Friday, May 2, 2008

Full transcript: Eddo Stern interview


Last month, I had the opportunity to interview American artist Eddo Stern, who was showing some of his video-game-inspired work in Toronto, for the National Post. Stern had lots of interesting topics to discuss--masculinity on the web, the need for slowness in the gaming world, the continuing hold of Tolkein on the Internet age, and the ways video games could be one day more poetic and philosophical being just a few--which weren't all able to make it into the article. So after making a few changes to this blog, I'm happy to finally be able to post the full transcript of our chat. If you like what you read, get a moving--his show closes tomorrow at Interaccess in Toronto.

LS: So, you’ve been working for a long time with ideas of physical realities versus electronic realities. How did you get going down that path?

ES: Uh…. Hm. [laughs] A good question. I think I can give a general answer.

I think it maybe has to do with my background a little bit. I’m from Israel originally. And I have played a lot of games my whole life and I’ve been working with computers from a very early age. But I think maybe this idea of being from Israel, this idea of being in a politically intense situation for a lot of my life, is also relevant.

I think the idea of playing games is often seen as a real, you know, somewhat problematic escape, an immersion into fantasy and things that are so detached from reality. So I think that that contrast probably carried with me for a long time.

It’s channeled into, I think, a gaming experience more grounded in reality [for me]. More politically charged or more intense emotionally or more involving a wider range of emotions. And then that kind of spills into the physical stuff, mostly as a reaction to game violence being surrounded by more real violence. That abstraction of violence again creates a very strange schism, when you’re surrounded by real violence to be consuming virtual violence.

So that was one of the early impetus to make a piece like Tekken Torture Tournament. That’s the most literal extension of a game that has real violence instead of virtual violence.

LS: And that’s where people would actually shock each other when they hit each other onscreen.

ES: Yes.

LS: Wow. And in these works here [in Toronto], those ideas are kind of funneled down into very specific kinds of scenarios. So in your last Toronto show, there was war-type imagery and Osama bin Laden made some appearances in a digital format. This time it’s more fantasy-oriented, with Chuck Norris and Steven Segal, and dragons and lions with people in their butts and stuff like that. So I’m wondering where those specific scenarios came from for you.

ES: Uh, just to go through them, you mean, specifically?

LS: Yeah.

ES: I think first I should say in general the way I see the piece is as a dynamic dialogue between the shadow puppets and the video pieces. One of which isn’t here. So there are already connections within the piece.

Just in general, I’m sort of interested in these male role models. And the macho men and how men relate to them is always interesting to me, right? The fact that teenage boys put up posters of half-dressed men is a weird thing, like Chuck Norris without his shirt on, or Bruce Lee without his shirt. So the strange sort pseudo-sexual relationship between masculinity and these macho characters, that I don’t think women find very attractive. So there’s a strange effect I think.

So one of the interesting aspects of gaming culture I wanted to touch on with this show is masculinity and how it’s processed in a digital world. What does it mean to be macho when you’re sitting in front of your computer, basically some slob eating Doritos, but role-playing some warrior acting tough? That’s one slice of it.

The video piece in there is something that I stumbled upon that to me is just a wonderful story arc. And the shadow pieces that in a way relate to that are the Chuck Norris one and the Steven Segal one. They’re these macho guys but they also have all these complicating factors. Like Steven Segal is a Buddhist, he’s supposed to be a pacifist, he’s into Tibet activism, but all his movies are about beating the shit out of people, and not white people at that. It’s very bizarre. I kind of find him to be you know this perfect metaphor for America. [Laughs]

And then Chuck Norris, I put him in the same category as a macho-men role, whatever those guys are, action heroes, body builders, martial artists turned into movie stars. He’s very, very popular on the Internet as the butt of all jokes in a way. I think he really embodies triangulation of cultures that people who are part of Internet cultures really look down upon. He’s country, he’s religious, he’s, you know, from Texas, he has a mustache, he has chest hair, he’s a 70s retro icon, he’s seen as politically regressive, he’s a very right-wing religious guy. So he’s become a parody. And in World of Warcraft, every three minutes there will be a comment about Chuck Norris as this bonding joke. So that piece, which basically has a naked night elf, Chuck Norris and a dragon, is a piece that is basically World of Warcraft reduced to three primary elements: the dragon, Chuck Norris, and a naked female elf who is taking care of him while he’s killing the dragon. So that’s those two pieces.

The other two pieces in this particular show are missing their video counterparts, because this is a smaller version of a bigger show, which had nine pieces in it. But I can tell you the references.

