SHIFT-CTRLMEDIATING THE PROCESS OF ACADEMIC EXHIBITIONISM
Robert F. Nideffer
It's an interesting time to live, work and play. In the state of California, typical of many places around the country, the arts are being eradicated from public education in grades K-12. Universities are increasingly pressured to embrace not only corporate sponsorship, but corporate models for teaching and research. Now more than ever, faculty get rewarded for effectively and efficiently playing the role of service provider. Effectiveness and efficiency are often equated with an ability to make students competitive in a global marketplace, or an ability to produce something of social or economic value, consistent with the moral climate of the time. The University of California at Irvine, as with all nine of the other UC campuses, is a publicly funded institution, governed by a Board of Regents, most of whom are business men, and occasionally women. It is questionable as to whether the power exerted by the Regents is proportionate to the less than one third percentage of overall funding received by the State. Residents of the State have priority access. The University, now more than ever, is being pressured to give back in measurable fashion to the local economy - i.e., populate it with fresh new well-trained blood.
In the game of academia, the buzzwords that play well at the moment are "interdisciplinarity" and "collaboration." Partnering with industry to fuel technology transfer is the flavor of the month. Institutions like the UC are struggling to figure out how to encourage "cross-fertilization" of theory and practice in a substantive fashion, at the level of infrastructure. This is a rather ironic and difficult position to adopt in an environment developed for hundreds of years around the valorization of specialization and discipline, often by definition divorced from the moral economy, at least in principle if not in fact. In the academy arts, the interest is in shifting the perceived role of the artist from that of mere practitioner, who is gifted a space in the academy due to an innate ability to reproduce socially sanctioned displays of wonder and beauty (much as a member of the underclass may be bestowed some form of social welfare as gift, as opposed to inalienable right), to that of critically informed researcher, who strategically participates in shaping contemporary culture by whatever means necessary.
So what's all this have to do with an exhibition oriented around art, computers and gaming? Believe it or not, quite a bit. In order to begin answering this question, it helps to ask another - How does a show like "Shift-Ctrl" even happen at this point in time and space? Let's begin by introducing the cast of characters, the "players," some of whom may not even be aware they're in the game, and end up with brief discussion of the issues, content and titling. It should go without saying that this is a highly subjective account. Many other stories could be constructed out of the assets I'm bringing to bear.
UC Irvine, The fastest growing of the 9 campus-nodes in the UC system
The city of Irvine was designed by William Pereira, the same architect, who designed the UC Irvine (UCI) campus in the 1960s. It is one of the youngest campuses in the UC system, having officially opened its doors in 1965. Incorporated in 1971, Irvine is seen as one of the most successfully master planned cities in the country. Somewhat strangely, the built environment was developed largely independent of the people who would eventually populate it, precluding any kind of collective organic growth. Perhaps even more strangely, it has been exported to Eastern Europe as a model of development. Irvine is being strategically positioned to attract technology related companies in effort to make it a key player in the overall transformation of the South Coast into a new technology hub. It seems to be working, though it's been difficult to seduce newer, edgier, alternative elements since Orange County is generally believed to be socially, politically, and fiscally conservative. In fact the whole place is owned and managed by a single corporation, the Irvine Company, fronted by billionaire CEO Donald Bren. At the University of California, Bren's higher education philanthropy is making possible the creation of more chairs than any other single donor in the university's history. So tight is community control in Irvine that you do not own the land your home is on, you lease it from the company. Recently, a number of the most prominent game development houses in production have made their homes, or at least part of their homes, in the region. From the beginning, Irvine the city was tightly coupled with Irvine the campus. Overall, UCI is generally perceived as having a science and technology focus. UCI, recently mandated to nearly double in size over the coming decade by the Office of the President, from some 18,000 to close to 30,000 students, is a place of tremendous growth. Not long ago a call for new program initiatives came down from on high, and yours truly began brainstorming about an interdisciplinary degree in gaming studies, which for many reasons seemed timely and appropriate to initiate at UCI.
