Let’s face it: shooting stuff is fun – in video, that is; but it can also be ethically complicated. Gallery 101’s current exhibition Blown Up: Gaming and War, brings to the conventions of video gaming the complexities of art, activism and critical commentary. I am not exactly a typical gamer (don’t own a console), but virtually re-connecting with my inner warrior and social critic at the same time, as I did last week at Gallery 101, was something of a treat.
Video games have come a long way from the simple pleasures of the arcade, and especially in the world of art. The structures of commitment and involvement created by games offer fertile ground for artists exploring kinds of human experience well beyond the zero-sum shoot-em-ups of most commercial game play. The installations in this show are fun. They’re weird. They’re confounding. And they leave burrs in the imagination as readily as the gratifications of conventional games wash mindlessly away.
Wafaa Bilal’s The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi was the most typically video-gamey of the three installations, but the layering of narratives in this installation was significantly more complex than most conventional games. The original game was released in 2003 by Petrilla Entertainment amidst the post-9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria. Originally titled Quest for Saddam, this game has the player shooting her way through Iraqi soldiers to find and kill Saddam Hussein.
Shortly after its release, Al Qaeda hacked the game and created The Night of Bush Capturing, which essentially used the same game structure but with a new skin: now the player was shooting her way through American soldiers to find and kill George Bush. Bilal’s intervention was to hack himself into the Al Quaeda version as a suicide bomber recruited after his brother is killed, thus A Virtual Jihadi. According to Georgia Mathewson, who works at the gallery, at least one patron has played all levels of the game, a feat rewarded with a chance to shoot at George Bush, no doubt a virtually satisfying accomplishment in any era.
According Bilal, Virtual Jihadi was meant to draw attention to the racist generalizations and stereotypes often seen in video games, and acutely seen in the years after 9/11 as American culture shaped by George Bush’s political leadership retrenched into xenophobic paranoia.
Wafaa Bilal is probably best known for his work “Domestic Tension” (2006) in which he lived in a small room at Flatfile Galleries in Chicago for a month under 24-hour webcam surveillance and through which anyone could aim and fire a paintball gun. (Bilal was shot at over 60,000 times and the website had millions of hits; the installation garnered international attention.) Bilal was born in Iraq and lived through the rule of Saddam Hussein, was arrested and tortured for his political artwork before escaping to Kuwait where he was imprisoned again, eventually making his way to the U.S. He is now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Harun Farocki’s two-channel video installation Serious Games I: Watson is Down is a fascinating glimpse into the use of video gaming by the American military to train soldiers. In the video, on one screen we see and hear soldiers in a computer lab, each operating a virtual character in a game unfolding in real-time on the other screen. The soldiers are virtually on patrol in Afghanistan in armed vehicles traveling through a dessert accurately recreated from geographic data. Their instructor, just like dungeon masters of old, creates obstacles for them as they play – improvised explosive devices by the road and enemy combatants. A fight ensues and Gunner Watson is killed in the game.
Serious Games, which was filmed at the Marine Corps Base 29 Palms in California in 2009, draws us into the rarely seen world where real soldiers play fantasy video games in preparation for real war, real injury, real death. The game itself looks just like any you might play, which is of course what makes it so fascinating and creepy. Farocki has found the virtual interface between the violence of a war game and real war, and offers it up for public viewing.
Harun Farocki is an internationally recognized and award-winning filmmaker born in what is now the Czech Republic. Farocki has made over 90 films, including three feature films, essay films and documentaries.
And finally, there is the sculpture-video-game-installation by Mohammed Mohsen called Weak, perhaps the most enigmatic of the three exhibits. Weak offers, on first encounter, a beautiful sculpture of what looks like black shiny Arborite reminiscent in all the right ways of arcade video games from the 1980s. This is my era of gaming – Space Invaders, Asteroids, Centipede, Galaxian, Missle Command – apparently what is referred to in the vernacular as the ‘golden age’ of arcade video games.
Mohsen’s overly simplified console with joystick evokes this era perfectly. But what happens when you play is something else altogether. It isn’t clear at all what is happening, what the rules are, even the degree to which you are in control of your own game destiny. Sometimes the joystick seems to control movement, often not; and it changes frequently, as do settings and putative game-play goals. It becomes apparent that winning and losing are not on the agenda in Mohsen’s video world, and thus ensues a frustrating and yet delighting process of trying to figure out even how to move with any consistency through the strange and visually evocative screens.
As best I could tell, these game cycles were about exploring new visual worlds and game architecture, rather than accumulating experience or gathering points. Game play even resists the typical structures of engagement of virtual war games, perhaps a clue to Mohsen’s title for the installation. According to Mathewson at the gallery, part of Mohsen’s strategy is to work against the isolation typical of contemporary game play and to reintroduce video games into social settings – for example, the arcade setting where groups of friends huddled around consoles trying to solve video puzzles as one of them played. A mélange of ‘golden age’ game references informs the beautiful and surrealistic visuals encountered, and an exotic and strangely wonderful soundscape accompanies the experience.
Mohammed Mohsen was born in Palestine and now lives in Toronto. He studied economics and Middle East history and culture at the University of Toronto, and completed a BFA in drawing and painting at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. The Gallery 101 website explains that Weak is a poetic exploration of the pleasure and political anxiety of gaming, a reference to Mohsen’s personal experience in Saudi Arabia of having rare uncensored access to Western media including video games in the 1980s.
Blown Up: Gaming and War is on at Gallery 101 until March 2.