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 artworld. Our goal is to document and examine both the origins and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
We are currently running Season 7, which began in 2017 with a conversation with Alex Hovet.
This episode features a broad/deep conversation with Gareth Damian Martin, a British artist, game designer, scholar, and writer whose practice focuses on the aesthetics, phenomenology, and logics of contemporary video games. Trained in puppetry and theatre, Martin subsequently moved into graphic and video design, literature, and architecture. His writing can be found on some of the most interesting game publications, including - but not limited to - Kill Screen and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Fascinated by the intersection of architecture and photography in simulated environments, in 2017 Martin launched Heterotopias, on online publication entirely devoted to photographic practices in games. His most recent project, The Continuous City (2018), is a book about game photography available from InBound Publishing.
The following conversation between Matteo Bittanti and Gareth Damian Martin took place via email in March 2018. As usual, the text features embedded links.
GameScenes: What is your background? Can you please summarize your trajectory as a game designer, writer, and artist?
Gareth Damian Martin: I have a very multi-disciplinary background, having originally trained in puppetry and theatre, before moving into graphic and video design, and then studying literature and working in games journalism and design. For the past three years I have been working on a practice-based PhD in experimental literature, specifically focusing on procedurally generated narrative and resolving the supposed conflict between conceptual and expressive forms of writing. Meanwhile I have been working as a games journalist, focusing specifically on the intersection of games with other cultural forms, and more specifically, game spaces and architecture. The Heterotopias project emerged out of this approach, and a need to make a space in which my work on games and architecture might be able to develop freely alongside the work of others. After starting the Heterotopias project I also was offered the change to work at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, lecturing and tutoring on the intersection of urbanism and games. in addition to this, this year I funded my first commercial game, In Other Waters, where the player takes the role of an AI guiding a xenobioloist as they dive an Alien ocean.
Gareth Damian Martin, Outskirts (Dishonored), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: Can you describe the genesis of your project, Heterotopias, and its latest iteration or evolution, The Continuous City?
Gareth Damian Martin: Heterotopias came from a desire to create a specific space in which I and other writers might be able to explore game spaces and architecture without operating within the limits of mainstream games journalism and criticism. Originally a column on the now defunct site Kill Screen, I expanded it into its own publication in February 2017. In the first year we published three zines, each focusing on long form analysis of game spaces supported by game photography, maps and diagrams. At the same time I have been editing and commissioning a series of online studies which focus tightly on a single game or space. Since the beginning game photography has been a big part of Heterotopias approach and identity, guided by a want to transform the screenshot into a critical tool. The Continuous City, our first book, expands on that idea significantly, consisting of over 200 photographs of urban spaces in games. Structured around a loose typology of urban space, The Continuous City is also unique because of the technique I use to capture the images: a 35mm analogue camera. This technique, which involves projecting the game via a DLP projector and then photographing the image using a black and white, high ISO film stock, is one I developed during the first set of Heterotopias zines, and lends the images it produces a surreal, unreal quality.
Gareth Damian Martin, Outskirts (Grand Theft Auto V), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: In the last few years, game photography underwent a significant transformation: from a fringe activity, it has been endorsed by major hi-tech companies like nVidia, which are actively both facilitating it with powerful tools. This particular Silicon Valley company is not simply recognizing this practice but de facto legitimizing it. In a sense, this shift seems to mirror the evolution of machinima in the late Nineties, which moved from the periphery to the center of gaming culture, when corporations endorsed some machinima makers (Rooster Teeth Productions comes to mind), at least for a while. What's your take on this phenomenon?
Gareth Damian Martin: While I am very muchin support of the increasing visibility of game photography, and the growing number of accessible tools that are being provided by games as well as hardware manufacturers like nVidia, I think in order to develop the form must step beyond the advertising and publicity focus that this context currently affords it. The support of game photography by major tech companies is a reflection of how useful they see players taking, uploading and sharing screenshots is to their advertising and publicity. The replication of "beautiful" images from high-budget games supports their claims to photo-realism and serves to elevate their position, not that of game photography. However, the tools that come with this commercial support of game photography are introducing the idea to many new practitioners, and I believe many will go on to make work that steps outside of "screenshot" territory.
Gareth Damian Martin, Pathways (Dishonored), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: ...Meanwhile, the number of exhibitions focusing on game photography has increased significantly in the past few years, signalling that the initial resistance by the artworld ("...But is it art?") has been partially overcome. What do you make of the increasing attention by critics, curators, and scholars on the topic of game photography? Where do you see game photography heading?
