Monday, October 17, 2011

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL TWO, OR, THREE PLUS BRAMBLES

FOLEY


Michelangelo is supposed to have said that every block of stone contains a statue and it's the sculptor's job to find it; Gary Foley is like a sculptor whose medium is history, chipping away at facts to reveal the truth behind them. His one-man show is a lecture on the history of Aboriginal independence in Australia (a narrative in which he himself figures prominently) but it's as far from a dry classroom lesson as you could imagine. He paces the stage with a nervous energy, throwing out observations and recollections with a raconteur's wit and a keen ear for irony – indeed, it's a bitter joke that that he's even here to deliver these words, since at 61 he's well exceeded the life expectancy of the average Indigenous Australian male.

It's a meandering hour and forty five, though Foley's digressions mean that the show's length varies from show to show. Some of his most interesting ruminations occur when he goes off-script, though he's quick to reprimand himself and get back to business. At times this means that some of the prepared material is a bit rushed, but at the matinee I visited there wasn't a single unnecessary moment. Indeed, condensing more than a century of history into such a short span is a feat in itself: Foley manages to include Marcus Garvey and Jack Johnson, Malcolm X and Charlie Perkins, the creation of the Aboriginal flag (designed over two slabs of beer!), the Freedom Ride of the 1960s, the great migration of Indigenous Australians into our urban centres, the sporting controversies, segregated cinemas, the outrageous compromise that is Native Title, the broken promises of governments both Labor and Liberal, the ABC-commissioned Aboriginal comedy show Basically Black (one episode was produced in 1973 and from the excerpts we see here, it was a ridiculously groundbreaking moment in Australian television that was consigned to the vaults). The show's peak is an extended detailing of the Tent Embassy in Canberra, and some of the footage Foley uses to illustrate his words is revelatory. It's also testament to his charm that his audience can be laughing at film of a young Foley himself being beaten unconscious by police on the lawn of Parliament – it's a genuinely hilarious presentation of something that in reality is deeply unnerving and should be hard to watch. That's Foley: an enlightening and sometimes disturbing polemic, proudly political, presented in the most generous and accessible terms.

I caught a show where at least half of the audience were school kids, and Foley often addressed them directly, suggesting they get political and keep the fight going. When he asked if they were on-side he was met with a rousing cheer. His is a history that should be kept alive. That so much of the material he proffers isn't an acknowledged foundation for every Australian's sense of identity – well, that's the biggest joke of all.

DOUBLETHINK


There's more to this new dance work than meets the eye. Choreographer Byron Perry has previously shown promise with the affable I Like This, co-created with Antony Hamilton, and this first outing on his own extends those expectations further. It's performed by Kirstie McCracken and Lee Searle, two of the most physically striking dancers around right now, but in an odd way the actual dance is secondary. Perry's background is recognisable in the choreography itself – there are obvious gestures to Chunky Move as well as other companies and dancemakers in Melbourne – but the larger frame in which the dance is situated is what's most intriguing here. If anything it's reminiscent of Helen Herbertson's investigation of darkness, absence and duration and shock, but Perry evinces an originality that deserves consideration on its own.

In a way I found myself a bit bored by the work, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. Some art manages to evoke the kind of boredom theorised by Heidegger in the 1920s – a kind of forced disconnect that can free the mind from convention and leave us floundering desperately for something, anything, to grasp onto for support. It demands the mind become active, hyper-alert to its own role in the production of sensation, rather than a passive receptor of stimuli. That's what occurred to me, here: subtle light shifts and an evolving score gradually loose the spectator's sense of stable space and at times the two dancers are visible only at the edge of vision, as shapes that can't be perceived directly. A dance work where you can only see the dancers by looking away? Sure. It's a small but minutely detailed piece where the performance itself is half distraction: while you're busy paying attention to the movement, something else sneaks through the back door of your brain and starts rifling through your mental belongings. I wasn't in love when I was watching it, but I emerged into the night with that peculiar kind of clarity that usually accompanies insomnia, and every object I saw seemed to possess some kind of inner life I couldn't quite access. I don't know if that's what Perry intended, but it's enough for me.

HALF-REAL


Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong and Pacman, now offering sophisticated and immersive experiences that occasionally aspire to the status of art. It's a pity that this new work's convergence of new media and theatre could have been conceived in the days of point-and-click adventure games. A CSI-style murder mystery is played out and at key points audience members are given the opportunity to decide which direction the investigation will take; sadly, the novel interactivity isn't far removed from your average impro comedy night, and while it's all pleasantly diverting it doesn't leave anyone with very much to ponder once the game is over.

