Big cities in the modern world are a reflection of the people who live in them. There are cities which only exist to house humans as they live, work and sleep while their suburbs and districts can blend together in a dull haze of railroad tracks, freeways and office buildings.
Such a place can barely keep its head above economic water as the unemployment rates rise and morale plummets.
Within this environment, desperate governing bodies let loose vampiric property developers upon the neck of a city in their ravenous desire for revenue. As night follows day, faceless skyscrapers replace theatres. Galleries and libraries are torn down to make way for places for humans to park their cars and apartments which are too expensive to rent replace live music venues. All in the name of some vague sense of progress.
When this becomes a trend in any modern city, the only permanent thing that gets developed is a loss of character. The end of an ingrained feeling that this particular piece of turf means something to someone. Generations of human beings spend their tragic and amazing lives in thousands of cities around the world but if we design these cities to leave no trace of our individual existence, then does anything we did matter? And who will remember it?
One answer to these questions is art.
Soon after he gained power as US President, Donald Trump has continually threatened to cut all funding to the National Endowment For The Arts, the government agency that has offered money and support for artistic endeavours throughout the United States since 1965. Congress has managed to block his efforts for now but the intention is clear: breeding division is more important than nurturing creativity.
Conversely, the state government body in Melbourne, Creative Victoria, which offers grants and funding initiatives to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year has been largely left alone. The loud voices of Australian conservative politics has grown exponentially in the last few years but somehow there’s never been the threat of this arts funding tap being turned off.
In addition to music works programs and billion-dollar arts precincts, the Victorian government keeps creative partnerships in schools flowing for young artists still figuring what they want to achieve in life.
It’s easy to forget that in these troubling times, how remarkable it is that a state government, and a city, believes art is still valuable enough to throw money at.
From June to October of this year, Creative Victoria supported MEL&NYC, a city-wide arts project dedicated to exhibitions which celebrated the cultural connection between New York City and Melbourne. Gallery exhibitions, film festivals, installations and workshops all across Melbourne blended art from the two cities together to not only celebrate artists of all types but also just to throw freeform art up in the air and see what came down.
Events like this don’t just happen. They take a massive amount of dedication, planning and most importantly, passion. Art can only thrive if cities like these give it enough life and room to breathe. But when it does, it can inspire new ways of thinking and help people see the world in a different light.
That’s exactly what happened at a small gallery bar in Collingwood during the month of August. A bar filled with games.
As part of MEL&NYC, BarSK and Melbourne’s RMIT University commissioned three New York game developers and artists to show their work at an exhibit called Artworld Videogames and as a result, connect with Melbourne for the first time. All three had never visited Australia before but Robert Yang laughs about already having a sense of it through his work.
“I knew it was this cosmopolitan, cool city. If you hang out in indie games, you have to deal with all these fucking Australians and you have to hear about Melbourne.” Yang is an Assistant Arts Professor at New York University and veteran indie game developer. He’s here showing his new game Ruck Me, which is a mix of homoeroticism in Australian Rules Football and a study in practical thinking.
A blow-up sex doll wearing a football jumper acts as the controller and experimentation naturally occurs as bar patrons massage its body in front of footage of a Richmond vs Collingwood match. Massage the controller correctly to give you more time to take a mark, which is reflected on the screen via huge font and frenetic countdown clocks. On opening night, it is extremely popular with people who play it.
Yang is delighted by how his game resonates with the bar crowd. “Some people are embarrassed a little bit not to know anything about AFL, even though they live here. And then they don’t really know how the game works. I designed for those people who are kind of aware of how AFL works or what sports culture asks of them.”
“I think people who don’t know anything about AFL will stand there and wait for stuff to happen like in a video game. But that’s what attracts me to AFL and sports culture stuff where it’s more of a hangout kind of thing. It’s like an excuse for you to talk to someone by saying stuff like ‘Oh you hear Hawthorn did so-and-so last week?’. I think for me, as someone who comes from video games, that fascinates me. That kind of interaction. I wish video games could chill like that and that’s what we could get from AFL.”
