by Alec Mapes-Frances, Brown University
Originally published in the Spring 2016 edition.
Level-1 or world space is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly.
Garbage time is running out.
Can what is playing you make it to level-2?
—Nick Land, “Meltdown”1
Cinema and video games have a close and yet rather unclear relationship. As we enter a period of media ecology that has been called—by Steven Shaviro and others—“post-cinematic,” modes of theorizing the moving image in its various traditional media forms (television, film, video, animation) become fraught, making it difficult to posit discrete media forms in the traditional sense.2 In the digital era, it seems at times that there are no longer individual mediums but one “media,” defined only by modifications of information processes and protocological controls. In other words, cinema and video games seem to have converged into a singularity: commercial cinema increasingly looks and feels like video games; video games increasingly look and feel like movies. McKenzie Wark situates this particular mediatic convergence within a broader process of gamification, arguing in Gamer Theory that the space of contemporary reality itself is a “gamespace,” and that “the game has colonized its rivals within the cultural realm, from the spectacle of cinema to the simulations of television.”3 Wark offers a relatively totalizing picture of how our aesthetic and cultural lives—not to mention our working lives—seem to have become variations on gamic themes of interactivity, virtuality, addiction, continuity, competition, and so on. It is not that the game represents the world but rather that the world itself has been made over as a game, a set of algorithms and grids that determine the various events and images to which we are subject(ed), and to which there is no outside.
With Wark’s broader point in mind, one might go beyond the level of metaphor and begin to account for the different potentialities, embodiments, and becomings that the video game proper makes possible, alongside other media like cinema and dance. This essay will look at three significant video artworks that address the video game and the status of the body within it: Peggy Ahwesh’s She-Puppet (2001), Harun Farocki’s Parallel I-IV (2012-14), and Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015). As videos of video games, these pieces are what in the gaming community goes by the name “machinima,” a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema” that serves surprisingly well to describe the kind of machinic filmmaking the artists employ in their works. Ahwesh, Farocki, and Steyerl each use algorithm and interface to develop a political choreography only possible through games. Viewed through these performances of virtual bodies in virtual space, the video game becomes less about a narcissistic identification with power, less about “interactivity,” less about an ideological apparatus or cinematographic photographic realism, and more about dancing. Dancing here signifies a kind of cyborgic—in Donna Haraway’s sense of the word—mode of experimentation and even of potential emancipation.4 It is an elaboration on the interpellations of subjects and the protocols that constrain them, a “screen test” of the limits of bodies, worlds, and the possible.
Peggy Ahwesh composed the fifteen-minute video She-Puppet from her own gameplay footage of the original 1996 Tomb Raider, whose star, Lara Croft, was the “virtual girl-doll of the late 20th century.”5 Appearing in eleven different Tomb Raider games as well as in feature film adaptations and print adaptations, Lara was one of the first cultural idols whose body was not only beloved and admired but also virtually inhabitable and intimately manipulable.6 Her gender, originally assigned as a copyright litigation deterrent (the game’s developer wanted to avoid conflict with the Indiana Jones franchise), posed a number of productive problems for feminist theory and feminist critique, for which the new medium introduced a complication of the patriarchal camera-eye or male gaze, an ambiguous kind of empowerment, a figure who is both an object of masculine sexual fantasy and subject of feminine power.7,8 Ahwesh’s title makes central the concept of the female puppet, whose close relatives are the marionette, the doll, Barbie, the action figure, the automaton. Is this polygonal puppet, then, merely an inert object, a supple body, to be manipulated by some external agent?
First, a a close-up of Lara underwater and a voiceover, whose text is taken from a section of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet entitled “The death of the Prince”: “Why did they give me a kingdom to rule over if there is no better kingdom than this hour in which I exist between what I was not and what I will not be?”9 This epigrammatic citation frames She-Puppet as a meditation on virtual temporality, the intervallic kingdom of the living, and as a reflection on rule (both rulership as political power, and rules as law, protocol, or the ontological basis of the game-world).
