In this episode we speak to Emilie Reed. Emilie is a recent PhD graduate researching the history of displaying videogames in museums and other arts contexts. Her academic background includes art history, museum studies and creative writing. She is interested in creating exhibitions which highlight overlooked elements of the history and artistic practice behind videogames, and developing more experimental approaches to game criticism. https://emreed.net/
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
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Pixels X Paper
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about games research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Darshana: Emilie Reed, please introduce yourself in your own words.
Emilie: I’m Emilie Reed. I’m currently based in Glasgow because I’ve just finished my PhD at Abertay University. I’m a curator, writer and researcher, who is focussed on the history of curating games; specifically in arts contexts. So my practice is kind of a combination of art historical research of these exhibitions as well as developing my own exhibitions.
Darshana: You’ve got all this like super interesting historical detail that you start the paper with, like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Lorna’, which is billed as the world’s first interactive video art disc game. Are there trends that stand out or are clearly identifiable and are there any shows or works in particular that you think stand out as like turning points in terms of exhibiting videogames in museums and galleries?
Emilie: Yeah, I guess when I started my research I was thinking about the major shows that people often said were, y’know, it was the first videogames oriented exhibition. And in, in some interpretations, I guess, of the term like a ‘video game exhibition’ that could be true. So exhibitions like ‘Game On’ or ‘Game Masters’ or the videogames show at the V&A that was very recent, all those had a language of firsts around them. But I was surprised by actually how far back my research was stretching as I went on.
Darshana: Yeah you go back to like 1979, which I think is like way earlier than a lot of people will think videogames have appeared in a museum.
Emilie: Yeah, so that was kind of I think 1979 or like the early eighties was when Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Lorna’ was in development and was first shown. That one has an interesting thing that comes up when you first open it, that is basically “ You’re about to play the world’s first interactive video art disc”. It kind of comes close to saying a video game, it’s kind of videogamey, it uses sort of the same technology for laserdisc or DVD menus, where you use like a remote control to kind of navigate around and select different things. And also an important part of how it’s displayed is this environment of like replicating the living room that the character stays in, in the story as well. So you’re, you know, when I saw it installed there was like a couch, you were playing with a remote control that was kind of like on this old-style tv. So yeah, that’s, that’s a very interesting early project that was kind of like almost called a videogame in a way.
Darshana: And there’s a sense that there was a lot different at stake, in Leeson making the claim to be the world’s first interactive video art disc game. I guess that’s what’s super interesting about this, you know, how different strategies have been employed to get these things called videogames, or things like videogames into the museum. So what were some other like kind of important works and turning points that you discovered?
Emilie: There’s another project right around the time… Maybe, maybe shortly after Lorna and it was by an artist who works primarily in performance, called Michael Smith. And he made, I think it was a commodore game mod called ‘Mike builds a shelter’ and it’s kind of this strange game about moving boxes of supplies down into your basement fall out shelter. And it was very much sort of dealing with the cold war vibes of the early eighties and that was part of an installation that he did at the time as well. So, those are two really interesting projects that even, to me, kind of came before the first major institutional show of videogames which was ‘Hot Circuits’ at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1989. So far as I know, there’s always, there’s always a chance that there’s one that I haven’t found yet. But that’s kind of the one that is the first show that was, you know, about depicting videogames as historical objects, which is really interesting. So, it is a lot earlier than I was expecting to have to trace back.
Darshana: You also talk about that Beryl Graham 1996 exhibition ‘Serious Games’. Which actually, you know, looks back towards the history of performative and interaction in art. Which goes back to like fluxus and conceptual art and performance art and it backgrounded the technology rather than representing these things as fundamentally technological objects. It was more about the concept of interaction.
Emilie: Yeah, I think an interesting thing that Beryl Graham talks about when she’s reflecting on this exhibition was that the way that she was framing these things kind of has, you know, new developments in the way that people were creating interactive or participatory art versus the way that the gallery wanted to frame it. She kind of had a lot of battles with them on how to like advertise it cus they kind of wanted to do, you know, like the pixel art, the fractal art, like the “it’s fun for kids”. But a lot of the artworks are, you know, kind of quite complex or like, you know, a little bit thematically mature for kids. So, even then like I think, I think people would say if you’re trying to present videogames in a cultural light you kind of run into the same problem as, you know, 1996.
Darshana: That kind of like idea that they’re fun in some ways can interfere with trying to exhibit them as serious objects.
Emilie: Yeah! Yeah cus, I mean, I guess it’s only been challenged by art practices recently but I guess the very like modernist paradigm of art is like you go into the art gallery and you’re kind of regarded by the artwork as this like detached like eyeballs and brain. That you’re like taking in these works of painting and sculpture and just kind of wrestling with it in your mind and that’s the experience that the artist gives you. So, it’s, it’s quite, it’s quite serious. And it’s also like a very, you know, all the work is internal rather than, you know, externally doing something.
