Artists Crack the Game Code

By Erin Bell

There’s no better sign that something has successfully seeped into the social consciousness than when people start making art out of it, and videogames have joined the club.

The InterAccess gallery in Toronto recently presented Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code, an eclectic collection of art united by the fact that the medium of choice was videogames.

Some of the artists had hacked the game’s programming to alter its intended meaning. Two arcade cabinet modifications by Toronto-based collective Prize Budget for Boys combined the classic arcade games Pac Man and Asteroids with the famous works of modern artists Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder. PacMondrian recreates the distinctive lines and squares of Mondrian’s paintings only to have Pac Man gobble them up. In Calderoids, the traditional game of shooting giant rocks in space is transplanted into a world governed by the physics and colours of Alexander Calder’s hanging mobile sculptures.

“We want to make art fun and at the same time make fun of art,” explained PBFB’s Neil Hennessy.

Myfanwy Ashmore’s mario trilogy presented three hacked levels of Super Mario Bros. where all enemies, scenery and otherwise stimulating objects had been removed, challenging players to create their own meaningful experiences in a world lacking obvious goals.

In mario_doing_time, the familiar mustachioed plumber is trapped behind grey prison-like walls that are just high enough that he can never jump over them. In Mario_is_drowning, Mario swims underwater without ever reaching land until time runs out and he eventually “drowns.”

Another interactive concept piece was Anita Fontaine + Yumi-co’s CuteXdoom, a modification of Unreal Tournament 2003 that explores society’s consumerism and infatuation with cute objects. Players search a forest of discarded, forgotten toys to collect ten to bring as an offering and gain access to the temple of the toy-worshipping Yumi-co cult.

In other cases, artists exploited already-existing game glitches to create interesting non-interactive pieces.

New York-based artist RSG manipulated glitches in Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 to create perpetual motion images of skaters caught in a never-ending rail grinds and spins.

Tasman Richardson presented two audio-visual pieces based on edits of Atari 2600 glitches-a phenomenon he discovered by accident after inadvertently pulling the cartridge out of his machine without turning it off first. By adjusting the voltage and flicking the on-off switch, Richardson is able to generate an impressive range of colours and audio from screeching high-end to rumbling low-resolution tones. Glitches, Richardson says, are “the purest, most basic signal you could borrow from, going back to something like making your own colours in video.”

There’s an unpredictable nature to videogame art installations. During opening night, PacMondrian displayed a fatal error and had to be rebooted. The mario trilogy apparently plays a little differently depending on which software is used to load it. Richardson says he can’t record his Atari 2600 glitch work anymore due to lack of analog recording equipment, and soon he won’t be able to display it properly either due to the decline of CRT television screens. But surely the unpredictability of videogame art is part of the charm.

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