Famed critic Roger Ebert once said:
…Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say “never,” because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.Roger Ebert
While Ebert would go on to later apologize for this statement, I was reminded of this by Lisa Vagnoni, the member of the Apexart staff who helped put together the Dire Jank Art Exhibition alongside its curator, Porpentine Charity Heartscape.
It ignores so much about the gaming experience. That at the heart of gaming is Activation. That you have to activate a game.Lisa Vagnoni
And that was the sense and experience I had at the Apexart during its opening night.
A sense of activation and more understanding of just what the power of gaming can lend to art.
Entering the lower Manhattan gallery, I found myself greeted by warm, welcoming smiles and provided refreshments. So reserving my snacks for after got to experience the work presently there. I took the pamphlet guide for the event and entered a realm of amazing color and captivating images.
What is Dire Jank?
Jank in its broad term means junk or useless. For gamers however, it’s when a game goes wrong. It’s when the character models of game begin to have their colors bleed. It is when the pixels just don’t sit right. Its when you picked Soldier 76 when you should have played Mercy.
Thematically, it’s when things just don’t sit right because something is wrong, but in the terms of this gallery, Dire Jank has became a new fascination of mine
Displays lined across the walls, each artist with work present having a specific color assigned to them. As Lisa compared it to, it was like being caught in the LEDs of a high-end gaming computer, and I can’t agree more. This added to moving about, enhancing each stop along with my guide. From games to a trance-like audio/visual experiences, it all was so much more than I’m used to experiencing at a video game event as each game was a unique beauty of its own.
It was inspiring to see it all though. It was all something I had never seen before in terms of the treatment of games. Stepping up to the first game display for theatamites Magic Wand, it had the tidings of familiarity but you could tell it deviated from the traditional game you might say it resembles.
And I loved it.
The gameplay found me wandering about this bizarre landscape. My character a cloaked figure with only a few dollars in their pocket alongside some soda, and a sword. I explored and eventually found my first enemy, some weird blob of a beast who I cut down with my sword. Thinking I got the gist of this world, I proceeded ahead, to meet what I can only call a giant bug. Unable to slash him, I realized I could speak to him. Not only, that but a door laid in the middle of the map I currently found myself on. I entered, and there I was, in a bar, greeted by a creature called Mose.
The series of events I just described feel disconnected as I type them but as I went through them, as I did them, as I experienced them, it all felt like a surreal comedy. A game with the aesthetic of a retro game but with the tidings of a different type of journey. I was playing a game but I understood what part of the game I was playing was beyond the average.
That was how it was for every piece the gallery had for me to interact with. All together something different, something that on the surface level I recognized but diverted away to be an experience altogether new.
The best way to describe it was I was playing games yet not games. I can only call them anti-games, and that was a world all new to me.
Gaming, Art, and Activation
Speaking further with Lisa, we learned the intent and background of the collection.
I am into video games, so when we were trying to figure out the perfect person to curate a collection together for us, I spent months trying to figure out just who was the right person for that. I chose Porpentine first of all because I am such a big fan and have been for such a long time, but also because she has an aesthetic that simultaneously is both counter to mainstream gaming while maintaining a unique voice.Lisa Vagnoni
(Porpentine) purposed the aesthetic of jank in an email. We knew what jank was but she gave us a new definition for it as messed up games. When you think jank, you think messed up, something not quite right. She said this collection is that but in game form.
At its core game is a system that you make decisions in. Any board game, video game, software game gives you the tools to make so many choices. Software games hold a special place for me because it touches on so many different forms of art. You can combine music, art, and gameplay on your own with other people to create something unique. The art community likes to use the word activation to say how you interact a piece. Coming from a background of playing games my whole life, activation feels like the base quality of a game. Activation is the most satisfying part of any piece of art. It’s very personal.
There is a push to make interactive art more interactive, but gaming has always been. Gaming lends that strength to art.
And that is what each display gave us.
From a video chronicling the journey of a toy golf-ball bird amongst a field of clovers, to an intense exploration of online harassment, to my new favorite song, and a good old fashioned 50 games- in one collection, Each of Dire Jank’s displayed work was a time to discuss just what it was we just played but that was only after our activation of the piece.
Activation which sits at the heart of gaming, but now I see it so very differently. The Dire Jank Art show changed how I view the capabilities of gaming.
And in the end, is that not the purpose of art.
For those that want to check out the show themselves, you have until May 18th to go visit the fabulous Apexart Gallery in lower Manhattan. The show is free so you really have no reason to visit if you find your curiosity piqued.