A still from the 'You Call That Art?' video game featuring the work of Sean Brannan
Everything about Kelly Hutchinson, who works under the name Dark Vomit, screams contrarian. From his North Park apartment he's been generating controversy for years with his pop-surrealist paintings depicting everything from Ronald Reagan in a dress to The Last Supper attended by famous clowns (Pennywise as Jesus, Krusty filling in for Judas). But it's a more recent passion project, and one that went virtually ignored when he first unveiled it last October, that may be his boldest statement yet.
“Primarily, a lot of my stuff is in tune for the under-30 crowd, and to get that crowd to come out to an art show is fucking hell,” Hutchinson says. “But the moment I threw this thing out there, there was this whole new interest. I think if this would continue further, then it would generate a lot more interest among this younger crowd.”
What Hutchinson is talking about is his You Call That Art? project, an interactive video-game art show. Brainstormed years ago, he first created a game for his own art and then, in late 2009, debuted another featuring more than a dozen local artists. The game (which can be downloaded for free at www.darkvomit.com or www.interactiveartshow.com) was created using a basic, first-person shooter-game template. In it, the player explores various rooms, collects weapons and shoots zombies and hell-hounds, but throughout the entire game, the walls are lined with art from locals like Brett Barrett, David Russell Talbott and Kim Riot.
Even though a quick Internet search suggests that no one had thought to do it before, the project went largely ignored by the press (including this paper) but was popular enough on blogs that downloads for both games hit the tens of thousands. Most writers who did cover it, however, considered it a promotional, even subliminal, tool to show off local talent while also partaking in seemingly mindless shoot-'em-up-style video-game violence. Why not have some fun with product-placement in games by inserting some paintings in there instead of a Pepsi logo?
But Hutchinson is quick to counter that analysis. What he was really going after with You Call That Art? was an examination of the relationship between art and video games. He'd already decided that video games are, indeed, an art medium, and he wanted to explore the next logical question—as he puts it: “How can video games work together with the arts?”
“I think that it would be very exciting if more of the platform gaming systems, Microsoft's Xbox and [Sony's] Playstation, would start contacting more artists to throw into their games,” Hutchinson says.
Yet there are still a lot of people with strong opinions on the first question. Just as Roger Ebert can denounce video games as an art form (their design is too collaborative, their interface too interactive, etc.), the other side is just as ready to poke holes in those arguments.
“The phenomena in video gaming has everything to do with trying to provide interactive content that's inviting,” says professor Mark Siprut, who runs the multimedia program at SDSU's School of Art, Design and Art History. “That phenomena is true, whether it's in educational content, interactive navigation on an e-commerce website or art-making in general. All those share the same phenomenas. How do we make interactivity fun, playful and inviting and have mystery and intrigue, curiosity and suspense? All those things happen in a straight narrative in a book. There's really a common thread to all of this.”
Siprut also points out that while some of his colleagues might not consider video games art. He's yet to meet a student who shares that opinion. A recent story on the online news site Slate pointed out that perhaps one of the reasons video games haven't reached a certain level of respect is because people are still discussing them as entertainment, especially in the press—video-game journalism has yet to find its Lester Bangs. And as Jamin Brophy-Warren, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Good magazine points out, writers have yet to form a common vernacular when it comes to discussing the medium, unlike film and visual-art criticism.
The other problem is contextualization: That we haven't reached a point yet, as a society, where even though people are having these very intense and insightful experiences with games, there are still many who feel embarrassed to bring it up at a dinner party like they would music, art, film or literature.
“What a lot of people forget is that, in the 20th century, with visual mediums, they developed in exactly the same way,” says Brophy-Warren, who recently launched Kill Screen, a quarterly publication based in New Haven, Conn., exclusively devoted to the artful and mature discussion of video games. “Photography, film—they all start off as novelties, and they move on to become something serious, and games certainly aren't any different.
“The point at which we started asking that question about whether games are art was the exact point at which where it stopped meaning anything,” Brophy-Warren adds. “Because once you start asking that question: Is this thing worthy to be called art? You sort of answered your own question.”
Back in North Park, Hutchinson says he didn't make much money from the You Call That Art? project (on the website there's an option for a donation), but future video games, on which he'll likely collaborate with artist Barrett, will expand the format to add more intricate and elaborate storylines.
“The interest is insane,” Hutchinson says. “I just learned a lot of valuable lessons in the way I want to organize it, and it's going to be a lot more strategic in the future.”
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