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LuYang, The Great Adventure of Material World, 2019, video game and 3-channel video installation, 26′22″, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist and Société, Berlin

Hans Ulrich Obrist on how video games are revolutionising the art world

As the new exhibition WORLDBUILDING: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age opens, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist discusses the growing role of video games in our everyday lives

“Is this hell?” asks the blue-haired protagonist in digital artist LuYang’s work “The Great Adventure of Material World. Set against an infinite sea of kawaii creatures, the game-film is a kaleidoscopic journey into the Shanghai-based artist’s subconscious, packed with floating Buddhas, disembodied heads and pixellated monsters. Skirting the threshold between eternity and existence, the artwork is one of 30 games featured in WORLDBUILDING: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age, a group exhibition taking place at the Julia Stoschek Foundation in Düsseldorf. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the exhibition takes an archaeological view of the medium, exploring the relationship between gaming and time-based art.

With computers and video games finding their way into popular culture in nearly every part of society, the exhibition raises questions about identity, society, autonomy, and the relationship between the physical and virtual. Featuring video, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and game-based works from the mid-90s to the present day, there are early works of art such as Peggy Ahwesh’s feminist exploration of Tomb Raider, “She Puppet”, and Julia Stoschek’s existential take on Pacman, where the omnivorous video-game character gets eaten by itself. There’s also Lawrence Lek’s sinofuturist virtual world, “Nepenthe Zone”, and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s First Person Shooter, “SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE”, which reflects on the experience of Black and trans people, as well as Ed Fornieles’ static-soaked animation about surveillance anxiety and Thomas Webb’s dizzying AI portals.

Each artwork will evolve over the course of the exhibition’s one-and-a-half-year run and will be accompanied by a varied programme of events, both online and on-site. “Interactivity takes a major role in many of these games, where the viewer is implicated in the way each work progresses, and how it is experienced,” says Obrist. Below, we speak to him about the exhibition, the growing role of video games in our everyday lives, and how we can look at past interpretations of gaming to make sense of an increasingly artificial world.

The role of video games, or more specifically online gaming, is becoming increasingly prevalent in our everyday lives, especially as platforms like Roblox and Fortnite take on a bigger role in online communication. What was the inspiration behind this exhibition and how is it relevant now?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Last year, nearly a third of the world’s population played video games – that’s around 2.8 billion people – so obviously more and more artists are looking into this. Since the 80s, artists like Peggy Ahwesh and Rebecca Allen have brought videogames into art practice and critically looked at these videogames, which were developed by a small and intimate group of people coming mostly from an engineering perspective. Over the last few years, we’ve seen people going into existing videogames and using them less as videogames and more as a platform. One example is the Serpentine’s exhibition on Fortnite, which was viewed by 100-150 million people. Many people then will never have been to a museum with that visit actually the exhibition physically. We’ve also seen Rosaliá do it with fashion and Ariana Grande with pop music.

But there’s another reason I wanted to do the show, which is that we now have artists inventing their own games. They’re making their own with rules and surrounding systems. This means that new worlds are emerging. Now, with technology being more accessible, we’re seeing a plurality of voices as games come from a wider set of experiences and present a wider range of perspectives. They’re not manufactured for a specific audience, but rather for the benefit of peers.

How do you think the mainstream-ification of videogames is shaping artwork – and culture more generally?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: It brings completely new audiences to exhibitions. More and more exhibitions are becoming mixed-reality, because there’s the work we actually see in the show and other digital props like lighting in immersive installations and multiscreen installations, which function as almost an extension of the body. We will have a digital path and an analogue path in a similar way to how some AI glasses allow us to experience physical experiences but you also have the possibility to augment them. We’re only five to ten years away from having AI glasses embedded into our normal lenses.

The mainstream-ification of games means they can also be mission-driven. It’s interesting just how many of these artists are interested in multiplayer games in terms of participation, like what kind of mission is it, whether that’s the relation to human extinction or the environmental crisis.