After this period of subaquatic repose, Lara springs into action. We watch Lara/Ahwesh fight their way through the game, shooting and killing men and wolves. The run soon comes to an end; with a sigh—which, as Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky observes, is almost sensual—Lara falls to her knees and collapses onto the floor.10 Awhesh cuts to Lara/Ahwesh’s other deaths, in other contexts, at the hands of an MP or a tiger, a ball of flame or a tribal warrior, each coming with an identical sigh and an identical fall, a repetitive danse macabre. There is a music and a rhythm to the motions, an oddly affecting bodily dynamic in which Lara’s body makes a sort of communion with the ground, both surfaces (body and ground) appearing liquid, permeable: a ubiquitous feature of this kind of graphics. In Awhesh’s piece, Lara’s robotic, seemingly endlessly iterable death is more than a valueless immortality—rather, each death is a ritualistic gesture in itself, addressed to no one and nothing.
Ahwesh gives Lara a voice through a strange, meandering narration made up of fragments of texts from Pessoa, as well as from Joanna Russ’s book The Female Man and from a 1984 interview with Sun Ra published in the journal Semiotext(e). The texts are, of course, unrelated to Lara, but in conjunction with the video images they construct for her a schizophrenic, constantly shifting biography, mythifying her alternately as an alien, an orphan, and a clone. One section of the Sun Ra text:
I’m still innocent, because I’m still ignorant. Because I’m ignorant, my mind absorbs all kinds of things, the whole cosmos, the Omniverse, because I’m empty-headed. […] I’m not a human. I never called anybody mother. I never called anybody mommy. I never felt that way. I don’t know about being born. I just happened. You say you came from your parents, well you were just reproduced—and that’s a copy. I’m dealing with the spirit and no two spirits are alike.
Pessoa’s portions echo such emptiness and alienation from the body, though in a more melancholic register:
However near my heart seemed to beat, it was always far away, the false lord of a strange exiled body. We are who we are not, and life is swift and sad. […] They were strange hours that I spent alone by the sea. In them I suffered the aspirations of every era and the unrest of all time.
Meanwhile, we look on as Ahwesh, the unseen lord of Lara’s “strange exiled body,” drags her through various trials, has her stand in odd positions and make useless and asignifying gestures. This body often expresses a deathly tranquility: cut to images of Lara being carried along, corpselike, by schools of fish, or Lara being attacked from the air, over and over again, by screaming vultures. At times she flails around, often allowing the animations to disrupt themselves, flickering and swinging about at odd angles before coming to a temporary rest. One could speculate on the sadomasochist element and its possible marking of masculine domination, but such a reading might miss what is positively transgressed, disobeyed—namely, the rules of the game, the motivating impulses of a self-interested subject which are in fact imposed externally by a gamic structure composed of assigned tasks, matrices of rewards and punishments. This Lara/Ahwesh occupies spaces which are not meant to be occupied, performs actions that do nothing to serve the telos of a narrative or a discipline—she will walk carefully and unhurriedly into the body of a burly, male enemy, or flip slowly over a ledge, or silently fire rockets into the corner of an empty pool. In short, what is important here is the brokenness or asignification of the body in conjunction with the pseudo-brokenness of the game, achieved through virtual bodily practices and through the corporeographic or choreographic (de)inscription of a text that contravenes the official game-text (of survival and completion).