Darshana: Yeah, and I guess it’s a good kind of moment to bring up the Claire Bishop quote that you kind of work with a bit, in the article. She kind of points put that participatory media have this kind of reputation of being empowering of, of people. But she kind of challenges that as well. She says that there’s this kind of like tendency to snap to grid on one of two positions which is either a disparagement of the spectator cus they happen to do nothing, they’re just like passive spectators. And this, this kind of like goes back to even some of the Frankfurt School debates about, about media and art, I think as well. Or you’ve got the converse claim that those who act are inferior to those who are able to look, contemplate ideas and have a critical distance on the world. That kind of like discourse in terms of the gallery has been a long-running thing and it appears in the case of videogames in a different sort of a way. Rather than videogames being this hugely new thing in terms of interactivity that gallerists are just dealing with now.
Emilie: Yeah, Claire Bishop really goes to the effort, like, her book that I’m drawing from, ‘Artificial Hells’, it is kind of a general history of participatory or what some people would call interaction-based artforms. But she sees interaction as like a technical term so it’s just like a technological device that’s like purely responsive. So she kind of excludes any sort of new media art from this historical overview. So, so it’s arguable that it’s a little bit, you know, a little bit tricky of me to use it to describe what I was trying to do with the videogame exhibition. But I think there’s enough games studies perspectives that kind of support that the reception and the culture around videogames. Whether it’s people watching someone play in an arcade or, you know, someone kind of fiddling with something in a gallery, like it does kind of become social and it becomes a kind of social space in a way. So I don’t think I’m going, I don’t think I’m going too far. But yeah, she kind of brings up how, it’s a bit of an issue how a specific, like, form of kind of celebratory perspectives on participatory art emerged around the same time that arts funding was kind of very hollowed out by Neo-Liberal reforms in several countries. So it was basically that, you know, the arts are kind of seen as disposable because either this kind of, you know, pretentious elite culture, not really helping anyone, you know, on the ground. So art projects that are like kind of something relatable, something interactive, something like, you know, get your hands dirty and stuff like that. So she just kind of expose it as like this slightly condescending approach that’s like, you know, people who are not like fully integrated into the art world and like of the class where they’re comfortable those things. Like they just can’t like appreciate things that aren’t, you know, engaging. These art practices are seen as, by Claire Bishop as kind of ameliotory to, you know, things that would have helped with issues of poverty and social life and mental health that are kind of cut back on. She sees it, she sees it as, you know, potentially, obviously, it’s interesting to her because she wrote a whole book about it, but she also sees it as like potentially, you know, condescending and potentially a bit directing, you know, how art practices are supported by institutions from that point on. Just because it presents this very binary point of view of, you know, something’s either participatory or thoughtful, participatory or pretentious. It is like this interesting back and forth.
Darshana: And that kind of like connects very much to your own curatorial and academic practice as well, I think. Where you’re kind of questioning a lot of the time. Not just whether it’s interactive or not but like what, kind of interactivity are we talking about here. Questioning these strategies of legitimation that allow these objects to enter the art world sort of a space or the aesthetics space. Can you give us a quick introduction to the ‘Blank Arcade’ and your process in selecting some of the works, that went into that?
Emilie: The ‘Blank Arcade’ is kind of a long-running exhibition that will occasionally go on view at iterations of DiGRA, which is the Digital Games Research Association conference that happens every year. Usually, the person who can follow it through from space to space is Lindsay Grace, who’s an American game developer and curator. I was working with him as a co-creator on this and it’s kind of a juried selection. So basically, we have a window for people to submit their work during a certain period of time and then we select. I think this time we ended up selecting eight works, which is a smaller selection than usual but I think it kind of worked in the Hannah McClure space, which is kind of, kind of compact! So selecting from that and kind of developing a theme around them that kind of relates to, you know, new experimental play and games and what people in the DiGRA community and more broadly just the international game dev community are doing. So yeah, it was really interesting, we kind of focussed on games that offered a really wide variety of types of play and approaches to the idea of being playful. So, I would say, you know, not many of them are straightforwardly recognisable as like commercial videogames for sure, and some of them are hard to recognise as games at all because they’re more about creating a playful context or environment.
Darshana: One that kind of like stood out, to me at least, is ‘Katakata’. I guess like what you’re talking about as well is that the idea of exhibiting a video game or a game-like work of some kind, you can’t take for the granted that idea of the player. Cus you’re essentially like showing this somehow or exhibiting this thing to a gallery-goer who may have certain playful predilections or characterisations and that’s part of your research as well. Which I thought was really interesting. Asking people what they, what they thought and felt and gathering some data in that sort of a way. Can you take us through the ‘Katakata’ work and how it brought out some of those research questions that you were asking?
