Photo by Jack GouldIf you're one of the culture-criticism class who makes a living writing ponderously for Salon or Slate about what every moment of our lives means, then you've spent a lot of time this year expounding on reality television and Matrix-style virtuality. Do Americans like reality better or worse than they did before? Will Rudy and Richard make money after Survivor or not? Just what is the cultural significance of MTV's Real World? What about Road Rules? Will I somehow be able to find a way to use the word "signifier"?
The dual cultural foci on reality and shadows have become obsessive paradigms for those who dine out on just what it means to be an American at millennium's dawn. Has any other generation's collective movements—down to every stifled hiccup and idle scratch of its collective nose—ever been as tirelessly recorded, their meanings as artfully extrapolated? The way the cultural critics delve into each program, each TV ad and each commentary on that TV ad—not to mention the significance of the consuming frenzy for Web-capable cell phones in Tokyo and the fact that most Japanese don't have home computers, so they're happy to get any kind of Net capability, even one with lousy graphics at 9600 BPS, and what that portends or doesn't portend here—they might as well be girls on the phone with focus groups of trusted friends after an ambiguous second date: "But then he said, 'when' instead of 'if,' and he didn't even seem to notice that he'd said, 'when,' but he seemed a little distracted, and he was kind of snotty to the waiter, which I think kind of shows that he didn't want to be there, don't you? So do you think he wants to see me again?"
Far be it from me to miss out on weighing in on the great dichotomy of our time; I like to dine out, too, you know. To that end, I shall take the most disparate tidbits of random cultural fact and synthesize them with other equally meaningless shreds of culture and synthesize that into a hypothesis—i.e., that there are two parallel trends in contemporary society right now, and they are reality vs. virtuality—that, though it means nothing in and of itself, will garner me a hefty paycheck and a respite until next week's column is due.
There is no better place to witness these magnificently pregnant and fraught-with-meaning parallel trends than at "Shift-Ctrl: Computers, Games and Art" at the spanking-new Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine. Luckily for us, the show is masterful and fucking great.
Dozens of international artists have created computer games or game-like works, which march like Franco's brigades through the Beall Center's blackened rooms. The amazing installation (by an outfit called Antenna Design New York Inc.) features room-sized cubicles in which a spotlight rests on a mouse in the middle of the space, under a plastic parabola from which sounds emit themselves. Working the mouse or joystick causes the game to be projected onto the wall. There are four or five of these in a row. When one has moved the length of these games, one turns a corner and finds a hallway behind the cubicles. Moving through the hallway, one is completely surrounded by the games in progress, shining through what one had thought were walls (but are in fact screens) and becoming one's own landscape. (Banal reference to the Twilight Zone movie deleted for reasons of obviousness and cultural pandering.) A second cavernous room features glass-encased monitors resting on the floor, while orange ovals of carpet before them provide a chic modern place to sit and play.
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So what does this have to do with the lengthy posit above? Very few of the games feature items floating freely through space or the ether. The most successful and interesting of them offer immersive environments that are solid yet otherworldly. Naturally, I'm pretty sure this means something. Rebecca Allen's The Bush Soul features gorgeous animation (and a force-feedback joystick that wiggles in one's hand) of a Mars-like desert basin surrounded by shimmering violet and aqua rocks. Michael Ferraro and Janine Cirincione offer the amazing Dead Souls (banal reference to Nikolai Gogol deleted for reasons of obviousness and high-culture pandering), in which disembodied noses and lips-on-legs chatter at you (most excellent dialogue and soundtrack) while you try to make it across the ethereal salt flats to pyramids and Stonehenge-like arches far in the distance.
While it would take dozens of hours to learn and play each game properly (especially if your synapses and hand-eye coordination are hardening with age; I'm talking about fellow members of the Pong generation), the pleasure of falling into these landscapes is immediate—and born of the concurrent dualities. Reality provides the grounding—the dead-zone basins on which to walk rather than float anchorless through space—and virtuality feeds us the discombobulation of a totally foreign environment, one that doesn't exist in this solar system—unless you're in Las Vegas. The thrill of the future and the giddy thought that we are the ones standing on the cusp of it, waiting to usher it in, slams into the opposite reaction of discomfort that we might not be prepared for it, at least if we're older than 19. My grandmother can't work an answering machine. How will we be able to master what comes next?
We have never been as far removed from the land as we are now, and the technologies of the future won't be rectifying that but rather compounding it. Only people on communes grow their own food; the rest of us rely on the benevolence of the Archer Daniels & Midland Corporation. At the same time, gardening is America's most universal hobby. While people make obscene amounts of money by producing nothing but virtual paths for money to follow —in other words, two-thirds of their days are spent on pure abstraction—they steep themselves in sensual trappings: the solid comfort of a good Eames chair and the purr of a Testarossa. The future is now at the Beall Center, asking nothing more than a move of the mouse. If that mouse is on Mars, that's all well and good. Just give us something—anything —on which to stand.
"Shift-Ctrl: computers, games and art" at UC IRVINE, Donald R. and Joan F. Beall Center for Art and Technology, Campus & W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-6206. Thru Dec. 3.