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August 9, 2001

The Art World Starts to Pay Attention to Video Games


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Jeff Topping for The New York Times
Jon Haddock, makes gamelike re-creations of scenes captured in well-known photographs.

Marissa Roth for The New York Times
Miltos Manetas created a video sequence in which the game figure Lara Croft repeatedly dies.

SAN FRANCISCO -- THERE she was again. Lara Croft, the virtual character who has conquered the video game world, has appeared on magazine covers and has even been portrayed on film by Angelina Jolie, was up there on a big screen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But this film loop showed her dying as she was pierced by arrows and then dying, and dying again, endlessly.

It wasn't a side of Lara Croft that publicists dream of showing the public, but rather "Flames," a 1997 work by Miltos Manetas, a Greek-born artist based in New York and Los Angeles who makes prints, paintings and video loops based on video games.

Mr. Manetas is far from alone in his endeavors. A global assortment of media artists, hackers, gamers and social activists have been using the video game medium for years to engage a younger, hipper audience, and museums have begun to take notice.

Jon Haddock's Screenshots, a series of gamelike re-creations of famous journalistic photographs, made it into the recent "BitStreams" show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. An exhibition called "Game Show" is under way at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. And a three-day "ArtCade" show last month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art displayed game modifications next to vintage arcade games and presented a provocative panel discussion of artists and game-design pioneers.

"ArtCade" included playable works of art like Thomson & Craighead's "Trigger Happy," a Space Invaders-style game in which players fire at words from Michel Foucault's 1977 essay "What Is an Author?" The founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, who kicked off the video game craze nearly 30 years ago with Pong, was the lead speaker, and some of his early creations, including the Pong Console No. 47 arcade model from 1972, were on display.

Mr. Bushnell said he did not believe that a good game had to rely on good art: building tension is more important. But other panelists were critical of the video game business for its reliance on game formulas like first-person shooter, third-person perspective and fantasy role-playing.

"I see things in modern art that I'd like to see in video games," said Lev Manovich, a writer, artist and associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego. "Different points of view, subjectivity of characters besides the first person, the sophisticated design of modern architecture. Why do games have level designers but they ignore modern architecture?"

If mainstream game designers have not yet woken up to modern art, artists have certainly warmed to the video game platform, especially the free game-building tools that are shipped with bloody action games like Quake, Half-Life and Unreal. Just as girls in the mid-1990's quickly adopted Quake "skins" allowing them to modify the game's main character so they could play as women, artists have found that they can bring their own agendas to games to subvert traditional game rules.

Artists say they like the sense of space conveyed by video games and the way the games draw the participant into the field of action. Now that the video game business and its icons have become part of the American cultural landscape, they say, they can use such imagery to critique elements of contemporary society like violence or consumerism.

"More and more artists are becoming aware of the tools available to them offered by game software," said Anne-Marie Schleiner, who teaches digital art and was the curator of the online exhibition "Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-Ins and Patches as Hacker Art" in 1999. "A younger generation of artists are coming of age who have always played games and reject the barrier imposed between fine art and games."

Museums, for their part, see video games as a medium that encourages visitors to interact with art at a fundamental level.

"Museums are followers," said Mr. Manetas, the New York artist, in an e-mail message. "Digital is fashionable, and they also hope to attract sponsors and public."

But he added: "They are also like mothers who want to play Doom with their son, hoping to communicate with him. They just ruin the game."

Whatever museums may have done to the game, they have expanded the playing field, bringing artists the kinds of commissions and recognition that are hard to come by in online venues. Mr. Manetas, for example, now has work on view in the "My Reality" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Will Wright, the lead designer of the hugely successful SimCity and Sims game series, emphasized in the panel discussion that game designers need to think outside the box and stop trying to reproduce reality down to the last detail. He said that designers should create alternative worlds, and that in that sense the game industry had much to learn from the art world.

Last year was a banner year for the video game maker Maxis, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, because of the success of the Sims, in which players can control the lives, homes and relationships of virtual people. Mr. Haddock, the Phoenix artist, had never played the game but was intrigued by its promotional material. He created his Screenshots series by using Photoshop to give a Sims-style isometric view of well- known and sometimes violent images or events like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Mr. Haddock's work has been shown in Seattle galleries and at Arizona State University as well as in the Whitney's "BitStreams" exhibition last spring.

Mr. Wright described the images inspired by his video game "cool in a creepy way"; the Whitney show's curator, Lawrence Rinder, said that they provoked reflection on the roles of violence, entertainment and memory in society. The artist himself said that the Sims was the ideal vehicle for exploring intellectual rights and copyright issues. Other Screenshots works portray scenes like the Rodney King beating, the Columbine school shootings, the car crash in which the Princess of Wales died and the picnic scene from "The Sound of Music."

Although such works by Mr. Haddock, 40, have drawn a lot of attention, their public nature in some ways limits the potential payoff. Anyone can print out the images from his Web site and frame them without compensating him. He works as a property manager and handyman to help support his wife and two young children.

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