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 Jonathan Monaghan and Matteo Bittanti took place via email in May of 2013.
His latest work, Robot Ninja, is on display at Market Gallery (Glasgow, Scotland) until June 7, 2013.
As Monaghan writes,
"The Robot Ninja is my version of a final boss in a video game; the ultimate last bad guy a hero must defeat in order to complete his or her journey. Employing male-centric stereotypes found in video games combined with symbols of institutional power and wealth, Robot Ninja is a cultural conflation of war, authority and the super-human. But like final bosses, Robot Ninja reminds us that all great powers can fall.” (Jonathan Monaghan)
GameScenes: Your dual interest in art and technology is reflected in your formal education - you studied at the New York Institute of Technology and subsequently acquired an MFA from University of Maryland. This is not surprising: art and technology are not in opposition. After all, the word technology comes from Greek techne which can be translated as art, craft... Could you describe your trajectory as both scholar and an artist? At which point in your career did you decide to invest time, money into studying and practicing art? What role did that education play in your personal evolution? I find very interesting that, on your website, you display your research projects alongside your artistic work - which is kind of unusual in the artworld, but also perfectly logical.
Jonathan Monaghan: I think the path for myself is different than an older generations of artists who studied art initially then found technology as a medium. For me and many other young artists the technology came first and I think that is very important. I think young artists who became proficient with digital technology before any kind of art education take a distinct approach. It is hard to pinpoint what that exactly is, but I know certainly embrace digital commercial media; I love Pixar, car commercials and video games, and during most of my undergraduate studies I wanted to make those for a living. After being exposed to the world of contemporary art, such as watching the films of Matthew Barney, it all made sense to me and I felt as if I could do that, but use my skills with 3D animation to do it.
GameScenes: Ideological criticism seems to be the organizing principle of your work - in several videos you subvert the meaning and function of animals previously appropriated/desecrated by consumer culture and popular culture - mainstream cinema, games and CGI animation. Characters from Street Fighter ride domesticated animals on a Super Mario Track circuit. Brand logos are imprinted on computer generated beasts... What makes 3D animation a perfect tool to create this kind of counter-discourse, a form of ideological unmasking conspicuously absent in videogame culture?
Jonathan Monaghan: There is a chapter in Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media sub-titled “Narcissus as Narcosis.” In it he talks about modern society as a kind of Narcissus, entranced by their own reflection, although oblivious to the fact that they are looking at themselves. Likewise Sigfried Kracauer showed that the key to understanding modern society is to examine its ornamented surface. I am not sure we really look at ourselves and our culture, and I think it is because we are mesmerized by it; we are in a kind of medicated state. However here is where art comes in. Artists since the 1990s have really embraced these avenues of mass culture, but unlike the constructors of mass society, advertising etc... many artists don't really have a specific agenda, we are simply using these aesthetic effects and mediums of mass culture as an end in and of themselves, and that is how we can examine the ornamented surface and gain some critical insights into our seemingly seamless condition.But we may start to awake from this narcosis, because I wouldn’t say video games are as “medicating” as one may assume. Going back to McLuhan, video games would be a cool medium as they require active participation on part of the audience, like a book. The web is the same way, and I think there is something to be said for a form of entrainment which is not possible unless you are actively participating by solving problems or communicating. I played a lot of video games as a kid, and I think there might actually be a kind of inherit creative capacity with these new technologies. Take a look at Counter-Strike. It was initially made by an online community of individuals who actually developed it on their spare time. It was a modification of a financed studio-made video game, so they didn’t have to build the entire thing from the group up, but nevertheless this small group of individuals started a multi-million dollar franchise by working on this game during their spare time. This is how I got into computer graphics and consequently contemporary art. When I was 13 I became a part of these online communities developing custom content, custom maps, models, and textures. I just found that creating games was more fun than playing them and I wasn't alone.
Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings
Jonathan Monaghan, Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings 2012 – CGI animated HD film on BluRay disc, 8m 12s
GameScenes: Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings is an 8-minute CGI animated HD film which critically appropriates and simultaneously subvert popular icons from videogames - including several Street Fighter characters, Nintendo heroes. On one level, this work can be read as an homage to video game aesthetics. On the other, it is a subtle, bold criticism of the game industry, with its constant display of macho stereotypes, Michael Bay-like mindless violence, and banal narratives. I find very interesting that you used 3D Studio Max as a critical tool. Software is elevated to an epistemological/critical practice. What led you to create such an elaborate project? Why did you choose these specific games and characters?