So the piece with the hydra is inspired by a news item from a few years back when Saddam Hussein’s palace was ransacked. And they found this love den, Saddam’s love den. And there were a few photos that were released of the art that he had in there. It was basically a collection of fantasy art, oil paintings of men slaying monsters. But what’s interesting about his particular collection is all the men were you know, Middle Eastern looking, with dark skin and mustaches, slaying dragons and crocodiles. And they’re all made by this painter in Minnesota and he made them for a lot of money.

So that to me was totally and completely bizarre, this sudden connection of fantasy art and love den and Saddam, so that piece is kind of inspired by that. It’s a little redo of St. George and the dragon but the character kind of looks like Saddam. It looks like a Japanese scene with a little bit of the three-headed monster, the crouching character. So it’s a triangulation again of a Western icon, this news event and Japanese monster movies. So it’s hard, a little bit, to pin down rationally what it is.

And the other piece with the hydras is another triangulation of two imageries. One is Little Hercules and the Snakes, a famous sculpture of Hercules as a baby. So it’s a baby Hercules holding two snakes in his hands. And it’s funny… well it’s too much information, but there’s also this superhero character who’s kind of a young version of a Chuck Norris, called Little Hercules. Do you know about him?

LS: Oh no, no I don’t.

ES: He’s this little boy. He was 8 when they started him out as a bodybuilder.

LS: Oh my god.

ES: Yeah, very perverse. He’s from Eastern Europe and his parents are building him up as an actor. Now he has a movie coming out.

LS: Really, wow.

ES: Yeah, it’s an action movie. And of course he plays Hercules. So he was already a character I was interested in working with. So he kind of ended up mashed up with a Narnia scene; you have the half-lion half-boy fighting the two evil snakes.

And there’s a video piece that goes with that. It’s a conversation that a teenage boy is having with the Internet community on a Christian gaming forum about his father not allowing him to play, to engage in fantasy gaming, because it’s in conflict with Christianity. And it’s very interesting how you see him and these different mythologies. It almost becomes absurd, the rationale of religion against the rationale of magic as evil. So you know, there’s a few threads there.

LS: Yeah, that’s crazy. Thanks for explaining that because these have so many influences to them. And I know people are going to wonder… the video piece which is a transcription of a posting on an EverQuest video game site which you call the Best Flame War Ever… people are probably wondering, well how did he come across this, and why is it the best flame war ever?

ES: Well I do play those games and I read the boards obsessively. And I often get a kick out of how intense these arguments become about complete minutiae. Especially ones where people are arguing about mathematics and trying to figure out how the game works. Those were like my evening reading for a few years, just reading through hundreds and hundreds of posts. And I stumbled upon this particular flame war, which really struck me as a gem. I kind of had that epiphany that I think documentary filmmakers have when they just get an amazing scene captured on camera. So should I explain what happens in brief?

LS: Sure. I did see it, but that would be great.

ES: What I think is amazing about it is to me it’s a perfect narrative structure for the battle over masculinity and what that means today. You have this older character, this soldier, who probably believes in honour, you can tell, and respect but also kind of hard-coated idea of honour and valour. And you know he’s in his 40s at least and plays these games as this dark knight. That’s the character both [correspondents] play is shadow knights.

LS: Oh.

ES: And now he’s kind of an innocent when he first starts. He’s like, “How does this work, I don’t understand, help me out young guys, you guys are so much quicker.”

And this kid just ridicules him and is like “you’re an idiot, you’re a noob,” and he just goes at him and insults him and eventually challenges, and tells him “If you were in front of me I’d kick your ass.”

LS: Right.

ES: And that’s when all the vibe is just “Okay you’ve offended my honour, I challenge you to an honourable duel, basically. I’ll fly down to where you live, we’ll meet halfway maybe and we’ll put on gloves and beat the hell out of each other like real men. And then we’ll go back to our computers.” And it was just this moment, you know.

Once he poses that challenge, the other guy disappears. Rexz, rexz [the second correspondent] just disappears. A few other people chime in. He gets a little bit melancholy. And then he starts talking about his dead friends who have died in Iraq. And for me the piece just has as this piece of writing, this arc, this pathos that yeah, is just a find. So it was just this great source material.

LS: And it has this really unexpected turn.

ES: Yeah, and I’ve dug up about four other amazing posts, but that one I think is perfect.

LS: Yeah, it’s amazing. I really enjoyed it. And all of these works have this theme of the medieval and the magical. Why do you think in this day and age, especially in the technology world, where you think it’d be like “Let’s go all futuristic and be like robots,” why do you think it continues to have such a hold?

ES: I think there’s two main reasons why.

One is that I think magic itself functions as a perfect metaphor for technology and it allows the suspension of disbelief.

