Conversations with Lana Polansky: Bodies and Living Art

(Please excuse any weird formatting, I’m posting this from an app while I move)

I’m finding out that I really enjoy exchanges with my friends and many of the people reading them have come up to me to say they are valuable contributions to conversations around games. So I couldn’t resist roping in Lana Polansky, a fellow games critic, to talk about new modes of approaching games. I remember seeing Lana creating a connection on Twitter between games and performance art that I’ve been stewing on lately, and decided to start our conversation asking to expand from there. Enjoy what follows, and definitely look up everything you’re unfamiliar with, all very interesting:

Lana:

You brought up my interest in the Fluxus movement previously but I’ve also been looking at the neo-concretists, the dadaists, some Boalian theatre, poetry especially in terms of performance, net art, video art…. The list is long, and not all of the philosophies necessarily always agree. But in all of these I detect a very important legacy of “play” as an intimate and affective act, a challenge to the supremacy of “authorship”, and a desire to make new technologies empathetic, or at least bridge a dialogue with older ones. It’s therefore strange to me, as you know, that videogames find themselves embedded in an “official history” as the sort of apotheosis of folk and tabletop games, but there isn’t much talk about this whole other history in literature and the fine arts of explicitly interactive, digital, highly playful art. Between the two of us I think we could have a lot to discuss on the role of erotics in play, and in the initiation of artistic dialogue between people and mediated by the textures of objects, environments, social “protocols”, and so on.

I was intrigued by your pieces on expressive games and the museum space and the potential value of “digital patina.” Something that’s often bothered me, particularly as it relates to experimental games and academic art spaces, is this sort of kneejerk insecurity in a lot of academic game spaces to push toward a certain intellectualized idea of “game” which would give the medium a sort of gestalt legitimacy. The other side, which you noted, is the tendency for “installation” game pieces to be weirdly self-deprecating. On the other hand, throughout the 20th century there was a concerted, very serious effort put toward sussing out the “playfulness” of other art forms–hypertext poetry, for example–as a way to integrate the experience of the “spectator” in the piece itself, and therefore make that piece transformative and personal and permanent. There’s a note in the scattershot Fluxus manifesto that calls for the end of “dead art”–art which hangs idle in a museum or on someone’s mantle and where the supremacy of the Artist is left intact. Fluxus artists were really preoccupied with the transient, immediate and reproductive nature of new technologies and treated them as a kind of kaleidoscope through which to view identity and the future of human communications. This might seem kind of at odds with the idea of “digital patina”, which is this illusion of permanence, but from your piece I got the sense that it’s gesturing less toward an affixed, everlasting, idle thing and more toward an influential and dynamic relationship between the object and the individual. 

Experiments of this kind, playing with video technology and communications and even just a rejuvenation of “language” as a tool have been more encouraged outside of games, it seems, than within them. Something therefore seems off. I’ve complained quite a lot about the uneasy relationship between the academic and commercial sides of games, at least at their most public-facing: academia seems to want to see itself reflected in commercial structures and the industry seems to have no trouble cherry-picking whatever scholarship it thinks will be profitable. This is apparent in the way incubator grants are doled out (at least in my country) to aspiring game-makers. This is apparent in the way lab funding works. This is apparent in the fact that most of “academia’s” most recognizable figures happen to have been plucked out of the industry. To make a long story short, the kinds of experimentation I’d really like to see is not very well supported, and the people doing that kind of work find themselves feeling invisiblized and degraded, as you well know. So I find myself reaching out to other art forms and legacies for inspiration. But I don’t really lament this. I think it needs to happen to grow not just games but “play” as an artistic ecosystem. 

I realize I’ve rambled here and I hope that this is at least somewhat coherent but I think my basic points are that games have a much stronger legacy in other participatory and digital art forms than one would initially think, and that ultimately this means there’s a lot more fertile ground to talk about the questions of play, intimacy, erotics, materiality, authorship, interactivity, and all those other facets of games which feel kind of mystified in the general discourse about them. It also means we can tie back games to a whole network of artistic creation, and this can maybe help us to avoid exceptionalizing them and think of them as merely another context for play and these other principles to emerge. I think that can help us understand what games are, what “play” is. 

