The widely beloved open world video game of Minecraft will now offer a new activity for its players to explore: interactive artworks presented by the Tate, the third installment of which was just released last week. For those not in the know, Minecraft is sort of like digital Lego blocks on steroids; you start with a landscape, or a ‘map,’ in which you’re welcome to chop down whatever you like in order to build various structures.
Tate’s initiative, known as “Tate Worlds,” is the result of a collaboration with a group of Minecraft artists and builders known as “The Common People” in order to refashion artworks from their collection into Minecraft’s virtual universe. Three custom-made, unalterable maps, which are available to download on Tate’s website, feature the Minecraft versions of André Derain’s “The Pool of London” (1906), Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s “The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’)” (1920) and Peter Blake’s “The Toy Shop” (1962). Five more Minecraft maps will be released in 2015, and will include works by John Singer Sargent, Cornelia Parker, and John Martin.
Both “The Soul of the Soulless City” and “The Pool of London” start off in front of a specialized virtual Tate museum. (Note: I accidentally drowned my character when trying to enter the museum to see The Pool of London. Sensing my incompetence, the game respawned me inside of the painting, and I missed the event the first try.) The museum looks like a large warehouse in the middle of an mountainous landscape. Once inside, your character steps on a floor panel beneath her feet that then transports you inside of the painting world.
When you enter the painting world of Nevinson’s “The Soul of the Soulless City,” you’re immediately greeted by the virtual Minecraft figure of Nevinson. He is standing next to a Minecart, a small grey box that you can use to travel one of the two train tracks within the virtual version of his painting. A small push of the controls, and your cart goes sailing into the metropolis.
As your cart nears the top of one of the buildings, you might hear a faint crackling that eventually turns into a time-period sounding piece of music, as though you’re listening to a phonograph play nearby. All around you, the city whirs by as your cart twists and turns around buildings. You’ll eventually reach a construction yard filled with a few pallets of bricks that you can work on to create your own skyscraper, though you only have 150 seconds to finish. No pressure. Once you’re finished, you’ll board another cart and go see a movie.
The Minecraft interpretation of Nevinson’s painting is spot-on in terms of color and setting, and though it might be impossible to technically achieve a painted gradient in the game, the creators do pay attention to Nevinson’s exaggerated buildings and desire to portray the modernist ethos. Something that seemed to be missing is more of the hazy city smog that Nevinson captured so well on canvas.
Entering “The Pool of London,” you begin on London Bridge overlooking the Thames. Andre Derain greets you and mentions he’s a Fauvist painter who’s somehow lost his paints. He’s convinced that you can help him find his necessary pigments around the city, if you’ll take a look. He asks you to bring him six pots, and doesn’t care all that much if they’re broken.
If you’re not keen to do his errands, you can also have your Minecraft character punch Andre Derain’s avatar in the face.
The buildings that make up the London streets are colorful and reflective of that beastly fauvist attitude. Something that’s bothersome, though, is that within Derain’s actual painting, there are depictions of people moving between the boats, working. This type of interaction is missing from the simulated version: the boats feel like colored props, not a moving slice of the painting. Unlike “The Soul of the Soulless City,” there’s not the same sense you’re actually moving and interacting within the painting itself.
Successful as painting remakes or not, these two Minecraft worlds aren’t the Tate’s first experiments with video games as a way to teach art history. In 2012, the museum published, “Race Against Time,” a free platformer iPhone game that teaches about art’s modern movements.
If these works serve Tate’s mission to teach Minecrafters more about art, that can only be a good thing. At times, though, it seems like the maps distract too much from the paintings with the various missions the created maps offer players. The history behind both paintings — Nevinson renamed his painting, “The Soul of the Soulless City” from “New York – an Abstraction” after he received a poor exhibition review and Derain was sent to London by Vollard to repaint the Thames in Fauvist style — as explained on Tate website is also not mentioned or included in both scenarios. Still, in terms of learning a few facts about the respective time periods of each painting, Tate Worlds does make each virtual artwork an entertaining and enjoyable experience.
The three available modules are available to download on Tate’s website