How does the exhibition take an archaeological look at video games?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: There’s a lot of 3D involved and there’s also a lot of connection between the games and the metaverse. But, for some artists, there’s also a desire to look at the just past. Walter Benjamin describes that amnesia often happens in relation to the just past, so it’s interesting how some of the artists in the exhibition are interested in looking at the old games, 2D games, and revisiting them. That‘s contrasted in the show, so we have both. The future is somehow invented, sometimes using fragments from the past.

“The future is sometimes invented using fragments from the past” – Hans Ulrich Obrist

I’ve been noticing a lot of nostalgia for the early internet lately, especially post-pandemic. I suppose this will only increase as society gets more and more online. This also applies to gaming, as a younger generation discovers games from the 80s and 90s via the internet. Have you noticed this? Why do you think this is?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Some of these early games remain really powerful. Some of these games appear very simple, but there are more complex structures involved that almost function as psychological devices, where you’re in a virtual or mental space that changes reality and transforms into something else.

What are your thoughts on the metaverse given that nearly all metaverse tech is built on gaming infrastructure?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: There’s clearly a connection with video games. Édouard Glissant talks about the fact that you should think about it as archipelagos, which is why I’m quoting Anna Anthropy from the Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, especially in terms of the plurality of voices. Glissant talks about the archipelago as opposed to the continent, as continents are homogenised, whereas the archipelago is what we should learn from: what we can change in exchange with the Other, and through that, my reality becomes more complex. The question with the metaverse is: will it be a continent or an archipelago? Particularly with the commercial forces at stake, there’s a race that maybe one entity will win. Then we’ll have a continental metaverse, which I don’t think will necessarily be beneficial. What will be more relevant or productive to think about the metaverse as a very immersive virtual world that is an archipelago, where different parallel realities will be connected, rather than one homogenised continent.

The whole idea of the metaverse comes from science fiction, with Neil Stevenson’s Snow Crash, and also the entire idea of virtual reality was pioneered by Jaron Zepel Lanier, who was a programmer and a writer.

What you’re saying about continents makes me think of the corporate rat race currently taking place to colonise online forms of communication, where Web3 is trying to break free from that homogenised way of thinking.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: An archipelago is a relational reality. It is a place that is particular to us; a place where we are and also a place where we are bound.

I saw that you have works by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley and LuYang in the exhibition – both artists who explore the role of identity and gender through technology. What role do video games play in exploring identity?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Danielle says that she uses technology to imagine our lives in environments that centre our bodies; those that are living, those that are past, and those that have been forgotten.  Her Black Trans Archive is a very important work; it's a video game that interacts in real-time. In history, black people have been erased and absent from archives, so in a way, this game is actually a game that centres on black and trans people and their stories, which is really important. With LuYang, through the Doku avatar, which is a digital incarnation that she’s been working on since 2020, that any form of binary thinking is radically challenged by the avatar. 

“I was thinking about what would be the Rite of Spring of the 21st century – and maybe it’s going to be a videogame“ – Hans Ulrich Obrist

How do you see the relationship between our digital selves and our Away From Keyboard selves?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Elmgreen & Dragset’s book Useless Bodies just came out at the Prada Foundation, which is about the crash of the bubble in the digital age. Increasingly, we’re seeing exhibitions become mixed reality. We have an exhibition at the Serpentine with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Alienarium 5, with ‘Alienarium’ being the key figure in Dominique’s sculptures. She’s developed a multisensory sort of environment, where there are a lot of things we experience in front of a screen. She’s created all these different sorts of formats. We have a 360-degree panorama, there are five VR pieces where we can have encounters with extraterrestrials, and there’s also a room that’s disconnected from any technology. It’s combining many of these parallel realities in human experience, which is multi-sensory and that people can spend a lot of time.

How do you kind of see the tools that we use for online gaming evolving within the art realm?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: The question of authorship is changing. Videogames are a very interdisciplinary medium. I was thinking about what would be the Rite of Spring of the 21st century – and maybe it’s going to be a videogame. It’s only the beginning; there will be so much more in the future of video games. I think it’s important to think about games not only as games that can be mission-driven, but also games that address the problems of the 21st century. Maybe games can bring all the disciplines together, so we have games where all the artforms collaborate on one game. That idea of it being a collaborative practice brings a lot of potential.