I love interviewing game makers for features, but a lot of interesting conversation ends up on the cutting room floor for various reasons. If you hadn't seen it yet, I wrote a piece for Kill Screen about indie dev Pippin Barr's collaboration with superstar artist Marina Abramovic for her now-successful Kickstarter campaign to construct and open a physical space for the Marina Abramovic Institute, dedicated to long-durational artworks. Barr is making several game adaptations of both the proposed building and past Abramovic performances and I spoke with him about games, performance art, humor, and working with Abramovic. I'm presenting my conversation with Pippin Barr in full below.
Barr is most known for his humorous, often satirical games, particularly The Artist is Present, a game version of the Marina Abramovic exhibition of the same name from a couple years ago. He's also parodied the Humble Indie Bundle with his own Mumble Indie Bungle, offering a pay-what-you-want purchase model and games like Carp Life and World of Glue. Barr's output is more than just a bunch of jokes (though he does procedural comedy better than anyone), as the satirical irony often pushes into reflections on the nature of institutions and ritual behaviors.
OK, enough preamble. Here's the interview.
LOW CUTOFF: For a long while now, it feels like there's the art world and the game world and never the twain shall meet, but projects like your collaboration with Marina Abramovic can be seen as directly challenging that notion. Where do you feel like your work fits in this continuum of games and art? Do you see the two as having different audiences?
Pippin Barr: The "art versus games" thing has been going on for a good long while now. There are so many strands to it, and I certainly don't feel all that qualified to talk about it in general. My usual response is something along the lines of games as a medium clearly being capable of yield "art", whether or not we think of the things that have been made so far as artworks. And further that games are, of course, not obliged to be art or like art. So much of what we mean by art is tied up in institutions and processes and procedures associated with the art world –showing in galleries, being commented on by art critics, etc. etc. etc. The culture of the art world.
As to my own work, it's hard to say. I've never explicitly positioned myself as an artist making games, but I have of course played around with the idea of it, most explicitly in Art Game. I've had various of my games shown in exhibitions at galleries around the world, which technically means I must be an artist in the art-world cultural sense, or at least acknowledged as one. But it doesn't feel like that affects me personally in terms of how I proceed with making games (I may be wrong on this). My practice (to use an art world term) has simply been to have an idea and make it. Of course, that corresponds fairly well to what artists might say they do anyway, so the whole thing is rather blurry!
Collaborating with Marina Abramovic definitely takes it to another level of art-worldness. What I appreciate most about the collaboration, though, is Marina's willingness to let it be as much about games and what they are and do as it is about performance art or art generally. That's meant spending time thinking about the intersections of the two, and how performance art and Marina's take on it might "look" in the world of a game. That's been quite rewarding.
As to audiences, I'm not always sure who the audience for my games is. First and foremost, it's me, of course, finding it funny or wanting a particular type of game to exist. Ideally I'd like anyone to play them, I generally try to make them as accessible as I can in terms of controls and instructions, and I have my parents, who are decidedly not gamers, test them, to make sure things should make sense. Again, I don't see the games as specifically speaking to an "art audience" per se. If anything, I suppose some of the games do reference other games and game culture enough that they're more fully understandable by people with a gaming background.
LCO: On games and art, I agree with you about the blurry distinctions between art and game objects, but the worlds, that is the markets, press, and enthusiast and academic communities, for the most part seem to pay little attention to one another. Yet in small bits here and there, gallery shows with games, game designers employing more studio art methods of practice, there is some convergence. Do you think this middle ground will become something larger than the niche between worlds it currently occupies?
PB: I think it's probably inevitable, right? If nothing else, people who've grown up with games are going to be more and more likely to be comfortable positioning (some of) them as artworks they might see in a museum or gallery context. And meanwhile I think a lot of the "smaller" (e.g. not the Smithsonian, not MoMA) galleries are working through the ins and outs of actually displaying video games in a way that complements their nature (most obviously interactivity). It certainly feels to me like it's a happily expanding part of the art world.
LCO: Many of your games, even when dealing with more serious subjects, are quite humorous. Though Marina Abramovic has certainly incorporated humor in her work at times, she and the high art world in general are often viewed from the outside as direly self-serious, if not esoterically so. How do you see humor functioning in the games you're working on for the MAI project?
PB: Yes, this is one of the revelations of actually meeting with Marina. I had, like most people I suppose, expected her to be kind of severe or detached or... something. But in fact she's very warm, excited, funny. The humorous aspect of my games (and particularly The Artist is Present) was a big part of what had attracted her to them in the first place, and she certainly sees room within performance art and the institute itself for humour.
It's a fine line, though. I'm making a game version of the Marina Abramovic Institute, for instance. Now of course I want there to be humorous elements to be in there, as is my inclination, but it can't be too funny or it will detract from trying to communicate something genuine about the exercises people will practice in the institute. So the process of designing/building the game has been a kind of negotiation of what feels funny in the right spirit and what might push across into parody, for example.
Another side of this is that I do keep meaning to make a game or two that aren't about comedy or humorous takes on subjects. So I'm seeing some of the other exercise games as something of an opportunity to tackle a different style as well.
