Conversations with Pippin Barr: Time and Performance

Some of you might be noticing that I have an ever-growing interest in performance art and how that intersects with play, a topic that I hope to be pursuing full-time come 2016. So I was excited when Pippin Barr wanted to trade words with me since his The Artist is Present and collaborations with Marina Abramović speak to rarely explored ideas in games. When throwing around ideas about how to approach time in games, Pippin brought up what is going on with ‘felt time,’ and this is how I responded:

Mattie:

I’m super intrigued to hear your thoughts on time and play in relationship to your work with Marina. This is mostly selfish, I’m planning on a more overt combining of play and performance art, so now I’m a sponge for everything performance touches so I can better understand that tradition and where it’s at now. And time is integral to a lot of the works I’m looking at, like the spontaneous and possibly life-long performances of Happenings. Just thinking about some of my more performative ideas, the feeling of time passing, either quickly or slowly, adds weight both to the artists and other participants, especially because many performances are unique and will only happen once. And embodiment! There’s another aspect to it that digital landscapes don’t, because you’re usually untouched by time and wear. Time is always marching on for us here and there is quiet idealism in digital games that promises being forever the same.

This reminds me of when I first started to exhibit Mainichi. People asked me how many playthroughs they needed to go through to play the game. I never knew how to answer this, because I didn’t make it loop forever for convenience. The game is implicitly telling you to always be playing it, and while I know no one is actually going to do that, I feel like that’s an aspect of this game as well. You can opt-out, or you can’t dedicate the time to really understand in this pre-packaged way social justice media is being controlled. This was the same with EAT, which goes on forever, and is a game no one will play because it would take too much time and effort. It’s probably too subtle, but there is an underlying aspect of my work that says people aren’t willing to spend the time to meet me where I’m at.

I guess I think of time in a couple of ways. It seems like where change of any sort happens, if we were to think about this in a dimensions sort of way, where everything is static without some relationship to time. Time shows cause and effect, it also presents the awareness that there was a before and there will be an after, so therefore now exists. I feel performance banks off this nowness, so that once you’re out of it, you contextualize what just happened within a before-you and after-you. Also, there’s a quality of endurance when it comes to time, like patience, suffering, and any sort of withstanding change also comes with time. Which is a strange counter thinking on it.

Taking all that, there’s definitely a relationship between games and performance with the through-line of time. Players are often cited as performers and artists embody play on some levels. I think it’s interesting that you’re focused on felt time and how that manifests, or doesn’t. Isn’t the whole idea of ‘flow’ supposed to suspend the feeling of time? Which is interesting when it comes to works, like The Artist is Present, that purposefully upset the idea of flow, or at least, how we are all trained to flow. What do you think?

Pippin:

Very interested to hear your move toward play/performance. I certainly don’t have a strong background in performance in the sense of actually ‘doing it’ or even reading a lot about it, but working with Marina certainly cemented thinking I’d been doing for a fair while about players (and computers!) as performers and the like. The feeling of time itself passing is so huge in her work, and in the work of other artists.

The other person who springs to mind in this world is Tehching Hsieh, who really takes long-durational performance to a whole other level. We actually planned to have a work by him in the Digital Marina Abramovic Institute (dMAI), Time Clock Piece, in which he punched a punch-card every hour on the hour for a year. It’s an unimaginable act of ‘time’ more than anything else, really, and I thought some of the tensions and relationships to games and digital experiences in general were pretty fascinating. In this case there was a sprite of Hsieh in the digital institute who would perform that action: coming out of a door, punching a card, and going back, every hour on the hour for a year. And naturally this raises questions about the digital Hsieh’s relationship to the work – after all, he’s just digital, he doesn’t care about how long the piece takes to perform, or even think about it at all. When he goes behind the door and it closes, he just stands there until the next hour, like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock. So the way that the digital version works is very interesting to me – in a sense it ‘trivialises’ the performance by making it ‘too easy’ when performed by a computer, but then in another sense it ‘perfects’ it, as the computer will never break from the rules as established, does not have a frail human body that can break down, or emotions that can erupt, etc. The computer strips away the human experience of time and place from the piece and so perhaps even makes the real performance shine more brightly, or in another way.