Jill Beck, Ambitious and Visionary SOTA Dean
As Dean of the School of the Arts (SOTA) at UC Irvine, Jill Beck has worked tirelessly to establish a new technology research focus within SOTA. Recent faculty hires within Dance, Music and Studio Art have been oriented toward people comfortable and actively engaged with new technology in their critical and creative practice. People who seem to satisfy the compulsion to work in an interdisciplinary and collaborative fashion. Dean Beck has been extremely successful in raising awareness of the arts within the local and national community, as well as in raising capital to support new initiatives. She has also worked to position the creative output of the arts faculty to the rest of the campus community as legitimate research. Not long ago, a competition was called for a new center on campus that would promote innovative, interdisciplinary collaboration amongst UCI faculty. Initially the arts were not even perceived as a competitor, let alone a main contender, in the rivalry for the center. To Jill's great credit and vision, and to many other's disappointment, not only did SOTA become a contender, it eventually won the award. Jill has also been an ardent supporter of the newly proposed gaming studies program.
The Beall Family
Donald and Joan Beall are local to Orange County, and have recently become incredibly generous supporters of the arts at UC Irvine. Without them none of this would be plausible, at least not in quite the same way. Donald Beall is the retired Chairman and CEO of the Rockwell Corporation. Mr. Beall is credited with streamlining Rockwell's management program, and steering the company away from its dependence on the defense industry to focus on commercial electronics. The corporation's market value soared under Mr. Beall's leadership. Joan Beall has been very active in promoting K-12 arts education in Orange County.
Rockwell international, Former Employer of Don Beall
Rockwell is a transnational corporation renowned for manufacture of electronic controls and communications, particularly in the fields of avionics, munitions, and manufacturing. With offices in North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, Rockwell has been strategically positioned to have tremendous impact and influence in a rapidly consolidating, though politically fragmenting, international marketplace. Most recently they have become a patron of the arts at UC Irvine, providing roughly $1.5 million in funding to enable the building of the Donald R. and Joan F. Beall Center for Art and Technology.
The Donald R. and Joan F. Beall Center for Art and Technology
The Beall Center is the fallout of this strange confluence of interests and initiatives: the mandated growth of the UC, the desire to miscegenate disciplinary practices, the surprising success at courting corporate partners, the state-mandated need to give back to the local economy and community in more tangible ways, and the shuffle to embrace a newly emerging digital culture that promises to facilitate technology transfer by building bridges to industry and providing functional skill sets to students being pushed out of the ivory tower and into the streets of a global consumer culture. As such, the Beall is the first of its kind in the UC system, if not all of North America. It is supposed to function as a living laboratory, a kind of membrane with facilitated diffusion. One might productively think of it as a viral organism capable of developing mutually beneficial parasitical relations to not only those it hosts, but also to those acting as host, destabilizing in small but substantive ways from within.
Jeanie Weiffenbach, Director of the Donald R. and Joan F. Beall Center for Art and Technology
Jeanie Weiffenbach comes to UC Irvine from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she directed the Walter McBean art gallery for many years. She has built a reputation on her ability to recognize artists of merit early in their careers, and her willingness to take calculated risks in an exhibition environment. She has been forced to rapidly acclimate to a complex climate of university bureaucracy, diverse sets of interests on the parts of administrators, staff, students and faculty, and limited budget. Her job is not an easy one, but at least with Shift-Ctrl we're trying to make it fun.
