I realized the moment I fell into the fissure that the Book would not be destroyed as I had planned. It continued falling into that starry expanse, of which I had only a fleeting glimpse. I have tried to speculate where it might have landed, but I must admit that such conjecture is futile. Still, questions about whose hands might one day hold my Myst book are unsettling to me. I know my apprehensions might never be allayed, and so I close, realizing that perhaps the ending has not yet been written. -- Atrus

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Review and Defense of the Video Games Collection of the Applied Design Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art

I am not a scholar of Modern Art; I study ancient Egypt.  However, I am very fortunate to be a student at a prestigious school, New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and I have presumed that at some level it qualifies me to write a review on the new and, in some ways, controversial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: Applied Design.

The exhibition first became known to me via the CyanWorlds website, Cyan Worlds being the company behind the Myst franchise.  Yes Myst, that game from the ‘90s.  Founders -- and brothers --  Rand and Robyn Miller first released the best-selling adventure game Myst in 1993 on CD-ROM, the first time that medium was used for computer games.  It was a pretty big deal.  This year marks Myst's 20th anniversary during which time a Myst "sub-culture" has emerged.  I could not have been more ecstatic to see it acknowledged before the world that Myst is more than just a game.  Myst is now displayed in an eminent museum -- a sign of world-wide and world-recognized cultural impact.

Myst Island from the computer game Myst (1993)
What made the news all the more exciting to me was the fact that the exhibition is in the Museum of Modern Art of New York City, a city I am lucky enough to be living in currently.  The game is part of an exhibition called "Applied Design", curated by Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design.  She had selected 14 ground-breaking (in their time) video/computer games to display as part of the other pieces already on display in the Architecture and Design collection.  Now, when I first read about this I thought the heavens had opened and that hitherto unrecognized forms of art were elevated overnight to sophistication.  "It's about damn time," I told myself.  SimCity 2000, Pac-Man, Tetris, Portal, to name a few, are also part of the collection, an interactive collection at that, and as I passed among the museum audience as they listened to the games via the available headphones or played the games (I watched one little girl no older than 9 play Portal -- that was cool!  See image below), I felt nostalgic.  

Girl playing Portal (2007) at the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Photo by Briana C. Jackson
A memory floated back to me that I didn't realize still lingered in my brain of how in Middle School we were rewarded after finishing our typing lesson with time to play SimCity 2000.  Summers at home were spent building cities, feeling a sense of satisfaction when I could finally build that airport and see airplanes zooming across the computer screen.  Then I remembered another summer I played SimFarm and how I would allow myself to devour a Pixy Stix only after I harvested a good crop of strawberries.  I was quite moved by the display of SimCity 2000 because a huge wall displayed tiles of screenshots while beside it a video screen played segments of gameplay.  To me, this was a beautiful thing.

Cell phone photo of the wall featuring screenshots of SimCity 2000  (1994), part of the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Photo by Briana C. Jackson
View of the wall featuring screenshots of SimCity 2000 (1994) with the video of the game, part of the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Photo by Briana C. Jackson
A better, brighter image someone posted online is below (sorry for stealing, but also thank you for producing such a wonderful image):

View of the wall featuring screenshots of SimCity 2000 (1994) with the video of the game, part of the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
This wall draws your eye immediately you step into the collection.  It's not right in front of you, mind.  In fact, it's rather tucked away, but amid all the white you catch this flash of color in the corner of your eye and you are drawn to the display.  I then, of course, made a beeline for the Myst display.  Like SimCity 2000, you can't play Myst, probably because of the narrative aspect with Myst and the strategy required for SimCity 2000.

Like a shining beacon, Myst lured me.  I had to wait and hop around in anxiety while a man listened to the music (accessed by means of headphones) and watched the video of the game.  Finally, I had the game all to myself and hogged the display while my roommate very graciously submitted to my pleas for photos.

