BY Joe Laniado in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Serious Games

BY Joe Laniado in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

'Serious Games' is a show on the currently popular theme of interaction, but in this case the majority of the work exhibited does not merely invite participation, it demands it. All the pieces are in a sense incomplete: we are given the responsibility of elevating them from potential to actual. In this at least 'Serious Games' questions the role the viewer plays in relation to art, proposing to take us away from the relatively passive position of being acted upon, and asking us to choose; to become effective agents.

In most of the works the form of interaction is the same - a question of choice - only the methods by which we are asked to choose are varied. My personal favourite, Ritsuko Taho's Zeromorphosis: Swans and Pigeons (1996), however, achieves participation and communication through a tangible act as opposed to merely asking to choose from preset options. Forcing us to get our hands dirty grubbing around in earth, Taho asks us to write a message about the meaning of money and enclose it in a foil package together with soil, shredded money and grass seed; this parcel is then tended by gallery staff. The gallery has subsequently become filled with hundreds of foil packets sprouting grass of various lengths.

There are many works that use more mundane methods of participation - the touch screen or computer mouse, for example - but these resemble rather dull exhibits at a science museum. Harwood's Reversal of Memory (1995) is one exception: the work uses the point and click method but the understated and affecting emotional charge overcomes the inherent limitations of such primitive interactivity.

In contrast, the participation required by Char Davies' Osmose (1994-5), is total and raises its own peculiar problems. The work requires complete immersion, rather than passive observation. The viewer, though perhaps this is the wrong word, has to wear a VR helmet and a vest designed to monitor breathing. Movement through Davies' virtual environment is controlled by the entire body: the participant has to lean, turn, walk around a small circle and breath strenuously - inhale to float upwards, exhale to go down. Each of the dozen different 'worlds' is distinct and composed of approximate representations of familiar objects - there are quasi-trees, leaves, rocks and water. Some of the worlds are identifiable as imaginative variations on nature (the see-through, floating red rocks and spiky trees are reminiscent of Star Trek), while others are composed of sheets of numbers and/or letters suspended in space on different vertical planes. One is made up of the code for the programme itself, another appears to be comprised of literary quotations. Each world has its own signature sounds and as you move from one to the next, so the sounds meld into each other to become a sort of virtual-ambience. These too are artificial approximations of natural phenomena: 'leafworld', for example, is accompanied by what sounds like a jungle full of computer bugs. Just as a description of a dream cannot convey the sensation of it, so it is with Osmose. The worlds seem familiar yet uncanny, their sights are recognisable but elusive: pale white leaves appear to have mass and offer resistance but you cannot touch them; cloud-like formations possess a vague, spectral quality and their surfaces become translucent as you approach.

Interaction suggests a measure of control, of distance: it implies that one is in a position to make a particular choice and determine a possible outcome. But once you choose to enter Osmose you lose your distance, and your choices - although apparently unrestricted - are limited. If I wander too far into the deep blue that surrounds each world, the computer hauls me back in, and this gives rise to the sense that I effect less than I am being effected. And since movement occurs as a result of breathing, there is no choice but to move around within this environment - you cannot choose not to choose, so to speak.

Perhaps I am being forced to reconsider the data provided by my senses, how my mind interprets it and the inferences I draw about the world around me. Osmose could be seen as a version of Descartes' malevolent demon providing false information as to the nature and existence of truth and reality. While it has been designed as a definite move away from the goal-oriented environments of computer games, as an event-to-be-experienced it is, after a while, mildly irritating and comes to resemble a would-be meditation aid for the new age - a sort of organic, countryside experience.

With Osmose - as with life - each time I arrived where I thought I wanted to be, somewhere else beckoned. At times I felt I was going nowhere, or that I had less control than I would have liked to think, and I couldn't quite see the purpose of it all. Essentially we are task-driven beings: after experiencing Osmose, the first thing I asked the staff was 'how did I do?', 'did I miss something ?', 'do other people see more?'. So by way of a game, a diversion, create me a world where I have a clearly defined purpose, set me a challenge - give me a spaceship and something to shoot at.