Art 2.0: Identity, Role Play and Performance in Virtual Worlds

Master of Fine Art Thesis

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Lara Croft Domestic Goddes

Jocelyn Miller, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1, NYC

Georgie Roxby Smith’s hacked Lara Croft Tomb Raider video game shows the familiar icon for violent femme fatale bad-assery in the throes of orgasmic housekeeping, a scene that could be read as neo-Friedan, with her "domestic goddess" subject trapped between the banally physical and the extraordinarily virtual. While the medium is insistently technological, technology extrudes into the gallery space in a much more mundane and industrial sense, with the sculptural interjection of a washing machine as plinth, which also acts as an evocation of the sidelined, disenfranchised suburban female home warrior, who's vehicle of satisfaction (sitting astride the vibrating machinery) is ironically the same technology that might shackle her. The value judgments are unclear, the equation destabilized, as Croft joyfully irons shirts with a bow and arrow slung over her back, letting out cries that are undiscernibly battle grunts or orgiastic moans.


The Player is Present, Extract

Meanjin 2014

Benjamin Nicholl,

For Melbourne-based artist Georgie Roxby Smith, an exploration of virtual identity and roleplay in digital media culture led to an interest in videogames. Smith’s body of work has explored the ways in which we represent ourselves in virtual worlds and social media networks. A key part of her practice is ‘mixed-reality performance’—that is, performance that takes place across multiple media channels, such as live performance in a gallery space, ‘digital performance’ in online virtual worlds such as Second Life or a combination of the two. Smith is interested in the creative possibilities of ‘intervening’ in virtual space—what it means to repurpose computer programs through practices of hacking and going against the machine code. These interventions are then presented to an audience in video format. Her work also often incorporates ‘glitch aesthetics’, which involves circuit-bending machines and corrupting digital data so that they malfunction and produce errors and bugs.

For Smith, who holds a Masters degree in digital art from the Victorian College of the Arts, an interest in videogames and gaming technology was a The Player is Present Benjamin Nicoll logical step in her artistic trajectory.

 ‘A sub-theme of my work has been the ever-present chorus of death—or denial of death—in digital culture,’ she explains. ‘Through witnessing the representation of females and the culture of death in my own game play, gaming platforms were the obvious next step in this exploration, encapsulating both of these trajectories.’ What happens if we perform in unexpected or unaccepted ways when we play videogames? The result is what Smith calls ‘critical play’. Critical play is a central practice for Smith, who questions the ways in which we represent our digital identities in virtual worlds when the logic and structure of those worlds are tested. Critical play means playing against the game—performing in game space in ways that are not anticipated by the programmer or game designer. ‘I cannot play a game without slowly drawing out questions around it,’ says Smith. ‘All of my game-art works come out of games I have put a lot of time into playing as a “gamer”, and that have somehow disturbed my play with certain elements, graphics or stereotypes they may contain.’

 Smith’s game art does not come from building and designing games to be played; it comes from a radical repurposing of existing game content through critical play. Smith’s recent body of work, the Peacekeeper series, is illustrative of this practice. As Smith explains, the series ‘evolved out of a six-month playing spree of Call of Duty’. Call of Duty is a videogame franchise in which players inhabit the first-person perspective of a soldier in warfare. The games have become popular for their massively multiplayer online (MMO) networks, which enable players to link up and compete against each other in competitive death matches. Typically, the aim of an online Call of Duty game is to seek out and eliminate competing players in order to achieve the highest kill count in a given time. The Peacekeeper series consists of intervention pieces in which Smith participates in this bloodthirsty gaming phenomenon by entering these game spaces and attempting to subvert the prevailing logic and order of the game environment through critical play. In Love is a losing game (2013), Smith participates in a Call of Duty online multiplayer death match by disengaging from combat with other players. We see the work unfold through the perspective of Smith’s avatar as it wanders aimlessly around the game map. Inevitably, a competing player spots her avatar and puts its digital existence to a swift end. After being eliminated from the game, Smith’s avatar reappears in a different location on the map, and the process is repeated time and time again. Given that the only way to engage with other players is to kill or be killed, Smith’s attempt to resist violence is snubbed by competing players. And who can blame them? The popular notion that we’re free to make choices and do what we like in videogames is a misconception; games do not offer us freedom but rather a tight set of constraints, in which a limited number of actions are possible. If gun objects are programmed to kill other gun objects, then love is a losing game. Smith’s attempt to subvert the game’s logic by not shooting other players comes off as awkward and futile. Her performance in the game invites questions about violence—not just the kind of violence associated with thematic content or presentation, but also the violence associated with the limited possibilities for playing against the rules.