Gareth Damian Martin: My use of game photography is very particular, and is more informed by conceptual photographers than it is by other game photographers. But I think precedents set by, for example, the brilliant work of Harun Farocki's Parallel
series have firmly cemented games as a viable subject for video art and photography. If I'm being honest, I don't really see game photography as divergent from photography in general - rephotographing artworks, using the camera as a conceptual or critical tool and photography as an form which is able to create images, not simply take them are all well developed aspects of art photography. Game photography engages with all of these, and doesn't exist within some privileged border.
Gareth Damian Martin, Towers (Kayne & Lynch 2), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: Let's talk a little bit about terminology and vocabulary Does it make sense to use the term "photography" for a quintessentially post-photographic practice? Shouldn't it be simply called screenshooting?
Gareth Damian Martin: I think photography is a useful term as it connects the work to a heritage and history of conceptual, still-life and object photography that stretches all the way back to the beginning of the medium. Screenshotting connects the work to a history of commercial interest, product showcases and advertising, and I think only serves to limit how we might think of this work. In my case the term photography is essential - the use of an analogue camera is a core part of the image making process.
Gareth Damian Martin, Nests (Yakuza 0), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: By combining a traditional, pre-digital technique like 35mm cameras and video games you are simultaneously resuscitating a "dead medium" (Bruce Sterling) and remediating photography, that is, incorporating a medium into another (Bolter & Grusin). You're also updating an evergreen photographic genre - street photography - into virtual environments. How does the genre of analogue game photography fit into the ever expanding medium of game photography tout court?
Gareth Damian Martin: As I've mentioned I don't personally frame my work within game photography, and am more interested in the reference points of art photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto
and his photographs of wax works and dioramas, Thomas Demand
and his images of cardboard models that replicate press photography, and even Man Ray's famous photograph (Dust Breeding
) of Duchamp's Large Glass. In this context I don't see analogue photography as a "dead medium" at all - Sugimoto uses large format cameras and roll film for example. In my influences from street photography too, most notably the work of Daido Moriyama
and the incredible pinhole camera pieces of Takashi Homma from his book The Narcissistic City
, analogue processes are part of an art practice which is very much contemporary. In terms of incorporating one medium into another, I would see it as incorporating games into photography as a subject, but again not as a privileged, unique subject, but instead one closely associated with the history of rephotography, and photography engagement with illusion and the virtual. To me games and photography share a particular quality - they are both images of spaces, rather than spaces in their own right, and so the way they process, and relate to spaces and architecture through virtuality and illusion seems to me to be a strong point of connection.
Gareth Damian Martin, Sanctuaries (Dark Souls 3), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: A remarkable number of game photographers strive for hyper-realism, trying to blur the already porous borders between realistic depictions of reality through photographic means and their video game counterparts, and, by doing so, they are merging representation with simulation (one example is Duncan Harris). At the same, since technical images are by definition third level abstractions (Flusser), one wonders how (or even if) digital photographs and game screenshots are substantially different: they are, after all, pure code, that is, software (Manovich). What's your take? I'm asking because you write that The Continuous City is "a travelogue of the digital made real", which seems to imply that, by simulating photographic representations, you're attributing ontological consistency to fluid, transient, immaterial practices such as gameplay. Conceptually, this reminds me of a project by Benoit Paillé, Crossroads of Realities, although aesthetically, you have chose a very different style... Am I completely off?
Gareth Damian Martin: I think what is key here here is that I am not in fact simulating photography as Benoit Paille does, but photographing the game as an object with an actual "true" photographic process. While I ultimately scan my negatives into my computer in order to print them and insert them into the book, each part of the process up to this point is a photographic process like any other analogue photographic process. For me this a key part of the "expansion" or "transformation" of the game I am staging. When I say "a travelogue of the digital made real", I am pointing to the contradictory way in which these images, by abstracting the original subject, grant it a strange veracity - just as a statue beside a static human, when photographed, gains the same limited life as the human within the resulting image. The "reality" of the analogue process grants the unreal spaces of the game a kind of passing connection to the real, and the two become inseparable - the real image and the unreal space. This is especially effective for those who do not recognise or have no experience of the original game space - their first response is often to approach the image as if it is an image of a real space, and then to slowly try to resolve this with the increasingly obvious falsity of the space that becomes more and more evident over time. Even those who have experienced the original game space lose their footing in reality sometimes, and I have had comments pointing out that my images "look just like" the spaces from the game - the viewer unable to resolve their own memories of the same space with the strange image in front of them, therefore separating them to two different planes of reality.