Briana C. Jackson beside the Myst (1993) display as part of the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
Observe in the above image the two pairs of headphones, the video screen (in this photo the Blue Book in which Achenar is trapped appears in the middle of the screen.  "Bring the blue pages!"), and the label.  And myself, of course.  I would have dressed more fashionably, but I decided to "cosplay" a bit and dress like my Uru avatar:

Baladria and Briana at the Myst display at MoMA
The soundtrack that plays through the headphones is the music of the game.  The video begins with the Myst introduction, and carries on until the Myst Book falls to the ground and the Stranger is able to open it and travel to Myst Island.  Following this are various screenshots of the Ages as well as views of the brothers Sirrus and Achenar who are trapped in a red and blue Book respectively.  The video is set to repeat continuously.

Pac-Man (1980) and Tetris (1984) go way back, if you can call the '80s way back.  Actually, these two games were released before I was born.  I apologize to anyone who suddenly felt old after that sentence.  Imagine, therefore, people who were born in 1990, 2000, 2010.  How many of these people have been exposed to these two games in their original format?  With that in mind, we may consider this collection as a preservation of the video gaming vein that has been heavily absorbed into our culture.  It is difficult now for many to think about what life must have been like without video games.  People like to tell me how well off my generation is for being able to write papers using a computer when they had the more arduous, and therefore better, task of using a typewriter.  Likewise, my generation can tell those born in the 2000s "back in my day we played games only with the up, down, right, and left arrow keys on our keyboards!"  

Girl playing original Tetris (1984) at the Applied Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Photo by Briana C. Jackson
The MoMA exhibition allows these generational boundaries to open up a little.  Furthermore, without the hard work and brilliant idea of curator Paola Antonelli and her participating colleagues, games such as Pac-Man and Tetris are no longer in danger of being relegated only to fond memories of the past and modern comedic references that soon may not make sense to the younger generations.  Museums are responsible not only for granting us access to the creative minds of today but also for preserving culture throughout history.  Recently, I have tried installing SimFarm on my Windows 8 OS, but there was no way for it to work.  The future looks grimmer and grimmer for games that turned heads in their days, and how many more will suffer the extinction?  This is why the video games collection is so brilliant.  It's the original computer code that is preserved, and with this computer code forever in the archives of MoMA, we have aspects of our culture, however insignificant it may be to some, that will continue to survive.  I applauded the installation of this collection with great enthusiasm because I was proud that at least one person in the exalted world of art was able to see beyond the entertainment value and instead see the imaginative and creative quality in a series of binary numbers.

With all the above in mind, I was completely taken aback when I found negative reviews so aggressive that it seemed as though Antonelli was being accused of committing an egregious crime and besmirching the foundations of art.  An article in the New York Times briefly covers this collection and some other things that are going on the the Design world: And to Think I Saw It @ MoMA! I still haven't decided if it is a negative or positive review.  Antonelli has this to say in response to critics:


She was also on the Colbert Report, which says an extra something about the controversy of this exhibition.

Before I went to the exhibition I had already planned to write up a post about how excited I was to see Myst exhibited in a museum as opposed to just another tech geek convention (not that those aren't great).  However, after reading a very negative review, as well as seeing the rest of the museum's collections, I was feeling a bit protective of the games I grew up with, particularly Myst, and I knew I had to go a bit further in my ramblings.

This article, MoMA Has Mistaken Video Games for Art, very clearly argues that video games are only code and that "just" code is not anywhere close to being equated with art.  Here is where I have a problem.  Yes, at the most basic level of video games, they are code, but not "just" code.  And yes, Antonelli states that the fundamental purpose of the collection is to preserve the code, that is the idea of the medium and how it leads to extraordinary visuals.  Her entire Applied Design exhibition is meant to move toward the theoretical, throwing in a bit of physics and really engaging the audience, encouraging them to look beyond the superficial and into the heart and soul of design.  The stuff you don't see that results in something truly creative and inventive, even utilitarian.  Mistaken Video Games for Art?  I have made a laundry list of things I have questioned as being of artistic value.  For instance, observe these two images below:



