Caught in the Clinch

The first thing Dean Kissick did at one of the world’s biggest video game fairs was to take a trip in a full-immersion virtual reality headset. Thinking through what sets video games apart from the work of artists such as Ian Cheng, Ed Atkins, and Jordan Wolfson, he finds a gulf opening up between different attitudes to realism and the grotesque, avatars and the body, sex and violence. 

Approaching the Los Angeles Convention Center for E3, the world’s largest video game conference and trade show, one passes the strangely balletic sight of a man wearing a virtual reality headset, entranced, stepping gracefully through a tent and reaching out for things that are not there. He is lost in another world, he has forgotten where he was. Later, inside the Center’s great South Hall, I put on a headset myself and try a Guided Meditation VR relaxation app. After measuring my heartbeat through my fingertip it transports me into an autumnal woodland glade with gorgeous rays of light and a sort of dandelion fluff floating all around me, and a calm voice begins: “fear is like a hummingbird that lives inside of you.” At the end of the simulation the whole pastoral fantasy fades to black except for the rays of light and things floating in the sky and it looks amazing. The effect of virtual reality is surprising because it’s instantly and overwhelmingly immersive, much more so than any drug I’ve ever taken. It encourages a total suspension of disbelief, and I can’t help but think: you could really mess with someone’s mind in there.

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As Ingo Niermann recently wrote, here on Spike, “post-Internet art is basically psychedelic: the new digital media are perceived through the old analogue media of mind-altering substances. Both are cheap and don’t need more space than a mattress to make you trip into other worlds. Together, they could turn this mattress into a flying carpet. And they will, once art goes head-to-head with a fully equipped virtual reality. Art will go mental.” This is something to look forward to. Walking around the show I found myself wondering about the differences between video games and art that somehow takes the form or appearance of video games, and one distinction is that artists enjoy messing with the form and breaking it. This spring Ian Cheng released a mobile game with the Serpentine in which the player controls a corgi attempting to herd some sheep. He described it as “a shadowy mindfulness tool about refusing to eradicate stress and anxiety, and instead learning to deliberately setup and collaborate with those bad-feeling feelings.” The game is the opposite of the guided meditation: rather than dulling the hummingbird of fear, it releases the bad corgi of chaos. In video games and some strands of contemporary art practice an avatar is being manipulated, but in the former the player is in control and in the latter the artist is the puppet master: when playing Cheng’s game your corgi can become possessed, the meadows catch fire and stones explode, you can lose control completely and have to turn off your phone to try again.

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Ed Atkins can be considered another puppeteer, working with an off-the-shelf avatar and software that maps the movements of his own facial expressions onto that avatar. “A new world yawns open,” he told the New Yorker, describing the day that he first started using this process. “Sitting there, pulling faces to entertain myself with an avatar of me, a live feed? It’s like, ‘Oh, god, I could be trapped here,’ you know? This horrendous clinch between me and – me and what?” If Atkins is interested in the relationship between a person and an avatar, the spaces in-between, however, designers of virtual reality are more interested in hiding that relationship, in making something so compelling that we forget ourselves. But hiding that distance between our real and virtual bodies is hard: at the end of a demonstration of the Oculus Touch I find myself still wearing my headset when an assistant takes my glove-controllers off, and watch in confusion as my suddenly disembodied hands float away from me on a virtual mountainside. The horrendous clinch.

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Or let’s return to that strangely balletic sight of a man wearing a virtual reality headset, entranced, stepping gracefully through a tent and reaching out for things that are not there. He is a puppeteer and a puppet too, a subject in virtual reality and an object in downtown Los Angeles. On the surrounding monitors we can see what he’s seeing but we can also watch him dancing through the real world, even as he forgets it is there. We can watch him in both worlds as he, too, is caught in the clinch.

Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is so popular in video games and contemporary art because it’s the most complete form of representation of the imaginary available.

Character designers and artists are striving towards creating a computer-generated body that looks real, but to very different ends. One of the most important games released this year, Final Fantasy XV, looks extraordinary in its detail, just like one of those anime Louis Vuitton advertisements, except that you can control the avatars as magic crackles around them; the desired fantasy is of a convincingly photorealist take on a magical world. But art, having left realism behind in the 19th century, is now returning to it in search of the uncanny valley effect: in which something made by human beings looks like a human being but is not, and so induces revulsion and horror. An interest in the grotesque and the abject is apparent in Atkins’s animations of heads deflating and penises sliding through glory holes, in Jordan Wolfson’s dancing stripper, in Jesse Kanda’s twisted female body fingering herself and the warped, blushing skins of his overgrown babies.

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Also at E3, I stepped into a glossy white egg-shaped machine made by Estonian face-scanning company Wolfprint to have my face scanned. One day, the machine’s inventors hope, I’ll be able to paste it directly onto video game avatars and play as a perfect version of myself. But what is interesting is that, according to company COO Kaspar Tiri, nobody who plays video games wants their whole body scanned but only their face. He says they want different bodies, superhero bodies, and this rings true because whilst artists like to play with the grotesque, the heroes of video games have heroic bodies for fighting monsters and mutants – for vanquishing the grotesque. This violence against the grotesque is particularly striking because video games are about violence so much more than sex (and art is about sex so much more than violence), perhaps because they move towards us from the past, from the fantasies of our childhoods.

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Another thing about E3 is that the video game crowd is different from the art crowd: there was nothing out of the ordinary about encountering humongous sweaty dudes with homemade Mario fox ear hats, or four men sat quietly around a toy Velociraptor on a table in the sunshine, and everyone is much more polite and hesitantly spoken. It attracts the kind of outsiders that you won’t really find at an art fair, which brings to mind something Jaakko Pallasvuo posted about the opening of the Berlin Biennale, about “browsing endless feed of biennale status updates like ya, we get it: art has completed its transition into an ‘interesting career path’ for thousands of young, attractive and aggressively normal people, whose all-enveloping narcissism feels trite and ordinary in current attention economy… If the freaks and amateurs and sluts and weirdos have been pushed out, where do they go?”

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The different architecture of the trade show also tells a story. The art fair is bright and white, open and contemplative, charged with sexual desire and fascinated by the grotesque. It’s where the good-looking and wealthy go to contemplate the abyss and think about saving themselves. But the video game show is visually chaotic and messy, its illuminated screens glow in the dark and its dramatic lighting shifts through the magic (blue – purple – crimson) spectrum, its prevailing themes are escapism and heroic violence, and blood and guts and glory. Most of the biggest games are about saving a world, but it’s a make-believe world that is better than ours. Often they encourage us to disappear into that world completely – and, soon, we will be able to.

 

DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Los Angeles.