I’ve been following the various forums commenting my Invaders! installation as much as my busy schedule allows me (I’ll be away for a residency all week, so the assassins will have to start looking elsewhere). At this point, it goes without saying that I am apparently responsible for the latest flash-in-the-pan in the world of video game controversies. It appears that controversy is easier to provoke than more significant forms of experience, and given the current reaction, I suppose the only conclusion I can come to is that the piece has failed in more ways than one. Whatever the case, as ultimately it is not for me to dictate people’s appreciation (or lack of it) and the work has to speak for itself, I have so far avoided trying to justify the work, in any moral sense of the word. Art is not about morality, or is so only at its’ darkest moments. But this does not preclude an ethical approach, and to an ethical discussion of it. And it does not preclude offering some personal context to the work and its inception.
Since this is now a blog eat blog world, and I have been taking advantage these past few years of the platform that blogging offers me, I believe that I have at least some responsibility in taking seriously the many comments, especially from those within the gaming community, and obviously over at Kotaku where the response was the most varied and interesting. So here is an attempt at some context, for what its worth…
- “We do know, however, that the 8-bit tower jumpers and the negative score applied to each WTC tower to indicate damage aren’t going to sit well with, we’re thinking, everyone we know who doesn’t hate freedom.” – Michael McWhertor
Sadly, the work has been discussed, largely (but with some exceptions) based on this early report in which the journalist did not even play the game. For me at least, a video game is at some point always going to be about its gameplay. Ironically, the same journalist finally did play the game, and found some merit in it. But by then, the cat was out of the bag, and we had a media circus on our hands — at which point I simply shut the piece off, and turned off ongoing discussions with the many news outlets that wanted not to discuss the piece, but instead my reaction to the reaction, which again is not really my role. News cycles thankfully are short, and it is my impression that with Leipzig now over, we can all calm down a little and those interested can try again to discuss the game itself. But from the point I was attributed as “hating freedom” (on what merits, please?), the whole thing was basically Game Over as far as I’m concerned, and confirmed my original concern that a commercial games convention might not a viable venue for work of this sort. Somewhere in there, I naively figured that gamers, given all the controversies they have weathered over all these years, would have the sophistication to see in the gameplay itself something else than a simple black vs. white, for vs. against, you are with me vs. you are against me posture, or “message”. There is no real “message” in GTA, and hopefully there is no real “message” in my work, and certainly not that I hate freedom. I continue to believe that the game offers something far different than hatred in fact, and personally I always felt a certain sense of release at the end of each wave, just as in the original game. Just as I felt some very mixed emotions, difficult to neatly organize into “pro” or “contra”, when the whole “War on Terror” kicked in. Sure, there is something definitely ambiguous about defending the towers in a game, and some complex emotions that, indeed, might be a little too raw, or odd, for some, even in an 8-bit representation that is highly stylized and presents itself immediately as such. But whatever one decides in the end, I have heard many a cry within the gaming world that we need to take into account the internal logic of games, and that means actually understanding the mechanics of its gameplay, and respecting its figurative tropes. In this regard, it really surprised me that Kotaku would be the first ones to fall into this trap. I can understand in the case of Fox News and NY Daily News, but Kotaku?
- In his interactive large installation, the players must prevent the catastrophe by controlling the well- known cannon at the lower screen border with their bodies and firing it using arm movements. Like the original, this trial is ultimately unsuccessful, thus creating an articulated and critical commentary about the current war strategy.” Press Release, Computerspiele Museum
This was the press release, made by the organizers of the exhibit, and never a direct quote by me. I should also point out that neither I, nor the organizers, claimed that this piece was “anti anything”. The curator who commissioned this piece called it a “critical commentary”. This is not really the way I would have phrased it, since I don’t believe art is in any way equivalent to commentary, but I don’t see any real problem in his statement either. I was perfectly fine with it, and as I said before “I approved this message”. But I think it important that we understand that the role of “critical” work is not to provide a specific message “against” anything, and I know for a fact that the organizers of the exhibition and I are on the same wavelength on this issue. “Critical”, is often used expediently to describe disapproval, but it is more effective when considered a form of discernment, distancing, or scrutinization. This should be sufficient to explain our willingness to defend the irony and ambiguity of the piece, and should have been an obvious flag that this was not a flippant piece merely seeking to shock. The events of September 11th were in many ways complex, and as I have stated before, a complex, i.e. the site of unprocessed events. This is perhaps the true meaning of the event, and why people are so upset over my rehashing it: perhaps September 11th is entirely un-processable, and that we wish it to remain so. This too is a valid point, and I have noted it.
- “[H]e made the original in 2001. What fucking point was there there? There was none. This guy is a jack-ass. There was no “War on Terror” when he made this piece of shit. He was just trying piss people off. And now he’s coming back and spouting off illogical bullshit that Art Aficionados and Critics will try to defend by creating a message that was never there.” – Ad-hominem at 01:50 PM on 08/20/08
It is absolutely true that there was no “War on Terror” when I originally made this piece. It is also true that this was a very different piece back then. In fact, on September 10th I was simply working on a mod that upon waking up the following day had taken on an eerily new significance. The whole connection happened almost as an accident.
