronic Language Festival in Sao Paulo, the Athens MediaTerra Festival, the Wired NextFest, and the Vancouver New Forms Festival, among others. He has designed interactive exhibits for museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Field Museum of Natural History. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of the Arts and Co-Director of the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute." (From the artist's homepage)
GameScenes: When did your fascination for videogame begin? What do you find particularly interesting abouit the medium?
Ben Chang: I'm part of what's sometimes called “the gamer generation,” so I grew up with videogames. I think our individual understanding of games is informed by our moment of first exposure - for me, the starting points are early games on the Timex-Sinclair 1000, then the Apple II, and then of course the NES. I got into programming at a pretty early age, but it wasn't actually game programming that got me started. I did try writing games – I remember working my way through this big book which would teach you AppleSoft BASIC to build this rudimentary space shoot-em-up. It was incredibly boring and I never made it all the way through; I think I gave up somewhere in the chapter where you had to manually type in pages of machine code in hex for some assembly-optimized sprite-blitting routine.
The thing that got me hooked on programming was actually fractals. The idea that you could create this tiny program to generate such beautiful, infinitely complex worlds was mind-blowing. The qualities that drew me deep into the Mandelbrot Set night after night are actually still at the core of a lot of my work today. One is the idea of emergent behavior, creating complex interactions and experiences from the system of relations between different elements. Another is the act of encounter with strange terrain, a kind of sensation of space verging on the sublime, that I'm seeking through installation or through immersive virtual environments. I see this thread connecting William Gibson's luminous vision of cyberspace and the Situationists' psychogeography, along with the tendrils of Mandelbrot's canyons being etched out in ghostly green monochrome, one pixel at a time.
My return back to videogames as a creative medium has been through interactive digital art, first as a kind of found object to be hacked and modified, and more recently as a unique form which is deeply interconnected with interactive art.
Ben Chang, Philosopher Deathmatch, modded game, 2006
GameScenes: In 'Philosopher DeathMatch" (2006), a Quake III modification, the players are playing the role of famous philosophers. What was your criteria for selecting the initial roster of philosophers? Are there any connections between their discourse and gameplay?
Ben Chang: The starting point for "Philosopher Deathmatch" was the idea of abstracting the game to get at its essence beneath the visual representation. Super Mario Brothers, for example, looks like it's about a rotund Italian plumber jumping on turtles and mushrooms, but like so many truly great games it's really about this fluid choreography of timing, rhythm, reaction, and memory. Quake III Arena was a landmark game in the multiplayer first-person-shooter genre, known for the pure distillation of reflex aggression. I was interested in the idea of taking this system of violence and imagining what else it could be used to represent, which led me to philosophy as the most absurdly opposite human activity to twitch gaming. As it turns out, the feedback I got from professional philosophers was that this is actually not that absurd at all – they felt it was a pretty good representation of the no-holds-barred intellectual combat that philosophy is actually all about.
The philosophers are a bit of an idiosyncratic mix. Obviously Socrates and Plato have to be in there. Heidegger is crucial, for his fixation on a fundamental understanding of the nature of being (dasein), which is applicable first because of question of virtual being, and second because in Q3A you spend a lot of time flickering between being and not-being whenever you get fragged. Bertrand Russell is maybe the counter to Heidegger's mysticism. Nietzsche's thought is pretty central to the game, in terms of nihilism and morality and particularly his idea of the “will to power.” Descartes, for the Cartesian grid and the mind-body duality which the piece is partly about overcoming. Jeremy Bentham is there for his invention of the panopticon, which via Foucault has of course become a dominant trope in critical theory, particularly around contemporary media.
Philosophers are sometimes surprised that he's a playable character; while he's an important figure in utilitarianism he's not usually thought of as a household name. He's also known for his “auto-icon,” a hay-stuffed likeness originally made with his actual skeleton and mummified head, seated in a glass-fronted cabinet at the University College in London. The gruesome, monstrous characters in the original Quake III Arena seem pretty normal by comparison. I've been occasionally adding more every so often (Deleuze was the latest), but there are so many more philosophers who should be added to the player roster through expansion packs; Merleau-Ponty, Liebniz, Hume, Rousseau, Marx, Husserl, Spinoza, Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, Brian Massumi, Ian Bogost …
Ben Chang, Guitar Gods, Jackal Performance, Summer Solstice 2002 (link)
Ben Chang, Guitar Gods, Ben Chang, Dmitry Strakovsky, Chris Sorg, 2002
GameScenes: In 2002 you created a game and a performance called "Guitar Gods", which reminds me of Activision's popular music game Guitar Hero. It is almost a prefiguration. How did you come up with "Guitar Gods"?