So look at it like this: Basically, you know, there’s all this high-tech stuff available. 3-D, networked communication, the ability to move through data, teleport, speed up time, change scale, become reborn when you die. It’s all data, it’s all these possibilities. And for games to work on some extent, a lot of games are based on suspension of disbelief, like film. You don’t want to see the apparatus, you want to believe that you’re doing all this stuff without thinking about the machine.

So magic is perfect. When a world allows for magic it becomes a perfect metaphor for the technology. So with a little bit of computer code, oh let’s revive that character. Start it at scratch. Well, you don’t what to know that the computer’s doing that. It’s gonna ruin the structure. So let’s say oh, it’s a magical spell called reincarnation. Oh, let’s say we want some character to become really gigantic. That’s one of the powers the computer can allow. Well, let’s make it magic. You know you don’t want to walk a mile from here across the virtual world, you want to teleport. Since we want speed and that’s what the computer allows, all this. Well, let’s use a magic spell. So magic becomes a cloak over the technology to allow it to do all these things.

I think that’s the key to why there’s so many games that are super high-tech that use magic as an overarching structure. It’s a narrative shell for all this overarching stuff. Whereas sci-fi could do that too, but you know it’s “hit warp” and that’s what happens. But that’s so close to technology already that it will remind you there’s a computer there and it’s a machine.

That’s one side. The other side is more sociological. And potentially localized and has to do I think with a postcolonial yearning for history and this sense that if you look at American history it ends at some point and it becomes Great Britain’s or Native Americans’. And so substituting that for this fantastical world which is drawn originally from British history but completely fantasy based is almost a way of owning this artificial history, I think.

Then there’s other more, again, general things that have to do with anxiety and agency and the feeling of this world is so complex, how does the individual have agency? So you reduce it to these very simple scenarios where one character has a lot of power. They gradually grow from small origins and the medieval sort of arc of small town, you know, and a young farmboy becomes a squire and then a knight and then goes on the big quest in a way.

And there’s these other things like honour, people had this idea that honour was somehow more meaningful in the old days. This is I think more of a general feeling. Or a misconception that something in the olden days… it’s nostalgia for something you don’t even know what it was for. So it fits that space perfectly because people can’t say, “Hey, you know in the Dark Ages that’s not how it was. Folks were getting their heads chopped off and rich people ruled the world just like now and warmongers too.” But the fact that it’s a fantasy history, I think, allows a projection of nostalgia onto the space that can never be rejected. You can never reject it historically that it wasn’t like that.

So, those are a few of the answers. They’re very different, but I think it took a few reasons, I think it’s because there’s a convergence of reasons, that’s why it’s so dominant, really. Like talk about adventure games now in computers, they’re 95% fantasy based. And to me that’s mind-boggling. That’s why I’m fascinated by it as well. Because it’s so ubiquitous. There’s hardly any other versions. There’s an occasional attempt, like “Let’s do a western game, or let’s do a Roman game, oh let’s do a pirates game,” but those are all flash in the pan. The Tolkein-based medieval mishmash is the thing and it holds.

LS: That’s crazy, yeah. And you know this because you’ve played thousands and thousands of hours of video games yourself, right?

ES: I have.

LS: And do you have any personal favourites? How much do you play nowadays?

ES: Well, I teach game design now, so I do luckily have a justification for playing games. And I design games too so it is a lot of research. I do think World of Warcraft is a great game. I think what’s interesting about it… well, there’s a few things that are interesting. One thing is that it’s a fantasy genre game that has really broken the fourth wall, so it kind of fits into my interest of reality kind of squeaking into fantasy worlds. It’s a game that’s full of pop cultural references, from movies and television and technology. Paris Hilton is there, and Sid Vicious. And actors. And it’s full of this kind of, I’d guess you’d call it a postmodern structure. It’s full of seepage back to pop culture. And I think that’s one really interesting thing about it and that’s why it’s become so popular. So it’s no longer for dorks in a way. You know, it’s almost 11 million people. That’s a lot of people.

LS: That is a lot of people

ES: And it’s a much more diverse group. It’s also a game that’s taken a few genres of gaming and mashed them into one world. So it has a competitive gaming, player against player, fighting each other, almost a Counterstrike-like intensity to this singular-like narrative of kind of adventure game model, but then also strategy, groups playing against groups. So it’s a meta-genre game. So I think that’s an exciting game. Grand Theft Auto of course has changed gaming. And I play sports games on the Wii. I think Katamari Damasi is great.

LS: What’s that?