That's the short version. I'm going to go on a long excursion into the relationship between games and art here which might isn't directly related to Half-Real, so feel free so skip to the end for any conclusions I might reach (not promising anything).

I'm of a generation which grew up with video games, to the point that I only realised it today. I was swapping games on cassette tapes and floppy disks with kids at school long before my family had a VCR, more than a decade before I'd seen a ballet or an opera, possibly even before I'd enjoyed a book that didn't contain pictures or at least a map at the front. My friends and I knew how to hack into games and code our own (though I have no idea how to do any of this now). If you'd ask me then whether games could be art, I probably couldn't have answered you, since I wouldn't have had a clue what you meant by 'art'. Games were first.

I drifted away from computer games for a long time, but I suppose they always popped up as an entertainment option every once in a while. There probably hasn't been a year in which I wasn't at least aware of some game or other, trying out a new title when visiting a mate's house or reading up on the latest controversial release. If you'd asked me five years ago whether games could be art, I would have said: sure. If art can alter your experience of the world, or offer a new way of engaging with it, or tap into the Benjaminian optical unconscious, then why not? Games can do all of these things.

Earlier this year I came upon the fuss caused by film critic Roger Ebert's longstanding claim that games cannot be art. His argument is a bit fluffy and has shifted over the past half-decade and doesn't to me make a compelling argument. It's worth noting that he hasn't played any of the games he discusses. It's not worth reading his essays on the topic unless you're especially interested. They didn't convince me, at least.

But then I read an article by someone who does work in the gaming industry, has played those games people put forward as art, and who unexpectedly found himself coming to defend Ebert's claim. His piece is here, and is essential reading. The various arguments it explores are too many for me to summarise – it covers Kant, Schopenhauer, Bob Dylan, intersubjectivity, free speech, the sublime, kitsch...

“If you consciously set out trying to make an "art game," it's possible that you will instead create an arty game, a game with the trappings of sublime art. Solemn themes. Classical music. Literary quotations. Participation by artistic celebrities from other media. These things don't necessarily make a game artistic.”

The reason, argues writer Brian Moriarty, is that “games are purposeful. They are defined as the exercise of choice and will towards a self-maximizing goal. But sublime art is like a toy. It elicits play in the soul. The pleasure we get from it lies precisely in the fact that it has no rules, no goal, no purpose.”

Moriarty is passionate in his defence of games, but to conflate (some) with art is to miss the very thing that makes them games. To paraphrase him: it took a long time for photography and cinema to be understood as art. New technologies always face this. But to expect video games to follow the same path is a categorical error, since “games” aren't new at all! We don't consider Chess or Go as great art, though they're stunning achievements. We don't consider baseball or kiss chasey to be art, either. Games are structurally different to whatever art is – you can have elements of play in a work of art, and 'arty' elements to a game, but this doesn't mean they're the same thing. Games are about the exercise of will, whereas sublime art (according to Moriarty's understanding of Schopenhauer) allows us to transcend Will. Again, art can involve play – the audience can take on the role of artist – but that should be valued as play, as game. It's a good thing. But is it art?

Until I came across this article, I hadn't really been following what was going on in the game world for a few years. I decided to see how things were faring. Put the thesis to the test. Some results:

LIMBO:


I'd had this indie game recommended as a “a fantastically atmospheric, dark and confusing masterpiece” so it's a good place to start. It's certainly one of the most visually arresting games out there – the old platform-game (think Super Mario) re-imagined as a Gothic shadow play. There's no introduction or scene-setting to explain the scenario, but as the piece unfolds there are hints as to what's really going on. A little boy wakes in a forest and goes wandering; he crosses a river in a boat, sees other shadowy children running ahead who set traps for him; is chased by a fairly terrifying giant spider; makes his way into an industrial ghost-town; ends up... well, I won't spoil it. The game takes very conventional elements and infuses them with a melancholy you wouldn't expect from this kind of thing, and the ambiguity of the backstory is enough to have generated plenty of theories online. It's lovingly crafted, and demands reflection on its more profound meanings once you're done. Does this make it art?