On the first day of the exhibit, I made the following statement to AP: “I originally produced the work for my own needs, as a personal attempt to unravel what had become an ontological knot due to the many symbolic layers that had mixed themselves in with an extremely violent act.” I’m sure I’ve pissed off a people right there with my rhetoric, but I really do mean it quite literally: I had no idea at the time what to make of the whole damn thing, hence the ontological knot. To put it in a manner of speech for those in the forums: I just kept saying to myself what the f@#$ was that!?. On the one hand we had innocent citizens perishing in an extreme violence heretofore unseen in such a public form of witness, and yet the entire thing felt precisely choreographed for us, almost — gulp — sophisticated in its use of our media as a form of warfare. They was frikkin’ with us Americans on multiple levels, and using our own language to boot. They had obviously been watching our movies, and playing our games. At which point I started to realize (and I was not alone in this) that Al Qaeda had somehow tapped, quite intimately, into our collective projections of fear and destruction, and had invoked an often rehearsed metaphor of invaders descending from the sky. Twisted, indeed.
Since then, this whole event has evolved over time, as has this piece, as the cultural discourse on the World Trade attacks shifted. We have seen many different cycles in this process, and many attempts to re-appropriate the symbols and language used to describe the event itself. Meanwhile, we as Americans have resorted to tying ourselves ever tighter to the icon of the terrorist’s explosive-laden belt. At the symbolic level of political theater, it is as if we have decided that in order to give truth to our military resolve, we somehow had to integrate the figure of the terrorist as our figurehead. A strange emblem, indeed.
For my part, I have lived through a very different experience of a city under siege by terrorists, held hostage by random acts of extreme violence that paralyzed us for months, and yes there was gruesome dismemberment and death involved. I am sure those wishing my death will regret to learn that I and members of my family were to have been precisely at the time and location where one of the dismantled bombs was set to go off. It was a sickening prospect, as it was precisely designed to kill and maim children. So I get you, when you tell me that terrorists aren’t f@$#ing around, and that this still is the real deal. I know this very well to be true. And sure, the New York and Washington attacks had no comparison to those that I lived through and give me no understanding of the suffering of those who perished. But it does give me some perspective. And I remember a very different response, and a very different form of military and political resolve. Above all, and this is the point, I remember a very different use of political iconography. These are all choices we make collectively, and it takes place as much on the physical and political battlefield, as it does in the media war. Video games, as many have pointed out, have not been neutral on this front.
But, as you have correctly reminded us — and thank you for looking –, despite all this posturing this was obviously not what the piece was originally about. To suggest otherwise would be absurd. For Leipzig I was simply trying to return to that moment, thick as it is now with the veneer of the current war strategy plastered over it. I still remember a very disturbing emotion, at once very raw, and yet immediately mediated. Against all of the bazillions of quotations that all of us have placed around it, I was attempting to tap back into that instant, and revisit it. Perhaps my choice of a quote here and an icon there suggested a too-obvious form of caricature that has attached itself to this event. Perhaps the idea itself is purely tasteless. Perhaps. Meanwhile, as I switch the channels on my american TV set, commercials bombard me with “World Trade Center Commemorative Coins!” in yet another attempt to bury this moment in insignificance. So, if people out there feel I was trivializing the event in giving it the form I did, I can accept that, and I’m certainly willing to hear their arguments — quite numerous at last count in the various forums. But consider our current context nonetheless.
- “Art. Because the word “pretentious” is just far too long.” – ArcaneDevice at 02:47 PM on 08/23/08
That’s pretty damn funny.
- “So its means that we should fight against terrorism with more than “one cannon”, and that in order to defeat evil/invaders, we must fight it with more force and in multiple ways. I just think you went about it with a poor choice, and at least you tried something.” – ADAM!!! – 25 August, 2008 @ 01:15 am
- “Personally, I quite liked the futility of the game and that you can’t ever win against the “invaders” – very apt.” – Kazzahdrane – 21 August, 2008 @ 04:06 am
The way in which the game play was designed, it is actually possible to endlessly “beat” the game by simply getting enough people to shoot at it with their arms, feet, head, whatever. The Invaders! will of course never give up, but that was also the power of coin-operated games. The “Game Over” screen is an integral part of its narrative arc; one can nevertheless delay that arrival, finding different strategies of keeping it at bay, and that was always the emotional power of this form of gaming.
When Andreas Lange asked me to make the piece multiplayer, one of the first things that I tried to do was to find a balance between playing the game by yourself, and playing it with others. I spent quite a lot of time on this aspect, and ran several different simulations on the frequency required to actually keep the game playing, eternally. In one simulation, the piece had ran over a week, and had an astronomical score. I even changed the bit-width of certain variables, just to make sure that scores could grow big enough. This possibility was programmed-in, if you will, as an extreme possibility, and I was quite hoping to see someone attempt it in Leipzig. Now, since you have to actually move your body with a certain velocity to actually shoot, this will obviously tire you out. But it does not preclude using others to take over while you recuperate, or even mounting some sort of mechanical device in front of the camera and just let the thing play on autopilot. There’s always a way to trick the machine. You can shoot the way I suggested in the instructions, and then there’s how people will actually do it. I’ve seen videos on the web of a fellow that pretty much figured out the necessary velocity to trick the camera into giving him multiple shots (he also looked pretty silly doing it, but at least he got a high score). But my point is that there were some creative strategies to be found there, and I figured that some ingenious soul (American or otherwise) might find their own trick. Who knows how long people could have kept up the fight?
