Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Report on Transfurism, Gerald J. Janecek

A small group of Neo-Futurists or, as they call themselves, "transpoety" or "transfuristy," has appeared on the scene in the Soviet Union and has produced a body of individual and collective works that are, while acknowledgedly in the spirit and tradition of the original movement, of sufficient quality, quantity, and originality to merit critical attention. They have been mentioned briefy in "Samizdat Art," by R. and V. Gerlovin (1986:157), and there are some important materials on them in Kuzminsky's Blue Lagoon Anthology 5B (1986:508-65), but the present study will evidently be the first extensive survey of their works.
The core of the group consists of Ry Nikonova [Anna Tarshis] and Sergei Sigei [Sigov], who lived in Ejsk on the Asov Sea until 1998, and Boris M. Konstriktor [real surname: Aksel'rod] from Leningrad. Sigei and Nikonova, who are married, originally hailed from Sverdlovsk, where in the 1960s they had been part of a group called the "Anarfuts" (Anarcho-Futurists) which had published a handmade magazine Nomer (Number). The couple moved to Eisk in 1974. In 1979, they were joined by Konstriktor, who had formerly been an Acmeist. For more on their history by Sigei, see Kuzminsky (1986:546-61). The works by this group that have been made available for study include a number of initial and recent issues of the group's journal Transponans, separate collections by Sigej and Nikonova, a cassette tape entitled "Slushaite, kushaite" (Listen, eat!) with members of the group reciting their works, and a catalogue from the group's exhibition in 1984. Sigei is also the author of a recent article on Oberiu published abroad (Sigov, 1986). Since the journal, begun in 1979 and now numbering over thirty issues, is perhaps their most impressive achievement, we will begin with it. [Figure 1]

Following accepted practice to avoid legal repercussions, each issue of the journal is expressly produced in only five copies. The front material in issue No. 1 (50 pp. plus appendix) states that Transponans was founded in 1979 under the editorship of Sigei and Nikonova and regularly prints the works of the "Transpoets," who include, in addition to the editors and Konstriktor, A. Nik. [N. I. Aksel'rod, formerly of Leningrad, now in Western Europe] and the Leningrad poet Vladimir Erl'; that it will also include the works of other contemporary avant-gardists; that in its "publications" section it will print previously unpublished poetry by avant-gardists of the 1910s-30s with the help of Erl', N. Khardzhiev, and T. Nikol'skaia; and that it will publish a variety of theoretical/critical articles on questions of avant-garde poetry and art. Most of the first issue's over fifty pages of typescript are given over, in typical Futurist fashion, to numerous manifestoes, statements of critical position, and classifications of literary devices, authored mainly by Nikonova. These closely resemble standard Futurist principles, but are milder and more practical in tone. One brief statement with some originality to it (at least from the perspective of Futurism) is Nikonova's "Stat'ia o seriinosti" (Article on Serialness), which has elements of Pop Art in it, though its sources are evidently different. It is concise enough to quote in full:

in 1963, having seen a "serigraph" by Ben Shahn, I experienced something like a creative jolt, consciousness of the set task came later. for about 10 years I unconsciously had been striving to classify the elements of human nature and its external profile into segments, in literature: movements, sensations, games, etc. in art: eyes, hands, rears, bellies, lips, breasts, etc. as though all this was prepared in the factory of nature in a massive quantity precisely in detail. the style of 20th century civilization is massiveness of production, the necessity of classifying products. what strikes the eye is not the face, but the crowd, and in the crowd what surprises and tires one is the similarity of elements. in order to kill something, it is necessary to create it and so I also am drawing my series "homo-eye" and "human rears", trying to find special qualities in the mass. but I also shuffle the elements which have been provided by nature in a certain, but not the only possible order. for example, teeth on the forehead, lips on the forehead, lips in the hair, eyes on the neck, etc. this, in my view, corresponds to an unseen reality. (:14)
Nikonova follows this by an extensive "teoprakt" (:15-28), which details devices of literary practice that are in effect a catalogue of "sdvigi" (dislocations) from the Futurist canon, e. g., "emancipation of conjunctions. one can link words in a sentence by any particles" (:15), or "everything new is better than Mozart, but not every change leads to something new" (:19).
The actual poetry selections are comparatively brief, ten pages of short poems by Sigei and Nikonova (:29-39). Sigei's four poems, dated 1976-77, are done by hand with a marker and a ballpoint, necessitated in part by their inclusion of old Slavonic letterforms, such as A, and other graphic elements. One of these, "In honor of Vasilisk Gnedov," consists of a long blank space between two parentheses, plus sketched-in hands, some zaum' words, and wavy lines. Nikonova's poems are more varied, ranging from a surrealist "microplay," "Only for Rembrandts," to miniatures full of wordplay à la Xlebnikov, such as the following poem:

Vym' (:38)
(By suffering/Ging/Suffeg/Oring/Vig)

The body of the issue ends with short review of books by Erl' and Boris Vantalov (Boris Aksel'rod]. Since these reviews are at times not very complimentary, the copy at hand appends a footnote dated 1983, which explains what might seem an odd situation, in which the journal criticizes its own associates, by pointing out that only after these reviews were written did a close relationship with Erl' and Vantalov develop. Clearly this copy is a later reprint of the first issue, which explains also why it was possible to list the complete contents of the next 16 issues of Transponans as an appendix (quite valuable since only one other of these issues was available; helpful also is the Supplement to No. 19 in which the contents of Nos. 1-19 are reviewed in annotated form). The cover of this issue is a linocut by Sigei, and the original issue also evidently included a few pages of additional material by M. Tarshis and Sigei that were omitted in the reissue.
Judging by the No. 19 Supplement, succeeding issues concentrate much more on literary works, the contents of No. 2 consisting mostly of poems by Sigei (some from as early as 1963-64) and Nikonova, with two contributions by Valerii D'iachenko. Theoretical portions deal with books in new shapes (sculpture, vases, bracelets, etc.) and in "vandalized" form, i. e., cut in half with a hole in the middle, and with collages. No. 3 (1979, 65 pp.) was the only original issue of this first large group available for examination. This issue, with an original hand-colored ink drawing by Tarshis (Nikonova) on the cover, is clearly a first edition, not a later reissue, and contains the first contribution by Boris Konstriktor, a panegyric in prose to his typewriter titled "Rech' v zashchitu samogo tebia" (Speech in Defense of You Yourself). This is followed by three brief plays by Tarshis from 1977-79. The first, "Startsy" (Elders), is an absurdist mystery-play parody with an extensive list of characters with tag names who mostly emit incoherent exclamations. The cover drawing seems to be related to this play, since it depicts two whimsical figures, one of whom appears to be a monk. The second play, "Sfericheskii teatr: Zritel' i vechno" (Spherical Theater: Spectator and Eternally), is rather the description of a theatrical happening than a play as such, since it contains no dialogue but only a scenario in which balloons with ropes tied to them are used to wrap and annoy the spectators, until one of them leaves, upon which a shot is fired off-stage, indicating the spectator's suicide. The play ends in darkness, the ropes are detached from the balloons, there are fireworks, and fruits are served to the audience. The third pay, "Migmalion," a take-off, it seems, on Pygmalion, also has no dialogue, but only aimless movements by the hero in the magma of the earth's center at some prehistoric time. The contributions by Sigei, 16 short poems, show him to be very much in the Khlebnikovian mold with his neologisms, plus phonetic spellings and a certain amount of anti-aesthetic imagery. Perhaps the most original device he employs is the formation of neologisms by syllable overlap, e.g.:

rybezdna zhelanii lunizmennykh
liubezdna zhelannykh rybolei
liiuduiu grustonnuiu kazhet mne (:30, 1975)
Vantalov contributes a short prose on the current lamentable state of culture in the city built by Van'ka Kain, i. e., Petersburg. This is followed by Tarshis' "Skheme rasskazov" (Scheme of stories), which is a one-page matrix of three male and three female characters (heading the columns) and three numbered "thoughts" (the rows). In each space in the matrix is a brief, sometimes one-word statement from the respective character out of which we can build a collective situation to which the statement is a contribution, in the manner of Il'ia Kabakov's conceptualist paintings and albums. The remainder of the issue contains several short pieces by Tarshis and one long, ponderous one by Sigei, most striking in these being the surprised report by Tarshis after a tour of the Leningrad art exhibitions, official and unofficial, in the summer of 1979, that the official exhibits (Chestniakov, Drevin) turned out to be more interesting than the unofficial ones (Maslov, L. Bogdanov, Sterligov and his school). This view is supported by Sigei's essay, which rambles enough to include as its most interesting material some extensive selections of poetry by A. Nik.
The next available issue of Transponans skips far ahead to No. 21 (Feb.-Mar., 1984). In the interim, judging by the information in the bibliographies already mentioned, the journal has grown in scope: it has more contributors, more pages, a greater variety of materials and physical properties. These features are fully reflected in No. 2 (21), which has works by over a dozen writers, 180 pp. using both sides of the paper, materials ranging from original drawings and collages to first publications of archival documents and photographs. The format remains chiefly carbon-copy typescript but, in addition to the art just mentioned, includes poems typed and/or collaged onto round or leaf-shaped pages, and even a composition by Sigei on a sequence of diagonally cut pages, and a strip in which the interplay of the page shapes and word segments pasted on them is part of the fun of the work. The first item in the issue is a Futurist/Dadaist "opera" (fragments) by Konstriktor and a certain Dzonsi Gei, who seems to be a cross between John Gay of Beggar's Opera fame and Sergei Sigei, and is titled "Zizhn' za Ttsara" (Life for Tzara), which in turn results from replacing the hero of Glinka's opera, Ivan Susanin ("Life for the Tsar" was its original title), with the Dada leader Tristan (referred to in the text as "Dristan") Tzara. The work is a hilarious pastiche of avant-garde foolishness, in which, by the way, Igor' Terent'ev and Il'iazd [Il'ia Zdanevich] also put in cameo appearances. There are poems and some prose by Igor' Bakhterev (the last surviving Oberiut), Nikonova, Sigei, Konstriktor, Boris Kukriakov, Konstantin Zvezdochetov (a member of the Moscow group Mukhomory (Toadstools), A. Al'tshuler, L. Aronzon, and Kari Unksova. The Publications section contains the authoritative text for Kruchenykh's poem "Velimir Khlebnikov in 1915" (n.d.), a selection of poems by Vasilisk Gnedov from 1913 to 1973, and a section "Vokrug Kharmsa" (Around Kharms) edited by Vladimir Erl', which incudes previously unpublished poems by Kharms, Zabolotskii, Oleneikov, and N. A. Tiuvelev, and K. Vaginov's second afterword to his novel Kozlinaia pesn' (Goat Song), all of these accompanied by an introduction and annotations. Erl''s active involvement in the journal began, by the way, with No. 5 (1980), to which he contributed some poems and curated a prose piece by A. Vvedenskii. His association with the Transpoets evidently began after they attended his 1979 lecture on Kharms (Transponans, Supplement to No. 19:20). Following "Vokrug Kharmsa," a Translations section provides Russian translations of poems by Hans Arp, Anselm Hollo, Franz Mon, and Gerhard Rühm, which were clearly chosen as consonant with the journal's orientation. The remaining sections-Theories, Bibliography, Criticism, Chronical, and Declarations-are of less interest in this issue. The first contains a rehash of the use of extraliterary materials (signboards, laundry lists, etc.) among the Futurists; the next "reviews" works by members of the group, many of which seem to be self-reviews, and inexplicably includes a list of what appear to be rules or declarations by Erl' in which letters are deliberately omitted in every word, making the whole thing an exercise in zaum'; the Criticism section has useful annotations to the poetry of Al'tshuler and Aronzon that appeared earlier in the issue, plus an introduction and examples of poems by Dmitrii Prigov written on leaf-shaped pages; chronicled in the next section are public Leningrad poetry evenings in Feb.-Mar., 1984, in which S. Stratanovskii, S. Magid, A Dragomoshchenko, V. Krivulin, and, in a separate event, E. Shvarts read from their works; and finally a brief declaration that argues that futurism is not dead, because some Greek has stated that invasions by the Varangians (read: futurists) periodically repeat themselves. All of this is valuable more as documentation of literary history than for its own intrinsic merit.