“Dance,” writes Alain Badiou, reading Nietzsche, “designates the capacity of bodily impulse not so much to be projected onto a space outside of itself, but rather to be caught up in an affirmative attraction that restrains it.”11 It is important to understand dance not as a romantic, transcendental flight, but as an activity of immanent intensification. Dance, for Badiou, is opposed to the heteronomy of the military formation or the servile body (under patriarchy, under nation-state, under capital). It is basically a kind of disobedience, a disobedience of external authority but also a disobedience of the body’s own internalized police order, and a disobedience that marks and effaces itself. An action that is, on some level, no action. Read along these lines, the She-Puppet’s “dance” is a virtual universality, but not one which superficially “empowers” the player nor participates only as a fetish. This dance is the universality of the “pure site,” in Mallarmean terms: the universality of the interval. Pessoa’s words, “spoken” by Lara, perhaps supplement this understanding of the dance, the dance of non-action or non-conviction, closing She-Puppet with a final reflection on the game (and its end):
In this confused series of intervals between things that do not exist, I ask of what remains, of what possible use it is to me. Tomorrow I’ll return home and set down, coldly, further thoughts on my lack of conviction. Let the players continue just as they are. When the last domino is played and the game has been won or lost, all the pieces are turned over and the game ends in darkness.
The question of gamic structure, or the experimentation with the limits of games and the limits of the bodies they institute—these are worked out in a comparable manner in the late video work of German film artist Harun Farocki. Parallel I-IV is Farocki’s final project, a series of videos completed in 2014 and first exhibited in May of that year as part of Berlin Documentary Forum 3 at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, just months before the filmmaker’s untimely death. Where the earlier Ernste Spiele (2010), or Serious Games, was primarily concerned with the psychological and military-strategic functions of simulation games, Parallel appears consumed by the possibility of an ontology of the video game and its elements—characters, boundaries, rules, landscapes—and, accordingly, by the video game’s medial status as a post-cinematic form. Farocki, pairing sparse narration with two-channel video, at first seems to be embarking on a knowingly naïve and incomplete quest for the eidos of the video game image, just as much as André Bazin intended to grasp that of the cinematographic photographic image some fifty years earlier.12 Farocki follows Bazin’s lead in laying out an art-historical distinction between symbolic (aesthetic, spiritual, abstract) and realist (indexical, mimetic, concrete) representational tendencies, but in the pictorial domain of computer graphics rather than that of the plastic arts. In Parallel I, primitive, 8 and 16-bit sprites or pixel animations from early games, designed for platforms like NES and DOS, are compared and contrasted with hyperreal and cinematic images from contemporary games, for PS3, XBOX 360, and modern PCs. “Trees made from squares” are placed next to highly detailed trees whose leaves and branches are built and animated individually, swaying in the wind and glinting with soft sunlight. Flames, smoke, water, clouds—all are presented in their various video game renderings, from pixellated masses and solid fields to complex fluid dynamics and lighting conditions. (Towards the end, Farocki notably suggests that the “new realisms” of the game will liberate film from its own dependence on realism, as Bazin of course suggested for film with regard to painting.)
The representation of the body, and more precisely the mummified body, is central to Bazin’s essay. In Farocki’s work the body is not addressed until Parallel II, which is a meditation on video game space, on landscapes and borders, and on how bodies are constituted for the spectatorial “I”/eye as landscapes, as borders. A clip from Red Dead Redemption: “How far can the rider ride?” Or from Crysis 4: “Where does this world end?” Minecraft: “This world appears infinite, generated by the gaze that falls upon it.”13 A pseudo-taxonomy of video game spaces follows, and Farocki is interested here in limits: the limits of the world, obviously, but also the invisible limits that stratify and demarcate the game into areas that are accessible and areas that are off-limits. Bodies meet impassible zones, their robotic walking-animations cycling aimlessly as they attempt to move through a face of rock or even into an area for which there is no visible protective wall. There are protected bodies and armored bodies, bodies encased by immaterial shields that repel all contact. Bodies find holes in the game fabric, too. In one game a player falls off the edge of the world, spinning into an empty black space “like an astronaut catapulted from his spaceship.”14 These themes continue to be explored in Parallel III, but from the side of the kino-eye, which attempts to penetrate the game world and finds it to be “nothing but surface…floating in emptiness.”15