Emilie: ‘Katakata’ is basically an interactive sculptural work. It’s by Kirsty Keatch, who is a Scottish sound artist, software game designer. She makes a lot of games that use interesting procedural audio techniques. So this is, this is a sculpture that’s basically like a very large Jacob’s ladder, so that toy, that kind of, you flip the top of it and all the other parts of the toy kind of clatter down. It’s one of those that is attached to like a large stand, it has a servo-motor at the top and that motor is controlled by people’s cell phone, like the gyroscope within your smartphones. If you connect to the wifi device that is inside the sculpture you can be the person in the cue system who’s controlling that particular way that you flip it. And each time it flips down, the action of the Jacob’s ladder kind of clattering creates this short audio recording that you can kind of warp by twisting your phone in other ways. So, you kind of make this recording by moving the sculpture in the gallery space and then by moving your phone around more you kind of replay it and warp it through, you know, the speakers that are around the sculpture. So, it’s technically a little bit tricky, it’s good that she was based locally at the time because we did have to kind of call her in for repairs sometimes. Cus it is a very complicated piece!
Darshana: It sounds hard to describe as well.
Emilie: Yeah! But I think it’s, it’s really beautiful and it’s so, it’s so interesting once you get it going to be able to like, flip your phone around then it makes like this entire sculpture move. The tricky thing in considering it though, it was kind of a risky choice because it requires someone to have and be able to connect to the network with their phone and that is kind of, you know, an insider tech knowledge type skill. So, in that case, we made sure because, you know, we were gonna get a broad audience, it was the, it was the kind of student gallery at Abertay so it attracted digital arts people, it attracted like the games design students, it attracted, you know, general people who are interested in art from around the university, so not everyone may have been totally comfortable with that. So we did have gallery attendants who had their own phones already connected to it. So they could, you know demonstrate it if someone, you know was not comfortable or didn’t have the tech to do it.
Darshana: Cus there’s a lot of discussion in VR and games in general about onboarding people and whatever the opposite of onboarding is which [chuckles] air locking or something I think I’ve heard its called! You do raise a question of accessibility as well and one of the respondents to your research, I think was an older person who said they only found one particular, very analogue sort of work approachable. Is that correct?
Emilie: Yeah! I think that comment was about ‘The Abstract Playground AP1’, which is a project by the artist and game developer Will Hurt, and he, he presents it in a very particular way. It is just kind of like this 3D Unity game, where pressing buttons changes the colour of the shapes, changes how they move, make sounds but it’s all, it’s all really interesting because it’s kind of these very interesting geometrical shapes that are based on Modernist architecture. So, so, it, it does have this, you know, like very, very playful very, very cool kind of vibe. But the way that he presented it in this case, was with a panel of buttons. So, it wasn’t like a computer keyboard or a game controller it was just, it was just these, these buttons and I thought it was really interesting to kind of put that right near the entrance because you get up to the gallery by an elevator most of the time and the buttons were, you know, the same kind of button. Like, kind of like the round flat plastic ones that you press in an elevator. So, I thought that was kind of like, you know, a good kind of onboarding way to like, not be like here “here’s an Xbox 360 controller, like good luck!” like be the first thing that you encounter, you know?! Cus most people aren’t gonna know what to do with that.
Darshana: And I, I guess that kind of raises the question, of a lot of the works that you curated as you said, don’t present themselves immediately as video-gamey in that kind of, you know, something we all recognise when we see it but it’s hard to actually define. You also make this point the rise of indie hits in a way that facilitated the shift in kind of like mainstream galleries for accepting videogames. Previously it had to be a sort of like artsy or very, you know, artistic sort of a use of the technology. Indie in some ways sort of helped to smooth the transition for more mainstream galleries to take up exhibiting videogames in a certain sort of a way.
Emilie: Yeah, I mean I think, you know, it, it’s almost a cliché at this point like the, the point of reference where like, a lot of institutions were like “Wow! Maybe videogames can be art?!”[Laughs]
Emilie: It’s, it’s like, it’s like ‘Journey’ or ‘Flower’, these are the ones that always come up and I dunno, I kinda get sick of it. It’s like, it’s like if every like art show you went to started with a Picasso painting, like.