Gareth Damian Martin, Sanctuaries (Dishonored), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: ...Black and white is a marker of photographic artistry: by deliberately renouncing the vibrant colors of simulated worlds, you're explicitly invoking a photographic tradition with overt artistic ambitions. My question - which has no polemical intent - is this: why looking at the past to capture the essence, the spirit of a (relatively) new medium such as the videogame?
Gareth Damian Martin: To me the connection to the history of conceptual and object photography is the one I wish to evoke, I have no desire to evoke a nebulous "future" that might be suggested by the technological superiority of games. I would also maintain that black and white is no longer able to be considered a historical practice, as many photographers continue to use black and white photography in contemporary work, especially as it has the effective ability to distance the resulting images from their original referent. I also think one of the least helpful myths around games is that they are contingent on a linear technological progression - that more powerful computer produce better images, and that the aim of games aesthetic is to reach a point of impossibly accurate image quality. This same myth is one shared by photography - that the "best" cameras are those which produce images at the highest fidelity. By photographing games using a camera built in the 1960s, using a film stock whose process has remained unchanged for decades, I am seeking to destabilise this logic - reality is subjectively judged by the viewer based on learnt and replicated signifiers not on an objective standard of photorealism. It might be more accurate to say I am aiming to distort or shift the spirit of games (if there is such a thing) rather than capture it.
Gareth Damian Martin, Ruins (Dark Souls 3), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: The Continuous City combines flaneur-like obsessions with photographic compulsion - as Susan Sontag wrote in the 1970s, taking photographs is a way to collect the world, to own it, and to miniaturize it. Do you believe that game photographers obsessively document their journeys in exotic lands in order to claim the spaces they visit? Is game photography just another post-colonial practice? Or should it be considered as a decontextualizing activity, that actively reframes the image, and thus its meaning and effect?
Gareth Damian Martin: I think both of these concepts - the image as ownership of digital space / the image as reframing of digital space - are actively true. Certainly my project is a kind of obsessive documentation, a pursuit of some quality that I feel is impossible to describe in any other way. However I think the multiplicity of game spaces makes it difficult to see game photography as a process of colonising virtual spaces - these are, after all, spaces designed to entrap, manipulate and engage the player. For that reason I think game photgoraphy leans more towards reframing, and even rebelling against the systems of engagement in games. What I find fascinating in games is the way in which they are starting to show resistance to their own structures internally - photo-modes and features like the "Discovery Tour" tourist-mode of Assassin's Creed Origins
point towards a future of games where spaces are hollowed out within compulsive systems to actively subvert or undermine them. I see game photography as engaging with these processes.
Gareth Damian Martin, Entrances (Mirror's Edge Catalyst), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: Stephan Mallarmé famously wrote that "Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book". It appears that this wish applies to the virtual world as well: is the book, as a medium, a legitimizing strategy? Why did you choose static images to document virtual worlds instead of pursuing different multimedia formats, such as video essays or playthroughs?
Gareth Damian Martin: My intention is not pure documentation, and such a project would find itself crowded out by the huge volume of documentation of game spaces that already exists. To me the images are the work, they don't stand-in for the spaces they depict. This book is a work within the long tradition of artists photo books, and frames itself as such. I'm in no way adverse to video or multimedia projects, in fact I have many in mind for the future of the Heterotopias project, but this project in particular is exploring the relationship of game spaces to photography in particular, and its form follows that intention.
Gareth Damian Martin, Pathways (Grand Theft Auto V), 2017, digital still.
GameScenes: The literary tradition is explicitly evoked in the very title of your book, which alludes to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Both projects are linked by the wish to catalogue and archive the imaginary, the fantastic, and the exotic. Is your ultimate goal to produce a 1:1 map of the digital ludic?
Gareth Damian Martin: Not at all, in fact I think Invisible Cities suggests the opposite - it is a document that points to maps and descriptions as expressive not objective tools. Calvino isn't cataloguing all the imaginary cities of the world, he is instead describing one city, Venice, from a multitude of perspectives, ones that include what Venice is, what it was and what it might be. He combines all the fantasies and dreams, all the nightmares, with the ideologies, arguments and characters of the city in order to try to describe something real through fiction. This too is my intention - after all the book is called The Continuous City - it points to a singular urban body, united in its disunity. It is a book of fictions too, but ones that equally point to some real place we might once have visited.