Jonathan Monaghan: One of the things that interests me about 3D is the ever growing amount of 3D content available. There is so much on the web, much of it pirate-able, and then there is also the incredible amount of high quality 3D content developed for video games, much of which can be extracted or ripped from the proprietary formats. Anything virtual is there for the taking. Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings started by looking at this wealth of content as a starting point from which to build in. In this collection process you really see the ridiculously proportioned characters, which really embody male-centric ideals. There is also cultural and historical stereotypes, with M-Bison as a Nazi-esque evil power-seeking bad guy and Guile as American solider good-guy. These were important characters to me as a child, so the animation is both a critique as a homage in a way.
GameScenes: It could be suggested that Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings is about the real-life consequences of governing fictions and dominant ideologies, e.g. neo-liberalism and late capitalism - embodied in the fortress-like building erected by former Wall Street banking monarchs and adorned with symbols of wealth, power and status. The apparent absence of the 1% in your video is deceptive, as their shadowhy presence, implied agency and destructive power easily surpasses the video game villains’ supernatural strength. Am I completely off-track?
Jonathan Monaghan: No you are very much on track. I really like this idea of hidden power. Pitting these ridiculous looking video game characters and environments with recreations of real, “evil” power is very much what I was doing. By trying to create a coherent reality or a narrative where these absurd manifestations of power interact with actual power structures, my viewers can approach how power works through a different lens.
GameScenes: The non-linear narrative of Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings is informed by a remarkable variety of sources and influences: science-fiction, mythology, religion, and pop culture... The common denominator is Power - its creation, recreation, and ultimate destruction. Is this the ultimate fiction of History? Is the relentless process of creation, exploitation, and implosion the real engine of human evolution (or devolution)?
Jonathan Monaghan: There is something military in nature about our media; it is constantly on the offensive, incredibly efficient, strong and controlling. However the “weapons” (the tools of media) have become much more democratized and that diffuses the battlefield. This new struggle for power in the digital era I think is why I am so obsessed with the topic. So I like to think of Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings as a kind of history painting, rendering ancient myths as contemporary metaphors where current fears and hopes are embodied in familiar narratives and characters.
GameScenes: Phallic elements pervade your artwork, which, in turn reflect the male-dominated ideology of gaming in general. Even female characters, like Chun-Li, are projections of male fantasies rather than fully formed characters. In fact, Chun-Li is simply a male character with silicone implanted breasts and a vagina. Do you think that art could become a powerful self-reflective practice, a mirror that simultaneously reflects and magnifies the “true face” of activities often dismissed as pure escapism, or worse, culturally and ideologically neutral, like gaming?
Jonathan Monaghan: There is more to mass-cultural products than escapism; they represent our ideals, dreams, uncertainties and fears. By analyzing and re-interpreting these products we are gaining more insight into who we are, and that is what I am doing with my work.
GameScenes: In Rainbow Narcosis, a 9 minute CGI animated video produced in 2012, we follow the journey of a beheaded lamb across a variety of environments. Although videogames are not explicitly alluded to or referenced, the aesthetics are clearly reminiscent/evocative of gaming. Are you suggesting that there is no intrinsic, ontological difference between the so-called ‘real” (here exemplified by the use of photorealism) and fiction (game-like visuals)? Narratives construct both realities and virtual realities... Or perhaps, that all realities are virtual?
Jonathan Monaghan: I think the line between what is real and what is mediated has been blurry for a while, and perhaps it is not even a necessary question anymore. What is presented to us from all media is an absurdly twisted and distorted version of reality. I just love playing with the photo-real, there is a seductive sexiness to it. The software I used to create photo-realism was developed for that very purpose, to create seductive images to draw you in and make you feel good so you want to buy something. I am drawing you in to unsettle you and to examine these aesthetic effects.
GameScenes: 3D animation and CGI rely on a very limited number of visual and narrative archetypes - e.g., the mech warrior, the ninja, the amazon with hypertrophic muscles, the fearless macho, the cute anthropomorphic character and so on. In your case, however, the ideological traits arise to the surface and become the vessel of the critique. This is particularly true of Robot Ninja (2013), your latest project. Can you describe your creative process? Do you produce all the models from scratch or do you appropriate elements from games? How long did it take to create this video?
Jonathan Monaghan: The elements used to create the Robot Ninja were partially appropriated directly from various video games, others were created from scratch. What is great about the stereotypes in video games, like the ninja warrior or the mech-warrior is that you the video game player usually take on and embody these super-human ideal warrior personas. In Robot Ninja however you have this absurd mash up of all these things, but it is its own thing coming at you, it doesn’t transform you, it just confronts you and you are not sure yet if it is good or bad.