Interview with Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Nideffer
BY NATE HARRISON
Nate Harrison is an artist and writer working at the intersection of intellectual property, cultural production and the formation of creative processes in electronic media. He has produced projects and exhibited for the American Museum of Natural History, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Kunstverein in Hamburg and Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, among others. He has also lectured at the Whitney Museum, Experience Music Project, Seattle and the University of Rochester, among others. In 1997 Nate founded the New York electronic music microlabel töshöklabs, which has been featured in publications such as XLR8R, URB and CMJ. He has also recorded for the CO.AD and Record Camp labels. Currently Nate co-directs the project space ESTHETICS AS A SECOND LANGUAGE (www.eslprojects.org). He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, a Master of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts, and is a doctoral student in Art and Media History, Theory and Criticism in the Department of Visual Arts at UC San Diego.
When Nate Harrison sat down to speak with two of the artists behind Playing the World(s) – Scalable Relations, it was appropriately in a virtual venue: Skype. The ensuing discussion was as much debate and commentary as it was a Q&A session.
NATE HARRISON [NH]: I’d like to start by saying that my own research involves appropriation art and intellectual property. In that sense, I am familiar with some of the ways software and gaming culture appropriates retro and current technologies, as WTF?! does – not only of Worlds of Warcraft (WoW), but also of Super Mario Brothers and also, I think, the older games like Moon Patrol. At the same time, I have to admit I am not much of a “gamer,” so in playing WTF?!, with its references to past and present games, but also in paying homage to modern thinkers like Marx, Einstein and Daly, who do you imagine your audience to be?
ROBERT NIDEFFER [RN]: To be honest I’d like to know the answer to that question too––I think one of the things we’d have to do is participant observation or evaluation of the people who play. To respond in general about who the intended audience is, I’m afraid I am not going to give you a very satisfying answer. The genesis of the game was really just a dialogue with my collaborator, Alex Szeto, which emerged between us being pretty hardcore WoW players at various times, and having a fascination with the game and its mechanics. And then I had my own critical interests in contemporary social theory. I wanted to try to introduce a different kind of dialogue into the context of a sort of parody of WoW, in the form of a Flash-based side scrolling game environment. I wanted to try to get in a little bit of game theory or critique in the context of the game itself.
I wasn’t really thinking, as we were developing the project, “who is the intended audience?” I was just thinking we’re having a heck of a lot of fun, we find it interesting, and we’ll throw it up [online] and see what kind of feedback we get. So we did that with the initial release of WTF?!, and we were pretty overwhelmed by the response. It got referenced in a number of popular Web sites and generated a lot of traffic––in fact our service provider still has us throttled, there is still so much traffic! I apologize if you had to wait a long time for stuff to download.
NH: No I didn’t, it downloaded pretty quickly.
RN: Oh good. Now what was interesting and I think a little frustrating, for both Alex and me, was that people across the board were really positive about the game play and the game mechanics, and how faithfully we reproduced that, and how fun and challenging it was to get to the end of the initial series of quests. But, there were maybe one or two critical responses that seemed to “get it,” that we were trying to talk about gaming in an intelligent way. I think that people did get captivated by the game play and the visual aesthetic and all of that, more than by what we were trying to “write into” the quest sequences, and some of the critique that was going on.
NH: Could you perhaps expand on that a little more? I am not exactly sure what your critique is, perhaps because I am not familiar enough with the history and state of WoW and related culture.
RN: Some of it is pretty simple––the idea of initial game quests dealing with thing like repetition, of “questing,” the constant killing, the things you do in the environment, the kind of mindless “grind” that is a part of a lot of these games. In an over-the-top, parodic way we tried to play with some of that. And then it moves from there to what might be a little deeper critique having to do with issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, economy, and how some of those things work in the context of massively multi-user game environments. Now, it might just be scratching the surface, because the original plan was to release a much longer, fuller, more extended version, but in any event, those were some of the issues we were trying to address.