For Smith, videogames do not normally carry critical ideas or political content for the artist to unpack. What is political about videogames is not the messages they communicate but rather the broader implications of their existence. In order to draw out these implications, Smith enters game space and plays against the game structure. She undermines the supposedly serious shell of the game and works against what is considered the ‘proper’ way to perform in the game’s environment. Another relevant example from the Peacekeeper series is Hello I love you (2013), a video of two Call of Duty players (one of them is Smith) who have a peaceful encounter in an online death match. We watch as the two players try to communicate without firing at each other, as their avatars jump up and down and awkwardly huddle together. Suddenly, stray bullets fly across the scene, blood is splattered across the field and their contact is put to an end. As in Pippin Barr’s work, the machine-like tensions of the contemporary body are central to Smith’s intervention pieces.

In the Peacekeeper series the escalation of embodied tension reaches fever pitch and is then released. The result, for those who view Smith’s performance in game space as standalone art, is a sort of catharsis that manifests itself in laughter and excitement, but also disgust and disdain. For viewers well practised in playing Call of Duty, the experience of watching Smith’s intervention pieces takes on a different meaning. For them, Smith’s video interventions are not simply understood from a visual perspective. More prominently, they see Smith’s performance on the screen and understand or relate to it from within, as if her actions are their own. They mentally enter the work and inspect it from the inside, as if they were performing in the game themselves. Anyone familiar with playing games knows the feeling: watching videos of other people play games is not an activity carried out for visual pleasure. Rather, it is a process of appreciating what other players can do with their bodies—how they manipulate the controller (and by extension their hands) to achieve certain actions in game space. While gameplay videos are often appreciated for the virtuosic performance of skilled players, Smith’s awkward The Player is Present Benjamin Nicoll performance in Call of Duty has a much more jarring effect. Viewers relate to Smith’s performance, but not in the usual way of appreciating skilful play. Instead, the viewer’s frustrated empathy with Smith’s character allows them to reflect on their own performance in game space. Smith is conducting a performance in game space, and while watching, the viewer internalises this and becomes a crucial component of it. This is mixed-reality performance in a true sense: the performance of the artist and the performance of the viewer become intertwined and blurred. This potential for performative transgression captures a crucial contribution of game art to new-media art. By looking at the work of Smith and Barr, it is clear that much game art deals with the unpredictable, humorous and repetitive ways in which videogames involve our bodies. Understood as an embodied practice, video gaming is an ambiguous activity that resists easy interpretation. But game artists such as Barr and Smith are at the forefront of exploring how our bodies are implicated in gaming technology— from repetitively tapping the forward key in The artist is present to watching Smith’s intervention pieces and reflecting on her performance in game space. For the gamer, videogame art can be healing. It provides an opportunity to look at videogames in a different context, where the comic—but also disturbing— activities associated with video gaming are put on display. Laughing at Barr’s The artist is present or empathising with Smith’s avatar in Love is a losing game is a process of becoming more aware of the significance of the body to gaming. Videogames may be a popular art, but we still don’t understand much about how the medium relates to culture, performance or expression. Artists such as Pippin Barr and Georgie Roxby Smith offer valuable ideas about how the videogame interacts with contemporary experience.