MediaSapien Interview at GameScenes

23 11 2010

MediaSapien was recently interviewed by the folks at GameScenes, a wonderful blog dedicated to games and art.  In the chat we discuss virtual identity, interactivity and the future of the human/machine relationship.

Marque Cornblatt: From the earliest cave paintings through modern times, the self portrait has always been a means of establishing one’s place in the world – to say “I am here.”  In this new virtual territory, reputation has become the most important form of social currency, and we are no longer limited to a single identity.

Read the whole interview here.  Thanks GameScenes.

Advertisements




Roger Ebert And Why Video Games are Art

3 01 2010

Why Video Games are Art
by Marque Cornblatt

Minor spoiler alert for Assassin’s Creed 2 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Roger Ebert and his POV.

In 2005 Roger Ebert famously stated that video games are not art.  After an outpouring of online reactions debating the topic and chipping away at his assertion, he then went on to clarify his stance that video games could not be “High” art, arguing that the agency (participation) of the viewer removed the creator’s authorship of the work, and therefore games would forever be “less than” other art forms.  In fact, he asserts that interactivity helps to define games as more akin to sports than art.  This clarification not only failed to support his original claim, but actually opened a door to deeper discussion of the meanings of art, authorship, audience and agency.

Ebert’s frame of reference is certainly well informed by his vast and deep knowledge of movies, film history and contemporary definitions of narrative.  But his perspective is severely myopic and overlooks many aspects of the art debate which don’t deal with narrative.  Part of his problem may be larger than his personal experience.  A quick survey of critical writing on video games shows a relatively recent interest in the topic.  In a field only 30 or so years old, the critical theory was at first slow to develop, and until a few years ago, most literature on the subject dealt almost exclusively with the concept of narrative as the way to dissect and study games.  Considering that the game industry grew up in the shadow of movies and TV, it makes a certain amount of sense that narrative would be the obvious entry point for study, but pigeon-holing games as the younger sibling to traditional media does not address the full scope of meaning within games, and (as is the case with Ebert), can severely limit one’s ability to fully understand their impact on culture.

Art and narrative are not the same thing, and Ebert’s presumption that interactivity is a hindrance to artistic expression is flat-out wrong.  There are many, many games that can be cited to argue this point, but I will limit my discussion to a few recent popular titles, including Assassin’s Creed II and Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2.  But first…

What is Art?

I can’t answer that.  Neither can you.  Truly nobody can.  Ebert is no better suited to answer that than anyone else.  To my knowledge there has never been an accurate or concise definition of the word art.  It might be spelled with only three letters, but its a big word, covering a wide range of cultural ideas and concepts.  From the earliest prehistoric cave paintings through to today’s battling robot performances, the concept of “what is art” has been stretched thin in an effort to accommodate an ever-growing palette of materials, processes and ideas.  However for the sake of discussing this topic clearly, the idea of art has to be defined within this context.

One of the best analogies I even heard came from a professor at SFSU.  She stated that the world of painting (art) could be viewed like a multi-layered wedding cake with a huge bottom cake layer supporting a stack of smaller layers with a tiny top layer.  This cake represented the different kinds of painting, and how they fit into the definitions of high and low art.  The bottom layer was populated by paintings of family and friends and pets – examples of personal artistic and creative expression,  but perhaps not the kind of work that critics would care about.  The middle cake layers represent work that is more focused and professionally driven, like student work or medical rendering, but is still unlikely to cause an art world stir.  The top and final cake layer – the smallest one – is representative of the exclusive, rarefied (some might even say elitist) world of museums and galleries and the highly commodified art that fills those spaces.  For all its simplification, the wedding cake analogy works quite well.  It validates all of the cake layers as kinds of art, but understands that there are varying degrees of cultural value associated with each.

Historically, any new form of creative expression has faced resistance from the art-world status-quo.  Video, new media and other cutting edge technologies have all faced resistance as “art” even as they were adopted into the artist’s toolkit.  Consider that now we generally accept the ubiquitous wall-mounted flat panel LCD screen as a fixture in most museums and galleries, but it wasn’t that long ago when a monitor wouldn’t have been there at all, except perhaps as an extension of the wall text.  Now, any contemporary gallery without a big LCD is considered woefully out of sync.  The traditional resistance to video and digital media as legitimate art forms is all but extinguished.

