Interviews

The Artist Is Present Game Creator Talks Marina Mania, Video Games & the Rules

by Hrag Vartanian on September 19, 2011

Pippin Barr works and teaches at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University in Copenhagen, and readers of Hyperallergic will know him as the guy who created “The Artist Is Present” video game. A native of New Zealand, he’s lived in the Danish capital for the last few years.

Even though the game was launched last Wednesday, it has already become an online sensation. Its retro 8-bit aesthetics lends an air of nostalgia to the whole  idea of sitting with performance art denizen Marina Abramović.

I caught up with Barr online to ask him about “The Artist Is Present,” the popular fascination with Abramović and how the experience mimics some aspects of the real thing at MoMA.

*   *   *

A self-portrait by Pippin Barr (courtesy the artist)

Hrag Vartanian: What do you think it was about the Abramović performance that captured people’s imagination?

Pippin Barr: Hmmm, well that’s not something I’m terribly qualified to weigh in on, as I never saw the performance personally but only read about it in the media, but I’ve certainly thought about that as I made the game. The heart of the work seemed to be about the possibility of a kind of unmediated connection between two people – just through the eyes, with nothing else mattering. Staring into someone’s eyes fixedly is a really intense experience, to be sure.

Of course, you could enact that part of the performance yourself with a willing participant, so the meaning has to be expanded to include the physical nature of what Abramović was doing herself — the arduous task of sitting there, connecting with person after person. It’s clear that very few people could manage to pull it off and of course she trained for it very seriously to be able to do it herself. That starts pushing into a different territory of endurance and of an artist “giving herself” in this really intense way.

It’s also incredibly simple — chairs (and a table for a while), a person, and that’s it. It’s  challenging in the way that a lot of the best contemporary art can be (or at least the sorts of work I personally like), and yet it’s very accessible conceptually — you can “get” the basics of it without trying to hard and you can admire it, even if you don’t perhaps see the “point” of doing it. It’s not a work that perhaps fends you off in the way that I feel so much contemporary work does.

And then, of course, there was a huge amount of the work that wasn’t the work: the surrounding fervor of the media and participants — it turned into a much bigger show than “just” two people sitting and looking into each other’s eyes. I have no idea to what extent that aspect of it was also intended by Abramović — I imagine she had to know it would be a kind of sensation. So you have these endless queues, people fighting to get in, celebrities coming along, controversy surrounding preferential treatment, other artists performing inside the performance, and so on. And it’s easy to be drawn to the work just to see what the fuss is all about, as well.

HV: There has been a lot of discussion about video games as art, but what are your thoughts on the idea?

PB: Well to a certain extent it’s a bit like the “ludology” versus “narratology” debate that raged in game studies for a while — there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter. At the same time, though, there are issues of status and being taken seriously that mean that it *is* important to think about these kinds of issues.

My own position is that at the very least it’s madness to say something like “games can never be art.” To me, the salient point to remember in these discussions is that games are a *medium* — many things can be expressed through a particular medium, and some of them may be considered art, and some may not. In TV, not many people think of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along as art, at least not “high art,” but a lot of people would argue passionately that something like The Wire definitely is.

And the same thing is true of games. A lot of games are pretty uninspiring, if extremely fun, experiences of shooting things or matching shapes to one another, stretching our spatial reasoning abilities, and so on. But just because every other game feels like it’s based on killing people doesn’t mean that the medium can’t be expressive in a great number of other ways — we just need to *do* it.

So, while it’s not the case that I made “The Artist Is Present” as some kind of meditation on “are games art?” (except as a tongue-in-cheek joke about it, perhaps), it is true that I think it at least pushes on the self-imposed boundaries of what games are “allowed” to do a little more. At heart, though, I wouldn’t claim that my game is art simply because I don’t personally find it an interesting or terribly relevant thing to say. Others will differ.

HV: Why did you feel compelled to create this game?

PB: Well, I don’t think that I’d say I felt specially compelled to make this particular game. Early this year I decided to stop playing and thinking and writing about games and to actually start making some myself. So my mission has been, more than anything, to *keep making games* as much as possible. Going along with that, I’m not too interested in making games that are too similar to one another — and that means I have to keep coming up with what are (to me) novel ideas about what I could do with a game-like thing.

In reality, it just popped into my head one day as I was finishing up with Safety Instructions — “man, it would be really funny to make a game of ‘The Artist Is Present,’ premised on waiting.” So the genesis was just a thought that amused me. As I actually worked on the game I thought more about what was going on with it and came to believe it’s certainly much more than just a joke about games or a joke about art — there’s more to it than that. But it did *start* as a bit of a comedy moment in my head.

HV: I’m still waiting in line to sit with the artist, how long am I going to have to wait? :)

PB: In my researching for the game I tried to learn as much as possible about what happened so that I could include a number of “authentic” details — like the museum being closed at particular times. And I read somewhere that the average time per person sitting with Abramovic was 20 minutes — obviously with a high variance of people who sat for a couple of minutes and one or two who sat all day, and everything in between. So I primitively simulated that — there are lots of possible times any given patron will sit with her, from minutes to hours, but it averages out that you wait about 20 minutes per person.

HV: I keep getting kicked out of line, why?

PB:  you’re probably getting kicked out of line for taking too long to move up — if the queue moves and you just stand there, then eventually the person behind you will push you out of the way and you’ll lose your place — it prevents people from playing the game with total inattention, just leaving it in the background all the time — you’re meant to *consciously* queue.

NOTE: Barr has also elaborated on his answers here on his own blog in a post appropriately titled, “The Antagonist Is Present?

You can play Pippin Barr’s “The Artist Is Present” here.

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