June 29th

In their 2006 working paper “The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown use the term “conceptual blending” to describe the ways in which players of massively multiplayer online games are able to take into account multiple worlds simultaneously, and in so doing, find “new and unusual opportunities for learning.” One key to the success of these games, the authors argue, is that they are eminently social, but perhaps more importantly, the rich social fabric of the games “blurs many of the boundaries that we tend to expect such as the distinction between the physical and the virtual, the difference between player and avatar, and the distinction between work and play” (2). The essay, part of a growing body of work that highlights the potential of video games for learning and pedagogical practices, considers how conceptual blending is essentially a process for using “one's imagination to read across boundaries” (2); it's a creative act that contributes to ways of “seeing and making sense of the world” (20); it is a process that “does not simply project one space onto another or privilege one view and subordinate another to bring them into concert,” but instead constructs “something that is altogether new, a blended space that is able to account for the vividness and complexity of each perspective, doing violence to neither, by producing something that is undeniably true of both elements that compose it” (19); and finally, it is a process that is, the authors argue, especially pertinent to functional engagement in and with the 21st century.

I would like to extend the notion of conceptual blending to new media artworks that deploy, revise or reference online games and virtual environments, opening up the often clumsily opposed physical and virtual realms to evaluation and reconsideration. My aim is to consider conceptual blending as a process that can include critical analysis and reflection and, perhaps, a kind of productive conceptual vertigo. While my focus on the compelling potential of game-based new media artworks is not unique, my argument asserts that one of the most significant contributions within this realm of critical media art production is the manner in which it highlights the virtual as a Derridian supplement. The supplement, according to Jacques Derrida's formulation in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” both adds to and completes an entity already assumed to be whole, and as such, underscores the absence within a sense of full presence or wholeness.

Derrida's reference to the supplement appears in a discussion of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on myths. Derrida notes that Lévi-Strauss's achievement is his “stated abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute arche” (284). Indeed, notes Derrida, Lévi-Strauss's work points instead to the concept of freeplay, and the supplement, which undermine totalization. He writes, “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinity of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field - that is, language and a finite language - excludes totalization. This field is in fact that of freeplay, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble. This field permits these infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and founds the freeplay of substitutions” (288). He concludes this segment of the essay by writing, “One could say - rigorously using that word whose scandalous signification is always obliterated in French - that this movement of the freeplay, permitted by the lack, the absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarity” (288).

The supplement to which I am referring functions on three levels: the virtual world acts as a supplement to the physical world; the avatar acts as a supplement to the player's physically embodied being; and, perhaps stretching things a bit, the media artwork acts as a supplement to the larger, more amorphous realm of the video game itself, both as a cultural form and as what Alexander R. Galloway calls an “action-based medium.” In the first of the two pairs, there is a sense of an original term - the physical world and physically embodied being - which is authentic, and to which a virtual entity acts as an addition. This presumes a pure state prior to the addition, a complete and whole physical world, for example, supplemented by the virtual, or a complete sense of embodied being supplemented by a virtual extension enacted by an avatar. The role played by many critical media artworks, then, is in deploying conceptual blending beyond the ability to account for multiple worlds toward a cogent consideration of the supplement and its deployment in a restructuring of comfortable ontological and epistemological modes that are based on a prior “natural” world. The impulse and its attendant nostalgia arise as we seek a sense of solidity in an increasingly digital world, but it safeguards a mythical polarity that simply doesn't hold.

The projects under consideration here are video game mods; mods are video games that have been modified by players in some way. In Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture, Galloway identifies three basic mods: those modifications that function “(1) at the level of its visual design, substituting new level maps, new artwork, new character models and so on; (2) at the level of the rules of the game, changing how gameplay unfolds - who wins, who loses, and what the repercussions of various gamic acts are; or (3) at the level of its software technology, changing character behavior, game physics, lighting techniques, and so on” (107). He goes on to note that most artist mods do not center on gameplay, but instead alter the visual design of a game or the game engine. Galloway also uses the term “countergaming,” retooling the notion of a counter cinema described by Peter Wollen more than 30 years ago to designate a movement of artists who, like many avant-garde filmmakers, work against the mainstream practices of their chosen medium in order to subvert, critique and/or challenge the hegemony of their codes.

