Game Over / Reframing Combat in Diaspora Space

Traveling exhibition curated by Vicky Moufawad-Paul, at MAI 17/11 to 15/12/2012

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Review by Marty Fink

In Blown Up: Gaming and War, video games inspire new possibilities for the representational role of militarization, occupation, and racial violence within emerging interactive media. Toronto-based curator Vicky Moufawad-Paul brings together installations by Wafaa Bilal, Harun Farocki and Mohammed Mohsen. Displayed at MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) from 17 November to 15 December 2012, Blown Up raises challenging questions about mediated representations of violence and their position within gallery and gaming space. The exhibit showcases video games within the art world, asking how the representational violence characteristic of gaming culture might be viewed not merely as a catalyst for off-screen violence, but as resisting the normalized spectacle of warfare and racial violence within dominant media. Gallery visitors with no prior knowledge of video games are invited to engage with a stark sensory environment that makes military violence visible in ways oppositional to the objectives of mainstream news reporting. The video games in the exhibit cast the violence of war not as a necessary or inevit-able threat but as an outcome of displacement and occupation. In shifting the position of the viewer from a passive recipient of such representations to the active roles of gamer and witness, Blown Up creates new spaces through which to build diasporic disidentifications and migrant self-representations that reframe militaristic violence within mediated space.

Moufawad-Paul’s curation surrounds viewers in darkness. [1] A single illuminated bench in an otherwise shadowy room positions gallery visitors in front of two adjacent screens to watch Farocki’s two-channel film loop, Serious Games I-IV (2009-10), in which spotlighted viewers witness the documentation of American soldiers playing a video game that will train them for their upcoming attack on Afghanistan. [2] The dramatic overhead illumination of MAI’s viewing bench adds significant emphasis to this spectacle of watching. Farocki’s viewers — as well as those viewing them from amidst the gallery’s surrounding darkness — are urged to question not only the links between video games and institutional violence but also the significance of collective witnessing as a form of resistance to occupation and war.

Confronted with their intended position of identification with the violent progression of the game, visitors are compelled, both as a viewing public and on a personal level, to confront disturbing affects of passivity in the face of widespread technologies of militarization. This piece uses viewers’ collective discomfort as a catalyst to move them out of a helpless individual position as spectator and into a more public one that breaks down the seamless alliance between technological advancement and war.

Across the gallery from Serious Games, the exhibit’s only remaining overhead light beams down onto a podium facing a large-screen projection of Bilal’s The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi (2008). [3] The lit viewer’s avatar in the game is the artist himself, who casts his own virtual body as a suicide-bomber to avenge the real-life death of his brother. [4] Moufawad-Paul’s staging of the artworks draws further attention to the spotlighted viewer, who not propels the game forward but also becomes part of the gallery’s primary spectacle. Through the embodied participation of its illuminated player, the effects of Bilal’s fabricated shoot-to-kill scenario become not merely representational but also physical, prompting gallery visitors to consider strategies for disrupting the game’s enticing progression. And indeed, the installation succeeds in framing participation in violence as an act that collectively rescripts and critiques the military and racial representations that saturate Western media.

Located between these two illuminated areas within the exhibit stands an upright arcade-style console featuring Mohsen’s Weak (2010), [5] an 1980s-era platform encasing an intricate pastiche of Pac-Man-style graphics, 1970s Egyptian pop music, and even fragments of poetry. Its architecture impels viewers to not only move through the manual labyrinth of the game but also through the affects of loss and displacement it triggers. The nostalgia of Weak’s retro gaming aesthetic also lends value to the fragmented sensory memories of Mohsen’s childhood within the Palestinian diaspora.

Just as Farocki and Bilal’s installations urge viewers to consider their role as witness, perpetrator, or even resistor of violence, Weak’s nostalgia prompts viewer identifications with migration, exile and racialization. The piece urges viewers to stitch together the fragments of Moshen’s experience of war, racial violence and displacement through their engagement with the game. In navigating the console, viewers are faced with the futility of attempting to apprehend logics of both gaming technology and of war.

