Tuesday, September 20, 2022

"Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles" at EFA Project Space, Sept 23 - Oct 29, 2022

My gay historical bathroom cruising game "The Tearoom" is part of a new upcoming group exhibition "Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles" at the EFA Project Space in New York City, curated by Nicholas O’Brien. 

The show will run for about a month, from September 23rd to October 29th, 2022. Although I won't be there, since I currently live on the opposite side of the planet, I encourage you to check it out. There's a lot of great people and good stuff.

I've copy-and-pasted the exhibition blurb below:

EFA Project Space presents Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles, a group exhibition of artists, designers, and developers exploring the boundaries of games as an artistic medium. This exhibition attempts to sidestep the reactionary debates of whether “games can be art “and instead highlights works that have already put an end to this question. By bringing these works together at EFA Project Space, curator Nicholas O’Brien, wants to show contemporary art audiences how games have been having parallel (or shared) conversations about politics, society, history, and identity in equally nuanced, poetics, and critical ways.

 The exhibition’s title is a riff on Bernard Suits’ definition of a game in his part fiction/part philosophical treatise The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia: “A game is voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” O’Brien’s “play” on this definition suggests that contemporary games—particularly when viewed as cultural artifacts and not as instruments of entertainment media—can represent some considerably difficult cultural and social barriers facing our world today. In turn, players must commit ourselves (voluntarily) to surmount these obstacles to move toward purposeful outcomes that speak to spaces, feelings, and relationship beyond the so-called “magic circle” of play.

However, one of the initial “obstacles” for the works on view in this exhibition is for them to be understood and appreciated on their own terms and not by the limited vernacular of “tech.” Game art has struggled for wider recognition within some contemporary art canons when it doesn’t conform to spectacle. Though artists using games have found several high-profile exhibition opportunities, presentations of those works often leverage the technical prowess of makers and their ability to craft complex systems using game engines. Though those works deserve merit, this exhibition presents an alternative to praising technical novelty in favor of celebrating the storytelling, critical introspection, and subversive graphical gestures that games can also offer.

The other important “obstacle” facing this medium is to not fall into the trap of appreciating games as merely pieces of entertainment media that allow for the “potential for empathy through immersion.” This proposition, initially posed by Jonathan Belman and Mary Flanigan around 2010, circulated widely through the games industry and couches “meaningful play” into an attempt at fully encapsulating complex personal/societal issues into reductive and easily consumable experiences. This premise resulted in countless threads of reactionary trolling, polemic rhetoric about “what games can do” (or what they ought to do), and institutional justifications for exhibiting (and collecting) games as designed objects.

Instead, Voluntary Attempts… wishes to present these pieces as artistic experiments and explorations that could (and should) be considered as equally poignant as other existing critiques happening elsewhere in contemporary art.

There's also some additional interpretive notes about the specific games on offer too.

I do have one nitpick about the gallery's notes: Escape from Woomera isn't a multiplayer Counter-Strike mod as they suggest, but rather it's a single player Half-Life mod. I can understand why you'd want to believe it's a Counter-Strike mod -- it would mean this non-profit refugee journalism game was a direct subversion of a popular military shooter about global policing, so effective that the Australian government went after it. This artistic interpretation would've been clean and convenient, a single uninterrupted throughline. Unfortunately it's not the reality. Of course you can still draw a line from Escape from Woomera to Counter-Strike through Half-Life, you just need to theorize a political economy of the game industry, and argue Half-Life owes much of its success to Counter-Strike and even shares its politics. However that's a more complicated and messy truth that's time-consuming to unpack even for a gamer audience, much less a non-gamer audience, so... this is a nitpick.


Voluntary Attempts to Overcome Necessary Obstacles
September 23 – October 29, 2022

Pippin Barr
Jeremy Couillard
Charity Porpentine Heartscape
Nathalie Lawhead
Everest Pipkin
The Escape From Woomera Collective
Studio Oleomingus
Angela Washko
Robert Yang
curated by Nicholas O’Brien

EFA Project Space
323 W. 39th St, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10018
Between 8th and 9th Avenues
212.563.5855 ext 244