There are two benches set up facing angled walls in the second story of University of Edinburgh's Talbot Rice Gallery. People come and go, sit or stand for a moment, following the movements of a figure in a beautiful digital projection piece--two of them, actually, showing different moments in the same narrative. I sit down, and my friend Matthias hands me a controller. Fifteen minutes or so pass before I reach the next level of the game. I'm just throwing a timeframe out there; it was one of those emerging-from-the-darkness sort of moments when we went back downstairs I realized I was still in an art gallery and not some mystical, golden, glittering otherworld. And perhaps that best describes my experience of this opening and the work displayed there, which has so very little to do with what the show is intended to say.
Based on the literature, FAIR 'creates a scenario in which students can participate in and question the constitution of an Art Fair.'¹ Assistant Curator James Clegg wrote in the takeaway catalog/booklet:
In its third year, FAIR encapsulates the vexed notion of capitalism; it pits questions relating to the cost of education, depleted prospects for art students and the practical means of survival against utopian questions about alternative ways of living in the world.
Students from the University of Leeds display a piece called Game Plan in which a grid is marked on the floor and wall, inside of which are 12 individual artworks that can be moved around and documented to note the ways they intersect or relate to one another. From the Edinburgh College of Art there is a micro-nation called The Nation of Ahland and a project called Recommended Redefining Price: RRP that seeks non-monetary bids for artworks that are encouraged to be as imaginative as possible. (When I checked, some were for offers of teaching courses, making a 6-course dinner, and one for four dried banana peels.) From St. Lucas Visual Arts Ghent is a project called LUCA--Our Time which includes works by individual artists that analyze the definition of time: the works change throughout the exhibition and 'therefore become a kind of commemorative act, marking out the ephemeral nature of FAIR, and -- well -- everything.'¹
And then there are the video games. I don't mean to sound as if I'm letting out a big breathy sigh when I say, 'And theeeeennnn...' but if I'm being completely honest, the second level of the gallery is practically a separate show altogether. Gaming as an art form is a contentious debate in the art world. Is it art or isn't it? It was smart to separate it to the upper floor of the gallery since it's an experience unto itself, but at the same time it emphasizes how experientially different the two floors--and the art forms--really are.
The video games are all created by Sandbox (a group of three Edinburgh-based female gamers and visual artists -- the gamer part I had to mention, since it's been a challenge to balance the gender scales in game design) and the one that takes center stage is called Journey, projected twice onto the wall. The visuals are gorgeous and the soundtrack is haunting and dreamy. And although ostensibly the inclusion in this exhibition is to 'promote games as platforms for meaningful expression and to depart from the stereotypical assumptions games suffer from ... commercialization and the notion of "time wasting"'¹ ... it was still very much a different experience than the rest of the show. Commercialized? No. Time wasting? No. A total time-mind-warp? ...yes?
I don't mean 'total time-mind warp' as a bad thing. I think it's the nature of the beast: the visuals and soundtrack are dazzling and you essentially 'become' this beautiful, alluring character who takes you on adventures through a mysterious, unknown land. And then you level up, and you do it again and again. And then suddenly a ton of time has passed and you look around, embarrassed, hoping someone hasn't been tapping their foot and glaring at the back of your head, hoping you'll just be done already. This just isn't a common experience in an art gallery.
Common themes throughout the exhibition were ephemerality and temporality, change, commemoration, intersection, immersion, and interaction. I also like the some of the pieces are overtly presented as games, likening the art market and the art fair to a series of moves in order to win at art in some ultimately high-gloss, monetary way. Game Plan is a changeable, tactile 'art game' of sorts where the artists play the individual artworks like pieces in a game of Checkers (perhaps not a coincidence that there are 12 pieces--'pieces' itself being a pun). In another area, artist Tara De Neve displays a work in which green liquid drips onto a drawing laid out on the floor, over time changing and obscuring the original image. Then RRP invites visitors to bid on artwork. In the Nation of Ahland, visitors are welcomed to remove their shoes and enter a living room-like space with a mini library and a coffee table with literature strewn across it. Sandbox's games however, due to their nature as games in which the visitor becomes participant, and in fact controller to some extent, of the visuals, are truly immersive, ultimately interactive pieces.
One might argue that 'getting lost' in a video game for fifteen minutes isn't much, at least in terms of time. But it's rare that one 'gets lost' in an artwork in a gallery for fifteen minutes, let alone hours or days like some video games. You might be able to sit in a chair in the designated area known as the Nation of Ahland, but are you immersed in Ahland? Is it a curiosity or an experience? You can respond to it, but can you control it? Perhaps doing anything within the boundaries of Ahland, such as reading a magazine article or filling out a comment card, simply means you are immersed in it.Perhaps 'immersion' is just a silly, fuzzy word that describes various ways of imagining or forgetting where one is.
What smacked me square in the forehead about the video game part of the exhibition at Talbot Rice is the much-loved debate in arty circles about when art is Art and when it is merely entertainment. The whole 'Disney-fication' concept used to describe art museums turning into theme parks and closely related to that, the distinction between digital animation and art--especially when that digital animation becomes interactive. Where is the line between video games and art? Is there one? Or perhaps more importantly, should there be one?
I'm not able to answer this question, mostly due to the fact that my knowledge of video games is pretty bottom-of-the-barrel. I know stunning visual effects when I see them but I can't imagine the process for creating them. It's something I'd really like to learn more about. And I know that I emerged from the 'video game floor' of the gallery feeling more exhilarated about an art exhibition than I had in a while, but it mostly had to do with that exciting experience I had in an imaginary ancient civilization that someone designed for me to run around in while listening to mysterious music. I admire Sandbox for presenting games the high art crowd and incorporating performance and interpretation geared toward better understanding the games in an artistic context as opposed to 'mere entertainment.'
The FAIR exhibition overall is immensely engaging and I would recommend stopping in. It's on 1-5 May at Talbot Rice Gallery, Old College, Edinburgh. Admission Free.
¹FAIR 2014 leaflet, Talbot Rice Gallery.