Interviews

A Conversation with Paola Antonelli about MoMA’s Video Game Collection

Views of various games on display at MoMA's Applied Design show, including (clockwise from top left) "Tetris" (1984), "The Sims" (2000), "Value" (2005–2007), and "Katamari Damacy" (2003). (all images courtesy MoMA)
Views of various games on display at MoMA’s Applied Design show, including (clockwise from top left) “Tetris” (1984), “The Sims” (2000), “Portal” (2007), and “Katamari Damacy” (2003). (all images courtesy MoMA)

The addition of video games to the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) collection has not been a decision unaccompanied by controversy. Last November, when the acquisitions were first announced, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones roundly critiqued the announcement in a short but scathing post titled “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.” The piece is an exemplar of the sort of unstudied and strangely conservative grandstanding that is the bailiwick of a pervasive stripe of middlebrow art criticism. Predictably, Jones’s take ended up propagating widely on social media.

Last Friday, we reported on MoMA’s latest video game acquisitions, the second round of additions culled from what senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli calls a 40-strong “wish list” of games to be added to MoMA’s collection. To better understand how the video game collection fits into MoMA’s curatorial paradigm, and to catch up on any progress since we last talked to her in November, we reached Paola Antonelli in Aspen yesterday, where she took a break from the Ideas Festival to speak with Hyperallergic.

Paola Antonelli at the Digital Life and Design Conference (image via Wikipedia)
Paola Antonelli at the Digital Life and Design Conference (image via Wikipedia)

“I hope all our efforts are trying to talk about art and design in a different way — in the future this distinction will be unnecessary, people will be able to appreciate artworks and objects one by one. There are so many shades of grey between art and design,” Antonelli explained. Though it’s easy to dismiss video games boorishly as not “art,” the truth is that the Museum of Modern Art has, for the entirety of its history, construed its curatorial mission as fundamentally expansive of the notion of art itself, blurring the line between “art” and myriad “other” creative practices like design, architecture, cinema, and fashion.

This perspective isn’t, of course, unique to MoMA, but it provides a starting point for thinking about the position of video games both within Antonelli’s vision as a curator and the museum’s larger purpose as a cultural and artistic steward. Antonelli likened the addition of the video game collection to sending a child to a foreign language school — the experience will no doubt be initially overwhelming, but the new lexicon offered by the language once it’s acquired is profoundly enriching.

“I’ve never felt hurt at all by the criticism … there is always debate when you acquire something,” Antonelli said. Asked if there was internal discord or pushback behind the decision, she continued, “The [MoMA] collection is one; the only reason we are divided into departments is because human knowledge is such that it’s not possible to have all of human expertise in one mind.”

According to a post by Jamin Warren on Kill Screen, the journal of video game culture he co-founded, Antonelli and her staff had been avid readers of the publication since it launched in 2009, three years before the acquisition was announced. Of his involvement in selecting games for the explicit purpose of inclusion in the permanent collection, Warren provides no timeline, writing that:

… it was a secret project — to take games into the permanent collection … [Kill Screen editor-at-large] Ryan [Huo] and I generated a shortlist for Paola and her team and through later conversations, served as a sounding board and advisors for their potential picks.

In addition to consulting the critical community engaged with video games, Antonelli and her team also worked closely with the creators of the games themselves. And part of the reason for the longer timeframe — and the ongoing, piecemeal process of acquiring the remaining games — is the in-depth relationship the museum cultivates with the companies and individuals behind the games. “We have a wish list of 40 games. When you acquire games, you don’t just acquire cartridges, you acquire the relationship with the company, licensing agreement,” she said. “What you see is the reflection of our diplomacy efforts [with the game companies]. … Everybody was very cooperative, but it was hard to find the right person — companies get bought, get larger.”

A GIF by digital artist Mike Essen (courtesy the artist)
A GIF by digital artist Mark Essen (courtesy the artist)

But underscoring the difficulty of constructing a video game collection is the fact that — much like consumer design — some games are to be construed as products for mass entertainment and consumption, simple games built with the intention of being played compulsively, whereas others are more aesthetically sophisticated. This isn’t to say that Pong doesn’t have the same merits as the work of a game developer/artist like Mark Essen, but I was curious whether Antonelli considered her efforts to be part of forming a nascent video game “canon” of sorts. She was hesitant about the concept:

We try not to talk about canons anymore, it’s something that doesn’t work in contemporary culture that much. Curation today is about being trusted and putting together a meaningful list to help people make paths. It’s not a canon, it’s one possible way into an issue and then people can find their way.

Installation view of the exhibition Applied Design at The Museum of Modern Art, 2013. (Photo by Jason Mandella)
Installation view of the exhibition Applied Design at The Museum of Modern Art, 2013. (Photo by Jason Mandella)

This is of course the answer one would expect to get from a MoMA curator, but it would be interesting to consider more theoretically and — dare I say — definitively how a game like “Tempest” (1981), which is fairly radical in its approach to perspective, graphics, and strategy, fits into the sleepy, two-dimensional planes of “Space Invaders” (1978) or “Asteroids” (1979). Much like other arenas in modern and contemporary art, however, maybe these are distinctions better debated by critics.

The existence of an emerging community of video game critics, including high-minded publications like Kill Screen and landmark academic texts like Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play (MIT Press, 2009), suggests an intellectual maturation in the field. Though with Nintendo Power magazine recently ending its 24-year run, it’ll be interesting to see how MoMA bridges the gap between the early, informal fan culture of casual gaming and the increasingly serious world of video game criticism. (Asked about any plans to build an archive of Nintendo Power, Antonelli said she would look into it.)

As for commissioning games in the future, perhaps with an eye to developing some of the more radical or critical practices emerging in video game design, Antonelli noted that MoMA would be open to working with artists on commissioning games, though such interest would primarily occur within the Education department. And what about her own tastes? Antonelli appreciates the pleasures of simplicity. “I’ve played every game in the collection, but I’m not a serious gamer. I have an addictive personality. I get addicted to these games that empty your mind, that are sort of Zen. My favorite games are like Tetris and Minesweeper.”

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