It may have taken years or even generations for new technologies to be uniformly accepted as an art form, but in an age of increasingly fast change, these barriers and debates are occurring at a pace to match.  Photography had it’s detractors and deniers for years, as did film and later video.  Now these media are universally accepted as art genres.  To be clear, not all photography, film and video is art, in fact most uses of these technologies are NOT art, but rather commercial and/or industrial.  Each of these technologies are used for activities and purposes outside the world of art, but the growing acceptance that one can use these media to create art is undeniable.  But just as most paint worldwide is used to cover walls and buildings or even portraits of family and pets, a small amount is still used to make fine art.  The same can be stated for games.  Most are not art, and don’t try to be. However some games transcend that definition because of the one aspect that overshadows many other qualities in the art/not art debate.

From my perspective with (holy shit) 11 years of professional art study, the best and only definition of art I’ve ever found to be personally useful is essentially the one of intent.  Not the creator’s skill or experience or chosen genre, but their intent.  One person picks up a brush and paints the exterior of a garage, another person uses that same brush to create a portrait.  What determines if the garage or the portrait is art?  The intent of the painter is often the best gauge.  This does not mean that intent makes for great or even good art.

By contrast consider the Cloaca, by Wim Delvoye. It’s a series of industrial machines assembled into an assembly line, the purpose of which is to literally create shit.  Feeding food into one end of the line causes it to be treated by several chemical reactions which simulate digestion, breaking the food down and extracting nutrients and energy as it moves from chamber to chamber.  The remaining output which exits the far end of the machine is literal waste.  This machine has been set up and operated throughout the world.  It is made from industrial components and offers little in the way of aesthetics beyond an ever-growing pile of smelly shit.  Yet this machine, which has been displayed in museums and galleries through the world is undeniably considered art, even “high” art.  While I admit an affection for the cloaca,  I personally feel that a lot of art, even the most well intended, is not very good.  IMHO, most art IS shit, and not by design.  Very little stands out as good, and even less as great.  But this discussion is not about good vs bad art.  It’s about art vs non-art.  Either way, it is the creator’s intent that guides our response, and it’s that response that ultimately answers the question of art for each of us.

What is Video Game Art?

The debate “Is it art?” remains challenging when trying to come up with a blanket statement addressing whether games are/are not art.  Because the answer is both yes and no.  Game CAN be art, and most game are NOT art.  The difficulty (or trap) is trying to define the tipping point, that specific moment, quality or feature that can be isolated and defined as the transcendent element that makes a thing art.  Narrative isn’t it.  As Ebert has pointed out, games, like interactivity in general, have qualities that conflict with traditional ideas of artistic expression as a fundamentally one-way exchange, in which the artist creates the painting, novel, play or symphony and the audience is a non-participating observer.  By comparison, interactivity and games offer the audience an active role in the story or game, and allow the experience to be directed not by the artist, but increasingly by the audience.  This notion of “agency” is at the heart of many critiques of video games.  However in a world filled with interactive art populating museums and galleries worldwide, the agency debate is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

While games are quickly becoming a culturally dominant form of storytelling, as an industry it still lags far behind TV and film in terms of telling sophisticated, subtle narratives.  Many games, if not most, struggle under the weight of too many disparate goals, and frequently the game narrative gets the shaft.  Creating a game with a cohesive story which is also visually compelling and fun to play can be a real challenge, and it becomes easy to disregard games with flawed narratives, low res graphics or complex control schemes as NOT art.  However, none of these qualities directly relate to the issue of games as art.

Let me repeat that:  Graphic quality, narrative cohesion and cutting-edge interactivity do not directly contribute to the idea that a game is (or isn’t) art.

While relying on such qualities to frame the art debate can be helpful, just as often reliance on these features can be misleading, especially when faced with games that have little or none, like Tetris.  So do non-narrative games have a bigger challenge to be taken seriously as art, or less?  Flower, the DLC from Playstation is a great example of a game with no narrative, vague goals, and little inherent meaning, yet its beauty and subtle charm make it a title frequently referenced in this debate as an example of games as art.  It elicits this reaction not because of story, cutting-edge visuals or gameplay – it doesn’t really have them.  Rather, it is because of the reaction within the player that the game inspires – a peaceful, meditative transcendence that strips away many conventions of the game genre in favor of a pure aesthetic experience.  The game transcends Ebert’s videogames-as-sports analogy by removing all qualities of narrative, points and scores, winning and losing.  With these elements stripped, the experience becomes instead purely aesthetic and emotional.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 vs. Assassin’s Creed II

