NMC Affiliate Panel, Panel Report: SLOW MOVES: Toward a Gaming Aesthetics of Inactivity

FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011

Melissa Ragona
Associate Professor of Art
Carnegie Mellon University

Chair: Melissa Ragona, Associate Professor of Art, Carnegie Mellon University
Panelists: Brody Condon, New York/Berlin based artist; Paolo Pedercini, Pittsburgh/Milan based artist, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art, Carnegie Mellon University; Joe McKay, New York-based artist, Assistant Professor of Art, Purchase College.Informed by cybernetics and information technology, most contemporary game theorists, players and programmers think of the video game as an action-based medium.  Action defines the “moves,” the various “plays” that occur across engines, users, and audiences.  Grammars of action have replaced fictions of interactivity as the prevailing aesthetic muscle of gaming drive and structure.  In contrast to the roller derby aesthetics of such games as Pain Station, [1] and Leg Shocker (2001-02), [2] many artists are reconfiguring fields of action as sites of relaxation, contemplation and affect.  This panel explored how ideas of player competition, user-positions, and interface performativity are being transformed by critical moves toward slowness, inactivity, relaxation and transparency.  Games like Sweet Pads (2004), [3] Massage Me (2007) [4] and Simmer Down Sprinter (2006) [5] are emblematic of this trend – in which only slow, tender, casual moves can kill one’s opponent or massages take the place of precise user activity.

An even larger arc, however, defined the trajectory of this panel and can best be articulated as an investigation into algorithmic performance.  Such work takes its cues from recent gaming history; the ambient, generative works of the early 1990s; and experimental performances in art during the 1960s and 70s, characterized by the work of Allan Kaprow.  He often described his “happenings” as games or adventures: “a number of activities engaged in by the participants for the sake of playing.” [6] In particular, Kaprow’s work, Household, was presented as paradigmatic of early algorithmic performance, presenting a sequence of events (as rules): “Men build wooden tower on a trash mound…Women build nest of saplings and strings on another mound.” [7] And using cliché-gendered behavior as further, almost mechanized instruction: “Women go inside nest and screech. Men go for smoking wreck [car], roll it into the dump, cover it with strawberry jam…Women go to car and lick jam.  Men destroy nest with shouts and cursing.” [8] Very much like the Live Action Role Playing (LARP) employed by Brody Condon—most recently in his work, Level5—Happenings were “performed according to plan, but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition.” [9] Condon’s LARP works, similar to Kaprow’s Happenings, look like art, but function more like life – spanning the gamut of affect: frustration, passion, anger, anxiety.  Kaprow, however, isn’t the only model for generative performance.  Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk and Trisha Brown have also created systems of rule-based activities that produced a host of aesthetic effects — both predictable and unexpected.  The panelists covered the span of this historical progression, but with a common focus on algorithmic inspired play as a move toward inactivity and, ultimately, inversion.

Paulo Pedercini started off by representing developments in radical play in both his own work and in the work of other artists.  In step with the work of Alex Galloway, Pedercini sees critical opportunities in working with First Person Shooter (FPS) game frames. [10] Most of his work is imbedded with an oblique critique of the military violence associated with FPS gaming structures.  He is more interested in the analytic nature of FPS perspectives, rather than their predatory impulses – but doesn’t shy away from aggressive moves. Thus, play is a critical, tactical force in his work. [11]

Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 2009, Paulo Pedercini, experimental game, video: Paulo Pedercini.

FPS violence is sometimes foregrounded as in his Machinima, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, only to be subverted by buttressing it against contradictory texts, i.e. he samples directly from recruiting games produced by the department of defense, and subtitles the images with phrases from a post-traumatic stress disorder checklist.  Likewise, in Queer Power http://www.molleindustria.org/en/queer-power Pedercini parodies blood-and-gore fighting games like Mortal Kombat (popularized in the 1990s) as Dionysian sex orgies. Fucking replaces fighting, and men morph into women (and vice versa).  Endlessly linked bouts of non-reproductive sex inspire more sensually productive actions, thus suggesting an erotic palindrome.  Similar disarmaments happen in Everyday the Same Dream http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html in which a Minimalist Deco office worker is looped from bed to corporate cubicle and back again.  The driving, ambient guitar soundtrack (by Jesse Stiles) produces a throb, hypnotizing the player into sheer groove.  Goalless and aimless, the game offers up a Frankfurt school narcotic of alienated labor and endless existential crisis.

