There are some good things about the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts exhibit, Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts. Among them are an impressive implementation of Waco Resurrection, with a David Koresh mask holding headphones and microphones, the Kingdom of Piracy exhibit, including a reappropriation/skinning of the Civilization III engine into an allegory about multinational capitalism and corporate power, and the delightful Sims Gallery. But the problems are damning, and they are telling. Hopefully, this will serve as an object lesson to others who plan to curate exhibits about videogames and art.
First, the entire back wall of the main gallery is dominated by an exhibit of/about America’s Army. Built into a rather chintzy faux-Middle Eastern fort structure (looking more appropriate for a county fair than for a museum exhibit) were small alcoves featuring screens showing game-play in action, amid little dioramas of desert warfare bric-a-brac. Posters described the technology of the game and graphic engines, and dutifully described the development team’s heroic efforts to create the game. As far as I could tell, the game exhibit is not playable, and the viewer does not get to access the game’s greatest irony: that no one can play as the terrorists, but in multiplayer mode, each side appears as terrorists to the other.
The piece – in fact, the entire area devoted to the game – was not only completely uncritical and unironic, it had almost nothing to do with art and videogames, and featured a fawning story of the creation of the game that wasn’t part of any of the other exhibits. There was nothing to relate America’s Army to other games (at least not within the piece itself: on the far side of the room, on a table across from the sprawling, costly, and tasteless faux-tress, were a couple defunct computer monitors that featured such works as Gonzalo’s September 12 and other more satirical/problematizing games, but there’s absolutely no sense of continuity between the two.)
Perhaps the exhibit is the result of a generous, yet conditional, gift on the part of the group behind America’s Army, the Navy’s MOVES Institute. That would be perhaps a bit more understandable if either the rhetoric of the game were problematized more, or if the work, as an uncritical, complimentary description of game-technology in action, were at least placed in a less dominating position. But that’s not the case: the America’s Army exhibit towers over the more nuanced and inventive works of the exhibit, and disrupts the effectiveness of the room. That the content of an exhibit, and the stance towards it, be so strongly overdetermined by the wishes of a donor, would never extend this far in a typical art exhibit. Imagine if Campbell Soup was able to place a self-serving display about soup, nutrition, and the food industry in the middle of an exhibit of the work of Andy Warhol. Yes, it’s that bad.
Then there are the difficulties that dog the curating of any new-media exhibits: the challenges of maintaining equipment, of creating a good interactive environment (I’ll mention this in my next section.) Some exhibits were off-line, due to technical difficulties. As more new media works are exhibited in museums, this should be unacceptable. A skilled media technical staff should be part of every museum’s team, along with preparators and guards. In the case of Bang the Machine, on my second visit to the exhibit, about a fourth of the interactive exhibits were offline or not functioning. This is simply not acceptable. In comparison, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 2001 Art in Technological Times exhibit did an excellent job of keeping some very complex and interactive works on-line and working.
I visited another exhibit recently: an overview of installation art from 1969 to 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Center in Los Angeles. The overall exhibit was fine, with a good selection and effective use of the Geffen Center’s space. I did notice that Gabriel Orozco’s piece, Ping Pond Table (a four-ended ping-pong table with a pond in the middle, with 4 paddles and a number of balls) didn’t enjoy the same reception here that it had when I saw it at the Tate Modern in London: while at the Tate, it turned anonymous gallery-goers into a friendly group of people interacting playfully with each other, the MOCA’s installation was treated as an entirely scopic object (yes, I did pick up a paddle and encourage a couple other visitors to play with the piece a bit, but they quickly retreated back to the typical stance of pure spectatorship.)
This resistance to immersion or participation with an artwork was more pronounced in the exhibit of Julie Becker’s Researchers, Residents, a Place to Rest. The piece invites exploration and consideration, but the curators decided on a high-security, preservation-focused stance towards the work. Viewers were not allowed to flip through notebooks, and given little chance to unravel the subtleties of the work. Instead, they were rushed through by museum guards. It was a disservice to the work, and also went to demonstrate the problem of any interactive work: the risks to the physical element, and the (reasonable) failure of trust between the audience and the curators. The question is, if the aura of the intact material work is so important that it merits intervening in the direct relationship between viewer and work, just why bother with site-specificity at all? Would the best interactive work be a DVD-rom you pick up in the museum store on the way out?