Parallel IV, the final installment in the Parallel series, is Farocki’s most sustained and striking treatment of the embodiments that games make possible—the capacities of the intra-game body to affect and be affected. “The hero is thrown into his world,” the video begins. A man from Grand Theft Auto stands before us, breathing, heaving slightly, scratching his crotch. Much of this piece is about what Alexander Galloway has called the “ambience act,” one of a number of possible actions and animations performed by the game machine when no player input is present: swaying trees, passing cars and pedestrians, or the player-character’s fidgeting.16 The default state of Grand Theft Auto is ambience: when we give the machine nothing, we are, in other words, watching the game play itself as a kind of generative cinema. But Galloway also makes the point that this ambience is really only designed to coerce the player into action, marking the necessity of the operator-machine synthesis. Just as in Ahwesh’s video, in Parallel IV we encounter the rule of action, the imperative to participate, to carry out goal-directed behaviors. Against this, Farocki constructs a profound, oppositional, and often humorous choreography based on a generalized passivity, or at least on violent actions of non-action—similar to those of Lara/Ahwesh. Most of these actions are basically provocations, intended, presumably, to prolong the game’s algorithmic and autopoietic self-play. In Grand Theft Auto and related games, bodies are programmed such that their close proximity to the “hero’s” body registers as a threat, with graduated degrees of urgency. In other words, as the hero repeatedly “approaches other people,” they recoil with greater and greater shock, eventually bursting into screams. The hero runs into other bodies, sometimes quickly and aggressively and sometimes slowly and methodically, always generating one of a limited set of responses. He slides other bodies, bizarrely, across the ground. He stands for several minutes in front of another body, drawing a reaction. When he is attacked he rarely retaliates. The player-character also discovers bodies that he cannot penetrate, push, or damage—“they are like shadow people,” the narrator notes.17
In these typologies, the player-character’s body is, however, invariably male, and programmed to behave according to masculine action-genre tropes. Large, muscular, armed, and sometimes armored, Farocki’s player-characters make identification intensely problematic. Their movements, accumulating, produce the deeply uncomfortable affect of violation, a violation—inextricable as it is from gendered, sexualized violations of bodily space—primarily of the subject-object boundary as well as the subject-oriented logic of the cinematographic-photographic itself. The games that Farocki plays on and within are, no doubt, committed to something like a fascist imaginary, at the (literal) center of which is a hard, impenetrable body. This “soldier’s body” remakes bodihood itself into the integrity of a solid, discarding the shadowy domain of fluidity and flow. This is something like Luce Irigaray’s distinction: for the hero, or the soldier, “[i]t is the cohesion of a “body” (subject) that he is looking for, the solidity of a land, the foundation of a ground…All water must become a mirror, all seas, a glass.”18 Farocki’s project is of course not to unthinkingly follow the logic of this kind of body but to play with it and through it, and on some level to make it (in its violence) affecting and, simultaneously, ridiculous.
Farocki’s invocation of “shadow people”—negatives of the hardened player-soldier-body—brings us to our third and final work, Hito Steyerl’s video Factory of the Sun. The shadow metaphor and the shadow-body are quite explicitly operative here. In Plato’s self-enfolded hierarchy of mimetic representation, shadows of course comprise the lowest tier. And, as laid out in The Republic, the negative of the shadow, the sun or the light, serves as an analogue for the Good and the True: pure ideas which tenebrous materiality and human understanding alike cannot but approximate and merely “participate in.” Platonic heliocentrism or luminocentrism would remain foundational in Western epistemology, ontology, and natural science at least through the Enlightenment, whose light-worship valorized clarity or Aufklärung, the “light of reason.” Such illuministic metaphors come into play in a fascinating way in Factory of the Sun, which, like Parallel and She-Puppet, orchestrates a complicated meshwork of bodies in algorithmic universes.