Brody Condon: Flipping the Hierarchy

The work of media artist Brody Condon is exemplary here for its seamless traversal of the physical and virtual worlds, usually via mods that reflect beyond the game's internal world. Condon is perhaps best known for the 2002 project Velvet Strike, co-created with Anne-Marie Schleiner and Joan Leandre, which modifies the first person shooter game Counter Strike such that players “shoot” anti-war graffiti rather than other players. Condon's more recent work includes a project titled Untitled (Death Animation) (2007), a simulation of violent computer game deaths performed by the artist in achingly slow motion, calling attention to the rich visual spectacle of video game violence while also referencing the work of artist Bruce Nauman, who in the 1970s created a series of performances in which he gave performers a set of instructions; oine set of instructions asked participants to imagine sinking into the floor, and the resulting videos are another key reference in Condon's piece. Similarly, in his DVD compilation Suicide Solution (2004), Condon collects a series of documented suicides performed in first- and third-person shooter games, considering death in a realm where it has very different ramifications than in the physical world.

One way of reading Condon's Untitled (Death Animation) is to say that both in decelerating the moment of death and performing the death in a physical space outside the video game, Condon offers space for reflection on the visual appeal of these animations, and the contemplation of the contradiction between “animation” and “death,” between life and death, between the physical and the virtual. Similarly a way to read the artist's game-based suicides would be to say that by committing suicide, Condon illuminates the boundaries of game play and the codification of actions and roles that generally do not accommodate particularly complex philosophical thought. In both cases, the joke centers on the sense that the world of death - of “real” or consequential death - and the world of play and the game are fundamentally exclusive. Death is real; games are not.

The key in this reading is the consideration of how Condon's work disrupts what in gaming is known as the “magic circle,” which refers to what Johan Huizinga in his 1950 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture describes as the space separated off from non-play space. Within the magic circle, the rules of play and of the fiction of the game hold, allowing players immersion in the rich structure of the game world. But what happens when someone disrupts that fiction? Further, does the boundary of the circle always hold? T. L. Taylor argues that, despite the seeming exclusionary power of the circle, the game world is rarely hermetically sealed. Taylor writes, “It often sounds as if for play to have any authenticity, it must be cordoned off from ‘real life.'… Thinking of either game or nongame space as contained misses the flexibility of both. If we look at online spaces historically, for example, we find people negotiating levels of self-disclosure and performance, multiple forms of embodiment, the integration of dual (or multiple) communities, webs of technologies, and the importing of meaningful offline issues and values into online spaces.” The magic circle, then, functions best as a tool for describing the creation of a space within which certain rules apply; however, that space is never isolated fully, a fact that mobilizes Condon's projects, which function both within and without the circle, inhabiting characters, an aesthetic and a recognition of game rules, but with a critical attitude that is rarely part of the magic that the circle is said to circumscribe.

In short, then, these readings suggest that the conceptual blending that occurs between physical and virtual underscores a disjuncture; like oil and water, the two repel each other, and in the process, the disjuncture secures a false distinction between the real world and a world of appearances denoted by the virtual. This distinction is particularly comforting at this moment, and the real world ends up functioning as the foundation or ground against which the digital gets measured, and dismissed.

However, I would argue that the actual power of Condon's projects resides in their ability to move in the opposite direction. Rather than humorously introducing a philosophical topic into a fictive, virtual game space presumed to be both immaterial and disinterested in the complexities of deep thought, the projects instead introduce the game space into philosophy and the material world, positing game space as a crucial site for the consideration of some of our most cherished ontological and epistemological conceits. More significantly, though, the virtual space as deployed by Condon acts as a supplement to real space, both enhancing and replacing it, and undermining the “real” as natural ground or center. The physical world untouched by the virtual as supplement does not exist. There is no original, purely physical world. Virtual space, especially as it is overtaken by artists such as Condon, functions as a nodal point, reconstituting our sense of the world to accommodate a new discursive regime.