Disarming the player through “play” is also a strategy of Joe McKay’s experimental game environments.  Influenced by the ambient works of experimental games of the early 1990s, McKay has created a series of works that apply what he’s learned as an artist working across sculpture, painting and performance, to gaming structures that take these media as their concept.  Color Game (2003) http://homepage.mac.com/joester5/art/#color  for instance, replaces pigment with light, parodying what he calls “the most boring thing you can do on a computer,” Photoshop.  It is basically a color balancing game—the first person to mix the “target color” is the winner.  New Yorker magazine has described it as Joseph Albers meets Nintendo. [12]

Color Game, 2003, Joe McKay, experimental game, image: Joe McKay.

Color Game, 2003, Joe McKay, experimental game, image: Joe McKay.

Sunset Solitaire (2005), http://homepage.mac.com/joester5/art/#sunset   a game for one participant, was initially played like Kaprow’s Household, without an audience.  Similar to the Color Game, it consists of gradient fields constructed with specially designed hardware that allows him to “mix the sunset live.”  An emergent piece (like the sunset it simulates), it was first projected onto a garage in a field behind his studio – moving from an over lit, unrealistic glare to almost complete darkness – a nod to the sunken sun or the game’s end.

Sunset Solitaire, 2005, Joe McKay, experimental game, image: Joe McKay.

Sunset Solitaire, 2005, Joe McKay, experimental game, image: Joe McKay.

The tension McKay creates between lived and simulated experience (i.e. mixing a color, watching a sunset), Brody Condon replicates in his most recent work, but within human behavior itself.  Condon’s Level5 (2010) and Line Up (After Trisha) (2011) are works informed by radically different rule-based projects, one being (Werner) Erhard Seminars Training, aka est (1971-84), and the other being the work of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (1970-present).  Level5 is an experimental live role-playing event loosely inspired by Large Group Awareness Training sessions like Erhard Seminars in which groups of people (up to 150 in a room) engage in “voluntary sharing” about everything from current self-image to early family trauma.

Level5, 2010, Brody Condon, performance, video: Brody Condon.

But the latter was tempered by precepts such as, “one’s interpretation of a past event is much more powerful than historical fact.” [13] In other words, self-actualization is here and now.  Simply by living in the moment, one can transform dysfunction and dissipate pain.  Condon borrowed from these structures for Level5, but used LARP strategies to construct a self-playing, self-styled transactional experience.  Though Condon explained that Level5 was not an actual self-actualization seminar, many of its participants, by donning fictional names and developing personas for themselves, claimed to have excavated some of their long-standing behavioral patterns more deeply than conventional participation might have allowed.  In a sense, the Live Action Role Playing identities acted as generating engines – churning out series of scenarios both real and imagined.  An algorithmic aesthetic arises out of the interaction between a given set of rules based on a role and the wild data presented by the people actually performing these roles. Since this takes place over a two day period (uninhibited by a live audience or any observers that exist outside the game), the effect is cumulative – psychological structures, even revelations, emerge over time that are not immediately apparent by simple character recognition. [14]