The next issue at hand, No. 5 (24) (Sep.-Oct. 1984, 137 pp), is the first one to impress by the more or less uniform high quality of its contents, beginning with the cover drawing by Vladimir Ufliand, which depicts a branching tree of the Russian alphabet growing from the ground of a variety of mystical symbols. [Figure 2] The frontispiece is a letter collage list of names of famous literary figures grafted to each other:

Giugogol' [Hugo/Gogol
Bodlermontov [Baudelaire/Lermatov
This is identified in the table of contents as a "collective-declaration-parody by the group of 'Atomists' on surrealist 'genealogies,' Moscow, 1930." The first regular item in the Theory section is Vladislav Len's "Tree of Russian Verse," which presents a chronological collage-diagram-genealogy of the period 1955-80s in which major poets and trends of those decades are related by a color-key to what are seen as the three main roots of these poets' work, namely, Kluiev, Kruchenykh-Khlebnikov, Mandel'stam-Pasternak. The diagram has a legend in which the various figures and groups are clearly identified. Although, as Nikonova says in her appended note, opinions may be expected to vary on the designations, names, and groupings, I think even the most well-informed observer will find useful data in the "tree." The Practice section contains substantial poems by Lev Kropivnitskii (from 1962-81), Nikonova, Konstriktor, and Sigej, plus a few poems each by Feofan Buka, Igor' Bakhterev, and A. Nik. Most striking in this section are Nikonova's "gesture poems" in which individual words or phrases are accompanied by a sketch of a person or a hand making a gesture that is linked to the verbal material in some mysterious way. This genre has been extensively developed by Nikonova, and is the focus of several of her solo books, which will be discussed below. Nikonova in these and other works here shows herself to be the most protean and inventive of the group, while the others are content to cultivate the traditional futurist garden, nevertheless with respectable results. The Criticism section contains two long critiques by Nikonova, one on No. 3 of the Leningrad samizdat journal Obvodnyi kanal (:65-93), and a second on Genrikh Sapgir's "Poema-predosterezhenie s tvoim uchastiem BYT' MOZHET," 1981 (:94-99). The first article surveys in detail the contents of the given journal, which includes poetry by Dm. Bobyshev, O. Okhapkin, Iu. Kolker, Likhtenfel'd, E. Pudovkina, I. Tailov, and Arno Tsart, prose by Vl. Alekseev, Ev. Zviagin, A. Oniplok, and Laviniia Voron, and criticism by A. Stepanov, St. Iurev, and K. Mamontov, and takes a jaundiced view of most of it. Nikonova, taking a cue from Kruchenykh, points out instances of "kaki," i.e., similes using "kak," but referring also to the anal eroticism of "kaka," thus holding such cliched poetic devices up to scorn, and she generally attacks lack of originality in any form, unless it imitates futurism. She finds an absence of theoretical principles in the journal's criticism and a lack of visual interest in its design. On the other hand, the Sapgir poem fares well, and she singles out for praise its most futurist features, such as passages of phonetic or morphological zaum'. Most interesting and, perhaps most valuable, is the Bibliography section in which Sigei describes and presents excerpts in Russian transcription of Iliazd's monumental Poèsie du mots inconnus (Paris, 1949), one of his greatest book-works and the first international collection of transrational poetry, with lithographs by Picasso, Braque, Miró, Legér, et al., and poems (mentioning only the ones presented in Transponans) by Artaud, Ball, Beauduin, Bryen, Iliazd, Poplavskii, Schwitters, and Seuphor. In the Publications section, Kruchenykh's "arabeski iz gogolia" (arabesques from gogol) from his late period (date not given) is presented. The Chronicle section briefly lists performances by the Transpoets in 1984 and gives a short interview with Bakhterev on them. The issue ends with a wonderful photograph of Bakhterev and Sigei standing before the latter's abstract portrait of the former at the Leningrad non-conformist exhibition "Facets of the Portrait" (Sep. 17-Oct. 8, 1984). Since this issue also announces the appearance of a supplement, Feofan Buka's Kruchenykhiada, let us briefly go to it.
Feofan Buka, which must be a pseudonymn, is described as being "Kruchenykh's closest friend" (Transponans No. 24:122), but is otherwise mysterious. According to Gennadii Aigi, Kruchenykh did not usually associate with the other poets, Nikolai Glazkov being the only contemporary he recognized. However, judging by the dates of Buka's poems in this collection (1943-63), it is possible that his friendship with Kruchenykh simply predated Aigi's acquaintanceship with Kruchenykh (Transponans No. 30 has a photo showing Buka and Kruchenykh making merry together). The collection, edited and designed by Sigei, consists of nearly 200 short poems by Buka to Kruchenykh, the majority of which, ironically, are traditional syllabo-tonic rhymed quatrains with only a certain amount of verbal exuberance, despite their constant hymn of praise to the great Futurist-zaumnik. Of course, Kruchenykh's own poetry of this period was notably more conservative than it had been in the heyday of Futurism. Nevertheless, the poems are lively and seem to have been written for various occasions (birthdays, holidays, visits), and doubtless pleased the recipient by their mock-epic playfulness. Particularly amusing are the various metamorphoses of Kruchenykh's name scattered throughout: Kruch, Kruchik, Krykh, Chertenykh, Zvuchenykh, and even Khynechurk. The design of the collection is attractive: the typescript of Buka's poems is periodically interrupted by bright, dynamic (perhaps one could even say lyrical) letter collages done on alternating light blue and terra cotta construction paper on full pages or one-third page strips with scattered words from Kruchenykh's zaum'. Pieces of the famous "Dyr bul shchyl" are spaced throughout and thus create a kind of structure for the whole. [Figure 3]

Issue No. 25 (Nov.-Dec. 1984) of Transponans is in many ways the grandest of them all, in the usual format, but with a damask flower-print fabric cover and 343 pages of text, plus numerous photographs, collages, and even several original art works. [Figure 4] In addition to writings by the usual contributors, it includes a theoretical essay by Il'ia Kabakov, "An author looks at his work twice" (:11-14), a long, semi-zaum' poem by Bakhterev, "LU" (1954-84) (:85-101), and a beautiful lithograph by An. Vasilev for Kruchenykh's (and Khlebnikov's) "A Game in Hell." Important in the Publications section is presentation of the complete text of Kruchenykh's "slovo o podvigakh gogolia" (The Lay of Gogol's Feats, 1943-44) (:60-80) with valuable commentary by Sigej. In the Commentary to Practice section, Sigei also provides a useful explanation of his and others' poetry of word fragments (otkusy), to wit: the fragments present provide an initial semantic impulse, while the absence of a full word allows (forces) the reader to fill in the gaps in a variety of ways (:147-49). The Bibliography section presents Sigei's "retelling" of A. N. Chicherin's Kan-Fun (1926), a key text in Constructivism. Chicherin, a hero of the Transfurists, provides a surprise link between the group and the present writer, when on p. 313 of this issue Nikonova refers to my brief article on Chicherin (1981:48-49) and quips: "now even the Americans have discovered him, while the journal Transponans has been propagandizing for him as early as 1979." Give us time; we Americans are a little slow on the uptake. It is, nevertheless, amazing that Soviets can keep so well informed about even minor happenings in the West. In this section on Criticism, Nikonova provides nearly a hundred pages of tedious, tendentious, but useful reportage and comments on recent art exhibits and unofficial publications. Finally, the issue includes excerpts in photographic form of a collective work, IR FAER, in which the Transpoets and Dmitrii Prigov have taken a book of poems in Ossetian by the Ossetian poet Khetagurov with illustrations by M. Tuganov, dating evidently from the Stalinist period, and transformed it by blotting out words, adding lines and drawings to both text and illustrations, with affects ranging from the absurd to the mystical (:205-16). Irfaerism has been succintly defined by Sigei as "using a ready-made form with the goal of creating a new ready-made form" (Kuzminsky 1986:552). Evidently the Irfaerists saw themselves as a new movement, because they elsewhere issued a manifesto (Transponans No. 18, 1983, excerpted in the 1984 exhibition catalogue) and saw themselves as operating together on this basis, though only ephemerally, it seems. [ Figure 5]

After this tour de force, the next issue (No. 26, Jan.-Feb. 1985, 90 pp.) could not help but be less profuse. It contains only two sections, the usual Practice (:5-76) and Criticism (:79-89), and only two pages of graphic interest: a simple collage and a page with cut-out circles by Konstriktor. The works in the first section are on a consistently high level and present some new names: Genrikh Bufarev with poems in a Khlebnikovian neologistic vein; Leon Bogdanov, who is focused on in the next isue; and the Moscow Conceptualist Andrei Monastyrskii with a prose text describing the happening "Muzyka vnutri i snaruzhi" (Music inside and out). Criticism deals with the works of Konstantin Kuz'minskii in an appreciative but not reverential tone. Issue No. 27 (Mar.-Apr. 1985, 162 pp.) regains full scope with a greater variety of contributors and materials. Nikonova's exuberant visual materials (collages, transparencies, cards strung on a rick-rack, and a folded "Fan of Space") are particularly notable. [Figure 6] Sigei experiments with lettering done with solvents on a photograph negative. Konstriktor's poems and collage-drawings done on what seem to be bibliography cards for various German books are more interesting than usual. [Figure 7] And an additional sample of Leon Bogdanov's works is presented. Bogdanov, a Leningrad avantgardist and the subject of a critical essay by Nikonova, is known to her only through his works and is described as having passed through the usual influences of "Zen and Steiner, Lao-Tse and Chakrama, Khlebnikov, insanity, pornographic abstract, 'stream of consciousness', épatage, and the 'dreams' stylish in the 60s" (:98). The amorphousness and variety of his works are praised. Indeed, the relatively limited number of works presented in this and the preceding issue show a range of styles and methods from surrealism to minimalism. His compositions date from the 1960s to at least 1974, but it is unclear whether he is still alive and writing at present. As usual, the Publications and Bibliography sections present valuable materials, in this case the complete text of Kharms's "Mikhaily" (Michaels, 1925) and the final version of Vvedenskii's "Elegiia" (Elegy, 1940) from the authorial manuscript held by N. Khardzhiev.