I know you’re more interested in the act of “play” as it intersects with other kinds of expressions besides games, so perhaps we can stick to discussing this history of “play” as it occurs in these other movements as a distinct question, and all that that implies about what play can do. But perhaps we can also use this as an opportunity to discuss steps that can be made to further reach out to those art spaces where play is happening, and what we can take with us from games as we do so?

Mattie:

I’m super excited to have this conversation with you because you have knowledge in an area I want to learn more about, stuff I’ve been trying to express with the background I have but coming up short outside of sharing some lived experience. I’m hoping to study more about performance art and acquaint myself with various traditions and groups and start trying to create work that shows a synthesis of games and other stuff. Speaking to what you’re describing with play coming out of other fields as sensual, or at least explicitly engaging with erotics, I’ve spent some time really trying to figure out my relationship with games. Like, beyond the cultural stuff, the things and craft itself. I remember just gazing at nothing in particular and just saying “alienated.” I think I felt especially alienated from my body. There’s many layers to it, but I’m hyper-aware of people touching me, or not touching me really, and I’ve become more fully aware that as I present a certain way identity politics-wise and also am constructed into a character through social media, people have stopped touching me in positive ways or my body overall feels isolated from experience. Eventually something like that becomes dull noise in the background of life, but thinking about games brings that feeling back to the front sometimes. Except for rare instances, these experiences are startlingly unintimate, a distance I feel like you’re speaking to when you talk about an intellectualized game and dead art. When I was in a sort of mock debate panel with some other designers, I likened the play experience to something living and the continued efforts of things like games-specific formalism is like dissecting a living thing and wondering why it won’t move anymore after you put it up in a glass case. As an attempt to counteract this tendency, I definitely want to discuss and emphasize erotics more. I’m hoping to also explore erotic, in many senses of that word, art as my method of coping with being in the field I’m in, and also for general pertinent social issues.

Interesting thinking about play challenging authorship. It seems like conventional design has some sort of lead on that, or at least, they stress player-centric design and sway between (their own definitions and values of) games and toys to be used. But I dunno, that doesn’t seem right. I agree with the general idea that conventional games tend to be like work, that player-centricity is more of a personally crafted assembly line and can’t really challenge the authorship of the piece on any level. Until recently, if yet, the idea of ‘play’ has been treated with a bit of scorn, so when things become too free-form, or too at the whims of the player, or there isn’t enough ‘designer presence,’ it’s meaningless or trite or illegible. I feel like my thoughts around ‘death of the player’ is reaching for this freeing of the spectator, or at least breaking down the binary between artist and observer. I try to make the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience, though I don’t have a great many words for this yet. It sprung from my small experiments with food and scent, that no matter what, I have no idea what they are literally feeling since bodies are so different and there’s such tightly woven personal landscapes around those senses, that I can only hope to have any sort of controlled experience if I was in the current culinary industry with my own restaurant following the rules of that culture which I find appallingly inaccessible, among other things. Which is why the art that you’re referencing and the kind I’m starting to get to know seem so appealing, because the aim to break down the line between art and life. I’m currently reading up on Happenings, in particular Allan Kaprow’s “Assemblages, Environments, & Happenings,” and while some things were definitely for that time and place in the 60s, I find the general idea of play and life being one and the same, just at different angles, pretty freeing. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that performance art is the misfit discipline since the artists who end up there tend to visit because they were frustrated by the constraints of their home disciplines. So at least there’s precedent for our actions?