We need new ways of reading, interpreting and understanding these spaces, ways that move beyond the simple binary opposition that easily distinguishes physical and virtual, the real and the immaterial. Game space accommodates real social interaction, cooperation and learning. But it also establishes a world rife with codes of behavior, rules for the organization of groups of players. As such, it mirrors the physical world, illuminating the often invisible structures we take for granted. Again, we don't merely need to take our real world knowledge to the game space; the game space can contribute to real space.

Brad Kligerman: Real Avatars

Other examples of conceptual blending that prompt reflection in critical media art works include Brad Kligerman's recent Ars Virtua artist-in-residence project in the multi-user virtual environment of Second Life, which deployed the material traces of avatar wanderings in the construction of the gallery space the avatars eventually inhabited. Second Life, which was founded by the San Francisco-based company Linden Lab and made available to users in 2003, has become increasingly popular over the last year, and is currently among the most populated non-game virtual environments. Part of what makes Second Life interesting is the fact that much of the environment and everything within that environment is created by users, who are able to craft virtual buildings and objects that are constructed within Second Life or imported as 3-D models. Second Life has a thriving economy, much of it built on real estate, and it is home to a long list of educational institutions as well as artists' communities.

The Ars Virtua Artist in Residence (AVAIR) project, initiated in 2006, is itself an art project by James Morgan, Amy Wilson and Jay van Buren; it was designed to consider ideas of artmaking and practice within Second Life. Kligerman was Ars Virtua's first resident, and during the first quarter of 2007, he developed a series of tools to experiment with the flows of information in a digital space. The most compelling of these experiments allowed the information gathered through an avatar's presence in Second Life to become manifest in the gallery space. The history of each avatar contributed to the production of the representation of the space of the gallery.

Kligerman's project is a welcome reprieve from the relentless desire to replicate the physical world in Second Life. From the recreation of stores such as Sears and American Apparel to the mimetic construction of college campuses based on their physical counterparts, the first impulse for many builders is to recreate the real world in a virtual space that has few of requirements that determine so many of the decisions made within the rules of physics that govern the physical world.

However, Kligerman's project is perhaps most interesting in disrupting what so much of Second Life tries to erase in the relationship between a user and his/her avatar, namely the seamless extension of presence into the virtual world.

“Presence” is a much-used term, with literally dozens of inflections of meaning depending on field and scholar. In his essay “Presence, Explicated,” Kwan Min Lee carefully parses the term and its synonyms in various disciplines. He explains that “telepresence” was first used by Marvin Minsky in 1980, for example, when Minsky imagined workers experiencing “the sense of being physically transported to a remote work space via teleoperating systems.” The term “virtual presence,” coined by T. B. Sheridan in 1992, designates the experience of presence allowed by virtual reality environments. Lee, however, prefers the term “presence” in his discussions of virtual environments, citing the work of P. Zohorik and R. L. Jenison (1998) which states that “presence is tantamount to successfully supported action in the environment” (30); Lee goes on to offer this more refined definition: presence is “a psychological state of in which the virtuality of experience is unnoticed” (32).

While much of the design in virtual worlds centers on this “psychological state in which the virtuality of experience is unnoticed,” Kligerman's objective was the opposite: rather than elide the virtuality of experience in a fake sense of presence, he created a space in which the informational substrate of virtuality could become apparent, and the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to accommodate the clunky comportment of avatars in Second Life gets set aside in favor of a willing experience of articulation. What is an avatar, and what does a user need to understand about code to fully comprehend the informational spaces we increasingly inhabit? In this case, then, conceptual blending does not reference an adroit movement among worlds but instead a critical immersive space that allows for embodied engagement with conceptual paradigms, a process that can only fully occur via the avatar's presence, even if - or especially if - that “presence” is one that reveals its digital substrate.