Line Up (After Trisha) is a cousin project to Level5: it takes its conceptual core from Trisha Brown’s Line Up series (1976-77), which consisted of several different pieces she performed over the years that were influenced by Minimalist and Conceptual practices in visual art and music composition (by artists such as Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg [with whom she directly collaborated], Steve Reich, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley).  Brown experimented with repetition, serialism, additive processes and phase shifting, just to name a few techniques, and translated these strategies into choreographic procedures.  For example, Brown’s Figure 8 is a phase shifting piece informed by Reich’s early phase experiments across magnetic tape (Come Out, 1966) and piano (Piano Phase, 1967).  In Come Out, Reich works with a single fragment of recorded sound and submits it to a playback process, whereby it gradually moves out of phase with itself.  In Figure 8 a metronome is used to direct the dancers; each one follows an eight-count measure with each arm. So, while one arm descends eight-one, the other arm ascends.  Each dancer’s slight variation of speed and interpretation pushes the movements of all dancers in and out of synchronization, creating a mesmerizing spectacle of stuttered cyclical movement. [15] Brown’s work is, in a sense, a visual phase shift.  Building on her work, which exhibits an almost algorithmic logic, Condon modeled Line Up (After Trisha).  In another section of Brown’s Line Up is a piece entitled Sticks, which directly informs Condon’s Line Up: five women form linear conjugations using long, wooden sticks to direct their movement and continuous connection to one another.  Similarly, in Condon’s Line Up, a group of dancers carry ten foot poles that must stay connected to one another at all times.  Their moves are circular and excruciatingly slow (as if they are mere cinematic representations of slow-motion technology.)

Line Up (after Trisha), 2011, Brody Condon, performance, video: Brody Condon

A certain kind of alienation from the audience is achieved by another rule: “viewers are regarded as ghosts on another plane of existence; they can be seen but not touched or spoken to.” [16] Accentuated by costumes designed by Rodarte, the dancers’ movements seem to be controlled from a force outside of them.  Thus, they appear more like celestial bodies in an ever-changing lunar constellation than earthbound performers.

Slow moves are not just the opposite of fast actions, but more about a certain kind of revealing, and uncovering (layer by layer) of the programmed routines that direct our lives, whether they be found in alienated work (as in Every Day the Same Dream); art market politics (assembly-line painting as in Color Game); straight-jacketed relations of gender, sexuality, class, race (Queer Power); or simply one’s programmed self (Level Five).  The notion of what is programmed – throughout the presented work – is connected to how systems of hard-wired behavioral response and networks of software actually have a lot more in common than previously thought.  Artists working in the 60s and 70s already had a sense of these relationships and experimented with generative performance as a conceptual study that could divorce production from representation.  In a sense, their cues were taken from mathematical and language-based models, precursors to contemporary gaming engines.  Slowing it down – as the impulse is in Pedercini, McKay, and Condon’s work – is a way of isolating, and thus examining more closely, the logic between organic and fabricated algorithms.

1. Pain Station (2001), by Tilman Reiff and Volker Morawe better known as the collaborative group “/////////fur////”, http://www.fursr.com/details.php?id=8&pid=
(accessed August 2011).
2. Leg Shocker (2002), by Tilman Reiff and Volker Morawe better known as the collaborative group “/////////fur////”,
http://www.fursr.com/details.php?id=26&pid= (accessed August 2011).
3. Sweet Pads (2004), by France Cadet,
http://cyberdoll.free.fr/cyberdoll/index_e_sweetpad.html (accessed August 2011).
4. Massage Me (2007), by Hannah Perner-Wilson and Mika Satomi,
http://www.talk2myshirt.com/blog/archives/507# (accessed August 2011).
5. Simmer Down Sprinter (2006), by Steve Lambert,
http://galleryad.com/past_exhibits/stevelambert06/index.html (accessed August 2011).
6. Dick Higgins, “The Origin of Happening,” American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (Autumn – Winter, 1976), 268
7. Allan Kaprow, “Household,” Some Recent Happenings, (New York: Something Else Press, 1966), 8
8.  Allan Kaprow, “Household,” 9
9.  Allan Kaprow, “Household,” 5
10. Alex Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)
11. Pedercini borrows his concept of “critical play” from Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009)
12. “What’s On,” New Yorker, July 4, 2003, 15
13. Wilma Stassen, “Inside a Landmark Forum Weekend,” Health24, 2008, http://www.health24.com/mind/Other/1284-1303, 47905.asp (accessed May 24, 2011).
14. For a more in depth discussion of Condon’s Level5 process, see Jennifer Krasinski, Character Development: Brody Condon’s Level5 and the Avant-LARP of Becoming Self, December 2010, http://www.eastofborneo.org/articles/27, (accessed May 24, 2011).
15. Hendel Teicher, Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002)
16. Brody Condon, Line Up (After Trisha), 2011, http://tmpspace.com/?page_id=108, (accessed May 2011).