A great game to dissect for this discussion is the recent Ubisoft release, Assassin’s Creed II.  It embodies many hallmarks of excellent game creation and has specific elements that seem to pertain directly to this debate.  The game takes place largely during the early Renaissance in Florence and Venice and follows the adventures of Ezio, an assassin whose story seems ripped right from the pages of art history.  The locations are accurately and faithfully rendered and the game world is populated by real historical figures.  The narrative takes full advantage of these features to present a game literally dripping with historical, artistic and cultural significance.  One of Ezio’s patrons in the game is Lorenzo di Medici, whose murder Ezio helps prevent in a scene taken almost verbatim from historical records.  Another character in the game, who provides our hero with information, secret weapons and even a ornithopter ride is none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself.  Throughout the game, as Ezio gains wealth and prestige, he is tasked with building his villa into a palace.  One mini-game actually involves collecting oil paintings from vendors throughout the game, including many recognisable works by Renaissance masters.  All of these visual and narrative touches create a game of unique cultural significance.

Plus, Assassin’s Creed is fun.  The game is beautiful on every level.  Gameplay is accessible, satisfying and epic.  The story spans years but never gets old.  In short, this is a near perfect game in every way.  I can’t think of any major criticism to lay on it.    Yet when I filter this game through the “Is it art?” debate, the answer I come up with is no, this is not a work of “high” art (to use Ebert’s definition).  It is a perfectly produced game, which showcases the creative talents of hundreds of people, and even luxuriates in historical and cultural relevancy.  And as much as I love this game, it fails on a fundamental level to move me emotionally.  To be sure, the game is filled with jaw-dropping beauty, and plenty of “whoa” moments, but none of those images or moments effect me on a deeper emotional level.

Using the wedding cake analogy, this game would be positioned near the highest point in the middle layer (an excellent piece of commercial art), but would fail to reside in the topmost layer.  Would those who worked on the game agree? Probably not.  From their perspective, Assassin’s Creed II likely represents a crowning achievement in creativity within the game industry, and they would be right in feeling so.  But was their intent to create a deep emotional experience.  I don’t think so.  Their goal seems to be creating a fun, beautiful and culturally rich (and financially successful) game.  And by that measure they have succeeded.

COD MW2 is another recent game worth discussing.  It was notable as the single biggest release of any property in any entertainment history.  Economically it dwarfed every movie opening weekend ever.  Although most critics and gamers focused on the highly polished multi-player aspect of the game, this essay is limited to the single player campaign.

COD MW2 is a great example of a popcorn blockbuster – an ultraviolent wargame, with a narrative modeled on the contemporary world politics, but ratcheted up to a level that would give Tom Clancy vertigo.  The single player campaign is one of the most emotionally intense experiences ever presented in a game.  The game dev’s clearly learned a great deal from the release of the original MW, taking the best parts of the early game, and cutting out the filler.  The result is a short, emotionally draining experience that plays less like a cohesive story, and more like a series of epic set-pieces and vignettes, loosely tied together by voice over narration that plays during load screens.  This VO narration is confusing, the voices all sound alike, and it does little to move the story forward.  I found myself tuning out these cutscenes instinctively because paying attention to them and trying to keep track of mostly faceless characters was diminishing the experience.  By contrast the game itself, the levels and maps, were so expertly crafted and presented that almost every scene had moments where I had to pause the game simply to give myself time to take in and process everything I was seeing and experiencing.  Many of these were just like the previously mentioned “Whoa” moments from AC2, perfectly executed moments that could only be seen and experienced within a game, like stunning locations, ultra-tense stealth missions and perfectly rendered fight scenes.

But more than a few of these moments went beyond the “whoa” factor and entered into a whole different realm, when the ideas themselves actually overshadowed the game’s rich presentation.  Moments like defending suburban Virginia from invading foreign forces, emerging from a bunker in DC to see the Washington monument blown to pieces, and literally fighting room-to-room through the White House. (to any gamer who also played Fallout 3, seeing the destruction of DC in MW2 works as a kind of meta-prequel to Fallout’s crumbling DC wasteland and helped to imbue these scenes with emotional weight).

