Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ah, but is it art?

It's difficult to understate the influence of video games on the day-to-day culture in East Asia, where a dude might feasibly bring his date out for a romantic night at the arcade, and where one may spend the majority of one's waking (or even non-waking) life in a reclining plush seat at the local internet cafe. In Korea, Starcraft is a fixture in the cultural firmament, with all of the televisual and commercial trappings of professional sport. Word has it that after spending 12 stultifying hours in World of Warcraft earning XP and gold for lazy Western gamers, workers at Chinese gold-farming firms will routinely stagger home to fire up WoW with their own avatars. Some poor bastard even died of exhaustion in a Taiwanese internet cafe, after god knows how many hours and weeks and months of prioritizing games over his health.

So it was probably only a matter of time before games got some kind of nod from the high-brow establishment, such as Taipei MOCA's exhibit of concept artwork from the archives of Blizzard, indeed the very Blizzard of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo fame. Mind you, these aren't exactly the art games or experimental stuff coming out of the indie developer scene, or even the type of semi-pretentious middle-brow fare, the Bioshocks or Red Dead Redemptions or Icos, that mainstream game criticism loves to allude to every five or so paragraphs. They are just really well-made pop confections, not so much Mozart or jazz as they are the Beatles, and even then they're not so much the Beatles as they are basically high-grade digital cocaine.

At the start of the MOCA exhibit, there was a large cardboard poster-type thing that described in rough terms the ongoing debate over whether video games ought to be considered art. Quite predictably, it took a beeline straight toward the old saw about how the semantics of the word "art" are historically and/or culturally bound and thus subject to reinterpretation, blah blah blah. This was all horseshit. I've long been annoyed by how quickly how critics and commentators from all quarters are willing to throw down the Floating Signifier card, as if art was merely whatever we wanted it to be. This line of argument leaves us without any criteria to distinguish between games that have artistic merit, and games that do not, and as such it basically torpedoes any meaningful theorizing about games as a creative medium.

At any rate, the MOCA exhibit was an attempt to answer the "Are games art?" question in what's probably the stupidest possible manner, which was to throw a frame around some concept drawings and call it a day. Admittedly, Blizzard hires extremely talented craftspersons who know how to draw a badass-looking robot with guns and tits, but the fact that games contain cool static images is pretty far removed from what actually makes games interesting qua art, which is to say the interactivity or narrative or metaphorical gameplay or even if you will a vague kind of multimedia mis-en-scene.

It was thus that I strolled through the MOCA hallways with a smugly-raised eyebrow, taking pictures of people taking pictures of the art.

In its own weird way, though, the Blizzard exhibit served pretty nicely as a satire of modern museum culture. Consider the familiar curatorial tricks in play:
  • Expensive frames around the artwork
  • Moody lighting
  • Darkened rooms with rotating projectors displaying the idle animations of life-sized game characters
  • Galleries with piped-in video, background music, and audio taken from the actual games
  • Wall-mounted essays filled with bullshit artspeak exposition
You could say the whole thing was a well-executed, high-concept trailer for Starcraft II and Diablo III. The advertising aspect of it was hard to ignore. And yet I found myself constantly reminded of a question straight out of Postmodernism 101: is a building regarded as a "museum" because it houses works of art, or are certain objects regarded as works of "art" because they are housed in a museum? I'm talking Duchamps's urinal here.

The question becomes especially compelling when you consider that the other exhibit on display at the MOCA, a collection of works involving thermometers by a Japanese fellow with decidedly more traditional aesthetic bonafides, was presented in much the same way as the Blizzard concept art, with all the trick lighting etc. etc., and was arguably just as bullshitty, albeit without the obvious profit motive.

The one aspect of the Blizzard exhibit that struck me as truly artistic was the gallery of fan-created art, which besides being far less stylistically monotone than Blizzard's own archival stuff, actually seemed to be about something human. In those drawings were interpretation and parody and humor and, indeed, love; to observe the fan art was to learn something about someone, even if that something was the fact that some dude out there really, really loved Warcraft.

Out with Zhaoqin at the Wall, the one identifiably hipsterish hangout that I have encountered in Taipei. I've never seen anything quite like it: there's a long hallway with a coffee bar, record store, tattoo parlor, and sofas, and then at the end, there's a big door that leads to a stage and a dance floor. Now, if only the tickets for shows weren't so overpriced, they'd really have something special going on.

I dragged a handful of my cousins out to see a show featuring a few Japanese bands, including Shonen Knife as the headliner. It was a pricey ticket, around NT$1300, and none of my cousins had much of an idea of what a rock show was like. Regardless of how much of a music dweeb you are, your impression of the first few shows you attend are going to be dominated by physical sensations, not all particularly pleasant, e.g., how tired you were from all that standing, how you were afraid of getting sucked into the mosh pit, and how unbelievably fucking loud a band sounds over a PA. But after years of dragging cautious neophytes to rock shows, I realize that I've become inured to the sense of guilt and concern over whether the people I've brought along are actually having a good time.

We didn't end up staying for Shonen Knife; in fact it was me who suggested that we leave two songs into the fourth band's set. By that time I felt like I'd more or less gotten the point. The third band to play, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, was an immensely bizarre combination of incredible stage presence (really, the best I've ever seen, and that's saying something), awesome riffs, somewhat dodgy song structure, and a horrible, awful, cheapening, regrettable, we-are-all-now-dumber-for-it band name. The latter served to renew my despair over Asian culture's infatuation with the English language, which is no more intense and despair-inducing than when it is applied to pop music.

The real gem of the evening ended up being the first band, a local shoegazey post-rock group called Boyz & Girl. They sounded like Sonic Youth, if Sonic Youth made songs with only three chords and had the singer from Deerhoof. The songwriting and the arrangements were impeccably tasteful. I really had no idea that Taipei could generate bands this good, because, I mean, in the first place, where do they play? It's hard for me to imagine how a city with only a couple of viable small-scale venues can sustain an indie rock scene, but it somehow manages.


  1. good post, jeff-o. i found the videogame stuff particularly interesting. i think if there's any artistry in something like world of warcraft, it must lay in the world itself, which, of course, is completely lost when you take a snapshot of a monster and put a gilded frame around it. in my mind, that is like taking a sentence or two from a novel and reading it to a crowd. well, okay. that's nice. but in your excerpting, you've done just that. pardon me... but where's the rest?

  2. I think you could glean artistic value and meaning out of a novel reading, just as I think you could viably make a gallery of movie stills or album covers. But I mean the Blizzard/MOCA thing was clearly being sold (and consumed) as proof of the artness of games at large, and in the first place what was inside the frames was pretty unimaginative and boring, sorta like the Kinkade for the male teenage id.

    Which is not to say that those drawings weren't cool on a certain level, or that they didn't take talent or effort to create, but I don't think there's an A-for-effort in this conversation.

  3. Really enjoying your photos. Looks like you got a natural eye for it!