The Art of Character: Rebecca Belmore and James Joyce

Characters looking into mirrors for the sake of the audience getting to know their appearance is a standard devise in film and literature. However even in the visual medium of portraiture there are artists who step beyond pure physicality of their subjects to bring the viewers into a deeper consideration of a person. These abstract portraits can be powerfully emotional and have a much fuller sense of a whole human because there is not easy mental image being formed. Works like Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna are windows into deep personal relationships and demonstrate what is possible when an artist moves beyond traditional conceptions of portraiture. It is not unlike the deep inner life that stream of consciousness writing brings to classic books like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man. For the viewer or reader of such works the impact comes from the emotions and connections of the person being presented, not some meticulous description of physical characteristics.Read More »

In the Eye of the Beholder: Hollow Knight and the exploration of Joseph Anderson

Video games are considered the domain of a very particular type of people, and those people are often not the same ones who create or curate more traditional arts. However, the ways in which traditional arts are understood still provide a framework through which the huge variety of video games can be understood. Not only is game critic Joseph Anderson seemingly aware of some of these traditions he actively considers what makes a game beautiful and arguably a work of art: it isn’t about having a particular type of game play but rather is about how the game impacts the player. Hollow Knight is a game that is in many ways an aesthetic experience that just happens to also include the elements of a Metroidvania game, where the player is forced to build the story by interpreting a decaying land. These are the types of issues that are vital to traditional fine art studies and Anderson is able to address these considerations without stepping away from his own genre of game critic.

Online coverage of video games often includes a lot of shouting and truly terrible audio, but Joseph Anderson is a critic whose videos are always calm, well organized and rational. He makes the videos that I think art people would want to watch because he goes into them prepared to have an educated discussion without assuming the person watching has experienced the works that he is talking about. In fact, this is a part of Anderson’s work that I think both the world of video game criticism and art criticism could learn a lot from since his videos are accessible without feeling overly contrived. His YouTube channel is worth watching for that educational value alone, but he also has an impressive way of handling some of the important questions around the overlap of video games and art.

Hollow Knight is part of a clear genre that has emerged in recent years as nostalgia for early gaming – the Metroidvania genre. However, this is not the angle through which Anderson approaches the game, rather he debates whether the flaws of Hollow Knight as a game are actually assets to Hollow Knight as an art. He is still working within the conventions of game review and criticism (he discusses the fact that the game is spectacular value for money purely based on length and challenge) but much of this feeds back into a consideration of what it means for a video game to be an art. Among the factors that play into this conversation is that this is a game produced by a very small team of developers. It doesn’t have the large commercialist tone that often sterilizes the games produced by major developers. Anderson connects these elements to the aesthetic quality of Hollow Knight and the kind of mental energy that exploring its world requires – the player is shaping the art that they experience. It is not dissimilar to how art theory considers the reciprocal looking process that creates meaning through the idea of ‘the gaze’. In the end it is about how the art object and the viewer collaborate to make meaning – something that is evident in games like Hollow Knight where the viewer must build a narrative of a fallen city largely on their own. These are elements that would make the game ‘good’ for anyone who decided to pick it up, but Anderson is able to draw together the elements into a true discussion of the piece as an art.

Ultimately what makes Joseph Anderson unique, and interesting to listen to even for a non-gamer is his abilities to work within the conventions of game review while moving beyond the kinds of questions that are normally the focus of this kind of writing. It is his brand of thoughtful critique that might help to build the recognition of video game projects as fine art. Because in reality the discourse that surrounds art objects is often what defines them as art. Anderson even begins to put forward some of the questions that will become important when (or if) interactive media become a part of the art world: How do you display a video game in a museum? How would these kinds of works integrate with art history courses?

If art is about aesthetic experiences or about implicating the viewer in the making of meaning than video games certainly have the means to do so. Joseph Anderson makes wonderful defenses of these games as art in his videos while remaining firmly in line with the video game community while also steering viewers towards important questions about what will happen when the video game as art becomes more widely recognized.  These are not questions with easy answers but they are ones that I think will become increasingly relevant as video games continue to ask valuable and challenging questions of the people who play them.

The House That MineCraft Built: Monumental Buildings in the World of the Internet

Humans like to build large impressive structures. It’s one of the general truths that history can speak to given that monumental architecture appears all over the globe while there continues to be few nations today who trade off tallest tower titles. A perhaps under appreciated subsection of the human drive to build great things in the modern age is the amount of problem solving and creativity that goes into large scale builds in games like MineCraft. Building in virtual worlds is an incredibly diverse hobby and sweeping generalizations are probably not a good idea both because generalizations usually aren’t and because it is near impossible to actually survey the entire breath of anything on the internet. So, for the sake of explorations and argument the MineCraft community that plays on the HermitCraft server as well as the people who watch them is a good point of reference. HermitCraft gathers some of the top talented builders and creative types of the MineCraft internet (at least as I have been exposed to it) to build in a shared world on projects that are both collaborative and individual.

