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. The interview between David Blandy and Matteo Bittanti took place via email in April of 2013.
GameScenes: David, in your work, the appropriation and reinvention of popular culture produces a performative masquerade. Manga, hip hop, and videogames are subsumed to construct alternative identities and personae, but also to create spatio-temporal disjunctures. I am specifically interested in your ongoing dialogue with digital games and arcades in particular. For the show Odyssey organized by Exeter Phoenix in 2011, you built an entire gaming arcade in a gallery. Are you stuck in time-loop, where nostalgia becomes a form of chronological currency? Or are you creating an alternative past, where David Blandy’s fantasies, e.g. the alter egos that inhabit your previous work (Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, the White and Black Minstrel, Child of the Atom and David Blandy himself), establish a parallel reality, like those that exist in fiction?
David Blandy: Just a small pedantic note- the show was "Odysseys" at Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, presented by Lighthouse Arts. The Exeter show was at a Phoenix too, but they have no relationship to one another, bizarrely.
I guess I was interested in several facets of the phenomenon of gaming in that show. My first intention was to camouflage the works I'd made, to put them in the context of games if a similar era so that it would take a few moments to realise which games were "found" and which were unique. And then I'm interested in identity and memory, how much we construct our ideas of ourselves from the things that we relate to in everyday life, in popular culture. Do I choose Ryu because I recognize myself in him, or because I want to be like him. Is an avatar a mirror or an idol? And I'm interested in cultural memory and the recycling of culture. I fell in love with Street Fighter II at an arcade in 1992, but the most popular fighting game right now is Street fighter IV, essentially the same game. You see it in films, children's TV, fast food- all the brands keep recycling themselves.
And then there was the opportunity to turn an art space into an arcade as an assault on the senses, like a cross between Nam June Paik and the arcades that I used to frequent, but instead of some of the games you can watch my videos or play my games which try to make the search for self, for meaning, just a bit more evident than in the games themselves, trying to show people who'd never attempt to experience games in that way what it is possible to experience through them, the possibilities for self-transformation, for existential contemplation. Duels and Dualities: Battle of the Soul is a work that functions in a way as purely an idea, the fragmented self, battling its various factions, but I think it only really makes sense when it is played. You feel the inadequacy of David Blandy, his impotence, with just a light and heavy punch to call upon, trying to play as cunningly as you can, and still losing. And the terrible power of Child of the Atom, utterly broken in fighting game terms, but with that power comes an emptiness, the pointlessness of playing the game when odds are so stacked in your favour. Power over others is a curse, far too easy to abuse.
GameScenes: Customizing cabinets and decorating coin-op machines is, in a sense, the ultimate form of appropriation art. At the same time, this practice belongs to the vernacular, rather than the artworld. By legitimizing fandom practices you are effectively changing the rules of the game and engaging in the conversation with difference audiences at once: the gamer and the art conneisseur, which hardly/rarely overlap. How was the show received? Who walked into the gallery, and why, exactly?
David Blandy: I am always drawn to forms of creativity outside conventional fine art, whether that's hip-hop, car customization, fighting game prowess or arcade stick customization. Where does fandom stop and art begin? When I organise fighting game tournaments in galleries, I'm interested in how much this intense highly ritualized activity can be seen as a form of performance art, everyone playing their roles. I see the art in the everyday, and just try to frame it by placing it in a gallery context. I'm always trying to test the line of the point where something stops being art. But of course these things can be appreciated without those layers of meaning- people came to the show just to play Alpha 2, and I'm glad of that. The guys who loaned me the extra arcade cabinets, who've now set up Heart of Gaming in London, really appreciated the customization, even though it was totally antethical to what their aim generally is, which is to restore cabinets to their factory fresh condition. The documentation of the show has lead to some quizzical responses, like, "What's that game, I don't recognize that at all", which I guess shows its sort of working.
David Blandy, Son of the Atom, 2010
GameScenes: For the Duels and Dualities arcades, you worked with Stuart Witter, who remixed a Naomi 50 board. Could you explain the dynamics of this collaboration? Are you planning more game-based hacking/modding in the future?
David Blandy: There is definitely an element of homage. I think there is a recognition in the Fighting Game Community that a lot has been lost in the death of arcades, these social spaces to meet like-minded individuals, share experiences, form rivalries. But there's a larger question of what are our common spaces now, where can we meet without a commodified agenda? A gallery should be a meeting place, a place to come together, share ideas, discuss, think. Like an arcade. Traditional arcades may be dying, almost dead, but the people who play the games are still here, still wanting to meet and compete. The games might be based on old formulas, but the community keeps evolving.
GameScenes: One of your latest projects, Background (2013) is imbued with references to game aesthetics. In this animated video piece, your 16-bit representation converses with another character (Blandy Senior, John) while walking through scenarios that have a distinct gaming style (rainforest, abandoned citiscapes, snow-covered temples etc.). This work is both intimate and heavily mediated - are you suggesting that intimacy is possible only through the filters of popular culture - gaming/comics etc? Are games, comics, and cartoons the filter through which we make sense of reality?
GameScenes: What do you find particularly appealing about video games? Is there a specific genre, series, or style that inspires you? What are your gaming epiphanies?