Finally there is a scene in MW2 surrounded by some controversy.  Potentially disturbing enough that there is an option to skip it, the scene places the player squarely in the middle of a mass murder, not just another gunfight or battle, but as a participant in the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of innocent, unarmed civilians.  The player can choose to hold their fire out of distaste for the task (as I tried to do), but the character is compelled to participate lest they blow their deep cover with the bad guys.  Ultimately, the player feels trapped and guilty regardless of how their in-game character behaves.  Playing through this level the gamer is ultimately forced to reconcile the real world context of violence that videogames usually ignore.  This is not an easy task for the designers, and although the scene is still handled in a way that would seem juvenile on TV or film, I consider it a minor milestone that they succeed in eliciting a real, emotional response from me.  I have personally killed dozens ( maybe hundreds) of thousands of digital enemies in 3+ decades of gaming, and I rarely if ever stopped to consider them as tangible or real people in any way.  MW2, and this scene in particular, resonated with me in a way that forced me to reconsider that unexamined position.  During this moment in the game, my heart raced, I had to stop, pause the game, and really consider whether my actions were moral.

Does my experience make MW2 art?  Probably not by Ebert’s point of view, but maybe anyway.  Does the game serve the same purpose that art serves? Yes, without question.  It was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I have ever had with a piece of fictional media – or entertainment of any kind.  Did the game creators intend to present such deeply resounding experiences?  I think they did.

As crazy as it sounds, even to me, maybe COD MW2, an ultra-violent, commercial piece of interactive fiction, has actually achieved the status that Ebert so firmly rejects.  Perhaps we are seeing one of the first of many games whose intent and execution lift them up into the top layer of the wedding cake.





Fallout 3 Nuka Cola Quantum “In Case Of Emergency”

29 07 2009

Does this glowing bottle of Nuka Cola Quantum make me a uber-nerd? A Fallout 3 fanboy? Its not quite enough commitment for a Cosplayer? Otaku maybe?

I don’t care… All I know is I miss the Wasteland.  I’m impatiently waiting for Mothership Zeta, and I really wanted to have a bottle of Quantum around, you know, just in case…

In Case of Emergency

In Case of Emergency

Can also be used as a night light

Can also be used as a night light





Xbox 360 Avatar Experiment with Xeni Jardin and Barack Obama

31 03 2009

Thanks to everyone who saw my portrait work on-set with Boing Boing TV during the 2009 Game Developer’s Conference.  As requested, I’ve posted videos of some of the pieces.

The videos document an ongoing conceptual portraiture experiment using video games available on the Xbox 360.  There was no use of hacking, programing, or other methods beyond the options provided within each game used to make each piece.  The limitations of each game create a challenge when trying to make a compelling portrait, and our virtual identities are distinctively shaped by these limitations.

Games include Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’08, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six VEGAS, FaceBeaker, Fallout 3, World Series of Poker, Saints Row and more.





Avatar Identity Theft: On Set With Boing Boing TV’s Xeni Jardin at the Game Developer’s Conference

27 03 2009

 

Xeni Jardin in Fallout 3

Xeni Jardin in Fallout 3

I just had the pleasure of spending 3 days with Xeni Jardin, Matty Kirsch and the whole Boing Boing TV crew as a part their live video coverage from the 2009 Game Developer’s Conference.  I got to put my art all over their set and had several on-air interviews with both Xeni and Matty.  We discuss avatar identity theft, video games, avatars, robots, and Fallout 3 as economic model.  Very cool.     

But what was even cooler was getting to be a fly on the wall for their webcast conversations with an incredible selection of guests, including John Gaeta (Matrix Bullet time guy) and Jane McGonigal – one of the smartest game theorists out there – plus live demos from a bunch of really cool indie game developers.  

Click here to see the archived clips from all three days.  My interview with Xeni starts at 10:05  in the clip titled “Lots of stuff.” Thanks Xeni!





Fallout 3 as Economic Stimulus Model

22 03 2009

Can Fallout 3 help fix America’s economy?

The New Wasteland

I like Fallout 3.  I’ve played the shit out of this game and I still can’t get enough.  After a brisk run through the main story as a ‘good’ guy, I decided to replay the game again, focusing this time around on all the side missions and alternatives.  Just to make sure I got the full range of experiences, my character is now an ‘evil’ girl.   I also consulted an amazing online guide, wikia.com, to insure that I left no stone unturned.  I’ve lost track of the hours I’ve got in it so far, but it’s a considerable number.

To cover everything, this second pass required considerably more time and energy committed to scavenging, trading and resource management.  I’ve never been a huge fan of RPG’s in the past (too many swords, spells and orcs), so this is the first game that I’ve really gotten into the leveling and grinding required to hone my character just so.