Given the active visual qualities usual in the editors' works, it was only inevitable that the journal should eventually break out of its quadrilateral strait jacket. The next and final issue that comes to hand, No. 30 (Nov.-Dec. 1985, 153 pp.), does so vigorously. Each of the major sections has a different page shape: Practice-square with a triangle cut out of the middle of one edge to form an M shape; Theory and Criticism-an isosceles triangle; Publications-strips; Translations-a rectangle. All of these extend beyond each other at some points. Inside, the various texts are fitted to the page shape, making the original typing a rather complicated task, no doubt, but the reading a visual and tactile delight. The most interesting work in the Practice section is perhaps Nikonova's "pa de katet" (Pas de cathéte, 1985), which is a series of 63 variations on two initial themes: "1 KILL ME, BUT DON'T TOUCH MY DRAWINGS (Archimedes)" and "2 THE SQUARE OF THE HYPOTENUSE IS EQUAL TO THE SUM OF THE SQUARES OF EACH OF THE TWO LEGS (Pythagoras)." These themes are then submitted, both separately and in combination, to numerous visual, graphic, and semantic transformations which incorporate drawings in colors and variations of every imaginable sort. The final variation reads as in [Figure 8].

One square of one hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two legs, if you don't kill me. But don't meanwhile touch my two gray damp drawings, for I am one and you are one, but the people are many.

Judging by the catalogue of the group's 1984 exhibit, Boris Konstriktor is the author of six books of poems from 1980-83, but, since none of these individual books is available, an impression of his work must be gotten from his contributions to Transponans. His contributions to No. 30 are characteristic. His poetry is rather artificial; that is, he usually takes some design or compositional concept and applies it abstractly and dryly to his material, often with predictable or uninteresting results. A better than average case here is his poem "A girl and death" (1985), which begins as follows:

ne podvedesh' glaza
ne vyjdesh' zamuzh
ne uidesh' zamuzh
ne rodish' rebenka
ne poluchish' kvartiru
(if you don't lower your eyes/you will not get married/if you don't get married/you won't have a baby/if you don't have a baby/you won't get an apartment)

The negative contingency statements become rigidly ordered, are usually stated twice-once as the result of the preceding contingency, the second time as the new contingency-and tend to recur in the course of a lock-step logical progression toward the conclusion:
ne poluchish' po morde
ne vyidesh' zamuzh
ne vyiesh' zamuzh
ne poznaesh' zakony
ne poznaesh' zakony
ne budesh' mertvoi
ne budesh mertvoi
ne stanesh' zhivoi
ne stanesh' zhivoi
ne budehs' mertvoi
(if you don't get hit in the face/you won't get married/if you don't get married/you won't get to know the laws/if you don't get to know the laws/you won't be dead/if you aren't dead/you won't become alive/if you don't become alive/you won't be dead)

The instructional tone of a parent to a daughter and the awful implications of inescapable contingencies reveal a social tragedy, but the mechanical form is too repetitive (through 65 lines) and becomes monotonous, thus diluting the impact of the conclusion. On the other hand, Konstriktor's collages are invariably interesting and inventive.
Genrikh Sapgir, the Moscow avant-garde poet who has been an occasional contributor to previous issues, appears in photographs here and seems to have become as active a presence as Bakhterev has been. The excerpt from his 1963 book Molchanie (Silence) fits in well with the others' works, and he joins the three in a collective poem "ekh trakh bakh" (July, 1985). The triangular Theory and Criticism section contains two interesting essays by Nikonova and a tribute to Bakhterev by Sigei. In the first essay, Nikonova points out that in previous literary practice the visual orientation of the writer and the reader were identical, with letters ordered in lines to be read from left to right. But this is no dogma, and if a reader feels the urge, he can read from right to left or diagonally. In fact, a text that permits varied reading strategies is more perfect than one that is "monotonously oriented." In her own work, she has passed from spontaneous visuality to a phase where visuality is a consequence of the verse "construction." She illustrates this point with examples of her "vector" poems where repeated letters are aligned vertically, and the whole is enclosed in a grid of lines and boxes that highlight correspondences. She notes further that if one is operating, for instance, with the abstract phonations of zaum', then it is inappropriate to use the standard layout of traditional literature. In the second essay, she describes in detail the layout techniques in her vector poems. A brief example that will serve for both essays is the one-word poem "otsutstvie" (absence), which in vector form looks like this:

The Publications section provides poems by Malevich and Kharms and a photograph of Kruchenykh with Feofan Buka, and the Translations section includes a re-Russianization of an Italian translation of a play by the Tiflis dadaist N. Salimov and, unaccountably, extensive exerpts from Sigei's Notebook with some useful documentary material. Issue No. 31 has the same vari-shaped pages but was unavailable for examination. In sum, Transponans, in the issues surveyed and evidently also in those which are known only by bibliographical description, maintains a firm avant-garde stance that carries on and develops the Russia avant-garde "tradition" of the 1910s and 1920s, the influence of which has been thoroughly assimilated. Writings by the editors predominate, occasionally monotonously, but also with flashes of invention. Other consonant contributors are brought in whenever available, creating the impression of a small but active and growing creative enclave. Documentary materials supplied from the earlier period as well as descriptions of current activities have significant historical value and make the journal important for that reason alone. The visual features of many of the issue are remarkable. Because the journal is hand-produced, certain things could be done, such as collages, hand-lettering and -coloring, cut-outs, etc., that would be proscribed by mass production. As with many of the productions of the original avant-garde, each copy is not only automatically a bibliographical rarity, but also an individual work of art. The fact that such a task could be carried on for more than thirty issues is a tribute to the editors' stamina and dedication. At the same time, and perhaps most remarkably despite the main editors' (Sigei and Nikonova's) provincial base in Eisk, they maintain close contact in particular with Leningrad (obviously with the help of Konstriktor, who is married to Nikonova's sister), but also with Moscow and the international scene, making Transponans not just local in scope, but all-Union and in fact an organ of international avant-garde activities.
Along with the opportunity to study issues of Transponans came that to look at solo publications by Sigei and Nikonova. Sigei's talent as an artist is evident in his individual booklets, which often have marked and varied visual contents. Several of them, though described as books of "poems," are in fact collections of drawings. "Stikhi dlia skomorokhov XVI-XVII vv." (1985, poems for minstrels of the 16th-17th centuries, 12 pp.) contains an explanation on the cover that these are poems in body movement that will be performed by the minstrels at the Last Judgement. Inside are diagrams for such dances using stick figures written in black crayon. Another booklet in this series, "stikhi dlia balerin Bol'shogo teatra SSSR" (1985, poems for ballerinas of the Bolshoi Theater of the USSR, 12 pp.), contains elaborate and fanciful diagrams for balletic movements with directions in French. And a third, "stikhi dlia matrosof, vladeiushchikh flazhkovo-bukvennoi signalizatsii" (1985, poems for sailors who know flag-letter signals, 12 pp.), has poems made up of drawings of flags in what would appear to be the international maritime flag code, but I was unable to decipher them using the standard flag-letter correspondences. Perhaps the Soviet code differs. Another work of 1985, untitled, is an album of ten folded sheets on the left side of which is a photo, usually of the author, with portions of it cut out and then inked. The right side contains the impressions that result when the sheet is folded, to which in many cases are added the pieces cut from the photos. Later items in the series become progressively more complex, the last two even having verbal elements. Yet another work, "pal'aplai dei" (n.d., 8 pp.), is a series of zaum' poems stencilled in large, crude letters over abstract white paper cut-outs.

Other works are in the tradition of the futurist manuscript book. [Figures 9 and 10] "Vseza" (n.d.) contains 23 pages of neologistic poems (1969-73) written carefully in green ink with collaged letters and strips of colored paper added. "Tsaroko X v izvlecheniiakh" (n.d., Tsarocco X in extractions, 16 pp.) consists mainly of Khlebnikovian poems written in black india ink or blue ballpoint on paper ovals, which in turn are pasted on stiff paper pages of varying sizes. Sometimes Sigei uses archaic or fanciful letterforms that are made to look like objects ("p" [ll] is a woman's head with a hat on it, while "v" [B] is decorated to resembled a pair of breasts seen from above), or he adds doodles, creating the effect of a rebus and making reading an interesting challenge. Another, "Ekhona pikto i drugie stikhi dlia glazomozga i glaza 1969/1982" (Echoon picto and other poems for eye-brain and eye 1969/1982), is indeed a work of art with four dozen original manuscript graphic poems in black ink on fine art paper using verbal, pictorial, and diagrammatic elements in myriad unique and sometimes very elaborate combinations, each page of which is interesting in itself and which together create an overwhelming impression of visual inventiveness. This is perhaps Sigei's masterpiece and shows off his original talents to best effect. [Figure 11]

The remaining books, collections of poems in straightforward typescript, are less impressive, revealing Sigei to be a close imitator of the futurist canon without much added of his own. There are three mostly-typescript books, "EKKA RTA, 1969-76" (n.d., 18 pp.), "mashinopisnyi cobr vybr No. 3, 1963-1981" (1981, typescript sel wks No. 3, 66 pp.), and "doitel' golovnoi arfy" (c. 1984, milker of the head harp, 103 pp.). In these, one can see that he remains close to Khlebnikov, but one might further note that if Khlebnikov is the model, then it is incumbent on his followers not simply to repeat his experiments but to go on to use these newly established methods to produce significant works. The focus here is rather on the application of devices, which have now been named and classified, to miscellaneous materials. In this respect, the third collection, whose title is evidently a combination of "Doitel' iznurennykh zhab" (a series of poems by David Burliuk, 1914) and Tufanov's =C8olova arfa (1917), is more interesting than the other two, because its contents are more varied, including several long poems, such as "solovem idi razbojnicat'" (1971, go rob like a nightingale), which combines a folk subject with judicious avant-garde techniques to good effect, together with shorter conceptual works and prose, though the latter is usually indistinguishable from the poems except for the layout. However, I think it is appropriate to give the poet the last word, for which the following short poem from "sobr vybr No. 3" may serve:

tselubna tselunna
guby khliabit iziumrot
ona resnichit grud'iu kholm
ona lisichit ukhom um
i beshit ro
al' rvet tsarlo
bashen bro (:45)
(salubrar salunar/a lip's oraisnald throughs/she eyelashes the hill with her breast/she foxes mind with ear/and furies the mo/or tears the twarlo/of towers thro)