Created in 2015 for Germany’s “Fabrik” Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Factory of the Sun is an irreverent video game pastiche: a scenario which centrally involves “laborers” dancing in a motion capture studio-cum-“factory,” their avatars’ bodies moving, in turn, within the frames of a first-person shooter interface, all the while generating, through some obscure process, a kind of extractable light-energy. Steyerl’s laborer-dancers are sheathed in shiny gold bodysuits, performing in a number of distinct spaces: a server farm, an oil rig, an abstract grid. There are other dancers performing via YouTube, in a paneled basement. Both groups of pseudo-live dancers are juxtaposed with computer-generated anime dancers, who function as additional avatars. The video’s vertiginous narrative and topological structures draw parodically on video game form: there are sections of “gameplay” interspersed with “cutscenes,” of a sort (a phenomenon to which I will return shortly). As the narrative progresses, dancing on some level becomes conflated with protest or strike: the protesting or striking body obliquely appears as a dancing body, moving in ways that are not evidently useful for the purposes of production or extraction.
There is nonetheless an occasional slippage into the “false dances” of military spectacle and industrial labor, and back again. Steyerl cuts occasionally to computer-generated animations of massive nationalistic marches, somewhat generic but distinctly reminiscent of fascist aesthetics. As we have seen, there seems to be always this kind of political ambivalence to choreography in video games (as, perhaps, in dance). In the typical video game, the illusory freedom to act and explore, often presented as a promise or as a media-utopia, is revealed to be obviously constrained and pre-programmed in a number of ways. Or, in the same games, the (military) discipline of the game and gamer alike can, through simple, ludic acts of non-action, be undone, and in the process can be shown to be entirely ludicrous. Steyerl’s video continues such demonstrations, while making the most explicit jump—of the three pieces selected here—to gamespace, or to the world as gamespace. The linkages between the game and the real are made parallel to linkages of game-show reality television with news broadcasting, with animation, with playthrough vids. “It is not a game, it is reality,” Steyerl’s narrators tell us, in voiceovers and title overlays.19
Warfare, surveillance, finance, and gaming are flattened into a single plane of reality upon which even death itself, as in She-Puppet, is only one of many inconsequential and repeating elements in a twisted multimedia play-work. With characteristic dark wit, Steyerl addresses in particular the very real unreality of drone killings. “I got killed twice in Kobani fighting with Kurdish forces against IS,” says one of the dancers, who goes by the name High Voltage. Another dancer, Liquid Easy, remembers being killed “fighting Deutsche Bank High Frequency Trade bots.”20 There are references to Ferguson, MO and to an NSA wiretapping station in Berlin, all woven into a doubled narrative concerning the various intra-game characters and avatars (as well as other ostensibly extra-game characters including the fictionalized author-narrator of the game, Julia, and her brother, a YouTube performer). A fake 24-hour news station frequently interrupts these story threads with “broadcasted” bulletins or cutscenes regarding various narrative events.
The cutscene is a convention of video game storytelling, and in Steyerl’s piece it points to the uncanny, liminal zone between cinema’s “passive” spectation and gaming’s “active” spectation. In gaming, cutscenes are cinematic animated sequences whose practical purpose is to move the narrative of a game along. They feature events involving the game’s characters, none of which events are generally modifiable by player input. The cutscene is therefore the point at which any subjective sensation of player autonomy, illusory or not, disappears entirely; the buttons on the controller no longer produce any effects other than simple unilinear video playback functions: pause, play, stop, fast forward (sometimes not even those). This interval of powerlessness is elaborated on in Factory of the Sun’s transmissions, visualizations, and meditations, disturbing the division between passivity and activity, and, perhaps, between choreography and dance. “I speak, you listen to me,” says a reporter in one such cutscene. “This is democracy. This is how it works.”21
As a final critical supplement, one might note that in its installation at the German Pavilion, Factory of the Sun was projected in a subterranean “black box” gallery lined with a luminescent aqua-blue grid designed to mimic the motion-capture grid depicted in the video. The space was filled with white plastic deck chairs. In this environment, viewers became self-consciously interpellated into the systems represented in the video, localizable on a measured, digital grid, coordinates implicitly calculable by the optical and informatic technics responsible for “motion capture.” Such installation choices, at this point quite familiar in contemporary (video-based) art, nevertheless serve in this instance to underscore how gamespace is not the space presented on the flat plane of the screen, but rather the globe as a surveyed and surveilled territory, encompassing the entirety of the social.