LCO: Humor in the MAI games sounds like an even trickier challenge the just personal humor in games in general, where it's rare enough to begin with. Adapting something like "Complaining to a Tree" already sort of sounds like a kind of satire just by the title. How do you see using a non-pixel art drawing style as playing into this, if at all?
PB: Yes, the humour thing is tricky. I really do prefer games to have a sense of humour, but humour can turn into or be interpreted as a kind of parody or mockery rather than adding lightness and curiosity to an experience. One good thing about the sorts of exercises Marina's interested in, though, is that they're really much more about what you bring to them - they're not inherently deadly serious or ridiculous, it's about the stance of the person experiencing them. I think that's a great perspective to take, and a good one to bring across into games more and more too. As such, while something called "Complaining to a tree", which is literally about complaining to a tree, might seem ridiculous to people, it's entirely possible, I think, to commit to or accept the experience and really get something out of it. A great thing about a digital/game version is that it's even easier to try it out without the "risk" of feeling embarrassed by talking to a real tree.
LCO: It would seem that video games and performance art have many things in common. Would you say that video game players are performers, or is there a distinction to be made there?
PB: Absolutely. That's been one of the more fun things about making the games, working through the connections between performance art and games and players. I don't necessarily think that video games are necessarily always performers (in the sense of art), but I think that a game can probably be made in such a way as to push the nature of play toward performance. In the case of the project with Marina, the emphasis is less on "performance" for the player/audience and more on an experience of reality, or ways of being in the moment, so that tension isn't such a bit thing for these games.
But yes, I like the idea of players taking the mantle of performance more seriously, or rather being allowed to do so, to have it facilitated. That was definitely the core motivator of Art Game for instance –not for me to make a specific experience for the player to go through, but rather for the player to take over and enact their own artistic talents in the world of the game and to take ownership of it.
LCO: Do you enjoy going to art galleries and museums? Do you think these are good places to show games or do you think the inclusion of more games in such spaces would necessitate some sort of change in the way those institutions function? The MAI project seems like it could be an interesting take on an exhibition space for interactive or long-duration works like games.
PB: I do like galleries and museums personally –saw a great Lichtenstein retrospective at the Pompidou in Paris, for instance. I haven't seen many exhibitions that touch on games though. I remember a show in Amsterdam, but that was essentially video-art based on games. And I was involved in a show in Copenhagen that displayed games, many or even most of them playable. It seemed to work pretty well actually. It traded successfully on the pleasures of watching play as well as playing.
I don't know if games would require museums/galleries to change in some sort of fundamental way, but there needs to be continued effort to allow people to play games in the spaces. And I suspect that the kinds of games that will "make sense" in museum/gallery contexts will be kind of specific too, or their creators might need to be aware of the context and make the game accordingly... or something. Certainly approaching a game in a gallery space isn't the same thing as playing on your phone or on your couch, and it's not like that's going to change.
MAI is intriguing, I agree. I don't have a great fix on how games/interactive work might actually feature at the institute as of yet, but I'm certainly hoping to have some input!
LCO: So, Marina Abramovic is one of the biggest, most visible names in contemporary art. What was going through your mind when she initially got in touch with you?
PB: It really was quite a shock to see an email in my inbox with the "from:" field reading "Marina Abramovic". The subject line was, appropriately enough, "Hello from Marina Abramović". Pretty great. I didn't completely believe it was genuine to be honest. I kind of felt like it was the sort of thing various of my friends might do as a joke, and of course it's not hard to fake email addresses and so on. So I took it with a grain of salt, I suppose, but also responded quite wholeheartedly in the hope that it was real... which it turned out to be. When I was finally sitting face to face with Marina over Skype, well, that was surreal.
LCO: Was she interested in working with you on the MAI project right away or did that come later?
PB: Some kind of collaboration was really on the table from the beginning. She'd played The Artist is Present pretty much when it came out two years ago and liked it (and even spoke about it sometimes at speaking engagements), but hadn't contacted me. I guess that with the institute and its emphasis on different routes into thinking about performance, awareness, science, technology etc., it seemed like the time to actually get in touch and try something.
LCO: How do you like being a part of a Kickstarter campaign? Has the crowd funding format forced you to change your process at all?
PB: It seems fine to me, but I really feel like I have total autonomy and that I don't necessarily have a great deal of "ownership" over the Kickstarter itself. I want it to succeed of course (that's why I'm participating), but I don't feel pressure concerning whether I'm part of the make-or-breakness of it, and certainly not that the backers might be disappointed by my games. I don't think they will be, but it's also the case that particularly in more of an "art context" like this it's not the case that you have the same level of consumerist desire and entitlement concerning the rewards, I suppose.
LCO: Since the sky's the limit, it seems, on scoring collaborations with superstars (you're in the company of Jay Z and Lady Gaga now), any other artists or game devs you'd love to work with?
PB: Hah! Yeah, I don't know. It's definitely been an interesting experience, and it's led to some very fun source material for games. If Jay Z comes knocking I might be able to be convinced to collaborate...