Robert Nideffer, Studio Art & information and Computer Science Faculty, Co-Curator of Shift-Ctrl
I spent much of my adolescence avoiding school in order to hang out at bowling alleys and arcades and study videogames. Eventually I started taking school a bit more seriously, and navigated my way through and around a number of academic disciplines. Currently I have been hard at play initiating an Interdisciplinary Gaming Studies Program with colleagues in the School of the Arts, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Information and Computer Science. Not long ago, I wrote a short statement about the gaming studies proposal for the communications office at UCI. The Wall Street Journal picked it up and did a story, and the LA Times soon followed suit. Before long it went international. Significant interest in the initiative was generated, much to the chagrin of the administration who were receiving hundreds of requests for information about a program that did not yet exist. Over $2 million has been given by software companies like Alias/Wavefront, LithTech, and Microsoft to support the emerging program. Offers of scholarships, internships, and job opportunities for students were being made. The timing seemed right. When the Beall needed an opening show that demonstrated its mandate -- art driven, interdisciplinary, technology focused, connected to industry, and capable of capturing community interest -- the gaming angle seemed to fit the bill. Dean Beck pushed for Shift-Ctrl, initially proposed as a potential theme for a show at some point in the distant future, to be the opening exhibition.
Antoinette LaFarge, Studio Art Faculty, Co-Curator of Shift-Ctrl
Antoinette LaFarge is an artist, writer, and avid gamer, brought to UC Irvine in fall of 1999, the second of two recent hires in the Department of Studio Art in digital media. Currently, among the many things occupying her time, she directs the "Plaintext Players," an online performance group forging a unique hybrid of theater, fiction, poetry, and vaudeville using network technology. She was not so innocently roped into co-curating an opening exhibition for the Beall during her first year as full-time faculty at UCI. Antoinette has been pivotal in conceptualizing Shift-Ctrl. You can read more about her angles and interests in her accompanying essay. She has also been playing a key role in articulating a vision for the gaming studies program.
The Studio Art Department, Disciplinary Home of the Co-Curators
The Studio Art Department at UC Irvine is well known for its interest in critical thinking and conceptually driven art practice. It is a tough and demanding environment, inherently suspicious of enterprises that may be seen to conspire with those in positions of economic, political, racial, or gendered power and privilege. The fact that the professorate occupy their seats as government employees, in a top-down hierarchical organization as rigidly structured as the military, though one which struggles to play the part of promoting the free-exchange of ideas and democratic governance, does not go unnoticed. Studio Art works together with the Director of the Beall on programming, both literally and metaphorically. In theory Studio Art provides an oversight function. It remains uncertain to what degree they actually influence events.
The artists are an international and interdisciplinary group of people who apply an uncomfortable mix of research, science, art, and theory in their creative practice. Most of the work is, by definition, collaborative. There are undoubtedly many tales to tell about the relative successes and failures of those collaborative alliances. The frustrating dependencies, unmet expectations, shifting goals, retooled visions, and technical failures, as well as unanticipated discoveries and undreamed of possibilities are all part and parcel of the process. In fact process, perhaps more than anything else, is at the core of many of the pieces in Shift-Ctrl. Process not only in terms of how the work gets collectively produced, but a process that extends far beyond the narrow confines of the studio or lab, and into the broader arena of audience engagement. None of these pieces could function in isolation. They are realized in, and indeed depend upon, an interactive public. One of the great strengths of the collection is that it resists easy definition and co-optation by established arts institutions and cultural gatekeepers. At the moment, there exists no substantial set of curatorial, art historical, critical or economic practices that function to legitimate what is shown in Shift-Ctrl. Though many are, unfortunately, trying very hard to make that change. Curation often runs counter to the very nature of the work, particularly the all-too-frequently shortchanged networked work, unnecessarily delimiting it in time and space, a tension we have acutely felt in putting this show together. Art history is exactly what's claimed by its name, an historical discipline, trapped in the self-imposed need to let time pass in order to acquire critical distance in effort to achieve an often misguided subjectivity that gets fronted as objective analysis. It demands an ability to classify, categorize, compare, constrain and control. Thankfully this work is too fresh and messy for that. Art critics tend to emerge out of scholarly disciplines (like art history) and to circulate through a formalized economy of museums, gallerists, and patrons who voraciously feed off each other in the interest of object fetishization, ego manufacture, and financial gain. This is not to say artists using new media avoid such tendencies, but you may have noticed, there's not much object to fetishize in Shift-Ctrl. Not surprisingly, at this moment and in this domain it tends to be the artists who articulate their work best. This makes it all fairly threatening to the powers that be. It's also what makes it so potentially interesting.
