NEW YORK — People still may debate whether video games are art, but on Thursday, a few hundred artists, reporters and other curious folk gathered in Manhattan's Chelsea district to look at what happens when people try to turn a video game into art.
Set up in three rooms of the Chelsea Art Museum, an exhibition called "The Sims: In the Hands of Artists" featured more than 55 works by students from Parsons the New School for Design. There were "Sims" sculptures and "Sims" quilts, fictional expansion packs to the game and fictional reality shows about it. A number of works included a carefully placed plumb-bob, that green crystal that hovers over whichever character a player controls in the game. One work apparently consisted of just the plumb-bob, projected onto a blank patch of wall, waiting for someone to stand under it. Many did.
It was not the presence of so much art that was making attendees' faces red and sweaty but the failure of air conditioning in two of three rooms, mixed with the press of bodies in the space where giant checks were unfurled for five artists and their craft. Had the Chelsea Art Museum been in "The Sims," a couple of the comfort meters may have been dipping red. But who wouldn't suffer for their video game art?
Ducking into a cooler room, the program's organizer, Parsons faculty member Sven Travis, explained that the affair began at the behest of "Sims" publisher EA. "They were interested in what students at a great art school would do with 'The Sims,' " he said. EA was interested in machinima, the already widely practiced technique of taking games like "The Sims" and staging and recording animated movies in them. The Parsons faculty liked the suggestion but felt that a focus on machinima would be too narrow and unsurprising. "We said, 'For the students to do it right, we would have to do it with no rules.' "
"No rules " gets you an exhibition of work unusual enough that, upon exiting from the Chelsea Art Museum's ground-floor exhibition called "Dangerous Beauty" — a floor installation made of bathroom scales, a straitjacket made of long acrylic fingernails — doesn't quite shock.
The exhibit featured a medley of approaches. Some involved machinima, like the faux-reality show "City Swap" that depicted what happens when a Sim and a real person switch homes.
Four students collaborated on "The Sims 2: The Ten Plagues Expansion Pack," which combined machinima with pages from the Bible book Exodus. A thick hardcover book (not the Bible) was opened to two pages recounting scripture verses of the 10 plagues set upon Egypt in the book of Exodus. Pressing a button next to a verse spawned that plague on a TV monitor. The plague, be it lice or locusts or other dreadful things, descended on "Sims" characters.
Another machinima piece called "Space Elevator" involved projections onto big screens hanging from the ceiling in the middle of one of the museum's rooms. Onto one side of the hangings were projected "Sims" characters. Onto the other were projected things such as jellyfish to indicate the mood of the character.
Behind a curtain in one corner stood "Mill of the Mind," an interactive homage to the landmark Milgram experiments conducted in the 1960s and '70s. In the real experiments people who thought they were being enlisted to apply electric shocks to penalize supposed test subjects of some other study were actually themselves being tested to see how much shock they would be willing to deliver. The experiment proved that many people will obey the authority telling them to administer the shock even when the person being shocked is screaming for them to stop. In the "Sims" art version, people can follow audio directions that ask them to press a sequence of buttons to shock a "Sims" character who stands waiting on a TV screen. One of the artists told GameFile that some people rake their hands right across the buttons. They just zap away. He wants to install a counting device to tabulate how people interact with it.
Some of the student artists who opted for something other than machinima created work that might not have evidently been based on "The Sims." A little fuzzy mouse doll was a send-up of the idea of "Sims" pets.
Some paintings, including prize-winner "Accessorizing," may not have appeared to be "Sims"-related at first glance. That painting featured a gray figure that instead of a head had a square plot of land topped by a house, a garage, a tree and a giraffe. The figure's hands reached up to straighten the tree and place a satellite dish atop the garage. In a description distributed by Parsons, painter Jessi Kempin wrote: "I am fascinated by the concept of one's personality being extended and even overwhelmed by the material possessions one accumulates. 'The Sims' embraces and encourages this idea, allowing you to make yourself your most perfect world. In my piece, I have chosen to examine, explode and exaggerate this concept — what happens when 'The Sims' is the only reality you care to accessorize?"
The most valuable giant check handed out was for $5,000. It went to artist Glendon Jones, who built an old-fashion zoetrope out of stills from "The Sims." Two cylinders with slits set atop some gears and a turn-crank made it the least "Sims"-looking object on exhibit. But as with any zoetrope, the point was to look closely. By turning the crank and squinting through the slats of the zoetrope, a viewer could watch the stills spin into motion as a story of "Sims" life turned to one of "Sims" death.
None of the 55-plus art exhibits involved just turning "The Sims" on and letting it run in a corner. Perhaps that is commentary that the game is not art — or commentary that the exhibit's backers wouldn't pay for that kind of expression. Eager to do more, Travis declared the exhibit, minus heat problems, a success: "So often students just do what is required. It's been just great to see them do something special."
The exhibit will run through May 12. For more information click here.
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