- “1. This guy doesn’t believe video games are capable of being art. He outright said this. 2. He created it September 12th, 2001, not just recently. 3. He himself has changed what he claims the meaning of the artwork is a number of times. He has called it (Himself, mind you) a) A study in Mathematics B) A game in which the common man can fight back against the invaders C) A weak, meaningless piece of work that has been diluted by the Iraq War and D) A commentary on the current warfare plan.” – Ad-hominem at 09:56 PM on 08/22/08
I’ll leave the mathematics part for another debate (I was probably talking about algorithms, but I might be wrong, feel free to send me the quote). But I have definitely said in the past that video games are not de facto Art, which probably — in most discussions — refers to the “fine arts”. It is definitely an “art form”, but I have always said that the whole “games as art” debate is less about art, and what-is-art (yawn, boring!), than about art institutions and therefore respectability. Art institutions have long, complex histories and ideologies, and I’m not sure video games want to be a part of some of these institutions anyway. But they are definitely of a different ilk in their current form, and I also think that video games, the industry, and its most ardent proponents, still have a lot to learn on this front. There is definitely a tendency towards a fairly myopic vision of gaming and its reach, and yes this includes the core gamer crowd. There is a whole world out there of critical gaming, art games, call-it-what-you-will that I suspect many people out there have never heard of.
Oh, and if people think that by creating a minor scandal in a commercial game faire I am somehow moving myself up the art ladder, they clearly have no idea how that world ticks.
- “Yah, this has obviously become more about the artist and the WTC than Space Invaders. Way to steal the thunder from the game itself, jerk.” – art_zombie at 01:45 PM on 08/20/08
Yes, that might indeed be true. But I’ve always signed my work as a form of responsibility — unlike, by the way, some of those making threats not only against me, but against members of my family. If that makes me a “douche bag” who deliberately offends so many people and then tries to pass it off as “art”, so be it. I don’t see the artistic merit in merely offending people, but then again, I think your point is that this work was not really all that successful as a piece of art. And that too, might be true. I would like to mention again, that I think it is a shame that this debate is not discussing the gameplay, or at least starting from that point, instead of vague first impressions concerning the work, riddled as they were with very specific incendiary rhetoric, almost designed for a headline on Fox News. But back to your point, I happen to think that the work was not in any way an insult to Space Invaders, a brilliant game that has taken on its own mythological status, and that in fact my take on it is really something else altogether, and that most people get this, or should. Space Invaders is, in fact, like many Japanese games, a very innocent affair, and joyously so. One fights with no clear political context, and it is as ethically ambiguous as cleaning your bathroom of mold, or shooing away ants while you picnic. So when I allude to certain aspects of that game, I am very obviously reading it on a whole other level. I am, of course, reading history backwards, as if that wasn’t already obvious. If somehow someone confuses this with the original game itself, or its makers, it is unfortunate, and I am indeed very sorry for that.
- “I have an idea for a piece of performance art you might be interested in, it involves me shoving the Eiffel Tower up your ass until you choke on your damn colon and begin to vomit your own lungs.” – Sus – 21 August, 2008 @ 04:06 am
I’ve never been all that big on performance art myself. But if you wanted to make a game of that, I’d definitely want to play it.
Update (27/08): Ok, so it appears that most of the debate has finally turned into something more constructive, even if I still feel that the whole thing is quite overblown and not worthy of our time. However, there remains one final complaint that I find quite valid, and indeed cause for confusion, and that is concerning why I actually took the piece down. I tried to adress this in my original statement, but given the numerous demands for comment, apparently more context is needed there too. Here is more or less what I said to a journalist last night:
The reasons for pulling the work are numerous and complex. There was above all the whole tone of the media circus which I have already commented at length, and of course I had placed the organizers of the Games Convention in something of a bind due to the fact that Taito is one of their clients. On the legal front, we discussed the matter briefly and came to the conclusion that any claims of infringement were untenable, and that it was important to defend a work of art in principle. But unfortunately, other concerns had in the meantime raised their heads, thanks (in part, but not entirely) to the various threats on me (whatever) and my family (wtf!?) — in other words that modern form of the witch-hunt, a favourite sport of our times. It was at this point that I made my decision, which obviously places serious doubts on my credibility (no big deal, I’ll survive), but at least had the advantage of slowing somewhat the momentum of the most extreme elements. For all of these reasons, and others too involved to get into here, I again take full responsibility for the decision to take down the work.
Obviously people will have their own take on all this, and I invite you to think whatever you will.