ES: It’s a Japanese game that is pretty big now in the West where you basically roll a ball and the world sticks to it. Those are some of the games I find interesting. So I think …. The gaming world has a long way to go, it needs more independent voices and it needs more diversity.

LS: I wanted to ask you… you’ve worked for a number of years trying to more fully integrate the body in gaming. And of late the Wii has emerged as a mainstream machine for doing that. What’s your rating of that? How do you feel it’s achieved that?

ES: Well, I think the Wii is a lot of fun. I think it’s completely opened up gaming to nongamers, to older gamers, younger gamers, to gender imbalances becoming more balanced because devices like the Wii are more casual, more easy.

I think my interest in using the body is quite different than the Wii in that I’m not so much just interested in the body as a sort of source for immediacy or pleasure or adrenaline or fun. I’m interested in also as a gateway to, how do you say, maybe less conscious emotions like fear or pain or endurance and anxiety. So using the body not just as an entertainment centre. You know games that might be porn games might be clearly body games. Or games that are torture games are about different connections between the body and the mind… I mean the Wii is not working in that area. It’s really working on the pleasure principle of simplicity and movement.

So that kind of darker side of the body is something I’m quite interested in. Mostly because I think that by combining those kinds of less conscious emotions, triggering emotions there’s a potential for gaming to allow it to get to other kinds of narratives. Like something scary. Most games are not that scary. Because the structure, the screen is small, there’s light in the room, you can always replay it, you can read about it on the Internet. But if your body is involved, let’s say you’re blindfolded, or let’s say there’s some real threat of being locked up in the room where you’re playing for 24 hours—that can be real fear.

And when people go to see a horror movie, sure they know they are going to get out after an hour and a half. But at least for that hour and a half, they’re pretty constrained to that space. They can leave, but there’s something holding this structure stable to allow for a scary movie. It’s dark, it’s claustrophobic, you know, you’re static, you’re watching someone else experience fear and you’re vicariously in it. And I think games need to go that way, I think they have the potential for not just being fun but for being more dramatic, more scary, more suspenseful, more about being more philosophical, more poetic.

Changing the speed of games is also something I’m interested in, slowing them down.

LS: Making them walk that mile.

ES: Yeah. I’m a big believer that a lot of games have been ruined by accelerating the game and if you study particular genres and actually survey players you’ll find that a lot of them will agree with this idea, that they actually enjoy the labour of walking, you know, four hours in the game to get somewhere very special, and that journey is something that became a memory, versus say now they say, oh let’s accelerate that to ten seconds.

That journey and that time to contemplate and reflect on the space you’re in used to be a great space for conversation, for reflection, for emotions to have a time to settle. Now it’s so fast you’re just reacting. And in EverQuest, which is a predecessor to World of Warcraft, that was one of the strengths of that game. After every encounter or battle players would have to rest and meditate and eat, sometimes up to ten minutes after each little fight to just wait for their energy to come back, basically to take a break and to rest. And that was a time when people would talk to each other. That was this space for “We did the fight, now let’s talk…. Oh, where are you, what are you doing, how is it?” And that was this great social space. And now in a game like Warcraft, it’s reduced to about 30 seconds and no one really talks during that time. And the relationships become much less key. So that’s one place where I think there are ways to change games to allow for more meaningful experiences.

LS: So we’re at the end of our time, but I just wanted to ask what direction you’re taking this in, then from here. But what are you working on now when you get back home?

ES: The next project I’m doing is a large outdoor sculpture. It’s basically a large interdimensional portal.

LS: Whoa.

ES: [Laughter.] So it’s about 20 feet high, a metal outdoor sculpture, so it really does work best at night. And it has two projections in the space of animated 3-D tunnels.

LS: And where is this going to be?

ES: San Jose, California. June to October. And it’s an enlargement of a smaller project I had built before. There’s a collection of animated tunnels that basically have been put on he web, and I’ve been collecting them for ten years now. I have about 50. And somehow it’s this ubiquitous iconography for moving into a virtual space or a different dimension, this animated 3-D tunnel you see in Dr Who and a lot of movies, sci-fi shows. So that kind of ubiquitous idea I’m somewhat parodying but also enhancing and amplifying to full scale. So if you drive down the highway you’ll see this portal on the hill.

And then I’m working on a new computer game that involves sensory deprivation and slowness and anxiety and fear. But it’s not really meant as a horror game sort of a slow suspense type game. It’s a long project I’m hoping to show this summer.

LS: Well, thanks for taking time to me. You’ve obviously got a lot going on, I really appreciate it.

For more information check out www.eddostern.com.

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Lee Gattenby said...

Wow, I just came across this. I am Lee Gattenby, the original poster in one of the transcripts. Amazing..