Hyper War art
Presentation of “Making of Balkan Wars: the Game” at Art Athina
Karin Ohlenschläger, MediaLabMadrid
First of all, I should like to thank Maria Panayides for her kind invitation to attend Art Athina and especially to take part in this debate on electronic art.
We met last year in Madrid as a result of the Greek cultural program for ARCO’04 and we have worked together on a highly innovative project with the Personal Cinema group, who launched their virtual interactive installation “The Making of Balkan Wars: the Game” with us at MediaLabMadrid in the Conde Duque Cultural Centre. Maria has asked me to talk about this project which I am delighted to do, although we also have with us Ilias Marmaras, one of the co-founders and artists of Personal Cinema and the art critic Nikos Xydakis.
I am delighted, above all because of the enormous amount of interest that has been shown in this project in Spain. But I would like to begin by giving you a short introduction to electronic art, particularly for those of you in the audience who are approaching the subject for the very first time at this Fair.
I began working as a curator for exhibitions specialising in the new media in the mid 1980s, and I set up the first Department of Videoart at what used to be the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (MEAC) in Madrid. By that time, the first two pioneering stages of videoart had been succeeded and we were living through the rapidly developing conceptual and technological innovations of those years.
The works of these pioneers of videoart still have something to say, and it seems to me that their criticisms of the television culture of the masses in the 1960s continue to be very relevant. At that time, artists took a highly critical, not to say destructive, attitude towards the mass media, denouncing media manipulation and the formal and conceptual quality of television, as well as criticising the hierarchical and non-communicative structures (in the bi-directional sense of transmitter-receiver) of Big Brother TV.
In the 70s, the same attitude led on to a greater politicisation of media art, as well as the pioneer appearances of artists on alternative television programs. Sales of the first video cameras to consumers transformed this medium into an increasingly significant tool in the performances of that period, in the feminist art movements, in landart, and in the social and political actions of the time, with demands for greater democratisation and the participation of citizens and artists on television.
During the 80s, the panorama underwent considerable change with the appearance of a new generation of young artists who had been brought up with TV screens. Their attitude towards the mass media was far less critical. They wanted to play an active part in the development of television language. The growing digitalisation of the media and the hybridisation of plastic, sound and visual expression carried them towards a new exploratory aesthetic and the intermixing of film, video, television and computer.
The 80s are marked by the boom in videoclips and a new leisure and entertainment industry that undoubtedly influenced the aesthetic and formal approaches of that time. And also, the video was beginning to consolidate its position in the world of the traditional arts, even taking pride of place in some of the major international exhibitions of contemporary art.
The first departments of new media studies are set up in Fine Arts Faculties all over the world and so the new media begin to find their place in the academic sphere.
The 90s are defined by the rise of interactivity, by the new informatics and telecommunications era, virtual reality, interface design and netart. Artists begin to take increasing interest in investigating the patterns and processes of a more horizontal and participative communication. The art-life discourse broadens its scope from the body to the gene, and from the social to the environmental sphere; while the issues of bioinformatics and genetically modified organisms pose new questions about the contemporary human condition.
At the same time (after the relatively apolitical period of the 1980s), there is a new politicisation of art against the imperatives of the media market and the effects of the leisure and entertainment industries; against the increasing monopolisation, trivialisation and manipulation of information and in support of new dynamic, evolutionary, self-organising systems of communication and of the social, cultural and political groupings that emerge on the peripheries of the major institutions and markets.
MediaLabMadrid came about as a result of these movements at the end of the 90s and was set up in the Conde Duque Cultural Centre in 2002 as a laboratory open to training, research and the production and exhibition of the art related to the new informatics and telecommunications technologies.
Our activities are based on a critical and propositional dialogue between art, science, technology and society. Not only do we work with plastic and visual artists, but with physicists, mathematicians, sociologists and biologists, attempting to generate and act as a catalyst for productive interferences between the most diverse fields of creation and knowledge. We encourage new links between art and the social, political and natural sciences. And we provide a certain continuity for the artistic concerns and currents whose transgressive tradition dates back to the early twentieth century and takes more interest in concepts and processes than in artistic objects.
Within this context, our encounter and collaboration with Personal Cinema has been quite exceptional and fruitful in all aspects. I must admit that, had it not been for the special Greek program at ARCO04, it is unlikely that this encounter would have taken place in the same way. To begin with, we had some doubts about such a program featuring the art of one particular country. Normally, we are more interested in juxtaposed outlooks, experiences of displacement, of intermixing and of the mutual contamination of thoughts and experiences. We consider it outdated to think that art today can flourish or be determined by its links with a single political or geographical territory. We live in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, in which political, social, economic and cultural situations of local importance can no longer be interpreted
independently of the global situation. Obviously, each local situation has its own singularities which are caused by its own history within its own context. But I do think, however, that these singularities are only fractals of an interconnected global dynamic, as I mentioned before.