Ry Nikonova, also an artist, has come across consistently as the most interesting and innovative contributor to Transponans. This impression is borne out by her solo collections, of which, fortunately, a substantial number were available for study. Her "gesture" poems and "vector" poems, both mentioned above when encountered in Transponans, are the subject of separate collections. Judging by various references scattered throughout the materials, gesture poems emerged as an attempt to create a poem essentially wordless, though it might have a few minimal verbal elements, the focus of which would be a movement of the hands and arms. The roots of such poetry, if not its direct inspiration, are in Vasilisk Gnedov's famous "Poem of the End," which was performed by its author with a silent gesture, and whose published version consisted of a title and a blank space (Gnedov 1913:no. 15). Ideally, of course, such performance poems should be recorded on videotape, a medium doubtless not readily available to the author; attempts were made to capture a poem in a still photo (tararam poetra, back cover). However, the main graphic medium chosen was a diagrammatic sketch of hands in positions or implied movements. A collection of these is "Partitura zhesta" (1984, Gesture score, 13 pp.), but rather than being an attempt to outline the gesture involved, the diagrams of hands, letters, and arrows take on an independent visual essence of their own, such that in many instances it is hard to imagine how the given sketch could be converted to a real gesture.
Logically, the hand diagrams might become abstracted into arrows, but it appears that the real genesis was the reverse. "Vector poems," in which arrows with various straight or curved trajectories are combined with letters and geometric shapes, preceded the gesture poems, and the latter resulted from an attempt to perform the vector poems at public readings. Nikonova's collection of vector poems, "PIAI-----EZIIA" (1983, Paae-oetry, 98 pp.), is dedicated to Gnedov, another hero of the Transfurists and an associate in the mid-1970s, and is prefaced by an explanation that the poems arose from "a sensation of energy and direction (1979)," and were originally thought of as purely visual objects, but then the question of performance arose. The idea of performing such works by means of gestures led to a consideration of the boundary between art and non-art, and the preface ends with the following intriguing example:

when a poet eats an apple on stage, it must be clear that this is a poet and the apple is a line of poetry, otherwise this is not culinart but simply a cafeteria or a scene in a play.
Nikonova here and elsewhere shows herself to be a clear-eyed theoretician as well as practitioner (for more on culinart, see Kuzminsky 1986:550-51). The given collection contains an extensive series of vector poems from 1981-83 with myriad possible combinations of visual and verbal elements hand-colored in marker and pencil. Nikonova's improvisatory inventiveness comes through when, in instances where the marker color has bled through the absorbent paper to the other side, she takes advantage of this patterning to create another work on the reverse side. And in one instance an exhausted carbon paper produces an illegible second copy of a poem which is allowed to follow its original from the preceding page like a nearly inaudible echo. "Foro" (1983, 14 pp.) [Figure 12] is a brightly colored collection of vector poems with the added element that the central square on many of the poems has been cut out so that portions of succeeding poems are revealed through the hole created, producing a layering and a sense of depth.
Another logical step is to take regularly composed poems and bring out their constructive, architectural features by visual means, as illustrated above by the rearrangement of the word otsutstvie. "BB" (1985, 62 pp.) is a collection of poems from 1963-85 which have been submitted to such treatment. Naturally, only poems with substantial numbers of repeated letters or words are amenable to such architectural transformation, but these include quite a few of Nikonova's earlier poems, and it is interesting to see the results. In essence, what happens is that repetitions in the poem, which are picked up by the ear unsystematically and form part of the sound orchestration and "music" of the poem, but which are hidden from the eye by the usual non-constructive positioning on the page, are made to seem (or are revealed to be) prime organizing features of the poem by a layout that fully reveals all such repetitions. The architectural designs that result can be either classically simple or quite complex, depending on the repetitiousness of the given poem; and no two designs are identical, since the sound structure of each poem is unique. In addition to aligning repeated elements vertically, Nikonova uses vector arrows to link repeated letters that could not be aligned vertically because of other, more important alignments. Furthermore, the repetitions the author chooses to highlight by vertical alignment are not always the obvious or predictable ones. As a result, the visual patterning of columns, boxes, and arrows is often elaborate and interesting in its own right, furthered by Nikonova's addition of coloration, rounded and triangular edges, and purely geometric elements. In some cases, the letters and words are simply aligned vertically, without the use of lines, allowing one to compare this "naked" layout with the lined/boxed design. In the former, the verbal elements are foregrounded, while in the more frequent latter situation, the verbal elements tend to be submerged in the geometric grid design, and an effort is required to extract them so as to get at the semantic level of the poem. In the latter case, a high degree of defamiliarization is certainly present. As an example of medium complexity, the following poem will perhaps serve:

The remaining collections by Nikonova that come to hand are anthologic in nature, surveys of her work in various styles from one vantage point or another. "Tararam poetra. Izbrannoe iz stikhov 1959-1985 g. g." (1985, Tararam of poetr. Selected poetry 1959-1985, 41 pp.) is a basic chronological survey of her poetry and is highly useful for an appreciation of the progress of her creativity. The earliest poems display her roots in surrealism and the absurd:
Bogi den' rozhdeniia Iisusa
Perepilis' do ochelovechivaniia . . .
Obkurili nebo papirosnymi tucami.
Poplevali na zemliu dozhdichkom.
Kazhdyi po ocheredi . . .
Iisus chto-to pokhabnoe pogremel.
Khokhochut bogi . . .
Zhdu . . .
Skoro na zemliu pustye butylki padat'
budut. 1959
(The gods were celebrating Jesus' birthday. They were getting drunk to the point of becoming human . . . They smoked up the sky with cigarette clouds. They spat to earth like rain. Each taking a turn . . . Jesus thundered something obscene. The gods guffaw . . . I'm waiting . . . Soon empty bottles will fall to earth.)

The irreverent playfulness of this early poem is characteristic of Nikonova's work throughout. By the late 1960s, formal concerns are more prominent and a broader orientation toward futurist devices and zaum', e.g.:
Veliki po razmeram

(Great in measure: Inmeasr/Inmusr/Inmusir)

Experiments along these lines continue through the 1970s until the arrival in the early 1980s of the vector, gesture, and constructive poems already discussed.
Another collection, "Izbrazuzy. Rasskazy 1965-1981" (1983, Selelories, Stories 1965-1981, 66 pp.), traces in the sphere of prose roughly the same path from absurdism and automatic writing in the 1960s to increasing abstraction and focus on devices in the 1970s onward. Since stories are supposed to have a plot, a specifically prose formalization is the story "schema" (described above), which produces a minimalist outline of a plot. This would be the prose equivalent of a constructive poem. Indeed, many of the same devices are here applied to "prose," resulting in works that are indistinguishable from vector poems or sound poems. The final "story" in the book, "Piat' tochek" (1983, Five periods/dots), is perfectly minimalist in its graphic simplicity, consisting predictably of five dots scattered about a page that is otherwise blank except for the title and date.

Unquestionably, Nikonova's most impressive achievement and one which shows off her protean talents most clearly is the two-volume compendium of "systemic poetry," Tonezharl' (1985, n. p.) in six "books" with a total of over 600 pages and well over 1,000 poems. It is designed as an exhaustive manual to illustrate the manifold avant-garde techniques used and developed by Nikonova and her colleagues. Perhaps the briefest way to give an idea of its scope would be to list the table of contents, but even that would take up several pages, and the terminology would sometimes be unfamilair. Suffice it to say that the full range of methods ranging from realism through hallmark devices of futurism (zaum', absurd, dislocations [sdvigi]) to contemporary orientations (minimalism, conceptualism) and to new Transfurist methods and, finally, transitional forms (literature and science, music, painting, theater, "civilization"), are all covered and exemplified from the author's own works. Whether there are any masterpieces among these examples is another question, but let me quote two poems characteristic of different systemic approaches. The first is the title poem, from the section "Co-existence - Polyphony - Trialogues/Relays":

(ITSNOTAHITY/2 1 3 /If/B/and if/R/Donkeys/P/But didn't live/C/Ipsif/G/Its not hit/Y)
The second comes from the section on "Non-integrational conglomerates" from a larger section on combinations of styles and devices. It is a beautiful little lyric with emphasis on mellifluous sound. I quote it in its original, non-constructive variant:
Dozhdli lili
Sedela melkoroza
Selo lilovo selo
I volos ros na rozy rost
I mokryi golos pel
(The rainils poured/the pettyrose turned grayhaired /The village settled violetly/And a hair grew on the rose's growth/And a moist voice sang)

Nikonova herself admits that inevitably some devices are more congenial and productive for a given artist than others, and some devices are illustrated only briefly and weakly. Judging by the relative quantities of illustrations, her favorites obviously include the ones we have already discussed. Quite a few poems here and anthologized elsewhere come in more than one variant, and it is instructive to compare the varying effects of different layout practices. Many of the poems were given new constructive-architectural variants in 1985. Nevertheless, an impression is created of the immense richness of possible techniques open to the contemporary poet, and one comes away wondering why the average poet is content with such a narrow repertoire of devices. I dare say that, were this work to be published in readily accessible form, it would soon become a standard reference manual on modern poetic craft.
The cassette tape "Listen, eat!" brings out another facet of the group's activities-audio-performance features of poetry-and here it should be pointed out that a hallmark of the group's work in all spheres is making use of the perhaps unexpected advantages of whatever medium is being employed at the moment. In bookworks, the necessity of hand-making the books is turned to creative advantage in collages, cutouts, coloring, free layout, etc. On the cassette, which includes authorial recitations recorded in July, 1985, in roughly equal number by Nikonova, Sigei, and Konstiktor, assisted by at least one other woman (Nikonova's sister?), while some of the items are simply straightforward readings of various page-texts, most incorporate effects that depend on sound reproduction. These include pure sound-poems, such as Sigei's "a a a aa a a a," which, while it could be typed on paper and become a monotonous concrete poem scanned at a glance, in performance it becomes a rich and varied emotional experience, as intonation turns "a" into a question or an exclamation, and further vocal adjustments turn it into a laugh, a dog bark, or a musical pattern. Other poems have sound-effects either included or as their entire substance, such as pouring water, paper tearing, dropping or tapping of objects, sounds from radio programs, and noises of various kinds produced by the mouth (heavy breathing, gargling, spitting, animal sounds). In such cases, a visual medium would be nearly helpless, and sound reproduction is vital. Once again, Konstriktor tends to be predictable, Sigej interesting, and Nikonova the star. The most impressive work, Nikonova's "Feminofobs," is a brilliant, eleven-minute series of variations on two themes: "1) Kuritsa ne ptitsa, 2) Tsvetaeva ne Mandel'stam: (A chicken is not a bird; Tsvetaeva is not Mandelshtam), analogous to the set of variations in Transponans No. 30, but here focusing on sonic rather than visual features, though one can imagine a printed version also. Variations range from semantic transformations to pure sound effects (such as eating noises interspersed with word fragments), and in a number of places a chorus of voices is employed.