I agree that there is nothing to lament about reaching outside of games for the experimental and critical ecosystem that we need in order to progress. This is what I concluded when I finally figured out what it meant when I said “I’m leaving games.” For years I knocked my head against various institutions and nothing budged, and eventually when I stopped, let the concussion subside, I realized that even if I did get in, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that actually makes me feel good. I’m happy to leave the commercial games space as it is and try to find something more amendable to me and my ideas, though, I don’t want to give up on play and the people hard at work interrogating and living it. Like you’re getting to, I’ve found myself tasked with figuring out how to appeal to other fields as someone ‘from games’ and what that really means, especially since many see ‘from games’ as attached to the commercial culture of the medium. I do find myself aching for a legacy, I like that you used that word. I guess I got wrapped up in iconoclasm that I didn’t realize why I left lost and hopeless was because I didn’t think there were people who understand where my sensibilities lied, and coming upon the kind of art we’re starting to discuss has made me feel a little better. I’m a little anxious because a lot of the thoughts I have suddenly feel well-trodden but I wonder if our language or focus on games have made us more attuned to the dynamic nature of play and how play environments can be purposefully created. Also, when I think of ‘play,’ I try to think of many instances in which it is used, so when I came to games, the first instance of play that came to my mind was gender play, or playing with gender, and in a similar way, the ‘play’ involved with managing sexual identities. I always thought it curious, especially when we are constantly using the word ‘systemic,’ that something like gender itself wasn’t considered for a play environment, because people are literally playing with gender 24/7, among other things. Also with queerness, which has a lot of performative wordage around it from queer of color critique like by José Esteban Muñoz. But I’ve come to find that even non-conventional designers don’t think of this because there’s this sentiment that play is always voluntary and has no real consequences in your life. And it’s from the angle of upending that assumption that I feel like our particular segue might lie, giving interactions erotics and life, or at least emphasizing that.

Lana:

There are so many directions my mind wants to go in after reading this, but one thing I think I can confirm is that there is a precedent for those of us who found performance art after feeling dissatisfied with our own respective fields. For myself, I started with literature and, having been moved by the expressive/affective potential in games, got sort of seduced into that world. But obviously I’ve been feeling something is missing, and like you I’ve made myself concussive trying to fill one conceptual lacuna after another, and to modest avail. 

It’s become so important to me to look elsewhere for the same kind of inspiration, particularly in terms of looking at how performance, participation and play (if I were writing a Gama development post I might call them the “3 Ps”) have been used in art to suggest more fundamental truths. Recently I’ve gone back a bit to my literary roots and have found some profound inspiration in looking at poetry–particularly poetry which is meant to be performed–and I can go into more detail on that if you want. But if we’re going to focus our attention on avant-garde participatory and installation artists and what that means for us in our respective efforts, then I think there definitely is more for us there than in any of the “traditional” channels of games culture. (It feels strange to say that, considering the, again, long legacy of these other art forms as compared to virtual games. But I guess what we’re really discussing here isn’t tradition so much as a weakening purity derived from insularity.) 

Like you, I’m coming to this world of participatory art from at least two degrees of separation. I majored in liberal and literary arts but never fine arts (naturally…) and immediately moved to games; my interest in these types of art grew out of an appetite to see works which grapple with ideas of the body, systems, performativity, mutual creation and ownership and other existential questions. Of course games really helped me refine some of the questions around these desires and in some fleeting or obscure areas of game development I’ve found works which speak to them (and I believe in doing more to support such works!). But I needed things which addressed those concerns more directly, from which I could learn more about creative participation as a sort of living metaphor. When you talk about “the distinction between making an experience and creating the ability to experience”, I think of the latter as represented more in things like Kate Gilmore’s Through the Claw (2011). In short, Gilmore invited women into the very sterile-looking Pace Gallery to rub brown clay all over the floor and walls. Of course, in these “living” pieces there is a sense of a liminal space, and so there’s still this very particular distinction being made between “art” and “life” in the sense that “art” is this conscious, designed moment which is sort of a dialogue, or at least a statement. It’s this attempt to make some sense out of the chaos of life and at least in that respect I have some sympathy for a distinction to be made. But I think it’s worth keeping in mind that life is full of little distinctions, little moments which we compartmentalize according to behaviour or presentation, in terms of what’s appropriate or expected for the situation. And sometimes our needs to exist within certain moments don’t coincide with expectations, and the artificiality of social protocol becomes obvious and even threatening, especially, as you’ve pointed to in your email, for the individual who doesn’t fit inside the presumed “magic circle.” 