NH: I have to say I got a little chuckle when I came across Gramsci in the game, and I did actually perform two of the Einstein quests, the sort of “physics tests,” which were really hard! But I did eventually figure them out.
RN: Well kudos to you because those were tricky, those two for Einstein were Alex’s special contribution; they’re fun when you get them, but they are tough.
NH: But I wondered in playing, if a user would think, “Hmm, what, after all, did Einstein do?” or “I’m not that familiar with his research, so after this quest, maybe I will try to go learn more about Einstein,” or something like that. I wonder of the efficacy of including the historical characters in these kinds of quests.
RN: I think I understand what you’re getting at; certainly with the initial release, and perhaps in future releases, I don’t know that I would try, in the way you might with an academic book, to go into depth biographically, theoretically, conceptually, philosophically, in regards to the figures, but rather remain in the realm of the playful and parodic. I hope this would pique people’s curiosity, so they may go off and say, “Well who was this Gramsci character?” and do a little bit of study on their own. But when it becomes overly didactic, or too overtly educational – and a lot of serious games do that – I don’t find them fun at all. They become something else. I think we worked really hard to retain that sense of fun, but hopefully not to the exclusion of at least introducing some of these more complicated or critical perspectives.
ANTOINETTE LaFARGE [AL]: If I can jump in for a second, I beta-tested WTF?! and I really enjoyed using it for all the reasons Robert describes. I also think one of the things it does exceptionally well is complicate the range of player reactions to a bunch of computer-generated characters. Famously in game development, the Holy Grail was always the game that “could make people cry,” instead of being just cute or fun or something. What I find funny is that WoW is filled with Druid quest givers who break down weeping all the time over one tragedy or another, and they are just comical. It’s very hard to do that kind of thing well; a number of the quest givers in WTF?! can actually be very irritating if you don’t share the point of view they’re putting forth. The ones I am particularly thinking about are the women with their feminist viewpoints, which I would think would be quite irritating to some players but similarly would be greeted by other players––some female players––with a certain joy: “Oh good, not another guy sending me out to rescue some girl in trouble,” which is the quest model you’ve seen over and over. So even if they irritate you, they engage you. The running back and forth actually has the same dynamic as the running back and forth of an argument. And yet, as Bob said, it is really fun to play. It’s not didactic, it’s done with a very light touch, and I think that’s extremely difficult to do.
NH: Forgive me for possibly opening up a can of worms here, but what I am hearing from you two is that a big part of this is its enjoyment as a game. How do you think about that in terms of whether or not this should be called an “art project,” how it functions in a gallery setting, even if it’s a new media-type gallery setting? I am trying to contrast this with the way that I first experienced the game, which was online. How do you think about this being considered as an art project?
RN: I don’t think I am going to try to get too deeply into what is and what is not art, other than to say that from my own motivation and method, and the way I have produced and distributed work, it’s probably fairly obvious that gallery, museum, or other institutional contexts, those affiliated with a capital-A ‘Art World,’ have never been a motivation for me. If opportunities come up, of course I am not philosophically against it. It’s another opportunity to get something out to another public. For me, as I have been interested in what’s often called Net Art or Net Culture since my graduate student sociology days in the late 1980s and early 90s, and then when browsers came about in the mid-90s and things started to happen, that was “the public.” I was interested in engaging and putting stuff out, and that continues to be the case. Whether or not people call it art, I am in the context of an art department at a university as an art professor, so I guess that confers some sort of legitimacy on me to a public, allows me to say what I do counts as art.
AL: I think it’s also important to remember that a great deal of what ends up in galleries and museums was never intended to be there in the first place, whether you’re talking about Flemish altar pieces or 3,000-year-old Inuit tools. So there are really two reasons to put something in a space like that. One is for the access issues that Bob mentioned, although that’s less important for something that lives online. The other reason is to have it in a physical context with other things of different kind, so they can be experienced in a group setting. I don’t think the value of that should be forgotten.
