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Interview: The Artist is Present Questions 'Can Art Be Games?'

Plenty of games have been positioned as art, but what happens when a work of art is turned into a game? Developer Pippin Barr talks to Gamasutra about his video game version of Abramovic's The Artist Is Present.

Jason Johnson, Blogger

October 14, 2011

5 Min Read

Plenty of games have been positioned as art, but what happens when a work of art is turned into a game? The Artist is Present by Pippin Barr is a video game that reenacts a curious work of art. Originally a performance piece at The Museum of Modern Art, the artwork The Artist is Present was performed by Marina Abramovic in 2010. During the performance, Abramovic sat perfectly still at a wooden table for a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes, while the audience lined up for the opportunity to sit with her. Performance art often challenges the boundaries of art, so it follows that a game based on art would challenge the boundaries of video games. In Barr’s game version of The Artist is Present, the player’s only goal is to stand in line for hours and sit down with a crude, pixelated representation of Abramovic. Gamasutra talked with Barr to find out what a game that makes you wait says about the medium. The Artist is Present is a game about waiting in line. What is the longest you’ve ever waited in line? I waited for five hours in the game. I think that might be the longest I’ve ever waited in a queue -- in my own game. It doesn't sound like the most enjoyable experience. Yet the response to the game has been very positive. Why do you think that is? It was incredibly shocking how the game blew up in the media. It reached a lot of people who don’t have a set view of what games are allowed to be. As gamers, we have certain rules about what is considered reasonable. Do you feel that games are restricted by this mentality? Absolutely. The reason I started making games was to step as far outside of the restrictions as I could. Commercial games have really coalesced into a very specific set of things that are considered acceptable. They center around the idea that the player shouldn’t be inconvenienced -- that they should be treated fairly. They have a fallacy that the world is fair. We all know the world is not a fair place. Good things don’t always happen to good people. It is important that we make games that go against the view that the world is fair, because it is shrinking down the possible sphere of the games that can be made, to the extent that games become restrictive. What do you hope a player walks away with after playing The Artist is Present? A lot of people load up the game, find the museum closed, and quit. If they do queue, they don’t bother with it for more than 10 or 20 minutes -- an hour tops. I would like people to take away that this thing exists. It’s a game, and it can be this way, and that’s fine. You definitely don’t have to like it, but here it is. Your game has unorthodox rules. You can only visit the museum between certain hours. You have to wait in a line that moves very slowly, and you have to keep up with it. What purpose do the rules serve? The rules came from reflecting on the artwork The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic. That artwork was about her personal discipline. It was physically demanding, and there were specific rules that she followed. The game puts the player through her experience, so that they go through the hardship of the performance. They are restricted to just waiting and occasionally shuffling forward. Waiting is very high on the list of things you are not supposed to have to do in a game. For instance, we all complain bitterly about loading screens. The idea started as a joke. I thought it would be funny to make a game where all you do is wait. Why did you choose to model The Artist is Present after a classic Sierra adventure game? My one true love of games is the original Police Quest. Those old Sierra games had a procedural brutality, in which you had to do everything really properly or you were going to get shafted. That was particularly true of Police Quest. They had a real police officer help design the game, and he put all of this boring stuff in it. You had to go through all of these official motions. The Artist is Present is about that too. It is fascinating to read about the thoughts and feelings Marina Abramovic has during her performances -- for instance when she invited the audience to hurt her. What types of feelings does your game elicit? Abramovic’s performances are about human connections. You look into her eyes, and something is communicated. In making the game, I felt a great joy in negating everything about the work that deals with humanity. The game is really inhuman. You’re in the queue with these non-playable characters. If you move out of the way, they will steal your place. If you try to move too much, they kick you out of the museum. I doubt people feel any humanizing contact. When you sit down with Marina in the game, you are confronted with her pixelated face. She looks into your eyes, but nothing is there. She’s just a sprite who blinks occasionally. There is a viewpoint in certain circles that the rules and systems of games are the inherent artistry. What do you think about that view? There’s no doubt that the systems that underlie games are crucial to their expressiveness. In Ian Bogost’s book How To Do Things with Videogames, he talks about a form of artistic expression in games called proceduralism. He points to Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Rod Humble’s The Marriage as games that try to be expressive through rules. It’s definitely true; but clearly it’s not the only form of expression. It’s just one of them. You have to talk about how rules connect with people beyond a floating Platonic ideal. That’s not expressive. That’s just a mechanical definition. You can’t talk about rules in the absence of some type of human experience.

About the Author(s)

Jason Johnson


Jason Johnson is a freelance writer, a writer of fiction, an amateur painter, and a student of ancient knowledge and mythology. He also writes weekly reviews for our iPhone centric sister-site FingerGaming.com.

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