The 1984 exhibit of the group's works contained 58 bookworks, most of which, the catalogue points out, were manuscripts existing perhaps in a single copy. The catalogue, in addition to containing abbreviated verisons of a variety of manifestoes and theoretical texts, plus two Irfaerist re-made ready-mades by Sigei (a dissected prianik label entitled "it was I who ate Vladimir Erl''s prjaniks" and a tomato juice label decorated in black marker entitled "Ry Nikonova's megaphone"), lists eighteen solo works by Nikonova, none of which has been included in this survey, and twenty-two works by Sigei, only one of which (Ekhona) has been included. Therefore, there is much yet to be seen, so generalizations about either poet's total achievement are provisional, particularly in the case of Sigei. Nikonova's achievements in toto are probably better represented by the materials surveyed, and they seem to be less indebted to a single model than Sigei is to Khlebnikov. Nikonova's work has clearly moved the front forward, which is less clear in the case of Sigei and the other Transpoets. I am speaking here mainly of the Soviet-Russian context. Since context is all-important to the Conceptualist, it might be noted in fine that the work and activities of the Transpoets are quite daring in the Soviet context, even if they might be seen as standard avant-garde fare in the West.

As Coda: from Sergei Segei's Handbook
Copyright © 1998 by Gerald Janecek

Above copied from:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Are Video Games Art? Aaron Smuts

In this paper I argue that by any major definition of art many modern video gamesshould be considered art. Rather than defining art and defending video games based on a single contentious definition, I offer reasons for thinking that video games can be art according to historical, aesthetic, institutional, representational and expressive theories of art. Overall, I argue that while many video games probably should not be considered art, there are good reasons to think that some video games should be classified as art, and that the debates concerning the artistic status of chess and sports offer some insights into the status of video games.

video games, technology-based art, gamers, game design, game designers, narrative art

1. Introduction

In a Newsweek article from March of 2000, Jack Kroll argues that "games can be fun and rewarding in many ways, but they can't transmit the emotional complexity that is the root of art."[1] Kroll's article sparked a series of angry replies, mostly from gamers writing for industry magazines on the web,[2] but the controversy was not confined to fan culture and journalism. In an article published in MIT's Technology Review called "Art Form for the Digital Age," film scholar Henry Jenkins criticized Kroll for dramatically underestimating the potential of video games.[3] Outside of academia, Kroll's article was also cited in an amicus brief advising the Seventhth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case regarding an Indiana video game censorship law.[4] The extent and diversity of the response indicates that Kroll hit a nerve, and it is worthwhile to dig a little deeper into the issue.

Despite the cultural prominence of video games and technology-based art, philosophical aesthetics has completely ignored the area. Scholars in other disciplines, such as film, have taken the lead in the conceptual debate. This is unfortunate, since seldom are there questions in the philosophy of art that have direct, real world consequences. Philosophical inattention to video games has a de facto effect on the multi-billion dollar industry by inadvertently making hasty censorship attempts easier. The fact that philosophers have not raised the question of whether video games can be art lends credence to the assumption that they are not.

In this paper I argue thatby any major definition of art many modern video gamesshould be considered art.[5] Typically, one advances the art status of a purported art form in a deductive fashion, by first picking a favored definition of art, then demonstrating that the candidate satisfies the sufficient conditions for art according to that definition, and finally concluding that the art form in question is art. Rather than defining art and defending video games based on a single contentious definition, I offer reasons for thinking that video games can be art according to historical, aesthetic, institutional, representational and expressive theories of art. If we can agree that all these theories generally track our intuitions about what should be considered art, then when they are all in agreement we have good reason to think that we have successfully picked out an art form.

My argument proceeds in three major steps: I begin with a brief description of three recent games that have received extensive praise from gamers and game reviewers. I then attempt to situate video games with respect to larger issues about art and games by assessing the relevance of arguments about the aesthetics of sport and chess. Finally, I offer a host of reasons why some video games should be considered art according to several major theories of art. Overall, I argue that while many video games probably should not be considered art, there are good reasons to think that some video games should be classified as art.[6]

2. Three Candidate Games

It will be useful to give a brief description of a few important games from which I will draw key examples. Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001), Halo (Bungie, 2001), and Tom Clancy�s Splinter Cell (Ubisoft, 2002) are three recent games that have earned significant critical acclaim. The sophistication of these games indicates the promising aesthetic potential of the purported art form.

Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001) is a third-person shooter, a game where the camera takes a perspective from slightly behind the character, allowing the player to control the direction in which the character looks and moves. Max Payne is a noir-revenge thriller in which the player's avatar[7] is a rogue cop on a mission to avenge the death of his wife and child. The game employs first-person, voice-over narration, like many works in the film noir genre, and it includes periodic graphic-novel cut scenes, inserts that develop the narration between levels or major sections of play. Although the cut-rateChandler-inspired dialogue and voice-over could use some extensive rewriting, the game makes a great effort to motivate revenge-directed anger by forcing the player to work through hallucinatory flashback episodes in which Max is impotent to prevent the slaughtering of his family. The elaborate plot, complete with double-crossings and evidence of conspiracies spiraling out to the highest levels, helps to evoke classic noir-inspired dread.

Halo, the most successful game for Microsoft's X-Box platform, is an elaborate science fiction adventure set in an artificial world. The game mixes play modes, moving from the first-person perspective of a cyborg warrior, to driving and flying modes of play. Like Max Payne, Halo takes over 20 hours to complete. The levels (or long, goal-directed segments of play) are highly integrated with the narrative, and much of the pleasure in playing the game derives from slowly uncovering the purpose of the world on which your army has crash-landed. The narrative development is highly sophisticated for a video game and involves plot twists, double-crossing and surprise introductions of new characters.

Splinter Cell, also a game for the X-box, is renowned for its graphics and life-like character movement. In the game's jingoistic narrative, you play a secret operative set to infiltrate a hostile country. As in the other two games discussed, Splinter Cell has an elaborate narrative that is tightly integrated with the game play. It is a third-person shooter but requires stealth-like movements. Much of the game play is spent waiting and hiding in suspense. The game features a complex plot, extremely detailed character movements and elaborate lighting effects, which include stunning shadow play and chiaroscuro. Splinter Cell is a highly unified effort to provoke the feeling of tension one has when sneaking around and hiding from danger.

These three games represent recent trends in video game design made possible by increasingly sophisticated technology. All feature integrated narratives, graphics nearing photo-realism and elaborate three-dimensional worlds with rich and detailed textures. I do not claim that any of these games are great art, but they are all adept at achieving the goals they set for themselves, goals of provoking specific emotions that are typical of similar genres in other art forms.

3. Where's the Art?

In order to determine whether video games are an art form, we first need some idea of where the art might lie. Video games combine elements from narrative fiction film, music and sports. They are arguably an art or sister art of the moving image, specifically, a form of digital animation. The code is like musical notation that is performed by the computer, and the games are played like sports. As we shall see, the debates concerning the artistic status of chess and sports offer some insights into the status of video games.

In the philosophy of sport, David Best makes a distinction between sports that are evaluated aesthetically (aesthetic sports) and those that are not (purposive sports).[8] Although we may say that a baseball pitcher has a beautiful arm or that a boxer is graceful, when judging sports like baseball, hockey, soccer, football, basketball and boxing, the competitors are not formally evaluated on aesthetic grounds. However, sports such as gymnastics, diving and ice skating are evaluated in large part by aesthetic criteria. One may manage to perform all the moves in a complicated gymnastics routine, but if it is accomplished in a feeble manner one will not get a perfect score. Best argues that "an aesthetic sport is one in which the purpose cannot be specified independently of the manner of achieving it."[9] One might argue that such sports are so close to dance that they are plausible candidates to be called art forms.

One objection to calling sports such as diving art forms is that they are competitive. If this objection holds, then perhaps video games are not art works either, since they are essentially competitive. Competition is considered inimical to artistic creation because it locates the purpose behind the production in non-aesthetic goals. However, it is fairly obvious that competition does not deny something of art status. Greek tragedies were explicitly entered into competitions, but no one seriously denies that they are art because of their competitive provenance. One can compose a poem with the intention of submitting it to a contest without its ceasing to be an art work. The same can be said of any kind of art, and there is thus no reason to think that competition is incompatible with other aesthetic goals.

One might argue that the situation is somewhat different with video games, since they are experienced competitively and there are no uncontested art forms where the audience's experience is itself competitive. This line of objection fails to account for the competitive aspect of the plethora of fictions that are centered around competitions. National Velvet, Sea Biscuit, The Karate Kid, and numerous other fiction films that we might consider art encourage the audience to root for one side of a competition, making the experience of the fiction competitive. If one takes issue with my examples, any suspense-generating fictional example will do. Does Hamlet cease to be art because the audience is encouraged to side with Hamlet against his father's killer?

One might respond that although we may find ourselves rooting for a fictional character in a novel, play or film, this experience is far different from that of rooting for our own success in a game. The objection may conclude that being involved in a competition precludes aesthetic experience; however, this objection is beside the point. We should not confine the audience of video games to players, since often games are played with an audience. There is no radical difference here between video games and dance contests or poetry slams. Although playing video games usually involves a smaller audience-to-competitor ratio, there is no reason why the audience watching someone play a game must be smaller than the audience of non-competitors at a poetry slam.

Nevertheless, we should not ignore the aesthetic experience of the performers of art works. The video game player can plausibly be considered a performer in a larger video game performance. Since the primary goal of most game design is to enhance such aesthetic experiences, it would seem that we have good reason to evaluate games as art works. Unfortunately, the philosophy of art and aestheticians appear oblivious to the aesthetic experience of performers of art works. However, we must ask, does not even the amateur musician have aesthetic or artistic experiences?