RN: When I was talking with [Scalable Relations curator] Christiane Paul, a curator at the Whitney for a number of years now––she showed some stuff I did in the 2002 Biennial––it was really interesting because a number of people she had included had a very different engagement or interest even in attending something like the Whitney show. Historically the Whitney has been the American show, and people would sell tickets on eBay. It was a big deal to get into and to go to, to be part of. But for that community that I was part of, it just wasn’t. A lot of us didn’t even end up going to the opening. Not that it wasn’t a wonderful opportunity, but it was just a different type of relationship.
AL: I also have this problem with my work. For the last ten years at least, most of it has started out as live, “hybrid reality” performances, using network performers and real-space performers. So the initial and intended experience is for people in a particular physical space and possibly an online space as well. Well what do I do then? I am left with documentation that no museum or gallery will show. Nobody wants to look at theatrical documentation, period. In effect, what that means is that for every project I do, I have to do two projects, where the second is I re-perform for the camera and then do something with the video, because video is a more portable medium and something they understand better. But in the end the gallery installation will really only bare a minimal resemblance to the original theatrical version of the piece. Another problem is that the work doesn’t really exist within the realm of the collectible either. It’s a problem I have not solved, and that a lot of new media artists have not solved. The earlier video artists who went on to fame, like Bill Viola and his ilk, they didn’t solve the problem either, until 25 years later, when museums decided they could buy the DVDs and put them in their archives.
NH: Perhaps there was enough historical distance: the documentation of past performances had enough of distance?
AL: So there was that sense of historical value, yes.
NH: Maybe it’s just a case where not enough time has gone by yet!
AL: Yes––remember too, a lot of those people were working off grants, they weren’t making any money off this, they weren’t performing in big venues.
RN: That’s actually a great transition to the point I was going to make, which is that there is a reason a lot of us find ourselves in academia, as instructors. It’s a different relationship that we have. A lot of times, if you had ended up in the university as an artist, it was perceived as a failure, you weren’t “making it out in the world.” But for a lot of us, given our practice, what we need access to in terms of equipment, resources, and people to collaborate with, the university is probably one of the best places we could end up.
NH: Changing topics slightly,in WTF?!, did you seek permission to appropriate the forms of Moon Patrol and Super Mario, or WoW for that matter? I imagine the creators of WoW, it generating a relatively new subculture based around a concept of community and the sort of DIY ethos in much of techno-culture, might be a little more lax in “putting its foot down,” as it were, on derivative works like WTF?!. On the other hand, I know that manufacturers of arcade “classics” seek to prevent any of their games’ re-use outside of legal licensing regimes. Does this worry you at all? Am I making a big deal out of nothing?
RN: Of course the issue of appropriation in art is huge. In terms of my own practice, I started really moving back into the arts, into media and computers, net art, etc., with my dissertation. I was doing an analysis of the Gulf War in the early 90s as a CD-ROM title. So I’d collected about an hour and a half of video, tons of images, all kinds of sounds, scanned in thousands of academic articles I was referencing; all that was part of this thesis. There was a lot of interest with publishers at the annual meetings, but none of them would touch it, because they realized it would have been a quarter of a million dollars to get the licensing to produce something that would sell to maybe 5,000 people if they were lucky. And my master’s thesis in the arts was called the “Fine Art of Appropriation,” and used all kinds of found materials. So, in the end, I think about it, but I don’t really worry about it. Now maybe I should; I am interested in hearing what Antoinette has to say, because she has been doing a lot of deep thinking about it. I kind of stopped at the point where, “I’m able to parody, or a kind of critique, and I’m not making profit from it.” I have the comfort of a university position that pays me, so I’ve never worried about profiting from my projects, so I figured that would be enough, that would get me out of any potential quagmires. I have certain philosophical positions about this stuff, like with the war, I was being bombarded with this stuff, why couldn’t I grab some of that stuff and bring it into my dissertation? With WTF?! I’ve got gigabytes of WoW data sitting on my hard drive just to play the game; so why can’t I, like other people doing machinima, mine that data, and recycle it, reuse it, rework it for my own project? I was actually talking at Blizzard (the creators of WoW) the other week and mentioned the project, and so far nothing has really happened.