Once again, the notion of the supplement offers a productive means for understanding the ways in which we habitually conceptualize the avatar. Commonly considered a “second life” or supplement to the “real” user, the avatar instead refracts physical being, allowing us to understand embodiment in far more complex terms. In her essay “Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments,” Katherine Hayles uses the term “mindbody,” and encourages us to understand “the body and embodiment in relational terms, as processes emerging from complex recursive interactions rather than as pre-existing entities.” Avatars, especially when their so-called presence is disrupted as in the work of Kligerman, contribute to the dismantling of a sense of a natural body pre-existing the virtual. Bodies are produced through complex interactions that include our constitution as we are hailed computationally.

In his book The Cinema Effect, Sean Cubitt charts a path through a history of cinema that includes the phase of the vector, and notes that as spectators of the vector, we are addressed “no longer as termini but as media: as people who make sense, but only as nodes in interweaving trajectories of signification.” He continues, “It is no longer a matter of recognition, of deciphering what is already encoded. Rather it is a matter of reinterpreting, of adding a new spin to a trajectory that has not yet realized itself.” While Cubitt is writing about cinema, his analysis may well extend beyond that medium to include users of computers, players of games, inhabitants of metaverses, and it certainly illuminates the process enabled by Kligerman's project, in which our “presence” in the Second Life space only made sense within “interweaving trajectories of signification.”

S.E. Barnet and Hillary Mushkin: Relational Being

Working in a slightly different direction, Los Angeles-based artists S.E. Barnet and Hillary Mushkin recently created a project titled Mario's Furniture (2006-07) which resituates traditional videogame architectures and gestures in physical space, prompting an interesting sense of dislocation as players inhabit both the physical space of the game within a gallery space, and the virtual space of the video image that displays the acts of the players. In the installation, two players quickly arrange two sets of furniture, one life size (and heavy!) and the other in miniature on a small set. Both arrangements are recorded by the same video camera, and the players use the live video feed, which is projected above them on a wall, as a reference, trying to find a cozy balance among the chairs, lamps, tables and couch. The idea is that the real world and miniature worlds should match. Each furniture item is worth a certain number of points, and the player's goal is to achieve a high score; points are tallied when a player sits down on the couch, marking the end of the game.

Mario's Furniture is amusing in reversing traditional video gaming dynamics; gamers can't kick back on the couch and manipulate characters, but instead become the characters who run around doing all the work. More than that, though, the piece prompts an interesting sense of dislocation as players look to the screen for help arranging all the elements. The players are both in the physical space of the game and in the virtual space of the video image, and this momentary suspension between two places creates a very pleasurable, giddy sense of existential vertigo.

In this case, the “user” in the game is the physically embodied gallery visitor, who steps into the physical space of the project, and then becomes an image, and by extension, an avatar. The usual trajectory of signification gets reversed, and the multiple layers of being become so complex that the easy polarity dividing physical and virtual gets lost. Where is the supplement in this case? Barnet and Mushkin create a space for understanding the relational construction of being and identity within mixed spaces of virtual and physical, which are no longer separate.

At the most basic level, if we understand games, especially massively multiplayer online games, as realms within which a great deal of contemporary social interaction occurs, then it behooves us to understand the social and cognitive dynamics at work within that space. But more specifically, game space is perhaps the most fully realized articulation of virtual space, allowing users an immersive, interactive engagement within a nonphysical realm. And that space extends well beyond the video game to touch on the increasingly ubiquitous digitization of our existence. Saskia Sassen, for example, describes several international cities as “global cities,” by which she means those urban centers that act as central circuits of global capital; what is physical in the city, she says, is transformed by the fact that it is represented by liquid instruments in a dense, digital infrastructure, most of it invisible to its inhabitants. The key to understanding these realms - whether the contemporary global city or the online game - is through conceptual blending, which moves beyond the ability to work across the boundaries of physical and virtual to an understanding of the polarity itself, not as the distinction between an origin and its inauthentic other, a second life that follows the pure and original first, but as interdependent nexus. The work of several artists who move across these boundaries performs this crossing, and the productive vertigo elicited by their projects is both a testament to the conceptual challenge facing us and an invitation to engage that challenge playfully.


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