Though video games share a competitive aspect with sports, the comparison between sports that may be art and video games does not bring to light any other important similarities. Indeed, video games and art-candidate sports are different in an important way. Unlike sports that are evaluated on aesthetic grounds, the playing of video games has not been considered an art form. It is true that recordings of game play have been taken and pieced together to make digital video art. In addition, some games allow the player to save and distribute instant replays. However, the performance of a video game is not normally evaluated aesthetically. Perhaps someone will make an argument that playing a particular video game is an art, but I do not wish to make such a claim here. A player can be evaluated for a form of athletic quickness, but not usually for grace or other aesthetically relevant features of play. Surprisingly, this is not the case in a chess performance.

A similar question has arisen regarding the artistic status of chess.[10] Some consider chess to be an art form, much like the aesthetically evaluated sports. One might think it is difficult to call chess art and exclude things, such as crossword puzzles, that we do not normally consider art works; however, insofar as crossword puzzles only possess one solution, there is no such thing as an elegant or otherwise aesthetically qualified property of their solution.

There are two primary reasons why someone might argue that chess is an art form. In major competitions, there are often two prizes: one for the winner and one for the best game. The best game is determined in part by the elegance of moves, the originality of solution and the difficulty of play. Whether this earns chess the status of art has centered around the question of whether elegance is a goal of the players. Even if it is not a primary goal, one can argue that elegance and simplicity play a role in the choice of moves. Perhaps the aesthetics of a move serve as heuristics that optimize selection. If this is the case, then aesthetic concerns can become part of mastery of the game itself, adding support to the idea that playing chess is an art form. In addition to judgments of the most beautiful game, end-game solutions are often evaluated for their formal simplicity and elegance. This is a more controversial basis for calling chess an art, since if end games should be considered art, then logical and mathematical proofs would become candidates.

As stated previously, unlike chess and gymnastics, the playing of video games has not been proposed as a candidate for art status. One reason that video game play is not considered an artistic performance is that video games are numerous and the technology has changed rapidly over the last few decades. As such, there is no one video game around which players have focused on for extended periods of time. Though video games appear to be performative, what might count as the performance--the playing--is not considered art. Perhaps this is because the games themselves draw more attention than the players. Unlike video games, non-electronic games such as poker and football are just rules of play: they describe penalties and goals. Electronic games are different in that they are much more than rules:[11] They include narratives, graphic design, characterization, dialogue and more.

Having looked at the relevance of the aesthetics of chess and sport, we are in a better position to understand where the art of video games might lie. Unlike chess and sport, the art is not only in the playing; as in film, the type of art that should concern us in video games involves not the playingbut the making.

4. Video Game Art: A Historical Narrative

Today, the question "Is it art?" arises most commonly in response to single art works whose art status is in dispute. Noel Carroll has offered a compelling account of how such disputes can be, should be and are resolved. He advocates a narrative approach to resolving such disputes, whereby a candidate artwork is assessed by whether a story can be told linking the problems and goals of recognized artists at a previous period to those of the artists whose work is in question. Although we seldom have an opportunity, the narrative historical account can be also applied to art forms or representational systems as a whole. I will attempt to provide a brief sketch, that could be fleshed out into a more comprehensive story, of the relationship between video games and other mass art forms.

Advances in computer technology over the last 40 years provided the means whereby artists could attempt to solve a recurrent problem at the heart of modernism: How to involve the audience in the art work? Those working in theater and performance arts experimented with happenings and participatory theatre, trying to bring the audience into the performance. However, the problem was more difficult for artists working in film and literature, where we find novelistic experiments such as Cortazar's Hopscotch struggling with the limitations of the medium. Video games allowed artists to tackle a more difficult sub-problem facing non-performed arts, the problem of how to involve the audience in mechanically reproduced art.

In the last chapter of Principles of Art, Collingwood complains that mechanically reproduced art is essentially flawed because the medium of transmission prohibits art works from being "concreative." Collingwood argues that in mechanically reproduced art:

"The audience is not collaborating, it is only overhearing. The same thing happens in the cinema where collaboration as between author and producer is intense, but as between this unit and the audience nonexistent. Performances on the wireless have the same defect. The consequence is that the gramophone, the cinema, and the wireless are perfectly serviceable as vehicles of amusement or of propaganda, for here the audience's function is merely receptive and not concreative; but as vehicles of art they are subject to all the defects of the printingpress in an aggravated form."[12]

This is the first and only time Collingwood uses the term "concreative" in The Principles of Art, and just as Collingwood himself left the notion somewhat unexplained, concreativity has been almost completely ignored in the philosophy of art.[13]

In A Philosophy of Mass Art, Noel Carroll makes one of the few contemporary references to Collingwood's term.[14] Carroll sees Collingwood's criticisms of non-concreative art as one species of the passivity charge against mass art, the claim that mass art is inherently defective because it reduces the audience to mindless drones, thereby prohibiting the free play of the imagination that genuine art provokes. On this reading, Collingwood is complaining that the audience is made a mere receptacle by mass art and that mass art is defective by virtue of its pacifying effect. Although this may be part of Collingwood's criticism, I think his emphasis lies elsewhere. Rather than criticizing mass art for its pacifying effect on the audience, Collingwood is diagnosing what he sees as a source of limitation on the expressive potential of mechanically reproduced art. It is not the art work's supposed deleterious effects on the audience that is at issue but the inability of the audience to provide feedback to help the artist create the most effective work possible.

On my reading, Collingwood is pointing out a feature of mass art that Walter Benjamin noticed in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," written in 1935, three years earlier than the publication of The Principles of Art. Benjamin argues that in mechanically reproduced art the potential opens up for the art work to fall out of step with the audience, losing its immersive grip and thereby providing conditions likely to spark a critical attitude. He says, "the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic."[15] Rather than playing up the supposed politically liberating potential of this limitation of mechanically reproduced art, Collingwood laments the handicap.[16]

We often hear it said that films can "break the fourth wall" through techniques such as directly addressing the audience, but the wall remains. It is ontologically impossible for the audience of a film to break the wall. Video game technology has allowed artists to experiment with solutions to the problem of how to make an interactive movie: Video games are the first concreative mass art.

5. Video Games and Every Major Theory of Art

In this section, I argue that according to most major theories of art, many video games should be considered art. I do not offer detailed definitions of each theory of art, since every theory has various contentious formulations, the major variations are familiar to most readers, and to outline in detail the specifics of every theory would require much more space. Instead I operate with informal glosses of the theories that are adequate for my purpose.

As the classical film theorists focused on the relationship between cinema and photography and theatre, one may think that the best way to approach video game art is to find its differentiating features with a similar art form. In the case of video games, the sister art is cinema. However, in defending the art status of games, the opposite may be more useful: Examining just how close video games are to animation and digital cinema may be more productive.

Almost anything said about video games is controversial. Some game developers even scoff at the idea that video games are an art, as do certain filmmakers, even distinguished ones. Theorists who call themselves ludologists argue that video games should not be considered just another narrative art form, but a form of play. Other theorists, narratologists such as Janet Murray, argue that video games can and should become more narrative-driven in order to realize their artistic potential. This seems to be the path game developers have chosen. Current video games have highly integrated narratives that are often far more complex than the most sophisticated noir plots. Even if you can remember the details of "The Big Sleep" (Howard Hawks, 1946), you will never be able to recount the details of most modern games. As mentioned previously, many narrative games can take upwards of 20 hours to complete.

For the past decade, there has been a moderate amount of influence between film and video games. Although most of them are awful, several films have been made based on video games. More commonly, video games are made based on film subjects. Many readers of this article will think of PacMan or Pong when they hear of video games. If so, then the possibility of creating a narrative film on a video game story should sound surprising. As my examples indicate, recent games are far more complex than PacMan; they often involve complex stories and characterization. For those who have not played heavily narrative-integrated games, the possibility of basing a narrative of whatever sophistication on a game should indicate the level of narrative complexity already to be found in the medium.

Game designers often try to make their games look more like film by including cut scenes and imitating other cinematic features. Most narrative-driven games are heavily interspersed with full-motion video sequences called cut-scenes. The game called Splinter Cell is typical. In this game, cut scenes are encountered frequently on various missions. After major events and before new episodes, a cut-scene will be introduced to indicate the goals of the level and the objects for which one should be on the lookout. In addition to including these small digital movies, games often attempt to emulate the look of film. In the popular game Halo, for example, if you look up towards the sun, the glare produces nested circles, as if the player is controlling a movie camera. This is inconsistent with the perspective of the player who is not looking through a camera, but the reference to cinema is intended to enhance the realism, as if the game were a documentary. Such techniques are clear examples of game designers trying to situate their work in the tradition of cinema. For such reasons, any historical theory of art that admits film as an art form would most plausibly admit video games.

Through repeated allusions and attempts at emulating the moving image, game designers intend that we appreciate their games as we do digital animation and video art. Modern video game designers are deeply concerned with traditional aesthetic considerations familiar to animators, novelists, set designers for theater productions and art directors for films. The development of game environments is an intensive process involving the creation of level maps, lighting sources, setting detail and visual texture complexity. As the author of a realist novel or the set designer of a film might place props in a room, level designers aim for the consistent incorporation of details to flesh out the world of the game. Character movement is another area of design in which video game designers share goals with animators. For example, the designers of Splinter Cell carefully created hand-animated movement studies for the player-character to add richness and a life-like feel to the textures. From set design to lighting techniques, games largely draw upon the aesthetic toolkit available to filmmakers. Any aesthetic theory of art that acknowledges the art status of animation would also recognize many contemporary video games, since the intentions of the creators and the variety of aesthetic experience the two art forms admit overlap considerably.

A strong case can also be made for video games on institutional grounds, since there is a developing art world for video games. Over the past decade, there has been a variety of museum exhibits of video games, ranging from technological development lessons to explorations of the influence of video games on digital art, as well as stand-alone exhibits of the emerging art form. Although not exactly an art museum, from June 6, 1989 to May 20, 1990, the American Museum of the Moving Image featured a show called "Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade" that brought a collection of arcade games for visitors to play first hand. The show traveled to 10 other locations throughout the country from June 1990 to September 2003. Since this show, the museum has had several other major video game exhibits and has almost always had a video game exhibition on display.

In July 2001, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted a symposium entitled "ArtCade: Exploring the Relationship Between Video Games and Art," where recent video game-inspired artworks were presented alongside a selection of video games from the 1970s to the present.[17] In the same year, over a dozen art exhibits featured video game-related art work. Video games are appreciated as both art forms in their own right and astools for the creation of art works such as "Machinema" or the video loops of digital artists who use clips from games to construct avant-garde video art. In the spring of 2001, the Whitney Museum of American Art housed a video game-art exhibit called "BitStreams," which featured video game-influenced works. Recent biennials have also incorporated interactive digital artworks, and video games and digital art are a growing presence in museums.