Nuka-cola

Nuka-Cola

One result of the hours of dedication is that I have now amassed quite a few Nuka-Cola caps (the in- game currency to you non-Wastelanders out there).   I’m so rich by the game’s standards that the primary reason for me to trade is not to earn money, like I needed in the early stage of the game, but to simply get rid of all the weight of the accumulated guns, ammo, meds, scrap metal, and other loot acquired during quests. I am in possession of so much of the circulating currency that the other traders in the game are usually broke from buying from me. But if the other traders are all already tapped out, how can they continue to buy the loot that I continue to amass?  

This question reflects the second reason I trade; Pumping cash back into the economy.  Since I seem to be the only person in the wasteland with spare caps, I feel a responsibility to free up some capital, so I have been buying up luxury items and expensive weapon blueprints every chance I get.  My home now sports a pristine antique Nuka-Cola machine, jukebox, infirmary, laboratory, workbench, a cabinet full of exotic weapons and a pretty cool retro theme throughout, plus a wide range of other unique and expensive items.  And I STILL have all the money.

Home upgrade

Home upgrade

So I continue pumping cash into the game’s economy.  True, it doesn’t seem to be having a huge effect upon the citizenry – they are still largely humans and ghouls scratching out a meager living in the nuclear wasteland – but it does allow them the chance to give that money right back to me in exchange for the weapons, drugs and other supplies that I have continually for sale. 

After a while of this economic cycle, the pattern started to look familiar to my cynical eye (My other eye, the non-cynical one, was busy shopping for a new household theme). 

Suddenly the Capitol Wasteland was a striking analogy for our whole nation – nobody has money, unemployment and homelessness are commonplace, the government is powerless, everyone’s got radiation sickness and huge mutated crabs attack at night.  Playing Fallout 3 is like America looking in a cracked, dirty mirror.  I start to think “Hey, maybe I AM an evil teenage girl with a gun that shoots nuclear bombs…”   The fact that the game allows me to steal Abe Lincoln’s top hat, rifle, beard and voice(?) and actually don them during my adventures adds another, somewhat twisted layer of meaning to this grimy doppleganger America – I’m just now sure what that meaning is anymore…

Wasteland Cutie

Does my character, with her wealth, power, winning smile and cute arsenal represent the Fed?  Or does she represent corporate America with her responsibility – or lack thereof – over the economic health of the wasteland?  Maybe she’s representative of American consumers, for whom shopping has become a patriotic duty?  Perhaps she is representative of all three, a symbol of the responsibility that we all collectively share. 

I don’t know.   I’m not a RL economic expert, and these days I’m often lost trying to keep pace with the news.  But I do know that in the world of Fallout 3, the economic health of the wasteland seems to hinge on my ability to continually feed a dribble of cash to a violent, hungry populous, simply so that they can buy my supply of guns and drugs.   Success in this activity encourages me to go out and rob, kill and plunder even more supplies from all the people, Mirelurks and Super Mutants I encounter.

I’ve recently noticed that over time, the other traders slowly acquire caps, presumably as a result of their other dealings, but in reality, the software itself is acting like the Fed by “printing” and distributing more cash to these NPC’s.  But even these cash injections are too small to ignite any real fiscal activity – I can still force them to spend every last cap they have on my sweet, sweet, meds and ammo.  The more money the game pumps into consumer’s hands, the quicker it ends up in my pocket.

This cycle, which essentially forces the fiscal growth of my character, is the cornerstone of the game economy, but it seems to me that it can not be sustained for long and will eventually collapse as my character amasses literally all of the liquid capital over the course of her adventures.

Mirelurks:  Wont you please help?

Mirelurks: Won't you please help?

It begs the question:  Is constant growth a good thing?  Is long-term unrestricted growth beneficial to society?  And if so, who really benefits?  Government? Corporations? The citizenry?  

At the very least, shouldn’t some of the money go to curing radiation sickness and establishing basic healthcare and job training for Mirelurks and Super Mutants, or does that very suggestion make me some kind of Wasteland socialist?

More thoughts on Fallout 3 and the value of bathrooms in video games.





Mediasapien Censored at Vimeo.com Over Fair Use – What Do You Think?