If one of the purposes of this entire exhibition is to display a connection between New York and Melbourne, ‘Ruck Me’ is a perfect example of achieving it, both directly and indirectly. Yang’s first trip to a live AFL game a few days earlier was a learning experience. He laughs as he describes it as the complete opposite to New York’s in-your-face spectacle of sporting events.
“When I go to New York baseball games, they tell you what to clap on the Jumbotron. They say “Clap like this!” and everyone does it. It’s much more structured, like the stadium is trying to get you have a good time. That’s what I was surprised about when I went to see AFL. Where’s the spectacle? Why isn’t it telling us what to chant? It was the heckling that was much more of an art here.”
As his week-long exhibition continued, it was clear that links were starting to be established. Gay sex and football. Games and sport. An engaged audience and a creator. Yang also noticed a gap where New York and Melbourne could connect further.
“I feel like I’ve had a really good experience showing my game here [at BarSK]. New York doesn’t really have anything like this exactly. For Melbourne, it’s cool to have a street-level public face for all this in a permanent space. It’s made me wonder how do I steal all this knowledge and make my own version in New York.”
The same goes for Nicole He, a creative technologist at Google’s Creative Lab. In her current side-career making experimental games, she has produced everything from cat-petting simulators and Tinder robotics to soylent-ejaculating phalluses. For this exhibit, Nicole feels her games have found the right kind of place to be shown.
“I’m really impressed because I think it’s hard to make a community space like this. It can happen organically but you can’t force it. I think it would be really hard to make something like this in New York. It would be hard to cultivate the same feeling of community and positive vibes. Because I think it’s too easy for arseholes to wander into a bar in New York. It would depend on the location but this doesn’t feel like it could happen anywhere.”
Among her numerous games on display, two of them definitely stand out. One is a cyberpunk game entitled ENHANCE.COMPUTER, which uses an analogue-style interface to simulate zooming in and enhancing images to solve crimes, all via voice interaction commands.
The other is Secret Dunny Box, an AI-assisted voice box installed in BarSK’s toilet. As a bar patron uses the bathroom, they receive an anonymous message from the last occupant and then leave one of their own for the next person.
Nicole was sure Secret Dunny Box could only work correctly in the right bathroom. “I save all the messages in a text file and I haven’t read the most recent ones but they were mostly very positive messages and a bunch of poop jokes. I didn’t see anything that was negative or trolly.”
“In most places I wouldn’t install a project like that because it’s very risky to make something that allows people to say anything unfiltered. That’s a dangerous thing to do in any format. I had the project in mind before now but I was concerned. You can imagine in a different bar it would full of racist messages or whatever but seeing the type of graffiti in there made me feel very comfortable.”
Voice activation and AI-assistants are tricky things to display in public as they rely on specific inputs and more importantly, a stable internet connection. But as Nicole discovered, Australia’s internet and her desire for experimentation kind of met in the middle.
“It’s been a challenge for me because I feel like I’m a beginner at all of this stuff. I’m always hacking things together and I can make the connected devices work in certain conditions but it’s all a learning experience. The thing that was a little stressful was a lot of the projects were hardware or connected devices and apparently the internet in Australia isn’t good. That’s a thing that I’ve learned since coming here. It’s mind-blowing to me that it’s an actual problem. All my games have Raspberry Pi that require a connection in order to work properly. But then I think how much of it is the spotty internet and how much of it is how I built it? Probably both.”
Put together by BarSK’s owner Louis Roots, game designer/consultant Katie Stegs and RMIT lecturer Douglas Wilson, Artworld Videogames is an educational experience for people from both New York and Melbourne. As beers are served, people meet and exhibits are shown, surprising similarities are discussed. Both cities share the inherent desire to keep a strong identity within their suburbs and boroughs. You’re not just from New York, you’re from Brooklyn. You’re not just someone who lives in Melbourne, Collingwood runs in your blood.