Beyond that its hard to make any kind of statement about what gets built because it varies widely and includes no small amount of ‘because I can’ type projects. A personal favorite was a multi weeklong building battle that included, dragons, spaceships and Pixar references all built at a truly impressive scale while occasionally fighting off raiders.  HermitCraft is an opportunity to see top level players working together, or at the very least in proximity to each other, but there are multitudes of other MineCraft projects that are easily found through the internet. People recreate real world buildings or entire fictional worlds like Middle Earth and most of the time it is all put up for everyone to see free of charge. Many creators even have a particular style, either aesthetically or in the types of things they build ranging from houses, to resource farms to restone contraptions which are the pseudo-tech of the in game world.The popular players who are playing on serves like HermitCraft probably make some kind of income through Patreon, YouTube ads or other sponsorships but for the most part the people who build online are not getting paid or praised yet they continue to pour their time into the game.

While the creative mode in the game is tailored for those kinds of building projects there are a great many people who choose to work in the much less forgiving survival environment in which the plot-based part of the game occurs. And with survival MineCraft comes logistics concerns because materials aren’t always easy to come by and there are zombies, skeleton and assorted other creatures coming to kill you. These are not the kind of logistical concerns that come up in real world building, where ensuring project survival across the multiple generations required for cathedral building was a pressing concern or in global resource purchasing that is an integral part of building practice today. However, the choice of these players to build their creations in a virtual environment that makes some attempt to replicate the concerns of real world architects is another reflection of the purpose that MineCraft is serving when it is played in this way. It also offers the opportunity for different types of buildings, ones that actually benefit the player’s ability to function in the virtual world and improve success rates on future projects. They don’t just want to build something that is aesthetically pleasing, these players enjoy the process and challenge of executing a plan in that kind of hostile environment.

None of this is to say that building projects in game like MineCraft are just as challenging as building in the real world. Instead a consideration of how architectural, history, trends, and ongoing progress is mimicked in a created world – exposing the parts of the design and building process that fascinate people. If working on these projects, both in the real world and on the computer, wasn’t rewarding no one would do it. MineCraft though proves that the process of designing and constructing something is incredibly rewarding since millions of people pay for the game and sink hours of unpaid, usually unacknowledged, time into creating impressive large-scale builds. That willingness to work and created in an unrecognized sector shows that this is a kind of creative practice that offers something incredibly rewarding to the players – beyond the considerations of real-world success. This is a fascinating part of any artistic practice, the benefit to the artist regardless of the recognition they may gain and the expansion of this aspect of art onto the internet is something worth considering.

The people who play on the HermitCraft server and the multitude of other creative building practices on the internet live in a strange place between the art of the real world and the beauties of the internet. They are not trying to make hyper visual monuments of human achievement, but they are still building things that are undeniably large. They sink hours of largely unpaid, unacknowledged time into the games that they play and figure out how to monetize their practices later, through Youtube or other platforms. The world of the internet has opened these kinds of opportunities for new forms of creative practice and while some aspects of these communities mimic the real world practices, they are based on MineCraft in general and HermitCraft in particular show the impressive range that is possible in the virtual realm.

 

The Maker’s Mark: Adam Savage, Bernadette Banner, and the Craftspeople of the Present

Today’s culture relies heavily on mass produced goods and the seemingly endless supply of entertainment, however there are corners of the internet where easy entertainment is focused on the people who create goods that are far from convenient but are usually beautiful. Made famous by MythBusters Adam Savage is a figure that many people recognize, and he has used his MythBusters success to launch a special kind of internet career. One that has in many ways helped to draw attention to other makers who are engaged in crafts that are often overlooked. Bernadette Banner is another such individual, one who creates beautiful historical clothing, usually with the techniques and technology that would have been used throughout history. These are people who are creating beautiful objects through a fascinating combination of creativity and well-honed skills that fit into a long tradition of crafts people who are experts in how to take an idea from inspiration to completion.

Crafts don’t occur in a void and neither Banner nor Savage make it seem like it does. Consideration is often given to the source of materials and the work of the people who made or sold the materials that are being put into a given project. By acknowledging the sources of materials there is a sense of the maker within the larger community of creators and suppliers. Savage and Banner are both quite open in their admiration of other people in their field. They collaborate with other makers, talk about what they learn from watching others and sometimes engage in thoughtful disagreement over the best way to make something work. Aside from their community of those in the present, there is also acknowledgement of the history of their work. Bernadette Banner’s connection is often more obvious as she is intentionally recreating historical garments and regularly talks about the sewing writers of the past and present. However, Adam Savage will often also make nods to history, talking about how the machinery he has access to improves on older techniques or sometimes using those older techniques to enhance the finished project. While society often emphasizes singular genius, makers situated themselves in a community of expert creators.

