Curatorial text for BANANA RAM – Ancona, Italy, 6/11 july 2004
Net.art section curated by Isabelle Arvers on http://www.bananaram.org
Entertainment has largely been perceived negatively in the western Roman Catholic tradition of thinking. Entertainment is the soul’s perdition. Etymologically, di-vertere means a subtraction from a whole, it’s a distraction for the spirit. This is the terrible FLY of the Thoughts of Pascal, which disturbs you when you try to think about your condition as a human being, alone in front of your destiny of mortal humanity. This is what allows us to forget that we will die, and nonetheless that we have to work and fight for a master, whoever he is, and wait for our death.
In this sense, entertainment can be seen as a good way to control people’s mind. It is part of the ancient rules that explain the civil obedience. “Why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement?” asked La Boétie in 1550. “Why do the bulk of the people acquiesce in their own subjection?” La Boetie answered these questions by explaining the governmental mystique created by the rulers and their intellectual apologists. By relying on custom, by providing both bread and circuses to the citizens, and by creating a vast network of governmental supporters dependent on political plunder, governments were able to engineer and sustain their own popular acceptance among the populace.
It is still so current and true when we look at mass media and consumerism.
No state seems to have any interest in giving knowledge to the masses. The state’s interest is to keep its Power, by not allowing us the rules of autonomy1. It creates good workers, good citizens and good consumers, but few rebels and dangerous thinkers. So, we could first begin by saying that there is a kind of negative entertainment that controls minds with “weapons of mass distraction”. If a lack of this kind of entertainment creates monsters, these monsters are the genius creators and the free thinkers. They are the beauty hidden behind the cruelty and the madness of the world. In that sense Rimbaud, Leonardo da Vinci or Artaud are big monsters. A monstrous beauty as in Lynch movies…
If we talk now about entertainment as pleasures of mind and body, then monsters take on a different appearance. Entertainment, as pleasure in culture, knowledge, art and education can free people minds. This kind of entertainment enlightens spirits and senses, raises people’s awareness and provides references which raise personal autonomy and self-determination2. Lack of this entertainment definitively creates monsters. Amin Dada could be the best example for this. He grew up in townships without any education or entertainment, only educated in the law of the strongest…
A Cultural vacuum leads also to monstrous entertainment. To give just few examples, the most popular magazine in Thailand, whose title could be translated as Yaba killers, is a magazine dedicated to daily ultra violent crimes of yaba addicts. Yaba is a drug that drives people crazy and extremely violent… that’s a must in Thai entertainment. In Liberia, where almost no entertainment or education is given to the population, the journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski3 tells the story of a video tape that is secretly shared by the entire population: this is a video of an execution of the “war lords”, more precisely the scene where a man has his ear cut off, much as in the Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs. Of course, the monstrosity lies also in each massive attack against the intellect, in each marketing attack against free exchange of knowledge and access to education and technologies.
Apart from reality shows, TV reality, or political masquerade which have been already largely analyzed by the Situationists and Guy Debord, one could say that the monstrosity is anything that just maintains the “status quo”, anything that keeps the public comfortable in the “mind ghetto”: art and culture for the happy few, games for teenagers, knowledge for the elite, violence for the others… In our Democracies or “Entertainment Republics”4, it may sound pernicious. But, it follows the point of view of Philippe Vergne, interviewed for Let’s entertain exhibit, when he says that «we are facing a totalitarianism that is not suppressing freedom of speech or thought but is reducing the faculty of choice and self-determination via means of leisure and amusement. It’s a smooth totalitarism, offering nothing but escape.”
How is it possible to act without being manipulated? To what degree do we have freedom in our interaction with reality? How do we get out from the limits pre-established by the norm, this huge niveling enterprise towards boredom, stupidity and fear? La Fontaine, who could be qualified as an ancient entertainer wrote: “The world is old, says one, I believe it / And yet it is still necessary to amuse it like a child”5 As our world is getting older and older, entertainment is now surrounding us. So the question of fun is possibly the most serious of our days. And if we don’t want to keep on using old manners of thinking, let’s open the doors, the doors between artistic disciplines, between audiences and genres.
