GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The interview between David Blandy and Matteo Bittanti took place via email in April of 2013.
David Blandy (Image credit: Peckhamspace)
Born in 1976, David Blandy is an artist based in Brighton and London who uses video, performance, digital technology, animation and comics to investigate the popular culture that surrounds us. Brought up on a diet of kung fu films and Manga, Blandy is fascinated by how our identities are shaped by everyday art forms such as television and computer games. Simultaneously humorous and philosophical, ironic and profound, his work analyses the games we play and the films we watch. Blandy studied Scultpure at the Slade School of Fine Art and Fine Art media at the Chelsea College of Art in London. as exhibited widely, including shows at The Baltic, Gateshead; the Liverpool Biennial; Turner Contemporary, Margate; Spike Island, Bristol; and Platform China Project Space, Beijing. His work is distributed by LUX, and he is represented by Seventeen Gallery in London.
Installation view of the exhibition at Exeter Phoenix (Image credit: David Blandy)
GameScenes: David, in your work, the appropriation and reinvention of popular culture produces a performative masquerade. Manga, hip hop, and videogames are subsumed to construct alternative identities and personae, but also to create spatio-temporal disjunctures. I am specifically interested in your ongoing dialogue with digital games and arcades in particular. For the show Odyssey organized by Exeter Phoenix in 2011, you built an entire gaming arcade in a gallery. Are you stuck in time-loop, where nostalgia becomes a form of chronological currency? Or are you creating an alternative past, where David Blandy’s fantasies, e.g. the alter egos that inhabit your previous work (Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, the White and Black Minstrel, Child of the Atom and David Blandy himself), establish a parallel reality, like those that exist in fiction?
David Blandy: Just a small pedantic note- the show was "Odysseys" at Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, presented by Lighthouse Arts. The Exeter show was at a Phoenix too, but they have no relationship to one another, bizarrely.
I guess I was interested in several facets of the phenomenon of gaming in that show. My first intention was to camouflage the works I'd made, to put them in the context of games if a similar era so that it would take a few moments to realise which games were "found" and which were unique. And then I'm interested in identity and memory, how much we construct our ideas of ourselves from the things that we relate to in everyday life, in popular culture. Do I choose Ryu because I recognize myself in him, or because I want to be like him. Is an avatar a mirror or an idol? And I'm interested in cultural memory and the recycling of culture. I fell in love with Street Fighter II at an arcade in 1992, but the most popular fighting game right now is Street fighter IV, essentially the same game. You see it in films, children's TV, fast food- all the brands keep recycling themselves.
And then there was the opportunity to turn an art space into an arcade as an assault on the senses, like a cross between Nam June Paik and the arcades that I used to frequent, but instead of some of the games you can watch my videos or play my games which try to make the search for self, for meaning, just a bit more evident than in the games themselves, trying to show people who'd never attempt to experience games in that way what it is possible to experience through them, the possibilities for self-transformation, for existential contemplation. Duels and Dualities: Battle of the Soul is a work that functions in a way as purely an idea, the fragmented self, battling its various factions, but I think it only really makes sense when it is played. You feel the inadequacy of David Blandy, his impotence, with just a light and heavy punch to call upon, trying to play as cunningly as you can, and still losing. And the terrible power of Child of the Atom, utterly broken in fighting game terms, but with that power comes an emptiness, the pointlessness of playing the game when odds are so stacked in your favour. Power over others is a curse, far too easy to abuse.
Installation view of the exhibition at Exeter Phoenix (Image credit: David Blandy)
GameScenes: Customizing cabinets and decorating coin-op machines is, in a sense, the ultimate form of appropriation art. At the same time, this practice belongs to the vernacular, rather than the artworld. By legitimizing fandom practices you are effectively changing the rules of the game and engaging in the conversation with difference audiences at once: the gamer and the art conneisseur, which hardly/rarely overlap. How was the show received? Who walked into the gallery, and why, exactly?
David Blandy: I am always drawn to forms of creativity outside conventional fine art, whether that's hip-hop, car customization, fighting game prowess or arcade stick customization. Where does fandom stop and art begin? When I organise fighting game tournaments in galleries, I'm interested in how much this intense highly ritualized activity can be seen as a form of performance art, everyone playing their roles. I see the art in the everyday, and just try to frame it by placing it in a gallery context. I'm always trying to test the line of the point where something stops being art. But of course these things can be appreciated without those layers of meaning- people came to the show just to play Alpha 2, and I'm glad of that. The guys who loaned me the extra arcade cabinets, who've now set up Heart of Gaming in London, really appreciated the customization, even though it was totally antethical to what their aim generally is, which is to restore cabinets to their factory fresh condition. The documentation of the show has lead to some quizzical responses, like, "What's that game, I don't recognize that at all", which I guess shows its sort of working.
David Blandy, Son of the Atom, 2010
GameScenes: For the Duels and Dualities arcades, you worked with Stuart Witter, who remixed a Naomi 50 board. Could you explain the dynamics of this collaboration? Are you planning more game-based hacking/modding in the future?
