Simulation: the weblog


A worthwhile digital art gallery

Furtherfield were represented at the London Games Festival, rather forlornly displaying a gigantic joystick which you could actually use to control a game. Families seemed to like it, but while I was there at least, true gamers seemed to ignore it. But what is art? what are games?

Furtherfield are a London-based internet site, linked with a gallery called HTTP. Furtherfield "creates imaginative strategies that actively communicate ideas and issues in a range of digital & terrestrial media contexts; featuring works online and organising global, contributory projects, simultaneously on the Internet, the streets and public venues. Furtherfield focuses on network related projects that explore new social contexts that transcend the digital, or offer a subjective voice that communicates beyond the medium. Furtherfield is the collaborative work of artists, programmers, writers, activists, musicians and thinkers who explore beyond traditional remits."

HTTP "is London's first dedicated gallery for networked and new media art. Working with artists from around the world HTTP provides a public venue for experimental approaches to exhibiting artworks simultaneously in physical and virtual space, and for online projects that explore participative and collaborative art practice."

What they actually displayed at the LGF included:
- a giant working joystick by Mary Flanagan that you could use to control some fairly retro video games. ("the work invites players to collectively play classic arcade games and explores ideas of collaboration and individual agnecy in public game play...")
- the Golden Shot - "employs the strategies of media, iconic and semantic transformation and the re-use of a form of mass entertainment from the history of television to establish a critical praxis of interactive media art....reflects the hypocrisies inherent in the paradigm of globally totalising media industries.."
- The Endless Forest. "You are a stag, a male deer. So are the other players. You meet each other in an endless forest on the internet. The setting is idyllic, the atmosphere peaceful. You communicate with one another through sounds and body language...The Endless Forest is a social screensaver, a virtual place where you can play with your friends. When your computer goes to sleep you appear as a deer in this magical place. There are no goals to achieve or rules to follow. You just steer your deer through the forest and see what happens....Although not goal-oriented, there are several activities that you can engage in. Nothing very demanding or violent. Just fun things to do in a nice environment."

Hmm. I find myself asking 'but IS IT ART?' (and then asking 'but is it a game?') (or even is it really social criticism?)

There's this whole complex of ideas out there. Some of them appear at trade exhibitions, some in art galleries, some as games. Some are developed by the Israeli Defence Forces. Some are discussed at user groups for esoteric computer languages. Some appear on O'Reilly Radar as new Web 2.0 businesses, but most of these seem to be exactly the same as the others. (A mashup of Google earth, Flickr and 37 Signals which you can access through your mobile phone... see this brilliant satire on the phenomenon.) None are quite 'art' in the old sense, many of them aren't really great games, very very few of them will ever be great businesses, and I still maintain that the IDF MOUT tactics are less clever than they think, and that psycho-geography sounds great on paper but is no replacement for the London A to Z.

I unfairly asked in a recent posting if some piece of new technology would have been art if it had been done in an art gallery rather than a trade fair. That's unfair because a new idea is a new idea wherever it happens, and sometimes it takes an artist to have really good new idea. But I sometimes feel we're too caught up in playing with the technology to actually use it. It's as if Brunelleschi, having invented perspective, had then spent his career doing more and more outlandish perspective drawings, just because he could.

Technology is coming up with some incredible new ideas, but we just can't seem to use them properly. Every so often someone comes up with a 'killer app', but not enough yet. The spreadsheet. The dynamic website/ database combination. The first MMORPG. EBay. Google. C'mon, guys.

If I sound overly critical I'm sorry, but this all matters to me. At least, Furtherfield and HTTP are clearly worth watching. They're non-profit and therefore perhaps more open to ideas.

As a coda, I think there's a real problem with the approachability of digital art: it requires time and effort, much like learning a new software package. (but often the opposite of WYSIWIG!). Of the pieces on the Furtherfield site
- Facade, an AI based drama in which I can interact with intelligent players, seems as if it's going to take me a whole evening.
- Rosalind doesn't work ("CGIWrap Error: Script Execution Failed")
- I don't quite see what Andy Dick's 'Lexicon' is supposed to do. Interesting idea, but whatever words I select, the maze doesn't seem to alter much.
This is not to criticise Furtherfield. But approachability is an issue. Ultimately somebody should like it enough to want to buy it (ok, you may have to log in free to play it on their server, but you know what I mean.) It's partly a marketing problem: how do you sell a complex piece of software - even if 'sell' just means 'get people to spend a few minutes trying it out'. Or am I missing the point?

Next weekend I'm going to the Frieze art fair: interesting to see what digital art (if any) the commercial art world can offer. And also absolutely great to live just outside London: where else could you see so much?


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