So it turned to a choice into hybrid forms of net.art, digital games, installations and maps. By showing artworks that use the same aesthetics and codes of entertainment and games, but whose aims are just to participate, to free our minds a little and to raise our awareness. As, La Boetie was noting also, a Power is created by opinion, change this opinion and no Power resists6… What we could say today is that we just have to hack the reality itself. And Games, from this point of view, are a really good way to succeed in7.
One of the first characteristics of the game is that you are free to decide to play8. Nobody will force you to participate in a game. If this is the case, it won’t be a game any more. So, for once, you are the master of your choice, you can manipulate things: cards, avatars, roles, pictures, etc. In you playing a game, you represent an obstacle to the norm, because in games, you can play with power, institutions, identities and ethics9. The question isn’t why 90% of computer and console games are violent and mostly shoot-them-up. The question is why do we need such ego gratifications? Is it perhaps because family, education, society and state failed in giving us an identity? Today, nobody wants to take the responsibility of the world, this is not our fault, we are not responsible…In games, you keep the control, even if the machine wins, it is still a machine.
Then to counter certain types of games like America’s Army the aim of which is to enroll future soldiers, it is important to give massive promotion to computer games with more critical content10. The only thing to keep in mind is the fun of the game. And the problem is that it is still a bit difficult to find more than a few artistic or independent games that gamers will enjoy to play and unfortunately – for me – this is exactly the kind of audience that I would like to touch. In fact, my aim is not to preach to the converted. They don’t have any lack of entertainment!
The four games presented in the net.art section – Metapet, Vigilance, Fingerprint maze and Waco Resurrection – have something in common. They all play on changing perspectives. The subversion begins as soon as you play the game because it deals with genetics, surveillance, fingerprint identification or religious fanatics… like a 3D or 2D mirror on your face, only if you accept the experience.
In Metapet, you are the manager and the employee of the future works for you. With an excellent and fancy design, this game deals with crucial issues like genetics and it made me think of an article I read in 1994 about the future genetic passport, which greatly impressed me. In fact, this game is super fun till you begin to empathize with your worker… This is not the first game realized by the net.artist Natalie Bookchin. The Intruder (1999) was Pong reinterpreting the text of Borges. In Banana RAM, Natalie is going to present Agoraxchange, a new “online multiplayer game world simulating an alternative to the present global order” that she created in collaboration with Jackie Stevens, a Science Political Professor.
In Vigilance, you are now Big Brother and your aim is denunciation. As distasteful as this might seen, you can’t stop trying to find the crime scenes on the little screens! With a delicious design, the manipulative power of the interactive picture works perfectly. This is what is interesting also in Martin Le Chevallier’s interactive videos, Oblomov (2001) and One minute of silence (2003). His critique of interactivity is illustrated in the fact that the more you click on Oblomov, the less he wants to act. Interactivity is a mean, not an end.
In Fingerprint maze you wander and play in the labyrinth of your fingerprint as a new space to discover. Your aim is to encounter endangered species – which are perhaps us, the human beings, I don’t know yet. Perhaps, if you don’t save these species, you won’t even know it. “Simultaneously, we are looking out to space to colonize and identify deep space particles which may reveal our past, while here on earth we are looking at our fingerprints as personal identifiers. What have we as a culture, society, race in the palms of our hands or in the cracks of our thumbprints?” asks Amy Franceschini and is there a space to wander in it?
Waco Resurrection, the first game of the End Games series by C-Level, plays on “visual, physical and social realism”. You take the personality of the cult leader David Koresh by putting a mask of his face on your head and saying loud: “I am David Koresh” and to achieve as many followers as possible. The end is known in advance, everybody is going to die! There is no irony or sense of humor in this game. It is just a way to urge the player to think about the larger theme of violence.
Being Boring is a net.film that will play for a week, with a new episode created every day during Banana RAM. It refers literally to one of our biggest monsters: boredom. It is said that just before may 1968, the major French press were saying: “France is bored!” We know what happened next and it is one of the cases where boredom created positive action, even if these utopias ended in 80’s individualism, it is still time for some action!
