I am not among the techno-utopians who see a bit of good in surrendering every aspect of human life to the soulless competencies of the computer. Especially so when it comes to the imagination. As it creeps into the imaginative realm, technology aims to substitute the imagination with something more definitive, more real—like information. Photography and cinema were two early iterations of the technological in the creative domain. But more extreme forms of hi-tech artistry are to be seen in our own age: specifically in the fields of modern computer games and virtual reality.
Like most kids of my generation, I developed a lot of my own sense of the world—of movement, of complexity, of delight and accomplishment—first through computer games. The astonishing thing was how easily a game like, say, Space Invaders or Pac-Man could draw you into its own abstract universe. In the age of the arcade, the ’90s that is, gaming wasn’t bogged down by the figurative and the representational. This was partly for obvious reasons: a lack of resources and engineering knowhow. Then, gradually, we began to witness a new trend in game design. The most popular games became those that most closely resembled reality. We began to favour games that gave us a simulacrum of how it felt to drive a particular car, shoot a particular gun, or even, as in the case of a series called Sims, live a particular life.
From this standpoint, the history of computer-game design presents itself as a series of lost opportunities. This was a form that had great potential. Not just for computer engineers or developers but for visual artists interested in mixed media. What actually happened, though, was that the gaming industry became a creative outpost of Hollywood, peddling conventional narratives and “cinematic” effects. Even today the discipline finds it impossible to free itself from, as it were, the chokehold of hyperrealism.
Recently, I visited the Museum of Computer Games in Berlin, hoping to find examples of game design that resembled some kind of high-risk artistic endeavour. An installation piece, titled Gamblers, by a German duo named Hennig and Greif, stood out in this regard. It comprises four computers hooked together in a game of electronic dice with each other, a game that continues, at least in theory, eternally. On the four CRT monitors, huddled around a tabletop LED screen, one could read the recurring series of comments and self-perpetuating commands: “Thrown dice and got 3 pits!… Next… Finished… Preparing… Damn! I was kicked!” This piece is from 2002, and it uses superannuated hardware to make a point about the future of computing and about machine sentience. This is what happens, according to the curator’s note, when humans do away with machines, as well as when machines emancipate themselves from their human masters.
Another independent game showcased here, an artwork in fact, works on the concept of switching perspectives. Designed by the New Zealand-based developer Julian Oliver, this “second-person shooter” allows you to play the game through your character’s viewpoint, but what you see on the screen is a visual feed from your antagonist’s perspective: a wonderful metaphor for the philosophical problem of extreme empathy. These are indeed original concepts, but they don’t quite pass muster as game art, which by definition has to be more immersive and interactive.
Suddenly the white smudges in the room changed to a bright red fog. Above and around me was the colour red. Sounds of percussion filled the air, and the vibrating sensor on my chest began to replicate my heartbeat.
A new kind of immersive art-gallery experience was up for grabs at Limits of Knowing, the title of an art show that recently opened at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau, one of the city’s main exhibition venues. So I instantly signed up. The points of intersection between art and technology are the main thematic concern of the artists exhibiting here. You can choose to watch a short film on surveillance and mind control at the show, through VR headsets. The 10-minute footage reminds you of the dystopian British TV series Black Mirror. But it isn’t just what you see in the film that reminds you of Black Mirror; it’s also the sight of these random people watching the film that does so. Imagine if you will: a group of people; faces covered by bulky VR contraptions; and heads constantly turning this way or that, the better to keep up with the “360-degree movie” playing on the screen.
But this degree of disorientation, that I felt while looking at the VR crowd, was nothing as compared to the 20 minutes or so I spent in the Haptic Field (V 2.0)—a strange and beautiful multisensory installation created by artists Chris Salter and Tez for Limits of Knowing. At the entrance, I was given a black overall jacket, installed with vibratory sensors and LED lights. I was also handed what looked like diving goggles. Electronic vibrators, each the size of a matchbox, were strapped to both my arms and legs, and one was tied around my chest. Then I was shown towards a dark room that I was meant to enter. “What am I supposed to do inside?” I asked the girl at the entrance. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “Just be! Follow your senses.”
Inside, I saw at some distance, through the partial vision of my goggles, smudges of white and yellow light floating in the air. I heard ambient sounds—basic strings, wild and natural. For some time, I stood absolutely still, trying to get my bearings. Then, I moved towards the light, with outstretched arms (though there was nothing whatsoever to touch). Suddenly the white smudges in the room changed to a bright red fog. Above and around me was the colour red. Sounds of percussion filled the air, and the vibrating sensor on my chest began to replicate my heartbeat. I walked blindly ahead in the red darkness. And…something snapped! It was like at the turn of one moment the colour and noise had all acquired sharp edges. White flashes of lightning all around, and sounds of heavy percussion, thunder. Now all the haptic sensors connected to my body were vibrating in sync with each other and at full frequency. I felt a tinge of unease, maybe even fear. But soon, all at once, the lights went green, the buzzing stopped, and in the layers of sounds I could hear the harmony of birdsong.
This, I thought, is what it must feel like to step inside one of those Expressionist landscapes by Emil Nolde. But above all, for me, Haptic Field (V 2.0) remains one of the great lessons of how advanced technology can be utilised in the way abstract painters used colour: not to enhance or augment reality, but to undermine it.