David Blandy: Yes, Stuart helped me with the exterior stuff really, the spray-painting and general restoration, as well as some of the vinyl images. The game itself was programmed on an old PC, using Mugen, effectively a graphical reskinning, using character models that were close to what I was looking for and then manipulating every frame of animation in photoshop to create the new character. The opening sequence was devised as a homage to Street Fighter Alpha 2's intro, but telling the story of David Blandy creating all these characters from his studio, a remix of a comic of an earlier video I did called Origins: Enter the Barefoot Lone Pilgrim. I'd love to do a Street Fighter IV type rehash, with 3D models, crazy ultra moves, beautifully rendered backdrops... Maybe soon. I've also done a couple of rhythm-action games, based on Guitar Hero. One was for Swansea, so I asked an arty heavy rock band to set a Dylan Thomas poem to music, with a fiendish guitar part. They delivered, and then I annotated that for Guitar Hero, and you play as Dylan Thomas against the Swansea Devil (a local legend) at the Gates of Hell. One guy racked up a 98.8% completion on Expert. Satanic skillz.
GameScenes: Recontextualizing arcades spaces into a gallery also represents a peculiar - and terribly intriguing - form of digital preservation, especially because arcades have all but vanished from the urban environment. Some, like Jon Rafman, are using the medium of machinima to pay homage to arcade subcultures ("Code of Honor", 2011). You are literally transforming a contemporary art space into a playground... By highlighting the cultural relevance of arcades, you are also pointing the finger at their disappearance. Is this intentional?
David Blandy: There is definitely an element of homage. I think there is a recognition in the Fighting Game Community that a lot has been lost in the death of arcades, these social spaces to meet like-minded individuals, share experiences, form rivalries. But there's a larger question of what are our common spaces now, where can we meet without a commodified agenda? A gallery should be a meeting place, a place to come together, share ideas, discuss, think. Like an arcade. Traditional arcades may be dying, almost dead, but the people who play the games are still here, still wanting to meet and compete. The games might be based on old formulas, but the community keeps evolving.
GameScenes: Playing a beat’em up like Street Fighter requires super-human skills: coordination, an in-depth knowledge of all the different moves and tricks. What does it mean, to you, to play Street Fighter, in an arcade and in art gallery? Is the act of embracing the role of a Capcom fighter akin to play the role of the artist? After all, they are both performances based on a different sets of conventions, rules, and outcomes. How do you reconcile these two avatars, the Player and the Artist?
David Blandy: The fundamentals of good fighting game play are mental. Technique is important, obviously, but if you can predict and counter everything the opponent will do, you will win every time. And I suppose my attitude to art making is the same- concept trumps technique. And the only difference between playing as playing and playing as performance is conceptual, the mental frame that you put around that act. The trick is to help other people see that frame, to recognize the artistic content in what is going on in front of them. But I like to show, not tell, so maybe I err on the side of being too subtle when asserting my belief in the artistic value in games playing, in the beauty of the communal space of the arcade. But in my own head, every time I play a game seriously is a performance, an assumption of a role, of artist as Street Fighter. As Dudley, mostly. See arching for the perfect fight, like Ryu.
David Blandy, Ruined Temple, 2013 (image credit: David Blandy)
GameScenes: One of your latest projects, Background (2013) is imbued with references to game aesthetics. In this animated video piece, your 16-bit representation converses with another character (Blandy Senior, John) while walking through scenarios that have a distinct gaming style (rainforest, abandoned citiscapes, snow-covered temples etc.). This work is both intimate and heavily mediated - are you suggesting that intimacy is possible only through the filters of popular culture - gaming/comics etc? Are games, comics, and cartoons the filter through which we make sense of reality?
David Blandy: My point is not that intimacy is only possible through the mediation of media, but that it is possible to have intimate, sometimes profound moments within our interaction with popular culture. We inhabit these spaces, the pixelated vistas of fighting games, the highly saturated environments of pop videos, on an everyday level, but what do these spaces mean to us, how much do they define our sense of self, our sense of who we want to be? One of my starting points is always "where do I get my ideas for how to live my life, how to be, if I don't read books, don't have formal belief system?" And I think our personal philosophies come from a huge range of things, from interactions with our family, our friends but also the people we watch, whether that's in the schoolyard, the office, on film or in a game. Having said that, the only way I could have had that particular conversation with my father was through making a piece of work, by engaging in an artistic process with him. So in this case fighting games changed our relationship.
[Note: Background will be on display at the Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth, England between July 20 and August 25, 2013]
David Blandy, Background, 2013
GameScenes: What do you find particularly appealing about video games? Is there a specific genre, series, or style that inspires you? What are your gaming epiphanies?
David Blandy: Video games. I guess it's a search for completion. If I just get my Dark Knight to level 99, if I finish this stage, if I master this combo I will feel fulfilled. But that satisfaction is only, at best, temporary. I could really do with having a whole team of level 99 Dark Knights, I need a separate combo for throw tech option selects... It's life, but with tangible achievements, achievements marked with a victory screen, or a gold star. Life with a closed rule set. Seeing Street Fighter II being played by experts in a French arcade, aged 15, was my first epiphany. Seeing special moves for the first time, a hidden world suddenly revealed. After that was a strange day with Final Fantasy VII, bed-ridden with the flu, when Aeris died in front of me, and I found myself crying my eyes out. It was then that I finally understood the potential of games, that they were, or at least could be, truly art.