There does indeed seem to be a cultural and artistic connection here. One which clearly has emotional resonance for people in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. But they are distinct enough to know that this sense of identity and character should not only protected but preserved for the future. People from different sides of the planet realise that they give a damn about the same thing.
Zach Gage is a designer, conceptual artist and lifelong New Yorker. As with the other two artists, his exhibit runs for a week but that’s been long enough to get a sense what makes this other city tick.
“On a gut level I have felt a sense of familiarity when I gone to different areas of Melbourne. Those areas feel different from each other and they manifest themselves enough in the way people dress and how they walk and what they talk about.”
To ensure proper functionality, Gage tests his games for dozens of hours in a finished state before releasing them for public consumption. But this only ensures the beginning of the relationship that they have with the player, something he sees as complex, strange and exciting.
“One of the things that’s unique about games is that the joy in them comes from the fact that you don’t understand them. It’s not like a painting or a sculpture when you fully understand every part of it. With a game you can never understand every part. If you can, then it’s no longer fun because you’ve achieved this perfect mastery and there’s nothing new to explore and there’s no risks to take.”
His most attention-grabbing exhibit here is Twitter Teaches Typing, a solitary typing game (on a monitor that purposely faces away from the rest of the bar) which plays with the notion of how Twitter has influenced language, society and human interaction.
In the game, you can’t delete anything you type, it punishes you for errors and allows you to discover an anti-social side of yourself that you may not have even known was there. Zach says that all of this was by design.
“What I tried to do was put together an over the top version of Twitter in both how you engage with it and what it’s actually like. Because people are learning to type using Twitter and also learning to think and speak using Twitter. People take the kind of structure of conversation they learn in Twitter and bring it back into the real world.”
The exciting part of experimental games is how people interact with them. This gives the developer a new understanding of what they thought they were making in addition to how an audience interprets it. It is this data that helps to shape a very exclusive relationship and cultural understanding for the future. Gage believes in these positive benefits that his work can have.
“I feel art is a lens on trying to capture a moment and preserving history and giving people a way to step back and consider what they’re doing. That’s why I feel that cynical or sarcastic art is too two-dimensional and it’s not contributing something valuable to the world. It’s adding to this ever-growing void of horribleness.”
It’s instantly clear what horribleness he’s referring to. It’s in the news every day and in every decision made by so many politicians around the world. It’s the general feeling of unease throughout the world in the last few years. Throughout this exhibit, while connections were being made between New York and Melbourne, Gage saw that not all these links were positive.
“We were in a cafe the other day getting breakfast and we were sitting next to a guy with an Alex Jones sticker on his iPad. It was really shocking because Melbourne seems like such a progressive city to be in. That would not happen in New York, there are establishments that would kick you out [for that].”
After speaking with all three developers over the period of a month, one common thread came to the surface. This opportunity given to them by BarSK, RMIT University and Creative Victoria was sorely needed back in New York. Despite its reputation of The City That Never Sleeps and outsider’s belief that it was an epicentre of so many industries, Yang, He & Gage all commented on the wide gap in New York’s artistic landscape where a home for this type of art and these kind of games should live.
In the past, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and gallery spaces like Brooklyn’s Babycastles gave this artistic community a fleeting chance to thrive but the general feeling from these particular New Yorkers was that it was nowhere near strong enough.
In Melbourne, not only had they encountered an audience that was receptive their work but they also found a feeling of security which was not always given to this type of art. People who viewed their exhibits were eager for homoerotic AFL games, some positive vibes from bathroom strangers and self-education with a solitary keyboard.
The developers, organisers and audience involved with Artworld Videogames were just a small part of city-wide project that lasted months. However, the different types of cultural, artistic and emotional impacts left by this small event will last a lot longer. For people in both cities