BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 07 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Stephen Honegger & Anthony Hunt

Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne, Australia

BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 07 JUN 02

With so many artists in recent years adopting the themes and imagery of computer games, the move already risks becoming formulaic - another of the endless reminders of how important computer games have become. However, Stephen Honegger and Anthony Hunt have found an entirely original use for game logic. Their brilliantly executed installation Container (2002) combines an imposing sculptural presence with an instance of the subcultural phenomenon - popularized by games such as Doom (1993) and Quake (1995) - in which freely available source code and software are used to create a new game.

Entering the gallery space, you encountered a full-size rusty metal shipping container complete with insignia. Droning sounds seemed to ooze from it, intermittently interrupted by footsteps and metal gates. It's the where/how/why nature of such art clues that entice you to look closer. On doing so, you find that the container, right down to the rods and clasps of its door-locking mechanism, is fabricated entirely from wood.

But this is no one-liner. Entering the dark chamber, the viewer was involved in a mysterious narrative thanks to a large video projection. Fading into night, the loop begins in a pebbled alley at the back of a Victorian-era warehouse - a first-person perspective of detailed, 3-D rendered, simulated space, an aesthetic immediately recognizable from any number of computer games. The jerky camera moves rapidly to create the sensation of moving through a virtual world. But having scaled a wall to break inside the empty building, you come to realize that what looks like scenery appropriated from the latest computer game is, in fact, the gallery itself. What follows is a deliriously engaging virtual prowl through the upstairs corridor spaces of Gertrude artist studios - well known to most visitors. A powerful mood is created from what might be hand-held video but is actually space generated entirely by the game software Worldcraft, following three months of precise measuring and photographing of the original spaces to produce texture-mapped 3-D models. Although not interactive, the syntax of computer games approaches a sublime level as you glide smoothly down the stairs and into the gallery below.

Here, at ground level, the origin of the shipping container is revealed as the ceiling miraculously opens and the virtual container is gently lowered down. At this point things become truly uncanny, as the virtual character stalks into the gallery office (complete with rendered versions of the computers, chairs and catalogues) and snaps up a handgun carelessly left in one of the office in-trays. Now armed, our imaginary agency is both complete and deeply strained. Entering the 'container', another figure stands - just as we are - watching a screen (now blue and flashing the word 'play'). The game has become a 'first-person shooter' and the outcome is clear: there is rapid gunfire, shells spill onto the floor, blood splatters on the wall and the figure slumps to the ground. What had initially half-registered as a dodgy paint job on the black interior walls of the container turns out to be the bloody residue of this assassination. The 'badly painted' wall was the overlooked clue of what had already taken place. As the fictional narrative bleeds into real life, we experience a chilling psychic and temporal displacement - reminiscent of the experience of watching David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) or David Lynch's recent films.

This deliciously disturbing event is ideally experienced alone - comparable to those rare and alienating dreams in which you appear as a cold-blooded murderer. The sequence, however, continues relentlessly; the figure moves back to the gallery office (luckily for them, the staff have gone home), and then escapes. As in Honegger and Hunt's previous work on the theme of game culture, Container is no critique. Its sensory world preserves the basic narrative structure - the survival objective and competitive aims - of commercial games. However, the comic doubling of the real and the virtual, and the quotational logic of ubiquitous game objects, epitomized by the container itself, exquisitely combines the artists' interest in facsimiles and reproductions. Rather than merely bringing a game into the gallery, Container renders the gallery itself as a new game environment, making it an active agent in the production of aesthetic experience.