If I were to tell you that these are artworks acquired by a museum at a great cost, would you believe me?  Well it is true.  I saw these pieces.  The first is by Donald Judd, the second by Carl Andre.  Look it up if you don't believe me.  Now, I already stated that I am not a scholar in Modern Art.  BUT, if a snooty scholar is going to argue that video games cannot be construed as art, then I am going to pick on the stuff I have a problem with.  The Judd piece, Untitled (Stack) makes a supposed minimalist statement, but, and I put this in bold, the museum label reads that it is "a geometric form Judd favored because he felt it carried no symbolic meaning."  To me, it looks like Ikea furniture glued to a wall.  He has several of these same displays in various museums, and the only difference is the color.  In my opinion, and it's an opinion don't forget, he pulled the wool over many eyes and got away with making these absurd shelves and making a killing out of them, perhaps just because he can.  I saw my first Judd piece in class once and then saw the students around me nodding voraciously to each other as though there were some inside secret.  My first thought about the piece was "What the hell is that?"  And then: "I'd put my coffee on it."  I can understand the people who crowded around Starry Night, but not the people who stopped to ponder a series of shelves on a wall.

The second one, a piece by Carl Andre which is similar to the one at MoMA (unless it is the one at MoMA? it's difficult to tell.) is what it is.  Two layers of bricks.  At MoMA the bricks are in the middle of the floor, quite the impediment in case of fire in my opinion, that is if people would still be aware of artworks when there is a fire.  I nearly stumbled over the piece as I was passing through, but caught myself on a dime when I realized -- wait there's art there.  It would better serve a construction site somewhere.  The bricks reminded me of the mudbricks the Egyptians make at Abydos for the conservation project of the Shunet el-Zebib monument there.  Someone should let them know they can make some sweet cash if they stacked them up in the middle of a floor.  I am truly missing something, I admit this unreservedly.  Is it another minimalism thing?  I'm not quite sure what that means.  I have a friend, Israel Mateos, who is into minimalist comic books by an artist/writer known as Jason.  For example, try his book I Killed Adolf Hitler.  These comic books are extremely limited in their textual narrative and rely almost entirely on the pictures to tell the story.  I've tried these books, and while I can see the appeal among comic book readers, I must admit that even there I am perplexed.

Now, allow me to turn to other art.  There's a plaza that runs between 56th and 57th Streets near the intersection at 5th Avenue, where last week I nearly bit the dust when a driver ran a red light.  In this roofed plaza are various comical-looking sculptures that line the walls.  They are all chocolaty brown in color and have globular, voluptuous shapes.  At passing glance they look like cartoons that children might enjoy.  One day as I was passing through, I actually looked at one and to my horror realized it was a swan having sex with a woman!  This morning, on my walk to the IFA, I decided I would look for some sign it was actual art.  I put my bag down and looked all over the sculpture, inadvertently drawing a lot of attention to myself from people standing around, and, upon crawling as far back as I could go, I found near the floor a museum label.  The piece is called Leda and the Swan (2007) by one Fernando Botero.  I took a picture of it for you.  The guy on the phone was one of the people who stared at me while I crawled on the floor.  And oops, by bag is in front of Leda's face.
Leda and the Swan (2007) by Fernando Botero, Marlborough Gallery, New York
It is interesting that what I thought was mere decoration suddenly became in my mind Art, merely because it had a title, a Classical reference, and a museum label.  It begs the question of how much art we miss simply because we don't realize it's art.  Another interesting artwork is the LOVE sculpture on 55th Street and 5th Avenue.  I know that people like to have their pictures taken with it, but I don't think people stop to think that it is Art.  It falls under the Pop Art category, whatever that means, and you can read about it on good old Wikipedia.  People know that the LOVE sculpture bears significance, and so they take pictures with it.  Now Love and Art.  That struck me quite strongly because it inspires one to think of two abstract ideas.  What is Love?  What is Art?  Is the contemplation of these two concepts part of the intention behind the design?