NH: I remember ten or so years ago when emulation software first started coming out, I would get emails from friends about the Commodore 64 emulator, or the Atari 2600 emulator, and I downloaded them and all the old-school games, and I loved it! But almost as soon as the ROM images (the games) were online, they were gone.
RN: They were there for a little while. Actually I had a student burn me a DVD with all the games on it. I’m still looking for it!
NH: Of course, Atari and Nintendo realized, “Hey wait a minute, we have this whole untapped market of nostalgia users now.” And of course the following Christmas my brother showed me this officially sanctioned, new-school Atari 2600, which had all the games already built into it.
AL: I’m a strong ‘copyleft’ person myself. I think it’s clear the copyright regime as it exists today is way out of whack with actual practice. It’s not good when ordinary citizens’ habits are criminalized to such a degree. It’s also counterproductive in so many ways. So it’s always an issue in my work, in particular this one that I just finished, the Rapture piece. I did screen captures of a lot of game play, and then used those to create machinima videos that were the entire set of the piece. So for an hour, the entire visual field is composed of appropriated game imagery. There is something of a fair-use argument, and of course the piece is strongly critical of the game from which we borrowed, in a number of different ways. The level of appropriation is such that it’s questionable if that would really save us if somebody really wanted to come after us. My approach to this whole thing has been to be reasonable about what I take and not just plunder meaninglessly: it has to be important to the piece, and there’s no question that the piece is mostly mine, the appropriation is just a fraction of what the gestalt is. But I’m also a lot more careful than Bob is, in the sense that in the run-up to a piece like this, my strategy has been to conceal the extent to which I am appropriating. I was careful not to use the machinima imagery heavily in our publicity before the performance, because what was most important was for me not to be shut down. I knew that if I could have the piece happen, then it couldn’t be undone; I really believe in the fait accompli with these things, that once they’re done and can be released out onto the Internet, you’re never going to be able to call it back. And these people can sue me from now until Tuesday, but they don’t have anything they can take because I’m not rich. I ultimately don’t worry about the consequences any more than Bob does, but I’m a good deal more careful not to make for the possibility of preemptive strikes, particularly in this case because it was a Christian game based on the Left Behind books, and the people behind those books and that particular aspect of Rapture theology are pretty bloody-minded! There was a huge controversy over the game even before it came out, and so it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had decided to come after me. They are clearly not “live and let live” types.
NH: This segues nicely into my next question for you Antoinette. A major theme of your work is religion, and in particular the fundamentalist strain of Christianity which involves some element of Rapture prophecy. Why did you pick this topic? I think it’s interesting to focus a lot of global anxieties right now (the environment, the economy, terrorism, etc.) into the single dimension of religion/Rapture. Yet I imagine that for some, even to try to address the Rapture in anything other than its own discourse, is a sign of some degree of “non-believing,” which may come across as offensive in that it trivializes it. For instance, it conflates video aesthetics and youth culture with the “end times.” Could you share your thoughts on this? Perhaps I could also provide some additional context: this exhibit is taking place at UC San Diego, which is in an area that is not only near to U.S. Navy and Marine Corps bases, but is also, demographically speaking, fairly conservative and religious. And you are speaking to us from a similar place, Orange County. There is the very real possibility that students or others who see the installation in the gallery@calit2 will be strong believers. How do you imagine a hardcore believer reacting to your work?
