Boobs, Bloodshed and Some Actual Art at Laguna Art's 'World of Warcraft' Show

Make Love, Not Warcraft
A few glimmers of hope, humanity and actual art stand out amid the orgy of fanboy boobs-and-bloodshed fetishization at Laguna Art Museum

If scantily dressed chicks with huge breasts and steroidal Conan the Barbarian rejects waving scimitars are a geek’s wet dream, then Laguna Art Museum’s currently running “WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon” is the orgy.

World of Warcraft hardly qualifies as “emergent” when it’s already 15 years old and boasts monthly subscriber numbers of more than 11.5 million, but curator Grace Kook-Anderson has programmed a sizable exhibition around the world’s largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), conferring legitimate-art status to a pop-culture event (and drawing in young people whose least-likely entertainment imperative would be to go to a museum).

So, is it art, or just a really long commercial posing as an exhibit?

The first hint to the answer is that the museum’s halls are loaded with materials borrowed from game publisher Blizzard’s own collection. Toys and models abound, but the artwork displayed is little more than blow-ups of box art, some sketches and a handful of comic-book covers. Not so much art as advertising.

As a corporate entity, Irvine-based Blizzard keeps close to its minions via an extensive website, so there’s a wall or two’s worth of fan art represented, the majority of which isn’t radically different from the standard commissioned work.

There is some machinima—the use of video-game footage re-edited or dubbed to create new stories—but like any mash-up, the fan-generated edits are better in concept than execution, with narrative or subtext almost entirely absent. The films with a smuttier edge had families walking out and will do nothing to debunk the stereotype that people who play WoW think about sex more than they actually have it.

The show is at its most interesting when the MMORPG is used as a jumping-off point by artists riffing on its conventions or pointing out facts of which many of its users seem to be blissfully unaware: The game is sexist (and, by extension, often homophobic) and unquestioningly fetishizes warfare.

Aram Bartholl’s WoW Performance Video has “followers” walking behind “presenters” carrying a fork construction with the presenter’s name mounted on transparent plastic over the “presenter’s” head, like the character names that follow WoW avatars.

Israeli artist Eddo Stern’s Best Flame War Ever video appropriates a message-board argument between two assholes threatening to kick each other’s asses, with Stern digitally creating two faces mouthing the increasingly asinine jerkitude. His Man, Woman, Dragon is a plastic, paper and electronic threesome of shadow puppets: A dragon gets kicked in the face by Chuck Norris, as a rabbit-eared wench lovingly waves her arm in admiration, all as stiff, awkward and fairy-tale-esque as Norris’ movies. Stern’s erotic shadow puppet MELF may be a playful pun on MILF, but it suffers from a palpable misogyny as an elf woman shoves a sword into her lower abdomen/vagina like a dildo, slipping it in and out as she commits hara-kiri with something approaching sexual abandon.

Disparate reality and deep sadness invade WoW’s fantasy in Cyril Kuhn’s screen-capture oil paintings. In Eddo, female rogue in Alterac Valley, the focus is a lone figure on horseback amid a snowy landscape. The painting itself is nothing special, Kuhn’s technique resembling the kitsch of garage-sale art, but the chat log scrawled to the left of the image is captivating, as a gamer types, “I rape dk’s . . . all the while telling them ‘bite that pillow boy.’” Heartbroken is a duo in a castle environment, while a female player reveals she has given her child up for adoption in the chat log.

The most unusual piece doesn’t even appear to be inspired by WoW at all, but rather by an interview with a young man who had heard a story about a boy raised by wolves. Mashallah Design and Linda Kostowski’s The T-Shirt Issue, No. 419 is a digitally built jersey created by scanning the interviewee’s body and adding the figure of a wolf’s head, which appears to be growing out of the shoulder. Accompanied by The T-Shirt Issue, No. 419 (unseen parts)—leftover material from the shirt’s assemblage—it elicits a surreal melancholy, as if the young man’s dreams formed, splintered and formed once more, the remnants scattered below. I’d never have thought a piece of clothing could be haunting, but this most certainly is.

The piece that made the biggest impression on me was an installation that comes from a collective called /hug (slashhug), whose volunteers seek out and assist “noobs” (new players) who may otherwise get “ganked” (gang killed) by more experienced players. Hippy-dippy though it may be, the group’s preference for an anarchist spirit of cooperation and service over rape, pillage and competition seems such the antithesis of the stereotyped fanboy, I couldn’t help but have admiration for their insurgency. They offer a much-needed critique—and the lone voice of dissent—to the game, as well as much of the exhibition.

WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Open Sun.-Wed. & Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs. & Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Oct. 4. $12-$15.

 
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