April 9, 2003

Game as art, game as criticism, game as activism.

Last night, I drove up to Baltimore to see Alex Galloway give a presentation at the Maryland Institute College of Art as a part of their New Media Forum series. Galloway is the former Director of Content and Technology @ rhizome and co-founder of Radical Software Group (RSG), the group developing Carnivore.

Galloway's talk was advertised as "How to Hack Multiplayer Games," a procedure that would lead to what he called "game remixing." Still very much a work in progress (he admitted that hacking the games was turning into more of a chore than he had thought it would), this notion of game remixing is a combination of "mod" creation and world collision. The example Galloway provided was a mod he created using the Half-Life game engine. The level was a multicolored explosion room - you wandered around with your crowbar (the basic "weapon" in Half-Life), slamming it against the floor and wall to create explosions of light and sound. Ultimately, Galloway and his collaborators want to create a scenario whereby several games of Half-Life intersect with one another (perhaps running a variety of mods?) - several large, intersecting, performative avatar spaces.

Since this notion of "game remixing" is still very much a work in progress, Galloway spent most of his time discussing projects already (or almost) completed. Perhaps his best known work is Carnivore. RSG adapted a network surveillance tool used by the intelligence community. RSG's Carnivore listens to network traffic and then filters the data through artist-built clients, creating effects that range from splashes of color and code to animations of graffiti I personally liked Jonah Brucker-Cohen's "Police State" client, which takes flagged data (such as catch words associated with terrorism), coverts it into the appropriate police code, and transmits it in binary as commands to control several little remote control police cars.

Here's a snip from Brucker-Cohen's website:

PoliceState is a Carnivore client that attempts to reverse the surveillance role of law enforcement into a subservient one for the data being gathered. The client consists of a fleet of 20 radio controlled police vehicles that are all simultaneously controlled by data coming into the main client. The client looks for packet information relating to domestic US terrorism. Once found, the text is then assigned to an active police radio code, translated to its binary equivalent, and sent to the array of police cars as a movement sequence. In effect, the data being "snooped" by the authorities is the same data used to control the police vehicles. Thus the police become puppets of their own surveillance. This signifies a reversal of the control of information appropriated by police by using the same information to control them.

What is fascinating to me in this piece is the distinction between the "engine" (Carnivore), the "client" (Police State), and the "performance" (on of any installations of Police State, the result of which depends on the network traffic intercepted) - how might these be used to investigate other media objects? I can think of one necessary addendum to the list - the "record" of the event, which in this case manifests in a variety of ways: still images, films, verbal (spoken and written) descriptions. Which leads to a perhaps not-so-new but still intriguing question - how do we talk about an object composed of multiple nodes? How do we track the development of such an object and discuss it in critical terms? I'm thinking personally of the difficulty in tracking an online game like Asheron's Call - thousands of players (though still quite a bit fewer than Everquest), thus multiple performances. The engine remains somewhat static, although the performance within that engine constantly stretches, breaks, bends, manipulates those rules. The client itself is manipulated through a variety of methods, either by "skinning" the client, or by using any number of client add-ons through (in AC's case) the Decal project. The engine and the client, combined, help set the rules of engagement - and I believe that one can make a case for a descriptive language of this (in fact, some have, and it's what I'm writing my dissertation on) without falling into a structuralist trap of determined meaning. In other words, the performance - of reading, of playing, of artfully bashing like in Galloway's Half-Life mod - is manipulated and limited by the engine and the client, but (like reading) this does not result in one type of performance or interpretation.

Enough of my aside - some more things from the talk that I'll lay out quickly, hopefully with time to discuss them in more detail later (clearly, Galloway sparked quite a few ideas in my head).

Other things Galloway shared:

MTAA's "Simple Net Art Diagram" which aims to demonstrate the belief that the artistic act happens in the process - in the wires:

A quotation from conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (Googled: from "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," Published in ArtForum, 1967), emphasizing the importance of the framework - the machine - over the performance:

"In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."

Low Level All-Stars DVD - a collection of video graffiti from the Commodore 64 computer. Rad.

Also included: Galloway's "How to Win" - a transcription score and video documentation (of his fingers, not the screen) of every level from Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers; "2x2" - a modified Gameboy game displaying video feed broken down into 4 pixels total (thus, 2x2); Cory Archangel's Nintendo Mods; and "WYSIWYG" - Galloway's code-front project.

Final comment - my title says "Game as criticism." While I was watching the presentation, I kept thinking of how we do and can use games as methods of interpretation and criticism, such as Natalie Bookchin's version of Borges' "The Intruder." More on this in a bit - my morning freewrite has accidently colonized my afternoon writing session.

Posted by Jason at April 9, 2003 2:52 PM | TrackBack

Thanks for the write-up, Jason--sounds like I missed a pretty interesting talk. FWIW, "remixing" was also the subject of some debate at the e(X)lit confernece, the basic idea being that a preservation initiative such as ours, in addition to saving stuff for posterity, can also enable an environment for recombinant acts stemming from the bits in the repository.

That trip report is coming soon, I promise--as soon as I finish teaching Coming Soon in my grad class this week.

Posted by: Matt at April 9, 2003 11:16 PM | Permalink to Comment

No problem Matt. The talk was fine - very casual for the most part and mostly show & tell of a lot of nifty projects (both his and others'). That alone, however, sparked a lot of ideas. Was glad I went, if only to find out about some new digital art and to see a part of Baltimore that I had not experienced before...

Remixing seems like an inherent part of any creative *and* critical project at this point. Quotation seems like just a single-media form of remixing, after a fashion - recontextualizing, reconceptualizing, redistributing. Galloway seemed to be still at the mod-dev stage - I'm curious how he'll hack the system to make worlds' collide (or if is even possible, and to what effect?).

Anxiously awaiting the e(x)lit post - although I understand the pressures of Coming Soon!!! (I actually put it down - it was giving me a headache). Let me know how it goes over in class...

Posted by: Jason at April 10, 2003 12:11 AM | Permalink to Comment

Jason - I enjoyed your comments. As the organizer of the New Media Forum, I am glad to see we have some visitors from outside of MICA.


Posted by: Randall Packer at April 12, 2003 3:46 AM | Permalink to Comment

Thanks Randall - I'm looking forward to seeing what the New Media Forum has planned for next semester. Certainly appreciate you bringing such interesting speakers to the area.

Posted by: Jason at April 14, 2003 11:40 AM | Permalink to Comment
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