What is happening in these “dances,” in Factory of the Sun, as in She-Puppet and Parallel, is not simply a matter of increased media “interactivity” and “participation” afforded by games and by “new media” in general—indeed, the works often suggest that such themes are entirely chimerical. Rather, the dances are, as Farocki’s narrator says, ”reminiscent of a child who cuts open a doll to probe the mystery of representation”—that is to say, possibly naïve yet profound and ultimately resistant engagements with the structure and order not only of a medium but of the world-as-media, or media-as-world. It is by experimenting, sometimes crudely and sometimes irreverently, with the (virtual) body that Ahwesh, Farocki, and Steyerl expose certain illusions of autonomy native to algorithmic culture. Not only are these choreographies outstanding formal experiments with the inner logic of certain games and with the ontological basis of video games in general, but they are also—to return to McKenzie Wark’s identification of gamespace as the dominant space of contemporary neoliberal abstraction—critical and political counter-texts that challenge how the body is read and written today. The only way forward is through immanent play. As Wark puts it: “play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.”22
1Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, ed. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier (New York & Falmouth, UK: Sequence Press & Urbanomic, 2011), 456.
2See, for instance, Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010).
3McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 7.
4See Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991).
5Peggy Ahwesh, She-Puppet (Electronic Arts Intermix, 2001).
6See Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky, Lara Croft: Cyberheroine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
8A psychoanalytic syntax, borrowed from film theory, emerges almost automatically in this case. The Lacanian framework of imaginary illusion, the emergence of ego-ideal from the appearance of and identification with the mirror-image that is more powerful and more unified than my own fragmented, invisible body, explains the dynamic at work in the first-person/third-person action game—especially one, like Tomb Raider, that borrows so much from classical Hollywood cinema (as theorized by Laura Mulvey). But Ahwesh avoids such language entirely in She-Puppet, and there is certainly a question—which I will mostly bracket here—of whether or not it is useful for her/our purposes at all. Unlike the film theorists, Ahwesh is perhaps not interested in this particular critique of the patriarchal cinematographic apparatus; she is more interested in explicating what sort of body moves across this screen.
9Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 162.
11Alain Badiou, “Dance as a Metaphor for Thought,” Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 59.
12André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” Film Quarterly 13.4 (Summer 1960): 4-9.
13Harun Farocki, Parallel I-IV (Video Data Bank, 2012-14).
16Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 10.
17Farocki, Parallel I-IV.
18Luce Irigaray, The Irigaray Reader (London: Basil-Blackwell, 1991), 64.
19Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun (2015). Video installation.
22 Wark, 13.
Ahwesh, Peggy. She-Puppet. Electronic Arts Intermix, 2001.
Badiou, Alain. “Dance as a Metaphor for Thought.” In Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.
Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly 13.4 (Summer 1960): 4-9.
Deuber-Mankowsky, Astrid. Lara Croft: Cyberheroine. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Farocki, Harun. Parallel I-IV. Video Data Bank, 2012-14.
———. Ernste Spiele. Realeyz.tv, 2011.
Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Irigaray, Luce. The Irigaray Reader. London: Basil-Blackwell, 1991.
Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” In Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. New York & Falmouth, UK: Sequence Press & Urbanomic, 2011.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.
Steyerl, Hito. Factory of the Sun. 2015. Video installation.
Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.