16 01 2009

Reprinted from the Journal of Visual Culture, Volume 10, Issue 1

Mediasapien recieved this brief email earlier today from a rep at vimeo.com, a video sharing site:

Dear Media Sapien:

Your video ‘Grand Theft Auto 4 Law Abider – A GTA 4 Performance Art Project (1455312)’ has been removed from Vimeo because it violates our Terms of Service.

Vimeo does not allow game walk-throughs, game strategy videos, depictions of player vs player battles, raids, or any other video gaming video that simply depicts individuals playing a video game. 

If you believe this was an error, please send a civil response to this email and we will work with you, assuming you are correct.

It was regarding this video:

Mediasapien promptly emailed them back with this reply:

To Whom It May Concern at rights@vimeo.com

Hi.  Thanks for the email informing me that a video clip of my artwork,  “Grand Theft Auto 4 Law Abider – A GTA Performance Art Project” was removed from vimeo.com.  I would like to discuss the validity of this decision.  

If it was removed at the request of the copyright holder or the source material, then please let me know and that will be sufficient for me.  However, if no complaint was issued, then I would like to defend the use of this source material in my video.  By the standards you reference, many other clips on vimeo.com are actively violating your Terms of Service ( a quick search for “videogames” or “machinima” or “gta” pulls up hundreds of questionable clips).  However I do not consider my artwork created with videogames to be within your definition, however vague.  Quoted:

Vimeo does not allow game walk-throughs, game strategy videos, depictions of player vs player battles, raids, or any other video gaming video that simply depicts individuals playing a video game. 

My video does not show a game walk-through, strategy guide, depiction of battles, raids or other video that “simply depicts individuals playing a video game.”  My video shows a documentation of a long-form performance art project, produced and documented within a game world.

The conceptual work I produce relies on unaltered video-game engines as the basic tool for creating interactive performance art.  These performances occur in realtime, in a wide range of single-player and multiplayer environments.  Almost all of these performances get recorded for later exhibition in real-life and online galleries and museums.  Having worked in this field for years and written extensively on the subject, it is my opinion that my use of these various game engines constitutes fair use.  It is within these games that the activity of crafting identity has become a personally compelling conceptual activity. Almost like a treasure hunt, one can explore these games searching for inconsistencies or “holes” in the game world, looking for ways to exploit and subvert the game designer’s intent and make social commentary or cultural critiques without relying on programming, hacking or modifying the game. By working within the limitations provided by each game design and style -by restricting oneself to the rules of the game as opposed to working in a 3d development environment that allows unlimited modification – one is faced with severe restrictions and limitations of expression that have become highly representative of the challenges faced when one begins to create online identities and have digitally-mediated relationships.

Based on the 4-part criteria established by the US Copyright office for determining fair use, my artwork does not significantly suggest copyright violation.  My artwork uses a small portion of GTA 4 compared to the source material.  It is safe to say that my artwork will not significantly affect the retail market for GTA 4.  And my use of the game is significantly altered from the original source material.  In fact, the goal of my artwork is to specifically “break” the player’s and programmer’s expectations of the game experience by intentionally behaving in a way that forces the game to do something it wasn’t meant to do.  In this artwork, by refusing to fight, kill or break any rules at all, I effectively subvert the original source material’s meaning and change the game’s context on a fundamental level.  The game subsequently behaves in “broken” and unexpected ways, creating a new experience, one that was entirely unplanned by the game developers, and is conceptually unique.

To me, these qualities clearly define this artwork as fair use.  Thank you for your consideration. 

Rights@vimeo.com never replied to my message, and my work remains banned on the their site (However, it can still be viewed on YouTube and several other sites).

Who owns virtual space and who is responsible for policing it?  Are multi-user games a territory or a tool? Can a creative act transform a videogame from private property into a public art site?  And perhaps most appropriate in my situation – Can a copyright censor distinguish their personal criticism of an artwork from that work’s legal status?  Unfortunately the lack of a response from anyone at Vimeo.com only furthered the unanswered questions regarding the nature this work and Vimeo.com’s screening process, as well as the legal boundries of virtual territory.

Because of the rapid transference of our daily interactions and activities into digital forms via social networking and multi-user territories, many traditional views regarding space, place and location are becoming obsolete.  To an ever-growing demographic, the tangibility of virtual space is rapidly approaching that of real space, and subsequently more personal and intimate moments are shared among friends and lovers whose only connection to each other is through a computer simulation, video game or website.  These virtual places, in WoW or Second Life, or Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City, have become woven into the tapestry of memories for millions or people, and are rapidly becoming tangible sites that rival any physical location in meat space.  While traditional legal definitions regarding intellectual property are easily employed to make a copyright infringement claim against people who create works of art within these virtual spaces, a viable argument can be made that these digital locations are rapidly becoming domains of the public and a broader definition of “fair use” should be applied to them.