Part of the way that makers like Adam Savage or Bernadette Banner place themselves within a community of experts is through their inclusion of their process. Videos on either of these people’s channels are rarely just showcases of completed projects. Savage’s Tested channel has a long running series of ‘one day builds’ which really do span the whole day of building while Bernadette Banner often features project diaries that track over what is often months of work. These types of videos allow both creators to showcase how they go from the research and planning stage, which usually involves consulting others in their field either in person or through textual resources. There is also a complete willingness to show when things done go according to plan as well as the problem-solving process that is done calmly and in a systematic way. There is no illusion that these makers are perfect masters of their crafts. They are experts and part of that expertise is their ability to work through mistakes or misjudgments.

These videos are at the opposite end of the spectrum to the DIY life hacks that are increasingly a part of popular culture. Hack videos and how-tos try and make a process as simple as possible and while they may be useful if you want to make a stir fry or knit a scarf they hide a lot of the hard work that the people who do this for a living put in. By showing every aspect of the creation of their work the crafts people of the internet foster an interest in how things are really made and offer a challenge to those who want to genuinely put the work in to gain the skill that goes into craft work of all kinds. The DIY world shows you how to do something while makers like Adam Savage and Bernadette Banner show the audience how they work, how creativity and process work together.

Most people no longer rely on crafts people for their day to day existence when bulk stores and mass-produced commodities are much easier to come by but there is still a level of fascination with people who make beautiful things with their hands. Even though they display their work on YouTube or other internet platforms rather than a market square, people like Bernadette Banner and Adam Savage are bringing the world of the crafts back into the modern eye. So while I may never own a hand sewn 15th century dress, or a real life Wall-E robot, by placing their work online these makers remind their audiences that there is a process of creation that is less about perfection and more about working through problems and utilizing resource to create a work that is not necessarily flawless but is none the less a masterful demonstrate of skill.

Cardistry from the Outside: Creativity or Skill

Somehow a deck of cards doesn’t seem like a medium that could create art. Cards are used for such low brow games as Go Fish while Bridge is about as complicated as it gets but even that is a far cry from painting or dance. However, the creative display of dexterity with playing cards has moved beyond the realm of distractions in a magic show into a thriving discipline of its own. Cardistry has a vibrant scene including a convention and a community of artists, many of whom are visible on YouTube or other social media. For someone who stumbles across a performance video – either edited with music or just clips of people showing off – cardistry lives purely in the realm of art. The patterns are unfamiliar and the motions that go into creating the flourishes are impossible to follow but the performance vids lead quickly down the rabbit hole into tutorial videos that complicate the line between art and skill.

(It is at this point that I should mention this is a piece written based on limited experience and I could not be farther from an expert on cardistry – which is kind of the point)

Just like any other discipline cardistry rests on a basic repertoire that every cardist must master before moving onto more complex moves. The charlier or sybil cuts are examples of basic moves that teach a variety of grips and finger movements that are used in more complex combinations. It is at this point that a newcomer will either sit down and spend the time grinding practice in a mirror until they become smooth or it is the point where they decide that this is too hard, and they simply do not have the dexterity. I think the ones who don’t pick up a deck are more likely to view cardistry as pure art: something that relies on natural talent that no amount of practice can teach in the same way that repetition won’t allow the average person to paint a Mona Lisa. But, for those who put in the time reaching some degree of proficiency with the basic moves opens door into intermediate patterns and makes it seem like the elaborate flourishes are within the realm of possibility. This is a view of cardistry that is based in a skill model – with practice you can be just as good as anyone else.

Even the tutorial videos only represent a tiny portion of the flourishes and cuts that are on display in performances. Cardists are constantly developing new variations on old moves or even developing tricks that are entirely new. Flourishes are named by their creators and when others talk about these movements, they refer to the name given by the original artist in the same way poetry or paintings are attributed to their creators. There is also a thriving economy that provides the supporting infrastructure for cardistry that has its own set of artists who are only sometimes the cardist themselves. Beautiful decks of playing cards are designed, printed and distributed, some tutorials are placed behind a pay wall and videographers are clearly involved in some of the film making. Cardistry is full of creative people doing creative things but rather than targeting only the talented minority they represent themselves as accessible to the newcomer.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle of skill and art, that yes enough practice makes any individual cut or flourish possible, but it takes true creativity to be the one designing new movements. Even putting together an entire routine made up of other people’s patterns appears to require not just practice but an instinct for how the movements fit into each other. From all outward appearances this is how the cardistry community understands itself as well, especially given they named them with a card-artist portmanteau. There are tutorials and even a cardist convention that connect people all over the world, but the individual practitioners have a great deal of respect for the work of other artists. The process of invention and sharing has the same sense of the proprietary knowledge that appears in other disciplines. Collectively this makes the world of cardistry seem very much like any other art-world with a network of artists who are part of an industry that looks impenetrable from the outside.

Cardistry offers the opportunity to consider how appearances mask the reality of what appears to be incomprehensible art. The discipline of cardistry relies on the audience being unwilling to explore the line between art and skill but just a little digging exposes the potential path to card mastery. The entrance to cardistry is guarded by what appears to be hours and hours of practice but it challenges newcomers to consider what level of work they are willing to put in and what they consider to be the dividing line between art and skill.