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Are art installations the new video games?

14 August 2014

Consider this: you’re in a gallery, looking intently at a triptych. It’s enormous, awe-inspiring. Suddenly, while standing there, you start frantically flapping your arms, up-down up-down. Have you gone temporarily insane? No – the visitors standing next to you are doing exactly the same. What’s happening?

You’re in the Barbican, standing in front of Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary. This interactive installation uses motion-capture technology to digitally manipulate the viewer’s shadow, turning them into a bird. Physical movement is key to experiencing the work. It’s a part of their latest exhibition, ‘Digital Revolution’, which explores relationships between art, design and digital technology, such as that between sculpture and 3D printing.

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The question of whether digital artefacts, such as videogames, can be considered ‘art’ is by no means a new one. The late Roger Ebert was a passionate critic of the idea, claiming that the ludic quality of most videogames – scores, rules and objectives – prevents them from being subjectively experienced as art. Proponents of games as art include the Smithsonian, which hosted an exhibition on the subject in 2012. It’s certainly possible to cite numerous videogames which are clearly inspired by works of art: the indie game Monument Valley, for example, which takes both its aesthetic and its puzzle-based rationale from M.C. Escher’s perspectival manipulations. The bestselling BioShock, a game set in a Randian dystopia, has even been the subject of scholarly research (by Suzannah Biernoff), looking at the impact of First World War photography on BioShock’s artwork.

So, games may or may not be art – this isn’t a new debate. What is worth asking now, however, is whether or not art can be considered a game. Does the new wave of digital interactive works constitute the gamification of art? Can we experience art by playing with it? And what impact does digital technology have on this process?

Certainly, we can interact playfully with art. In the most minimal, analogue sense, a performance such as Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours encourages the viewer to participate in the work; opening up the possibility of play but also shaping that play through rules and instructions. When we introduce digital technology into the mix, the boundaries between artwork and game start to blur as a responsive environment is artificially created. Artists such as Scott Snibbe, whose work has been acquired by MoMA, create digital installations which react to the viewer as the viewer reacts to them. Often on a monumental scale, and installed in public spaces, these experiential works draw in a wide, sometimes unsuspecting audience. The future, it seems, is now.

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Out of time: ‘Digital Revolution’ at the Barbican (Jack Orlik)

Augmented Reality Meets the Art World (Estella Shardlow)