Your experience with Mainichi feels so typical of a particular kind of approach to game-playing, though it surprises me a bit that you’d get it with a more ‘alternative’ kind of game. I guess I don’t spend enough time around people actually playing games, as I vaguely assume people are used to ‘other’ sorts of games by now. I’ve been reading a bunch of classic game design texts lately, and one of the key features that so many of them exhibit is this strange anxiety that the player might not see everything before quitting. Raph Koster has it in his definition of a ‘good game’ for example as a game which “teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” The idea that a single playing might be just as powerful as the “gotta catch ‘em all” spirit of play is so very rare, for presumably obvious consumer-oriented reasons? And then as you say, we can have games that we ‘always play’ or that never end, and so on as well. There are so many other relationships that can exist between a game, a player, and time.

I’m a big fan of ‘the now’ anyway, and that kind of goes back to Marina’s work. Much of what she does seems to find ‘the now’ inside what we would probably ordinarily call boredom (or extreme endurance). Staring at a single colour for hours, counting rice and sesame for hours, simply sitting for hours, removing distractions, being here now.

Mattie:

My aim in venturing to performance is to bring a little more reality into play, or stress it. Much like how we’re saying games tend to erase or evade time, I want play that emphasizes real affect, puts cause and effect right there in front of you. A sort of counter to games as an escape, or the digital being unreal. Since play is so tangled in the digital for our field, I want to us to engage with bodies and actual material, to give more weight to action, choice, curiosity, exploration. I don’t have a strong background either, I’m hoping my move to New York will get me exposed to a lot of ideas past the stuff I’ve kept in my head for a while. I guess that’s how I relate to time in a design-sense, the remains of things that affected us. Because that’s all the evidence we really have of time really, that something has changed, right? In a way, that’s how we know we affect things, by spending time with them.

There is a ‘perfecting’ quality about digital games, and I’m still thinking about them as co-actors in a performance piece. What’s interesting is how the digital performance almost demands notice, while the non-digital Time Clock Piece does less so. The actual performance was highly confining and we only witness it after the fact through another sort of time lapse. So, I guess really, no one but Tehching actually experienced that performance and the only way to witness or process it is through second-hand documentation. The more it rests in my mind, the more I enjoy the idea of digital representation of a performance, because it provides a different access point to a medium that is intentionally ephemeral. It’s not meant to be packaged and downloaded, much of it advocates against being legible or archived in traditional art spaces. The cuckoo-clock Tehching will never replicate the experience, but maybe it brings another interpretation or angle for people to consider about a performance they’ll never see.

Which brings us around to digital games often not really working out in gallery spaces unless they are specifically made for that sort of environment. Maybe they need to follow that tradition of being an imperfect representation of a passage of time. Fitting angle for Mainichi, given the commodification of ’empathy games’ and such. At first I was frustrated about it not being played ‘right,’ but eventually it became humorous, that exhibitors thought you could just drop my game in a room with a whole bunch of other computers without any real context. It is the passage of time that video games fuck with the most when you’re in a gallery: how long should you be taking, is it polite to hog the seat, what happens if the game needs more time than the building’s operating hours? Then maybe there will need to be secondary, imperfect documentation about playing the game. Like how absurd it feels to have video selections of a game put on loops to represent the whole thing, or how like you had stills from your work presented (I’m remembering that correctly, right?). Maybe we should be making games that intentionally fuck up the gallery experience too?

‘The now’ is very alluring to me. I admit to feeling very separated from the present, meditation, yoga, breathing shit, all that stuff never works with me and it’s really hard for me to keep doing it. I’m always on high-alert for self-preservation or monitoring my safety or at odds with my body, all results of various forms of trauma I’d guess. The now is what I want to access for myself in performance, and I think about that a lot. That in performance, there’s two parts: the phenomenological experience of the artist and the various experiences of those participating/witnessing it. Many of the ideas in the back of my head, that I’m a bit timid about sharing because they feel intimate, but, they are in a way to have me confront what it is I need to exist in the present, and knowledge that what can happen to me in performances is going to differ to what will happen to others involved. I guess for me extreme exposure or vulnerability might be to Marina her boredom or endurance, if I had to draw a pattern through what compels me to pursue performance. How the now stretches or speeds during moments of intimacy.

That’s it for now, I’m really excited to share with you all the rest of what Pippin and I are talking about next time. Until then, check out his work and game ideas!

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