MANCHESTER, N.H. — The slow digital bleed of Tabor Robak’s “Twisted Scribe” greets you at the entry of “Open World: Video Games and Contemporary Art,” the expansive, exhaustive exhibition of video game culture at the Currier Museum in New Hampshire. A vertical screen glows with a cascading pulse of fuchsia, then azure, then silver. It’s a cyberpunk version of Abstract Expressionism, pulsing with visual verve. It’s also not even remotely what awaits, just a few steps inside.
Video games are a narrative medium, though how narrative, exactly, has long been a central critique around their admission to the world of actual art. (”Call of Duty,” to pick a wildly popular example, may be visually impressive, but being the same guy shooting the same guys over and over against an algorithmically selected backdrop of lush hellscapes does not art make, however ghastly and convincing the splatter of blood.)
Put another way, beneath the veneer of slick digital wonder rests a certain sameness — you shooting, people getting shot. This is not a realm for contemplation, though outliers do emerge. Take for example 2017′s “No Man’s Sky,” a complex universe-modelling epic in which you quite literally play God (guiding natural selection across galaxies and millennia). It was spectacular, beautiful, and deep in its philosophical demands. Despite a months-long lead-up and hype, it was also a financial failure.
And so, at least for now, most of what we’d call art in the gaming world is confined to exhibitions like this one — and to artists who see games as raw material. Aesthetically vivid, but most often conceptually feeble, video games are the cultural paradox of our times. (As mass entertainment, there’s nothing more mass than the video game industry, grossing $135 billion in global revenue in 2018, more than triple that for movie tickets). But the tools of the trade are intensely seductive; game engines, the coding framework used to build each game, offer vast possibility for the sort of deep thinking the games themselves deliberately avoid.
“Open World,” as a set of possibilities, can be compelling, often to the point of real disturbance. It also has what feel to me like a lot of throw-ins, space fillers. Works like Oliver Payne’s inverted antique game-console signs (like Pengo and Robotron) and Butt Johnson’s Baroque-esque ballpoint-pen drawings involving Super Mario Brothers aren’t bad; in Johnson’s case, they’re technically masterful. They just muddy what might be a compelling argument for the power of medium.
Past Robak — who gathered game imagery and built them into a generative animation — you’ll quickly move into a world well beyond the digital. It’s a world where the uni-dimensional realm of the game universe (usually, but not always, centered on violence) takes on contemplative depth. I guess it’s no surprise that the Grand Theft Auto franchise, a long-running, ultra-popular train wreck where the heroes are car thieves who shoot drug dealers and cops, and hire (and often abuse) prostitutes, is so well-represented. Few other popular culture phenomena are such easy targets for social critique. Few others so deserve to be. For “Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides,” Joseph DeLappe modified the game to be self-playing, letting it run for a year from July 4, 2018 to July 4, 2019. He programmed the daily in-game death toll to match the number of actual U.S. gun deaths. By year’s end, it totaled 14,730 before resetting to zero.
Lest you find the figure so large as to be abstract — and this is the point — watch the game play out in front of you every few seconds, with figures running into the frame only to be pumped full of bullets, their brains and guts becoming geysers that shoot all over the road, on walls, on parked cars. The theme music is “God Bless America.” Enough said.
The work brings up the age-old chicken-and-egg dilemma around guns, gaming, and the link in-between, and that’s surely part of the point. (Conservative politicians frequently blame mass-shooting on violent video games, but there is no evidence of a link.) We live in a society that both glorifies and profits from violence, and art, in this case, is damning of both.
A softer view comes from Alan Butler, who used the game engine to create portraits of the homeless characters in GTA’s environment. Art imitates life: In the game, these figures cluster together, often treated by players as faceless, collateral damage. Meanwhile, Joan Pamboukes, harnesses the lushness of the game environment, creating ethereal, gorgeously gauzy landscape images from the computer-generated backdrops. It both complicates the simplistic carnage, and reflects the game’s enormous profitability, where no expense need be spared — a place where the killing fields can afford to be beautiful.
Have we talked enough about GTA? Probably. Is there more worth talking about? Some. Remember gaming tools as having enormous potential for art? Tim Portlock makes good use of 3-D imaging software with “Sunrise,” recreating a neighborhood in Philadelphia, and then removing all but the abandoned buildings. The sheer density of them — a ghost city amid a resurgent urban center — is the kind of rich conceptual visualization such tools make possible, so long as there’s a poetic, analytical mind to drive them.
What else do we know about games, beyond the fact that a lot — and I mean a lot — are intensely violent? Not coincidentally, the vast majority of players are male. An exception is “The Sims,” a virtual dollhouse where players build characters and do what they can to make a successful life — get a job, find a partner, buy a house, have children. The overwhelming majority of its players are women, which makes it ripe for the kind of feminist critique of Angela Washko’s “You’re Either In or Out.” This SIMS-generated absurdist nightmare in free-play mode (where the computer, not the player, runs the show) features a single female figure trapped in a house without windows or doors. Outside, Washko put several male SIMS, who circle the building as though their lives depend on it. (And they do; they all die.) Inside, the lone woman withers from loneliness while her kitchen burns. As a gender-role parody, it’s as dark as they come.
Washko engages “World of Warcraft,” a massive multiplayer online game — or MMOG, to use its official acronym — in much the same way. Playing a warrior, she engages players — the very large majority of them young men — in chats about gender disparity.
It all points to the massive, underexploited potential of sophisticated technology to engage serious social concerns (in favor of shoot-em-ups and sexist escape fantasies). But what about the technology’s ability to create something simply beautiful? That’s well represented, with Robak and Pamboukes leading the way. But we can rightly end with Bill Viola, a pioneer of video as a medium for art, with the only thing here approaching an immersive, multidimensional sublime. “The Night Journey,” an eleven-year collaboration with the USC Game Innovation Lab (2007-18), is the product of Viola’s early understanding that games, with their interactivity, had vast potential to create meaning in new ways. Onscreen, an aubergine-tinged haze renders landscapes with doorways as visual metaphors for the journey toward enlightenment. Instead of shooting bad guys, you score points with acts of reflection; they elevate your perspective, higher and higher, moving to the end goal.
If it doesn’t sound like a million-seller, fair enough. But it is gorgeous and ennobling, with a glimpse of the potential for a medium still criminally underexplored. Video games can do so much more. “Open World” offers a view of the possibilities, and why the video game industry is content to do less.
OPEN WORLD: VIDEO GAMES AND CONTEMPORARY ART
Through Spring 2021. At the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash Street, Manchester, N.H. 603-669-6144, www.currier.org