Below, these weird and creepy sculptures that appeared one day at an entrance to Central Park are an obvious artwork.  You don't have to sit there and wonder whether it is meant to be art; you know it is art because it was obviously erected to be perceived as such.

"United Enemies" (collection) by Thomas Schütte, Central Park, New York
One final questionable artwork is what I like to call the Giant E.  I found it one day last year while walking home and immediately thought of my sister, Erin.  When she came to New York recently, I hunted down the Giant E again so that I could have her take a picture with it.

Erin Jackson and the Giant E on 57th Street, New York
This sculpture is a bizarre case because it is multifaceted.  Is is a lower-case "e"?  Is it a 9?  Is it an upside-down 6?  Or maybe even, as commentary on linguistics, an upside-down schwa?  It's all a matter of perspective.  Also, is it Art?  Can we break this down even further as "intentional art" or "unintentional art"?  I discovered that it is actually a 9, designed by one Ivan Chermayeff of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv graphic design firm.  To me, the innocence of it makes it all the more artistic, but still--is it Art?

This brings me back to the video game collection at the Museum of Modern Art and that cruel title of the article MoMA Has Mistaken Video Games for Art which leaves no room for considering an alternative view that maybe video games are art.  Liel Leibovitz, the author of the aforementioned article and an assistant professor of Digital Media at NYU, implies that the collection is merely a demonstration of code.  But, as Antonelli argues, it is the idea that she is more concerned with.  If it were mere code, surely we would see mere code printed on a wall.  No, the code is displayed in its visually creative form.  What we see on the screen is the effect of the code which is hidden to us.  I have a small feeling that Antonelli is holding back a little in terms of the statement she is making about computer code.  If it were just code, why display only games?  Underlying is a bold statement that video games ARE art.

Consider what goes into the making of a computer game.  I know, because I have all the "making of" CDs that come with the special editions of the Myst games.  There are orchestras involved, conceptual artists, actors, etc.  The creators of Myst invented a whole new language, script, and numerical system, all of which one encounters in the games.  Observe an example of Myst concept art:


Concept art for Myst IV: Revelation, "Nighttime Tomahna"
I remember the first time I saw that concept art as I waited impatiently for the release of the fourth installment of the single-player series.  There is a website of some other concept art from the game Riven here that reveals the extent to which landscapes, geographies, and architecture were designed.

I have criticized some art very strongly here, but, while I personally don't find some works appealing, I do not think it is fitting to disregard their artistic value compared to other works, now that I find myself defending MoMA's video game exhibition.  Always in courses we are asked to consider what "art" is.  It seems no one ever has a clear definition.  Furthermore, who determines what is art and what is not?  Art Historians are trained to be discerning in their appraisals, but does that make them the only judges of art?  Video games are technological inventions that manifest images, ideas, and narratives.  Paintings and sculptures do the same, but with different media.  Who am I to say Judd's works aren't art, and who is anyone else to say video games aren't art?

"Pac-Man alongside Picasso", to me, is one of the most innovative installations I have encountered in museums thus far.  This little bit of code has impacted our culture worldwide since at least 1980.  This little bit of code displayed at MoMA is not only a visual addition to the museum but also it is a conservation project that preserves a broader spectrum of art.  Perhaps it is not as exalted as Picasso in the eyes of some, but art isn't meant to be exclusive.  That's why we have museums.  Just code?  I am just happy that I have lived to see Myst, in its 20th year, achieve enough acclaim to be exhibited in one of the most prestigious museums.  It's a reward most deserved.  Sixteen years of solving all of Atrus's problems seems to have paid off!

And to the little girl I saw playing Tetris, it may have been just a game to you when you visited a museum your parents dragged you to, but you have linked yourself culturally to your parents' generation.  And maybe in the future, when your kids are playing the latest video game, you will remember playing the original Tetris, a game your parents used to play at home as kids, at the Museum of Modern Art, thanks to the vision of one woman named Paola Antonelli.

For the future of video games, perhaps the ending has not yet been written...

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