Benjamin Weil, Curator of Media Arts at SF MOMA
One of a growing cadre of new media curators who occupy institutionalized seats of authority, struggling to figure out how to allow traditional arts institutions embrace what's happening on the so-called fringes. A double edged sword, as recognition and formal sanctioning brings with it all the fecal material so often endemic to the traditional arts - the brown nosing, the power plays, the popularity contests, the commodification, the archival practices, the editorial function, and so on. Benjamin was commissioned to write an essay about this event. He was a co-founder of ada 'web , one of the most interesting online experimental arts forums, and is a past Director of New Media at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He's published hard-copy in Flash Art international, Atlantica, Art Monthly, and a whole host of others.
Rare Medium, Web Design Firm
Rare Medium is one of those rapidly proliferating companies attempting to make a name for themselves by building frames (i.e., Web sites) for content providers (i.e., clients looking to sell stuff). They're a kind of virtual construction company. It's a brutal and cut-throat business. To establish presence, strange things must occasionally be done, like donating resources and expertise to relatively poorly funded pockets housed within public institutions, pockets which nevertheless have potential to help up market value by exposing company skills to new audiences - some of whom may actually possess the ability to pay for project assistance. Rare has donated the site you are reading this on. They are incredibly resourceful, professional, and creative.
Antenna Design, Installation Design Firm
Antenna is a professional installation design house, brought on board at the recommendation of another one of these arts institutions struggling to embrace new media out in the Midwest, the Walker Art Center. They are being paid something, though not much. There is good reason for it. Their star is rising. They are definitely a firm to keep tuned in.
Apple Computer, Technology sponsor of Shift-Ctrl
Apple has traditionally occupied an important place within educational institutions, especially within the arts, where they have enjoyed a following often bordering on fanatical. In recent years this important market niche has been substantially eroded. Particularly when you start talking games and networking, it quickly becomes apparent just how far Apple has fallen behind their rivals. From both a production and consumption standpoint it's even bleaker. If you were authoring an application would you do it for an install base of less than 10%, or an install base upwards of 90%? If you're an artist or a gamer looking for maximum exposure, it's not a difficult decision to make. Conditions such as these have led Apple to more aggressively try to reinsert themselves back into the educational and research arena. That's how we got some of the equipment for this show. Hopefully the next generation of Apple's OS will help level the scales. I'll hold my breath...for a while.
Of course there are many others whom without which Shift-Ctrl would not have quite the shape and texture that it does. If by some strange chance you are reading this and feeling neglected, I apologize. Though I suspect the feeling may more likely be one of relief.
In 1998, over one in four American youngsters reported playing games between seven and 30 hours a week. More than 1 in 4 homes has a game console. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association's 1999 sales information, over $6.1 billion in U.S. entertainment software sales in 1999 went to games (the fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth). In the past decade computer games and gaming have exploded from a niche market predominated by a particular youth demographic, to a much more diversified audience. Games have been at the forefront of major hardware and software advances in institutions as diverse as education, entertainment, government and the military. Legend has it that the UNIX operating system was developed by Ken Thompson on a PDP-1, largely out of a desire to play Space War. In fact, the first CRT display was an old oscilloscope used for displaying game play, while the first trackball was developed at MIT as a Space War controller. It's now fairly common knowledge that Operation Desert Storm was prepped for by doing simulation strategy exercises down in Florida, and that the US military is currently pumping large amounts of capital into figuring out how to appropriate gaming principles for battle training in massively multiuser SimNet environments. The list of strange synchronicities and surprising confluence could go on and on.