Artists immediately identified the unique creative possibilities of using videogames as virtual sites, and the artworks produced using these videogame spaces quickly emerged into a distinct genre called Machinima.  After a brief period of uncertainty and confusion, most game publishers eventually saw the  benefit of supporting Machinima as a source of free promotion instead of trying to suppress it as copyright infringement.  Many game makers routinely include free tools for both making new things within the game, as well as to allow players to document and share video clips of their creations – or simply record and share game-play videos.

Developers realize that art, music videos, movies and strategy walkthrough’s created with the their videogame offer much more than free promotion and economic longevity for their work, these creative re-uses help to define the broader cultural relevancy of their games, and reaffirm the legitimacy of the fundamental technologies that power them.   In the age of mash-ups and remix culture, reusing the work of others has become more than tolerated, it’s encouraged and supported – provided the borrower doesn’t get too successful or make significant money.  As witnessed with the legal fight over audio sampling in the music industry, fair use takes a subordinate role to copyright once economics enter the picture.

Vimeo.com, which has demonstrated an inconsistent policy of policing their inventory of videos for clips which they feel might infringe upon the rights of copyright holders, chose my work from among the multitude of uploaded videos produced within GTA to censor, while leaving thousands of other clips in place.  While this pro-active self-censorship is not unusual, it is also common for sites like vimeo.com to wait until a cease-and-desist complaint is made by a third party before presuming legal status of a given work – especially considering all uploads are accompanied by a mandatory click-thru signature verifying the uploader’s rights to the material in the clip.  As far as I know, no cease-and-desist request was ever issued regarding my work.  Neither I, nor my lawyers, ever received any communication at all from the GTA’s developer or publisher, and since vimeo.com declined to share their reasoning for the ban, I have no idea why my work was removed while so many other clips were not.

I admit that the conceptual nature and subtlety of the performance may be challenging for some people to recognize it as such, therefore I went to great pains to explain the work and it’s relevance in detail when I posted the video online.  However, with no other communication from the representatives at Vimeo.com, I am left with one of two possibilities for why my work was removed.

Either A) My work was banned as part of some impersonal, automated “flushing” process and there was no real consideration of my work by an actual human being, or B) There was a person who looked at my work and rejected it specifically.

As an artist this second choice is a far worse option, but one I’m forced to consider…  Did an actual person at vimeo.com see my video’s title, take the time to view the clip, read the descriptive text, and still decide that is was not a work of art?  That level of rejection goes much deeper than if a simple game-play video clip is banned.

But why should I accept this decision from vimeo.com?  Ultimately even the harshest and least forgiving critique of an artwork can only be used to gauge its quality, not it’s legitimacy.  The critic does not get to determine whether the work qualifies as art – the artist gets that luxury.  The critic can pan a work, but only the artist’s intent defines it as art.

Assuming that the rep from vimeo.com hated my performance, the video documenting it and everything it represented, their opinion does not grant them the right to determine whether or not it’s defined as art with a capital “A.”  By banning my work while ignoring thousands of video clips that blatantly infringe on copyright, they are effectively substituting censorship for criticism – a familiar reaction that historically goes hand-in-hand with artistic or cultural innovation.  The banning of my clip is a rejection of its validity as art and everything it represents conceptually.

Machinima as an art form is among the most recent to join the seemingly endless queue of genres and technologies that each had to fight for legitimacy within the fine art world.  Most recently biological, digital and device arts each had to establish their rightful positions as valid artistic genres, joining older forms that are readily accepted today but faced similar struggles in their early years, such as film and photography.  There is no evidence or support for the idea that Machinma might fail the test of artistic legitimacy, so it is reasonable to experience frustration at the resistance to the genre’s ability to enjoy the full legal status and respect equal to the rest of visual culture.   As more people support artistic remixing and reuse, the capitalistic restraints that have stifled creative innovation will erode, and the resulting availability of tools and technologies like Machinima will establish a new paradigm of what it means to be a creator when the very fabric of culture becomes the canvas upon which art is created.

And maybe vimeo.com will repost my clip.