Not only are video games gaining recognition from museums of art, fine arts programs are springing up focused on the graphic aspects of video game design. MIT, NYU, Carnegie Mellon and CalArts all have programs concentrating on entertainment technology, and the University of California at Irvine is creating a MFA program devoted to interactive media. Georgia Tech recently created a PhD in interactive media that merges communication studies and computer science.

Outside of art world and academic contexts, video games, like other mass art forms, are the subject of popular aesthetic evaluation. In December of 2002, the National Network, a unit of MTV networks, announced that it would be creating an awards show dedicated to video games. The show will offer awards for categories such as best villain and best movie adaptation. A digital cable channel devoted to video games called G4 was launched in 2003.[18] Several newspapers, including the Village Voice and the New York Times have started publishing game reviews. The web site posts summaries of reviews for three popular art forms: movies, video games and popular music.

The institutional credibility for attributing art to video games is improving. There is clearly a burgeoning art world for videogames, and one need not wait for every modern art museum in the country to feature a dedicated exhibit before feeling comfortable in calling video games an art form. As indicated by the ties between animation and video game design, a persuasive story can be told that links the goals and features historically attributed to art works to those of video games. Much like film production, game design is an expensive, collaborative project. Several groups within the production process pursue aesthetic goals common to other arts.

There are also video game auteurs who imprint a creative stamp on a series of games that show artistic distinction. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of "Mario Brothers," "The legend of Zelda" and other popular games for Nintendo, is considered the Eisenstein of video games. He is the subject of several popular articles and is often a hero in books devoted to the history of video games. Miyamoto is praised for his ability to create original stories, characters and the look behind captivating and complex games. Today there are hundreds of game designers working with programmers, producers, level designers, dialogue and script writers, balancers who adjust difficulty to skill and a variety of other specialists who contribute to a finished game.

In addition to the similarity between film directors and game designers, the history of video games can be tied to other arts. Much as film grew out of photography and drama, video games grew out of digital animation. Beyond the goals of verisimilitude, games share narrative themes and expressive goals with the history of Western literature and theater. In the Seventh Circuit Court decision for American Amusement Machine v. Kendrick, Richard Posner argues that the video game should be considered an art form, since it shows thematic and expressive continuity with herald literature and is at least as effective as much in the popular arts that is considered protected speech. Posner defends what is considered by most standards a mediocre game:

"Take once again "The House of the Dead." The player is armed with a gun--most fortunately, because he is being assailed by a seemingly unending succession of hideous axe-wielding zombies, the living dead conjured back to life by voodoo. The zombies have already knocked down and wounded several people, who are pleading pitiably for help; and one of the player's duties is to protect those unfortunates from renewed assaults by the zombies. His main task, however, is self-defense. Zombies are supernatural beings, therefore difficult to kill. Repeated shots are necessary to stop them as they rush headlong toward the player. He must not only be alert to the appearance of zombies from any quarter; he must be assiduous about reloading his gun periodically, lest he be overwhelmed by the rush of the zombies when his gun is empty.

"Self-defense, protection of others, dread of the "undead," fighting against overwhelming odds-- these are all age-old themes of literature, and ones particularly appealing to the young."

Posner clearly sees the thematic and expressive continuity between literature and a mid-level genre video game. Though this may not be an example of great art by any acceptable standards, nothing inherent to the video game rules out its artistic potential, here the arousal of emotions through an interactive narrative. It should be clear that a strong case can be made that most expressive theories of art would have to include video games if they include film and literature.

As Judge Posner notes, video games excel when they are about struggle. Although many games are more clearly about triumphant victory in battle, there is nothing stopping game designers from creating a game about the horrors of warfare. As should be apparent, current narrative-based video games can easily meet neo-representation theories of art such as Danto's "aboutness" criterion, where an art work is roughly something formally appropriate to what it is about. By putting players in the position to make decisions affecting the lives of simulated civilians and troops, games could potentially be the most formally appropriate way to comment on war via a fictional representation.

The art status of video games has much stronger support from representational theories of art than do other disputed art forms. In The Philosophy of Human Movement, David Best argues that there is a crucial difference between sports and art: Sports fail to meet basic representational criteria. Putting the contrast nicely, Best says that "whereas sport can be the subject of art, art could not be the subject of sport. Indeed, the very notion of a subject of sport makes no sense."[19] In this way, the distinction between sports and video games is profound. As such, video games are much more plausible candidates for art than are aesthetic sports or chess.

5. Conclusion

In this paper, I provide several reasons for thinking that some video games may be art. Clear thematic continuities tie video games to the history of western literature, and games share expressive goals with other recognized art forms. Museums and art programs have begun to incorporate video games into their exhibits and curriculum as games begin to achieve recognition in the art world. Like the great figures we expect to find occupying key places in an artistic canon, there are game designers who have reached auteur status. Similar to other bourgeoning art forms, there is a quickly growing body of recognized major works in video games. In addition, game designers have used the medium to tackle previously unsolvable artistic problems facing film and literature, linking the art of video games to the problems facing modernist film and literature.

Although all video games should not be considered art, recent developments in the medium have been widely recognized as clear indications that some video games should be regarded as art works.[20] Of course, the status of an art form is never decided apart from its products. Without masterpieces, arguing that video games can be art seems premature. "Max Payne" and "Halo" are two of the best games ever produced, but they are not great art. I expect that in the course of time current video games may seem as artistically insignificant as Lumi�re actualit�s, with little more than historical significance. Perhaps it is a trivial feat, but several recent games have reached levels of excellence that exceed the majority of popular cinema. The potential of the medium seems clear: good if not great video game art is in the near future.[21]

End notes

[1] Jack Kroll, Newsweek, March 6, 2000.

[2] Numerous web pages are devoted to criticizing Kroll.

[3] Henry Jenkins, "Art Form for the Digital Age" (Technology Review, September/October 2000); see also Henry Jenkins, "Games, the New Lively Art," forthcoming in Jeffrey Goldstein (ed.), Handbook for Video Game Studies (Cambridge: MIT Press).

[4] See the IDSA's (Interactive Digital Software Association) amicus brief for American Amusement Machine Ass�n v. Kendrick (2000).

[5] A set of necessary conditions for something to be a video game might look like this: Something is a video game only if (1) it incorporates a visual display (2) allows for user input that can (3) change aspects of the visual display, (4) giving the impression of movement (5) for purposeful, internally indicated progressive action (6) in face of some difficulty (7) that exists apart from any conventionally (externally) established rules or goals.

[6] There is nothing unusual about the suggestion that some video games are art and others are not. We make a similar distinction for most every major art form. Many do not consider the photographs in grocery store circulars to be art, but most think some photographs are art. Most people do not consider the jingles in commercials to be art, but almost everyone considers some pieces of music to be art. . . .

[7] The player-controlled characters in games are called "avatars."

[8] For more on the sport-as-art debate, the following sources are useful:

Louis Arnaud Reid, "Sport, The Aesthetic and Art," British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 18, Oct. 1970, pp. 245-258.
Maureen Kovich, "Sport as an Artform," JOHPER, vol. 24, Oct. 1974, p. 42.
Paul G. Kuntz, "Aesthetics Applies to Sports as Well as to the Arts," Philosophic Exchange, sum. 1974, no. 1, pp. 25-39.
David Best, "Art and Sport," Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1988, vol. 14, pp. 69-80.
S. K. Wertz, "Are Sports Art Forms?" Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 13, no. 1, 1979.

[9] David Best, The Philosophy of Human Movement (Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 105.

[10] There is only a handful of articles on the chess-as-art debate. I provide a small annotated bibliography in this note, for those who might be interested.

In one of the earlier articles on the subject, Harold Osborne argues that chess can be considered an art form since it affords the possibility for the creation of objects of intellectual beauty. Harold Osborne, "Notes on the Aesthetics of Chess and the Concept of Intellectual Beauty," British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 4, no. 2.

Rachels argues that not only do we appreciate chess games as aesthetic objects, they are played / created with aesthetic goals in mind. James Rachels, "Chess as Art: Reflections on Richard Reti," Philosophic Exchange, 1984-5, vols. 15&16, pp. 105-115.

Lord argues that though chess games may be objects of aesthetic contemplation, they are not art works. Museums include aesthetic objects that are not art, to follow the institutional theory of art and call such things art would be to gerrymander the concept. Lord endorses something like an expressive theory of art. Catherine Lord, "Is Chess Art?" Philosophic Exchange, 1984-5, vols. 15&16, pp. 117-122.

Humble argues that chess playing should be considered an art form. He argues that the competitive aspects can contribute directly and indirectly to the aesthetic value of the game. Though chess may be an art form, he concludes that its masterpieces are only minor art works in the grand scheme of things. P. N. Humble, "Chess as an Art Form," British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 33, no. 1, 1993.

For a consideration of the composed chess problem as art, see C. P. Ravilious, "The Aesthetics of Chess and the Chess Problem," British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 34, no. 2, July 1994. Humble offers a defense against Ravilious's objections that he should have talked about composed chess problems rather than competition chess and that he over emphasizes the role of competition. P. N. Humble, "The Aesthetics of Chess: A Reply to Ravilious," British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 35, no. 4, 1995.

[11] I would argue that video games are unlike other formal games in that they lack rules altogether. As the old saying goes, "Rules are made to be broken." We would not say that the law of gravity is a rule governing our behavior; rather it is a brute physical limitation. In video games, the supposed "rules" are much more like physical laws than rules which one must follow or face penalty. In a video game, one simply has no choice.

[12] R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 323.

[13] In Art as Experience, John Dewey developed his theory of the "esthetic" by reference to certain unified and complete experiences that creatures have with their environments. He calls such an experience "an-experience." An experience only becomes "an-experience" for Dewey when it involves doings and sufferings and is marked off from the rest of our experiences as unified and complete. One might say that Dewey thinks "esthetic" experience is best had from interaction or interactivity, and that anesthetic experience results when people become dominated or under whelmed by their environments. For more on Dewey and anesthetic experience, see Aaron Smuts, "Anesthetic Experience," Philosophy and Literature, 29.1, 2005, pp. 97-113. More remains to be said about how Dewey reconciles the success of non-interactive artworks with his interactive theory of "esthetic" experience.

[14] Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 102.

[15] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Film Theory and Criticism, eds. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 672.

[16] In this article, I am not concerned with whether or not Collingwood's remarks on the value of concreativity are consistent with his larger theory of art.

[17] See Kendra Mayfield "Once It Was Atari, Now It's Art," Wired, 19 July 2001.

[18] Reuters, "Video Game Industry Gets TV Award Show."

[19] David Best, The Philosophy of Human Movement (Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 122.

[20] One may ask why the art status of video games is an interesting issue. Beyond the practical consequences the art status of video games may have on censorship attempts, the question "Are video games art?" has inherent interest. It is essentially the same question as "What is art?"