The attention, time and resources expended in relation to computer games and gaming emerge out of long-standing and diverse cultural traditions rooted in fundamental human needs having to do with the importance of play, interactivity and creative experimentation in our social lives. Historically these have been key issues of concern for practitioners in both the arts and sciences. Look at many of the most influential arts movements in the past century - Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, and so many others - arguably, all were playing games of one genre or another. The problem is, the product of these movements often remained pretty localized, rarefied, and accessible to a relatively isolated and self-contained audience. What would happen if you gave Marcel Duchamp, John Cage or Hannah Hoch a Playstation 2 or an X-box? Or for that matter any artist or cultural producer attempting to reorder reality by whatever medium happens to be at hand, and who desires to reach out as far and as wide as possible? What might be at stake by appropriating gaming metaphors, design principles, or core technologies for alternative kinds of art-related content or context provision? How do moves in these directions play out in an academic environment struggling to retool itself in order to remain a vital and necessary contributor to contemporary culture? Explicitly and implicitly, Shift-Ctrl begins to address these questions.
When push came to shove (i.e., when Shift-Ctrl became the main contender for the Beall opening and Antoinette and I were asked to step up to bat), we were forced to actually sit down and think seriously about what a show on games and computers and art could be about. We eventually settled on three main themes to start plugging pieces into that we thought were interesting: Role Play, Emergent Systems, and World-Hacks. Like any organizational scheme, there is considerable slippage and overlap. Nevertheless we found it a useful heuristic. As with any curatorial practice or editorial function, you have to start separating the presumed wheat from the chaff at one point or another. The problem is, we all have such limited scope of vision, and things just keep getting so much more expansive. Sigh.
The themes seemed to allow us to begin tapping into some of the main motivations for artists and audience engaged in new media production and consumption. Not many technologies allow for overt or covert real-time narrowcast point to point contact in the way that distributed networked computing does. And of course, along with the potential for remote connection come more free-form possibilities for shape-shifting, gender-swapping, anonymous, pseudonymous, or fully transparent agency by proxy - you probably know the rap. The thing is, role-play isn't something done by choice every once in awhile, it's what gets done day in and day out whether we like it or not. While digitally generated environments may seem to facilitate radically new situations of split subjectivity and mediated communication at a distance, it's really just a variation on an age-old theme. In practice, that's all we've ever been able to do. It's what happens when you read a book and the phone rings, type on a computer and listen to music, yell at the kids while driving, fantasize while making love, occupy the shifting territory of daughter, son, lover, friend, enemy, student, teacher, artist, scientist, parent. It's what happens any time you take your self as an object and try to figure out how the hell to make the next move.
All of these role plays demand a temporal and spatial dimension. You know the old dictum: "There is a time and a place for everything." Even when that time and place are messed with and abstracted beyond recognition what remains, as many have asserted, is an embodied practice. Play is a process. A process that by definition is social. Even when done in perceived isolation some generalized or specialized others must get taken into account and used as referents. Play has emergent properties, properties that dynamically shift and change, and afford adaptation if not outright mutation. It is this kind of dynamism that propels a number of the pieces in this show, made manifest as you become that screened blip or fragment of text.
The liberation and the limitation that the dramaturgy of role play allows, coupled with the seduction of interactive participation in the dynamism of change, can be used to explain a bit of the fascination with gaming. The ability to connect, to interact, and to alter environments can be heady stuff. When it's done with an eye toward reflexively playing head games along the way, it gets even more interesting. Another piece of the puzzle, is the interest in engaging systems of power and authority, bucking established social and institutional practice, and rendering visible that which tends to be kept hidden. In other words hacking the standardized methods and procedures of cultural exchange, both of which have enjoyed a fairly illustrious history in arting and gaming.
If anything has been a consistent historic component of art and games, it's been the ability to creatively embrace a certain irreverence, and in the best cases, help shed new light on taken for granted codes and conventions, opening up new space for reflection, dialogue, and debate. It's also what you do each time you press those two little keys sitting in front of you in some sort of combinatorial sequence, allowing you access to programmatic functions at a slightly deeper level. It's all about making it a little bit easier to playfully yet critically "Shift-Ctrl."