Weak therefore links the public experience of playing video games within gallery space to prior incarnations of gaming space, from the arcade to the cell phone, which have transformed alongside developments in new media. [6] As Moufawad-Paul identifies in her curatorial essay, when public space within occupied territories becomes a zone not of play but of militariz-ation, then the simulation of war within the domestic sphere of video gaming can become a transformative site of resistance. [7] Bringing these transformative spaces out of the home and into the gallery’s inquisitive lighting, Blown Up offers the opportunity for disidentification from white heteronormative avatars while urging viewers to question their spatial alignments within mediated acts of representational violence.

Blown Up offers a wide range of gaming aesthetics, from the early arcade culture of Mohsen’s childhood memories to Nintendo 64 James Bond-esque templates, from the now-obsolete MS Windows interfaces of Bilal’s work to the early-2000s laptop culture of Farocki’s documentation of military training. In doing so, these works connect an archive of digital invention with a corresponding history of Islamophobic media represent-ation. In bringing these three installations together within a single gaming/artistic space, Blown Up conjures a linked history of diasporic cultural interventions into both gaming technology and racial representation. It therefore succeeds in presenting violence as necessarily interconnected with technological advancements in both military combat and media industries. Importantly, by recognizing the capacity of technology to not merely perpetuate violence but also to document and offset it, the archive Blown Up builds urges viewers to reclaim gaming narratives in order to challenge the power mechanisms of occupation and war.

NOTES:

[1] Though the three installations’ video screens are individually illuminated, the sparse use of overhead lighting creates a focus not only on the games, but also on gallery visitors as they participate. Only a total of four lights shine down from above, three of which illuminate a bench upon which viewers are offered headsets to watch Farocki’s Serious Games.

[2] While one screen displays the digital game in action, the other features uniformed cadets playing it in a training facility.

[3] Illuminated by the overhead light, the viewer at the podium is offered a keyboard, headset, and mouse through which to navigate the installation.

[4] Bilal’s autobiographical positioning within the game references his own brother’s death at the hands of American soldiers. By placing himself into the action, he draws attention to both the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians within war, as well as the effects of racist representations in cultural outlets like Quest for Saddam, a video game released by Petrilla Entertainment in 2003, which Bilal’s console emulates. It also references an adaptation of this original release that features a new skin that transforms the popular Islamophobic game into a corresponding hunt for President Bush, and places the viewer at the seat of the action. Bilal’s home screen features camp reproductions of so-called terrorists, talking heads, and WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction), using Halloween fonts, gothic hillsides, and spider webs to accentuate the sensationalism of the endeavour.

[5] Unlike the other two installations that are experienced through headphones, Mohsen’s console — though not illuminated by overhead lighting — loudly calls attention to the user perched at its interface. The call of its booming, 8-bit-inspired soundtrack entices gallery visitors to approach and play the game.

[6] While arcade settings eventually gave way to individual consoles to enjoy in private, domestic space, current developments in handheld technology have reintegrated gaming experiences into the public sphere. Similar adaptations in film — from the glory of the pre-war cinema experience to home entertainment centres to current YouTube and handheld culture —  raise associated questions regarding collective consumption, mass indoctrination and the spectator’s potential for resistance.

[7] Vicky Moufawad-Paul, “Blown Up: Gaming and War” (Montreal: MAI, 2012).

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Marty Fink works with archives, zines and new media to investigate Trans* representation and homo diasporas. Fink’s writing has appeared in venues including Science Fiction Studies and The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Fink’s current research traces the circulation of HIV prevention materials in prisons to understand shifts in technology from print to digital formats. Fink recently received a PhD in English from the City University of New York (CUNY). Fink currently works with the Prisoner Correspondence Project in Montreal and teaches English and Women’s Studies at Concordia University.

 

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