“Art game” is a relatively recent coinage that can refer to a very artistic video game — Flower, for example. But it’s also the title of indie developer Pippin Barr’s latest creation, which takes its name extremely literally. Barr has turned the art world into a video game.
His monochromatic, eight-bit game is a part-sincere, part-satirical take on what it’s like to be an artist working at the highest levels of New York City’s visual art scene. Players choose between three protagonists for their avatar: Cicero Sassoon is “one of the most famous minimalist painters working today,” the Russian Alexandra Tertanov is an “unstoppable force in the world of sculpture,” and the ambiguously related duo William Edge and Susan Needle create video work. Your job, should you choose to take it on, is to help one of these artists make their work, pass it by a curator, and participate in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Your enemy in this micro art world, if there is an enemy, is the MoMA curator, who shepherds you to your studio and bids you make work for her show. She is the arbiter of quality, deciding which pieces are fit for the public and which you might as well trash. So get to work!
The art-making process is modeled after three different classic video games. Sassoon makes his minimalist paintings through Snake, while Tertanov uses Tetris to build her structures. Edge and Needle play Space War (you’ll need two players, or to be very ambidextrous, to make their work). The artworks are completed when you lose the game. I found Tertanov’s process to be the most rewarding — it’s possible to create some interesting towers if you ignore Tetris’s basic strategies.
After completing several artworks, players will have to maneuver their artists to a phone in their studios (which are fascinating rehearsals of urban studio cliches, from brick-walled factories to SoHo penthouses). The MoMA curator then drops by and tells you which works, if any, she’ll take. The process is random and ruthless. The time I spent as Tertanov felt wasted as Madame Curator told me that, “ultimately I think the best thing is for you to just re-engage with your practice,” which a hilarious and pointed bit of International Art English that Barr did well to include. It feels like an insult.
Which might be the point! In a blog post about the game, Barr writes, “I think it’s possible to feel angry with the curator for not selecting a particularly excellent example of your oeuvre.” Might the game have been inspired by his own not-so-positive experience with a curator? The game asks the question of how value is determined: not so much by the creator as by how the artwork is received by a community’s power brokers and the world at large.
Perhaps none of us are the best judges of our own work, but Barr’s representation of the process is certainly brutal. I made it to the end of the game after three rounds of painting as Sassoon. There’s a group show of work by all three artists, and your avatar strolls through the packed gallery space, looking at art and spying on the reactions of others. “Great. More of the same from him I guess,” one guest commented on my Snake paintings. The short burst of annoyance I felt is testament to the game’s pathos, and a small inkling of what artists must feel at openings.
At the opening, I piloted my character to talk to Tertanov. She told me she was honored to be showing alongside my work, but apologized for being too overwhelmed to speak further. I thought her Tetris sculptures looked great, personally.