BIOSHOCK:



This one's pretty old by video game standards, but is touted by many as one of the shining examples of innovation in the form. It's a shoot-em-up that doubles as a satirical condemnation of the political theory of Ayn Rand: the player finds himself stranded in an undersea metropolis created by a supercapitalist megalomaniac whose philosophy of extreme individualism is an obvious take on Rand's objectivism. The outcome is affected by moral choices made during gameplay, and these choices themselves end up part of a larger discourse of free will versus determinism, as the conventions of the form itself put into question how much choice the player has had in terms of real freedom. The setting is a sort of steampunky alternate history version of the postwar period, but it's clear how the political philosophy explored has formed one of the foundations for the world we find ourselves in today. Does this make it art?

DEAD ISLAND:
The trailer for this one alone had people in tears. It's worth watching if you don't know how far games have come in the past decade, but be warned – it's a zombie game, so it IS pretty gory. What's more surprising is how it condenses a tragic narrative, recognisable characters and a tangible sense of space into a short video clip for a computer game.
The game itself is visually ravishing and viscerally sensational – it's legitimately scary and at times provokes a bodily reaction of panic (I didn't really want to play it after a while for this reason). It's not that thought-provoking, but it definite has a real effect on the player. Even more intriguing is the fact that of the four characters the player may choose from, two are black, one is Chinese and one is an American of ambiguous ethnicity. A best-selling zombie game in which the lead character is (or can be) an Indigenous Australian woman! Compare this to other media. Does this make it art?

MASS EFFECT 2:



Battlestar Galactica is one of the most interesting TV series of the new millennium; it reinvents a kitschy 70s sci-fi as a sort of West Wing in space, presenting a complex post-9/11 allegory of competing theologies, racial paranoia and technological determinism. The Mass Effect series seems like an unofficial game adaptation of Battlestar, so it makes sense that President Bartlett/Martin Sheen himself voices one of the main characters, along with two of the leads from Battlestar.

The game is densely plotted and features countless characters with long backstories and intricate relationships; again, moral choices feature prominently, and as with other 'sandbox' games the player is given a great deal of freedom to explore and interact with the game world in their own way. While the narrative is solid, the way it plays out is determined by the player – a distinction between story and plot which is one of the key differences between gaming and other forms of art, I think. But despite the player's role in the narration itself, the story is certainly as present as any other form of literature, and this isn't just free play with no goal other than overcoming obstacles. Does this make it art?

PORTAL 2:



This is the game that really had me wondering if a video game could be a new kind of art in itself. Even the end credits had me transfixed! It's quite impossible to convey in words almost anything about the thing, though I can state the facts. There are more than 13,000 lines of dialogue – much of which is laugh-out-loud stuff – co-written and voiced by The Office's Stephen Merchant along with a bunch of other outstanding actors. The visual design is astonishing, and deeply, thickly immersive. The score (which includes an original song by The National) is truly dynamic, gaining in complexity in response to the player's actions. And the story, oh, the story. It's brilliant, but it's in the way the narrative is produced by the player that the game becomes something truly new. Most games with any plot to speak of feature cinematic cut-scenes – bits of story where the game as game stops and the player watches a fairly conventional sequence that might as well have been cut from a movie. Interactivity ends, actors speak lines, and we cut back to the play. Portal 2's genius is in the way the entire game is a cinematic, but the player maintains control throughout. It's operatic in scope, but you get to be part of the performance.

Still. Does this make it art?

Who cares?

A game, like any form of media, can be political, hilarious, emotionally wrenching, physically affecting, thought-provoking, offensive, entrancing, enlightening, boring. It can take you to other places or make you aware of your own. Does it help us if we decide that one of these things makes it art, or does it just set up a boundary dispute that tells us nothing about anything anyway? I'd rather hear that something is political, hilarious, emotionally wrenching and so on than that it's 'art'.

Back to Half-Real: in attempting to find a point at which games and art (in this case, theatre) can converge, it seems to me that the work what makes either so special. As a game, it offers only a few choices with no obvious rewards, and even these choices are subsumed into the will of the crowd – imagine a game in which half of your attempts to do something produce no effect. And as theatre, the story is hobbled by the interactivity, lacking a complexity of narrative and character. The performances are fine, but their liveness is at odds with the flat, affectless nature of the presentation itself. We're introduced as part of that liveness but are never given any reason to invest in anything that goes on. It's mildly diverting, and definitely not dull or irritating, but there's not much to do, and even less to think about afterwards.

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