In the realm of net.art, Pavu.com is here to show that there is always another solution. Their main purpose is to “plin” the world with its “Gnou Found Lands” – their free server space, “NELia**” – another art market, and the strategic new talents school lapity.com. You won’t forget their absolutely entertaining hypertext and strange sound performances, like Pinkerton Call, a new project created for Banana RAM.
This absurdist critique is then illustrated in a more specific way in the take away map Governing by Network by Bureau d’études. A visual representation of the power networks surrounding us, the “free” human beings. “To be autonomous today is to have the capacity to cut off a network. Creating silence, in other words, cutting off noise (antennas, media) is now a precondition for the appearance of political speech. And breaking off circulation (supermarkets, transportation, banks, information) is a precondition of the self-determination of production.” (Bureau d’études, 2003) translation: Brian Holmes.
Giving an echo to the last smart & entertaining project of Carbon Defense League, peoplejeans.com is like a mockery of the philanthropic fashion companies. Such as Re:code (2003) or Human Mobility Administration performance (2003), CDL’s projects aim to hack the reality in itself. With public artistic interventions or dedicated websites, they activate our reflection on education, consumerism, marketing and human controls.
So, let’s be monstruous thinkers and let’s entertain ourselves…
Isabelle Arvers, march 2004
1-“(…) western education is not about opening one’s horizons through expanding the possibilities of interpretation and encouraging the exploration of various simultaneous becoming. Quite the opposite: education is about copying—it is digital reproduction in its most hideous form. Education (or for that matter any interaction between child and authority) is a means to replicate specific semiotic regimes within individuals that will direct them to become a part of a digital aggregate.” in Child as Participant (Where Anarchy and Technology Fuck), CDL and Critical Art Ensemble, 1999-2000.
2-“La fête, c’est ce qu’il faut anéantir pour continuer d’exister”, in Fêtes et civilisations, Jean Duvignaud, Weber, 1973.
3- Heban, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Czytelnik, Varsovie, 1998
4-Come Back to Pleasure, Richard Shusterman, Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures, Walker Art Center, 2000.
5-“Le monde est vieux, dit-on, je le crois
Et pourtant il le faut amuser encore comme un enfant.” La Fontaine, Fables de la Fontaine.
6-“All government is founded on opinion. Men at present live under any particular form, because they conceive it their interest to so do. …Destroy this opinion, and the fabric which is built upon it falls to the ground.” “Make men wise, and by that very operation you make them free. Civil liberty follows as a consequence of this; no usurped power can stand against the artillery of opinion.” in The politic of obedience: discourse on voluntary servitude, Etienne De La Boetie, 1550.
7-«Feminist, Conceptual and Net Artists from outside of gaming culture’s denizens can apply their strategies of cultural criticism and hacktivism to the game patch arena (..)» in Parasitic Interventions: Game Patches and Hacker Art, Anne Marie Schleiner, 1998.
8-«L’homme n’est heureux que de vouloir et d’inventer. Cela se voit dans le jeu de cartes; il est clair, d’après les visages, que chacun contemple alors sa propre puissance de délibérer et de décider […]. In Propos sur le Bonheur, Alain, 1928La fabrique des monstres, in L’imaginaire utopique aujourd’hui, Alain Pessin, PUF, 2001.
9- Le jeu du jeu, Jean Duvignaud, Balland, 1980.
10-« Echoing the re-patterning of society in the wake of print, and later radio and television, computer games are socializing the younger generations of post-industrial citizens, reorganizing their world-view and thought parameters along the axes of fighting games, first person shooters, adventure games, strategy games, MUDs and networked Internet games » in Does Lara Croft Ware Fake Polygons , Anne Marie Schleiner, 1999.
« Video games, however, provide a good starting point. Children are already socialized to the form, so no education is needed. (…) The question now becomes, how can the content be made more complex and critical without losing the audience? », in Child as Participant (Where Anarchy and Technology Fuck), CDL and Critical Art Ensemble, 1999-2000. http://www.carbondefense.org/writing_4.html
« I want to work with a genre that has mass popularity. Many people play computer games. Very few people look at net.art. I want to have some access to this audience of game players. », in Interview: Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin, Walkerart Center, January 2000