So I do recognise the relative importance and functional purpose of these national cultural programs. They allow us to acquire a greater knowledge of a local artistic situation. In addition, they confirm that a large number of, for example, Greek, Brasilian or German artists have been working outside their respective countries of origin. We have also been able to see that German artists have Turkish, Chinese or South African surnames, that Spanish artists have Ecuadorian, Argentinean or Moroccan parents or that American artists have Cuban, Brazilian, Russian or Korean surnames.
All this is particularly symptomatic of the world of media art. The problems of training, production and exhibition compel many artists to be continually on the move and to adjust to a kind of urban nomadism in this McLuhanesque “global village”; to live connected up to friends and collaborators in all parts of the world via Internet and to find themselves at home in any city on the planet.
The Personal Cinema group, although originally set up and still located in Athens, is characterised by this new structural and functional plurality of the multicultural group, open and permeable to many influences, outlooks and thoughts. More than 50 artists from 17 countries have taken part in this virtual, interactive project. The way in which this group has organised itself, raising the visibility and giving voice to the plurality and complexity of contemporary experience, has seemed to us quite significant and very much in keeping with the new cultural nomadism.
In “The Making of Balkan Wars: The Game” they have created a ubiquitous, virtual exhibition scenario which does not, in the medium term, necessarily require a physical exhibition space but will simply inhabit the Net. The environment which they have created is a virtual space which each visitor can enter and inhabit or pass through, and can contemplate or interact with the different visual, sound, graphic and textual works from their own terminal.
As regards the traditional electronic arts that I mentioned at the beginning, Personal Cinema take a critical attitude towards both the mass communications media and the growing fragmentation, manipulation and trivialisation of media information. They are also working with the new mechanisms of interaction but they take them to the emerging areas of evolutionary dynamics. This means that the presence and participation of the spectator in the virtual environment constantly changes the ambience and the relationships between the different elements, depending on each action.
The idea motivating their project also points towards a new concept of autonomy of both the artist and their work in relation to the institutional field of exhibitions in museums, art galleries or on television. They create their own virtual exhibition space. They define a new environment that corresponds to ephemeral, immaterial works. Works that explore and propose new processes of interaction and communication between the artist, the project and the user or
spectator. The emphasis of this kind of project is not on the part played by the object itself but on the conceptual and procedural parts. It is an art that leads us towards new areas of thought and experience by means of a game.
So, what are we playing at? Play, a verb that implies openness, curiosity and the wish to explore, to relate to things, to situations, and to others. Play is a means of constructing the subject and creating a space for freedom between the predetermined and the unpredictable. Play is a way of experiencing and positioning oneself within a constellation of possible worlds. As conceived of by twentieth century art, from Dada, through Surrealism, Fluxus or Situationism, play has also been a means of questioning and transcending order. A way of investigating and becoming aware of different patterns of thought and behaviour in order to deconstruct them, transform them and produce new relationships and behaviours.
Steering between the predictable and the unpredictable, between order and randomness is an individual and collective means of evolving and progressing. A game makes sense through action: by travelling along the path rather than by reaching the goal.
Recuperating the essence of the game as a tool for acquiring experience and free thinking – as formulated by H. Marcuse or G. Debord - is an arduous task when the leisure industry has been transforming games into nothing more than consumer products, trivialised for the purposes of entertainment. Nowadays, the world of the game, and particularly the videogame, is subject to the dictates of a market that fuels an image of the unsatisfied consumer. Thus, the game ceases to be a tool and becomes a product. The player is reduced to being an operator whose field of action is subordinated to binary patterns of behaviour between good and bad, black and white, winners and losers.
One of the challenges and aims of The Making of Balkan Wars: The Game is to recuperate the essence of the game as a tool for communication, as a modus operandi for approaching and exploring the complexity of the world around us. The rules of this game deal with the problems of coexistence among peoples with different cultures, beliefs and ideologies. It is a game that allows us to stand, virtually, in someone else’s shoes, to experience different ways of conceiving, perceiving and relating to diverse situations and environments.
The Making of Balkan Wars is located at the junction of many cultures, religions and beliefs, in a zone of confrontational politics masterminded from a distance by a host of economic, social and cultural interests that extend beyond borders and place us at the epicentre of a global conflict.
Almost three decades ago, S. Marchán said that the ludic space in art only made sense if it could mediate between real life and the ideal. This project by the Greek collective Personal Cinema, attempts to recuperate this sublime form of the game as a bridge between the real and the possible. It encourages each one of the players to become aware, to experience and to place themselves within a space open to reflection and communication. The recuperation of memory and the rethinking of history to redirect a conflict towards new paths for dialogue and coexistence is the objective of a game whose rules transcend mere virtuality.