AL: I should start out by saying that I am not a Christian myself. I wasn’t raised in any religion, but I take religion very seriously. I have been interested in Rapture Theology for quite a long time, because I find that the central images are incredibly vivid, the idea of being snatched from earth, being freed from its travails, is very powerful. When I started looking into it, I discovered it’s actually a very strongly American flavor of theology. It was born in the United Kingdom, but it really took off here in the States, and has never taken off to such a degree anywhere else. So I was wondering: What is it about the American Protestant mentality that made it so hospitable to Rapture theology? I discovered the Rapture game quite by accident. It is set in a post-Rapture, post-apocalyptic New York, where the people who are left behind have to decide whether they’re going to play on the side of the Antichrist, or fight the Antichrist and try to get another chance at salvation. It’s a real-time strategy game, but it’s not a very interesting game, it’s very boring. As one reviewer said, “It’s not bad theology, it’s bad game play.”
NH: Is there some notion of a “second chance” in Rapture Theology?
AL: Oh yes, there are four or five flavors of Rapture Theology, all of which articulate differently when exactly the Rapture happens, when and how the Millennium happens, and when and how the Second Coming happens. There are no agreements on any of these, because they are based on interpretations of vaguely phrased Biblical passages. But essentially at some point, if you fight on the side of good, after the Rapture, when Christ returns for (I guess) a “Third Coming,” then anyone who shows themselves to be doing a “much better job” will get a second chance.
I actually do take this seriously, and I think the piece reflects that. It’s essentially a long argument between the two gamers over theology and the game, over good and evil, and of course at the same time, they’re trying to beat each other. But I don’t think you can look at this piece and think it’s trivializing: you may disagree with what one character or the other is saying, because we put a lot of different opinions in people’s mouths. But I think that anyone who is involved in serious Christianity in America ends up having at least discussions, if not arguments, with somebody somewhere along the line, because we are a culture with many different, competing beliefs.
NH: Part of why I asked the question was my very lucid realization, upon starting to teach at UCSD, that a good number of my students were fairly right-wing, conservative and very religious. When having to write papers about evolution or abortion, they took very extreme positions.
AL: I find that certain kinds of issues, deeply emotional ones, you can only go so far with argument. You can only convince people so far with logic. Especially since belief is not subject to logic––it’s an a-rational process. So the piece is actually very poetic, elusive, and elliptical. It tries to plunge you inside the issues, taking you from the worst kind of violence to the kind of exaltation and the ecstasy that must be behind some of the attraction of the Rapture. In a way this piece is very experiential, in a way that games and theater have in common. Trying to make it experiential for the audience, we tried to get them to step outside there beliefs and be inside the subject in a slightly different way. I remember one night in Baltimore where we premiered the piece, this woman came up to me afterwards in tears. In turned out that she was raised a Christian and had been grappling with all the issues in the piece unsuccessfully, talking to her pastor and so one. I think there were some big life issues at stake; from something she said, there was an impression that either she or someone in her family was really sick. She said that this piece had been cathartic, had helped her to reach a point, not a conclusion, but a point where she could go on. That’s the kind of experience I am always hoping to generate, and it’s hard because you just can’t touch that many people that deeply. But that’s the sort of thing that this kind of work can do that 100 arguments on National Public Radio cannot do, however valuable they are in their own way.
NH: Could you say just a little bit more about the difference between this video installation and the original theatrical version of the piece?
AL: The original piece was an hour long, and consisted of about 15 short episodes. So for the installation what we’re doing in San Diego, we decided to foreground the “duel” nature of this piece. We’re taking excerpts that, when they’re chained together, will show the arc of the piece, but will last no more than 10 minutes, because as Christiane said, three minutes of video is all people will watch in a gallery. We divided it up with two monitors for each of the two players, which are immersed within the projections. We have sort of recreated the set of the theatrical piece, so you can get a little flavor of the intensity of the relationship.
NH: I think I’ve exhausted my questions. Thanks, Robert and Antoinette, for enduring them. I look forward to seeing the exhibit!