Emilie: [chuckles] It’s like ok, there’s, there’s other stuff. But I guess the thing is that like, the process of indie kind of definitively differentiating itself from videogames in general. You know kind of the same way that independent cinema or independent music was kind of a claim towards like, you know, higher ideals and kind of more accurately reflecting like personal expression and I think that’s a frame that, you know, our institutions for better or worse are much better at dealing with. So I think that was part of it. But yeah, I also think that it’s a bit problematic to say that like indie games were kind of like artistic games. Like they just kind of came out of, you know, nowhere and, you know, like appeared in like 2007 or something. Because there’s always kinda been this underlying strand of non-mainstream production as long as videogames have existed. Things like modding communities and like homebrew and other kind of small scale like postcardware, all those sorts of things. Those are arguably like a very similar ethos to indie games in some cases but they’re much harder to like put a fence around as a separate piece of artwork. Especially like modding or homebrew cus those are, you know, potentially you know, technically illegal [laughing] sometimes.[Laughing]
Darshana: I mean it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is recognisable to institutions in these indie games, that are those indie darlings, that always get exhibited. But maybe legality is maybe one like of the huge ones, I guess.
Emilie: Yeah, I mean, I think, I think there was like an interesting article, I, I don’t know if it was, offering an alternative perspective but the reason that ‘Super Columbine RPG’ was removed, it was like the, the kind of like Sundance adjacent games festival and that was one of the things that was made for it. They were trying to make the argument that it wasn’t removed because it was too controversial, it was actually removed because it used licensed music which is kind of like, that’s kind of a thing in the RPG maker community. Like a lot of them, just kind of have like, you know, you’re just dragging over like the MP3s you got off of Limewire and making that the background music to your, you know, Final Fantasy clone. Well, if you’re using this practice it’s kind of like embedded in the community that the thing that you’re using is coming from, you know that’s like over the course of the history of like videogame communities on the internet, that’s probably gonna be at least partially illegal, or at least Nintendo’s gonna have a problem with it.
Darshana: There’s an interesting connection there with the history of like Remix, and you know the politics of taking existing stuff and redeploying it. Which I guess brings us to the question of like what you’ve learnt since that exhibition, because that was in like 20-16 right? Blank Arcade.
Darshana: And you, you’ve done heaps of other stuff and there seems to be the question of like what you’re working on at the moment and how your, your ideas have changed since that research and exhibition context?
Emilie: Yeah, so since then the other two projects that I did which I discuss in my thesis were instillation-based projects, that were focussed on either a single game or works by a single person with the collective ‘We Throw Switches’, who are based in Edinburgh. So that was really fun and that was kind of a more experimental like party or festival-type atmosphere to do things in. So it didn’t have to be as consistent or as sturdy as [laughs] they expect things to be when you put it in an actual gallery. So, so it let me be a lot more experimental. Since then I’ve also done, I’ve helped out with Pixels X Paper at the Babycastles Gallery, which was a really interesting exhibition. I kind of curated the flat games section of it, and then we also worked with Blake Andrews, who was the person who was working specifically with Babycastles and Ebeth who is someone from the Bitsy community and it was kind of representing both flat games and Bitsy as these communities that have grown around a specific approach to game making. And they’re both, you know, very kind of hands-on, collaborative just kind of pick up either your pen and pencil or the, you know, the Bitsy online doodle thing and just do it. And it’s really interesting to me to change my practice, well not like totally change my practice cus obviously I still care about installing things in interesting ways and making them, you know, appealing so that people can both kind of watch them and engage with them and kind of switch between those two modes if they want. But also, making it so that it’s informative about the community and how the kind of context and tools the community creates, contributes to what they produce. So, I guess that would be my main interest right now. I’m still really into flat games and Bitsy, I’ve made several of them since working on that exhibition and it’s just very interesting, very fun so I’m excited to keep working on it.
Darshana: In a, in a certain kind of a way, maybe the community has replaced the galleries, you know, the physical space, I guess as your focus.
Emilie: Yeah, I there is a lot of interest, definitely in commercial games in terms of like, you know, getting the approval of getting like the cultural clout that comes from like an art institution noticing you. I would say, in indie games, there’s much more of a focus on like, what we do, an exhibition it’s like, or a festival it’s representing a community or creating a space for people to experience these games rather than some kind of, you know, outside our people giving us a checkmark, you know?![Laughter]
Darshana: Which is nice when it happens but like…
Emilie: Yeah, I think, I think you can’t write off the, you know, the value of larger art institutions being interested in games entirely because it is going to be an important part of negotiating their accessibility in the future, because a lot of copyright laws around games like completely just hamper their ability to ever be preserved. And also, you know, preserving them and preserving elements of their history. So, I think like larger institutions are gonna have to have a hand in that. So I don’t wanna write them off entirely! But there’s also a lot of important things that are going on at the community level and in terms of how they self-present through like festivals and events and that kind of thing.
Darshana: Wow! Well, maybe we should talk to a lawyer next.[Laughter]
Darshana: If people wanna keep track of what you’re getting up to in the future, where should they go?
Emilie: I am on twitter so @netgal_emi e-m-i so that’s my twitter account. I also have my website, which is very old fashioned because I love doing it, the old Neopets pet page style thing and that’s just emreed.net.
Darshana: Awesome, thank you so much, Emilie!
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org