Ben Chang: Guitar Gods was a piece that I made with Dima Strakovsky and the late Chris Sorg, initially as part of a larger multi-format project called The Jackals. This was a combination of hacker workshops, installation, and performance, created by a group called TangentLab that included Andrew Sempere, Mary Lucking, Silvia Ruzanka, Rodger Ruzanka, and any friends or bystanders that we could rope in. The basic idea to scavenge and repurpose old and obsolete technology and create something new. Often these were parodies of current technologies, like the “PDA (Personal Data Annoyance)”, which is like a PalmPilot but the size of a briefcase, with a loud droning computer voice reciting an infinite list of appointments, news items, and stock quotes.
I guess that joke doesn't work anymore, since the PalmPilot is just as obsolete as the Powerbook 180 we scavenged to run the thing in the first place. For a Jackals event we would basically improvise things like this, or the “Data Weather Balloon” or the “JackalVision Mobile Videoconferencing Suit,” in a kind of open-studio format that would also include things like basic electronics workshops for the public. Our costumes consisted of clean-room suits and jackal masks made of hand-woven wire and electronics components. This was around 2002-2003, at the cusp of this current huge wave of DIY / circuit-bending/hacker/maker culture. "Guitar Gods" came out of The Jackals and then evolved into a standalone piece. It's primarily an interactive piece, but we used it for a circuit-bending / electro-noise performance at the all-night Summer Solstice event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
GameScenes: Did you ever regret the fact that you never produced a commercial version of "Guitar Gods" to compete with Guitar Hero?
Ben Chang: "Guitar Gods" and Guitar Hero both use similar controllers, though ours was made by hacking cheap electronic toys from the thrift store. There are some important differences, though. The first is that “Gods” are, obviously, much more awesome than “Heros.” The other difference is that Guitar Hero is a rhythmic pattern-following game, basically like Simon (or like Super Mario Brothers, but much more linear), which uses music as the output of the scoring system. Guitar Gods, on the other hand, is a little less like a game and more like a musical instrument, albeit one that probably gives you more the experience of being Christian Marclay than Jimi Hendrix.
I don't know if "Guitar Gods" would be easy to commercialize; it also relies heavily on appropriation and subversive parody of the entire rock/metal genre that it simultaneously revels in. Now, of course, ActiVision has discontinued the series, so Guitar Hero itself joins the world of the obsolete for the next generation.
GameScenes: As a college professor, have you noticed any patterns or trends in your students' experimentations with game-based technology? What is their main interest nowadays?
Ben Chang: The biggest change over the last ten years has probably been in the level of sophisticated tools that students and independent game developers have at their disposal. This means that you don't have to spend nearly as much time re-inventing the wheel and building basic things from scratch, and can get to the actual creative process much quicker. The priority for game engines used to only be about performance, like graphics quality.
Now there's a whole host of engines, like Unity3D, which are still very sophisticated but are also designed to be easier to use and more affordable and are aimed at students and indie developers. There's also a strong community of Free/Open-Source tools, like Panda3D, Irrlicht, OGRE, PyGame and Blender. There's a democratization of tools. Closing the gap of technology cost and production value means that there are fewer practical barriers in getting started developing games, which means there can be more independent voices in the mix. It's also much easier to prototype, sketch, and iterate. I can give students a project like “Three-Hour Game Jam” or some oblique, conceptual weekly assignment and they can produce games that are completely functional and also thought-provoking.
GameScenes: From your vantage point, what do you think the future of interactive media on our culture is going to look like?
Ben Chang: I think the only thing we can predict is a continuing emergence of the unexpected. Interactivity introduces a significant change from most existing media forms. The superficial ways in which we often think about incorporating it frequently fail, while success comes from unlikely directions. We expected interactive movies, which haven't really happened; instead we have World of Warcraft, FarmVille, Passage, and Minecraft. Interactivity as an aesthetic dimension is not new, but certainly still has plenty of room to develop and mature. I see a lot of promise in the world of indie game development, and also the kinds of changes going on in the game industry as a whole, from physical interfaces to mobile and social gaming.
Working with interactivity in art context allows certain kinds of experimental freedoms, but at the same time there are other limitations imposed. Working in games allows a different set of experimental freedoms. One thing that's clear is that interactivity as a medium cannot be reduced to or contained within any existing media – for example, witness the mountain of games that fail abysmally because they try to be cinema. Myron Krueger put forward the idea of interactivity as an art form, which to me is always something connected to all other media yet also distinct, a rhizomatic that winds its way between far-flung historical moments and high and low cultural forms.
It's hard to make predictions very far into the future, but a few trends I see are the continuing advancement of augmented reality and pervasive computing, the spread of physical and gestural interfaces, renewed interest in immersive virtual environments due to radically cheaper technology. In terms of content there's real drive in the industry to make games that are smarter, deeper, and more interesting. More importantly, the rise of an indie and DIY game development culture means that we will see generations of not just game players but game creators.
Link: Ben Chang
Interview archives: Contemporary Practitioners; The Early Years
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti
All images courtesy of the artist