I admit I can only know so much of the alienation you describe, but I definitely understand what you mean when you say that videogames in particular have, for all our touting of their potential for “empathy”, not lived up to the kinds of intimacy and sensuality I think we both long for in our art. (Although as an exception to the problem of game designers not doing much to account for “play” in everyday life, I’m pretty impressed with how Squinky is able to make play out of “mundane” experiences, and to make those things feel alive and rich with nuance and meaning, even with fairly simple framing and ludic devices.) So, I definitely get where you’re coming from when it comes to intimacy and at least understanding, if not empathy, from play experiences–where we’re creating the conditions for such a dialogue to emerge rather than enforcing a strict and static authorship. I suppose it’s not so much about controlling the subjective experience as much as guiding it, where meaning is something that manifests as a confluence of different people acting together, individually but under certain simple constraints. I don’t know if doing this can fully break down the barrier between “play” which is consciously done for expressivity’s sake and “life”, but it at least can point to how we “play” in our everyday lives as a way to construct a sense of ourselves and others, as actors working within the constraints of social, political and economic systems. And it can provide the avenue for change. 

And there is so much precedent for this! I think much of the theorizing done by “culture industry” philosophers (Benjamin, Adorno) speaks to some of that relationship, especially when it comes to the idea of art as reproducible, and therefore no longer “dead”–and what that may imply! But I’m torn here: because reproducibility under capitalism doesn’t really create those “living metaphors” as much as it just kind of creates a hyperrealism where idealized versions of the player’s ego are sold back to them as commodities by appealing to the id–that personally crafted assembly line you mentioned. It’s what I was trying to get to in my essay “FUCK THE PLAYER“: I think player-centric design is fundamentally a lie, and it’s one that “living art” might be able to reconstruct and therefore make glaringly obvious. 

I feel as though “living art” (I think I’m going to keep that as my preferred umbrella term from now on, although I guess it’s sort of indirectly pejorative of other art forms. Oh well.) is forced to contend with the living world, if only because it can only exist in the living world. It’s for this reason that the Situationists moved on from just challenging artistic creation to more direct political activism in the late ’60s, trying to re-imagine a (largely Marxist) alterity through creative, deeply involved, participatory re-imagining of daily life. Actually–while we’re here, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem wrote a treatise called “The Revolution of Everyday Life”, published in 1967, which may be relevant to your interests. This is from the first chapter: 

“Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need which everyone feels to walk in step with the march of history. But there are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies. Even a philosopher cannot ignore it, for all his self-contempt; and he learns this self-contempt from his consolation, philosophy. After somersaulting onto his own shoulders to shout his message to the world from a greater height, the philosopher finishes by seeing the world inside out; and everything in it goes askew, upside down, to persuade him that he is standing upright. But he cannot escape his own delirium; and refusing to admit it simply makes it more uncomfortable.”

I might replace the word “philosopher” with “formalist”, but I do want to clarify that I’m not against conceptualizing about form as such. I’m guilty of it myself. But what I do want to avoid is a certain unnecessary rigidity which serves less the form and more the people making grand assertions about the form’s legitimacy. But I digress…

It’s not just the Frankfurt scholars or the Situationists. One of the leading figures of the Fluxus movement, Joseph Beuys, was also invested in the transformative potential of living art. A short bio on Beuys describes his work as “process-oriented, or time-based ‘action’ art, the performance of which suggested how art may exercise a healing effect (on both the artist and the audience) when it takes up psychological, social, and/or political subjects.” But perhaps most salient to us is Beuys’s concept of the “social sculpture”, in which all of life itself provided the material for art to emerge. For Beuys, this famously took the form of a “Documenta” piece in which he placed on the ground a bunch of basalt stones in the shape of an arrow pointing toward an oak tree in Kassel, Germany in 1982. His stipulation was that for every oak tree planted there, a stone would be removed, and many lived up to the promise: between ’82 and ’87 over 7,000 oak trees were planted in Kassel.

There are still so many more examples of this kind of living art having subtle, but nonetheless very real impacts on not just their creators and subjects but on society and the environment. It’s exciting to me because it means that this stuff isn’t just stuffy and sterile and meant to be behind glass in a museum. It’s less of an autopsy and more like trying to view a subatomic particle: just talking about it makes it change.

I think of hip hop. I think of the punk movement. I think of cyber-revolutionaries, for better or worse. And maybe I’m just being sentimental but I think virtual games still have this potential to treat play-life matters in more enriched and enriching ways, if only that were so valued. But I’ve gone on longer than I had meant to. 

But you’re definitely right when you say there is a precedent. There is, there is, there is. 

Thanks for reading! Please check out Lana’s work at Sufficiently Human and support her on Patreon!

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