[21] I would like to thank Noel Carroll and Heidi Bollich for excellent comments on an earlier draft of this paper, Lee Brown for commenting extensively on a shorter version of the paper at the ASA Eastern division meeting in April 2005 and the two anonymous reviewers for Contemporary Aesthetics for their very helpful suggestions.

Aaron Smuts
445 13th St., Apt. #1
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Published November 2, 2005

Above copied from:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bernadette Wegenstein, Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory, Meredith Jones


Cambridge and London: MIT Press. ISBN 0262232472.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media (1964) that 'the medium is the message', meaning not only that subject matter and technical form are intrinsically tied together but that, crucially, the mode of delivery has more importance than its content. Later he amended his famous sound bite to 'the medium is the massage', a variation that has been interpreted in many ways but is perhaps most interestingly understood as a distinctly corporeal notion about the ways bodies are touched and affected by media. Bernadette Wegenstein takes this relationship between media and bodies and expands it within her thesis that bodies and media are so profoundly interlinked in the contemporary world that they are interchangeable. The final chapter of her excellent book Getting Under the Skin: Body and Media Theory is simply titled 'The Medium is the Body' -- by this stage of the argument an almost superfluous statement. She poses her key line of reasoning pace Merleau-Ponty, who declares that 'the medium that signifies the body, its representation, no longer is any different from the "raw material" of the body itself' (32). So the body is mediation, and mediation is the body.

Starting with this idea, the book works through a series of popular and philosophical understandings of the body that, at least since the sixteenth century, have swung between holism and fragmentation. By holism, Wegenstein means notions that see the body as a whole, as a system of inter-related psychic and physical parts that become less meaningful if separated. By fragmentation, she refers to the idea of the body-in-pieces, an anatomised and objectified body understood as a set of individual components. This fragmented body idea came to the fore in high modernity and maintains force in contemporary self-care practices such as exercise, dieting and cosmetic surgery, which posit the body as a controllable, owned project of which each part needs to be individually managed. And of course, women's bodies are understood far more in this fragmented context than men's bodies. Wegenstein notes, however, how notions of women's bodies have developed and morphed, and how female bodies in particular are currently multiple sites of potentiality, and essentially unstable, largely because they come into being with media:

No longer a place of exclusion and sexualization, female bodies (and I emphasize the plural) can now be described as the accumulation of different layers of media. In this model of subjectivity, identity is a process that never comes to a halt, as bodily layers can be taken off one by one and rearranged anew. (21)

Wegenstein carefully navigates between holism and fragmentation, suggesting that the body is not an intermediary or translator between world and subject, but rather something that unifies subjective wholeness and objective fragmentation. Thus, she claims that the history of the body needs to be understood as 'a gradual "unconcealment" -- to speak Heideggerese -- or revealing of the body as mediation' (35, italics in original). Part of this mediation is a continuing and irresolvable oscillation or dialogue between fragmentation and holism, which she argues are twinned both in history and in contemporary understandings of the body.

Chapter one, 'Making Room for the Body' offers a very thorough theoretical and historical review of relevant literature, covering image theory, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, corporeal feminism, and media theory. Wegenstein argues that the disciplines of media criticism and body criticism are inextricably linked, and supports her assertion by deploying analyses of new media art. The example-laden approach that she takes throughout the book implicitly backs up one of her arguments, which is that postmodern or posthuman bodies can only be understood if we ask 'concrete questions concerning concrete bodies' (17). These 'concrete questions' are ones that address the coevolution humans share with technologies. They are questions such as, 'What is physical?', 'What is digital?', 'How do these two concepts intersect in our media-saturated world, especially when that world is bulging with images of human bodies and body parts?', and 'Has the body itself become a medium, or was it always one?'. The idea that our 'meat' may eventually be left behind as we upload our consciousnesses is carefully dismissed, as are humanist notions that are suspicious of new communication technologies because of their disembodying capabilities. Wegenstein argues instead that in a postmodern environment where bodies continually 'enter' flat screens and where subjects invest deeply in surfaces, 'body and medium reemerge as one flesh' (148, italics in original).

Chapter two, 'Body Performances from 1960s Wounds to 1990s Extensions' focuses on performance art, and traces this form through its collapse into the body to its extension of the body. For example, the artist Günter Brus declared in 1965 that he was 'no longer content to paint on canvas and thus lays hands on himself. So he besmears himself, simultaneously hinting at self-mutilation. . .' (39). This sometimes-abusive turning-in on the body by avant garde artists gradually gave way to 1990s performance art that extended into the digital realm. In this art, real bodies were substitutes for -- or subsumed by -- their digital representations, and Wegenstein suggests that Australian performance artist Stelarc, who began in the 1960s with hook-and-skin suspensions, demonstrates this development perfectly. Stelarc now merges his body with technology: his art is often controlled by internet-facilitated activities. Rather than bringing art into the body, as the 1960s wound artists did, 1990s extension artists such as Stelarc flatten their bodies, dispersing them into the digital realm or extending them with a range of prosthetics. Wegenstein argues that through the latter part of the twentieth century artists gradually became more aware of processes of mediation and hence began to conflate environment, materiality and content in their works. Importantly, in both 'wound' and 'extension' art forms the human body became a canvas itself, rather than that which is merely represented. What she traces in this chapter is the ways in which the body, in body or performance art, moved from being artistic raw material to being something understandable mainly through media technologies. She thus argues that 'corporeality and mediality have not only been staged together, but have revealed themselves as indistinguishable' (64).

Chapter three, 'How Faces Have become Obsolete' was the most interesting chapter for me, tracing, pace Deleuze & Guattari, how faces are no longer the 'window to the soul'. She shows how faces have been replaced by any number of other body parts, each of which may become a free-floating indicator of essential being: 'any body part, big or small, interior or exterior, can attain dominance over the rest of the body with fluidity characteristic of the synecdoche' (85). This is demonstrated through close readings of several contemporary print advertisements: a health insurance company uses a breast to represent 'fertility, nurturing, reliability' and a cosmetics firm uses a headless body to sell a skin product. They both support Wegenstein's thesis that we have moved into a representational paradigm in which 'it is not necessarily behind faces that we expect the person to be revealed. Faces are becoming obsolete' (89). Even parts of the internal body -- blood, tissue, organs, and DNA -- once hidden and mysterious, now indicate identity, a concept explored through analyses of the Visible Human Project, the Human Genome Project, and the plasticated body work of anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Any body part can now operate as a signifier of the whole body, which is why we so rarely see classical facial portrait-style images in contemporary advertising. And further, in a brilliant insight, she notes that when the head and face are featured in popular culture, they are often figured much like accessories: one German fashion advertisement even has its model declaring that her head is her 'favourite fashion accessory' (93). This indicates what Wegenstein calls the 'postfacial' era, in which heads and faces crown bodies only as chosen or modified extras because the self is expressed so easily via any body part.

While the face may have become obsolete as a signifier of the self, if any organ can be said to dominate representations of bodies in popular culture, it is surely the skin. There is an intriguing section in this chapter called 'Sur-face', which shows that 'skin can now cover anything of importance' (97). Wegenstein points out that a generation brought up on movies featuring serial killers making 'skin-suits' from their victims is readily positioned to accept the notion that skin can be 'separated from its natural body-environment, that is, from its function of surfacing a body' (104). The argument is strongly supported by reference to advertisements, contemporary art and speculative architecture. She shows just how extensive skin has become: indeed, by noting how each of her examples works with skin and its literal or metaphorical connections to non-skin (watches, sculpture, room interiors), she demonstrates how skin is no longer seen as a barrier between inner and outer body, but is now a connection between self and other: 'the surface of the skin is both endogenous and exogenous' (97). One memorably spooky example comes from new media artists Aziz + Cucher. Their 'Interior Study #3' is a digital room with geometric surfaces made of what looks like living human skin, pores and all. This work perhaps most succinctly supports Wegenstein's argument that the ways we engage with skin in contemporary culture indicate that interiority and exteriority have merged. One of the main strengths of this book is the abundance of ingenious and fascinating examples to back up what could otherwise be rather esoteric claims.

In chapter four, 'The Medium Is the Body', Wegenstein argues that body criticism must be part of media criticism because of the 'mutual dependence upon and influence of body and mediation' (121). This notion is supported by numerous examples from contemporary architectural practice, after first tracing a history of the relation between inside and outside through twentieth century architecture. In modernity, buildings actively considered the outside environment in order to inform the inside; in postmodernity, distinctions between outside and inside were famously described by Jameson as lost, causing spatial bewilderment. But Wegenstein suggests that contemporary cutting edge architectures 'propose something even beyond the collapse of inside and outside' (130). Buildings have become bodies, and inside and outside are symbiotically merged, or folded together. A striking example is Diller + Scofidio's Blur Building, demonstrating what she calls 'deep surface architecture'. This 'building' is a body of mist hovering above a lake, approached by a bridge -- exactly when one has entered it isn't clear, and its borders and density are constantly changing, according to current weather conditions. As an immersive, living, wet atmosphere this architecture is as organic as its human inhabitants, and body and medium have merged. Architecture here is conceived as 'a continued or extended embodiment. . .as primordial mediation' (160).

Wegenstein's textual analysis of images and objects is refreshing in a field that is so often full of general statements sitting peacefully unbothered by meaningful examples. Although many of her arguments are very broad, indeed paradigmatic, each point is backed up with an interesting illustration from the real world, analysed and examined in line with her arguments. This is a dense book, packed with theoretical references and ideas-within-ideas. Sometimes the prose is hard to read -- this writing style would be a challenge for undergraduates -- but it is well worth persevering with. There is plenty of clarification, and various theories are very well explained, particularly in the first chapter. The argument that discussions and histories of the body are only meaningful in context of analyses of the media that comprise embodiment -- in other words, that media theory and theories of the body must work together -- could (and should) have a powerful ripple effect in academia where these two disciplines are still very often separated.

Relations between real and virtual have been utterly problematised, and boundaries between digital and physical are increasingly hazy. This book is a real attempt to explain how these arenas intersect, and indeed how they create each other. This first chapter is an essential addition to corporeal feminism, although I was disappointed that the focus on women's bodies wasn't returned to in the conclusion. Perhaps other writers will be inspired to fill that gap. Each of the other chapters works well by itself and could be set for a variety of graduate classes examining media and embodiment. Finally, this book indeed got under my skin, clarifying for me the knowledge that body theory and media theory must become linked, because embodiment is always experienced through media, and the body itself is a medium. The skin doesn't just act as a barrier but extends into the world, connecting our bodies to the bodies of others and to the multitude of screens and various other environments we are one with.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M., and Fiore, Q. with Agel, J. (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.

Meredith Jones is a lecturer in digital media and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. Her book, Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, will be published by Berg in February 2008. She is currently working on a book about Container Technologies.

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