THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
The show currently up at Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery is titled “Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games.” In biology, polymorphism describes the appearance of multiple forms within a single population, colony, or organismal life-cycle. Brice Puls, VGA’s Manager of Exhibitions, explained it is like bread. Bread is the base condition for sourdough and a multitude of other baked varieties. In the biological sciences, polymorphism codes an understanding of species as having multiple physical manifestations: organisms which may look very different but are closely related.
The show aims “to explore a variety of ways that queer people create their own branches off the base class of intimacy.” Think of intimacy in gaming being explored as not just a reward function of a game, but as the function of the game itself.
The idea of polymorphism is already queer. Thinking that there is an infinitude of expressions of sexuality and pleasure, that these can be fixed identities as well as flexible ones—all makes sense to me inherently. What interests me is that this is a gaming phenomenon. If games can code a response and permutate upon the base figures of intimacy, it becomes instantly interesting in a sociopolitical context. The works run the gamut but almost all ask the player to engage erotically in some shape or form with the game.
In Robert Yang’s Radiator 2: Anniversary Edition, one sees three figures, all ostensibly the same character, in different positions and perspectives. The background glows lovingly—in even a heavenly way—and the player moves a mouse in order to shove a corndog back and forth in the main character’s mouth. The character looks on, through sunglasses, in underwear. Not just any underwear, but the kind of tighty-whities that get dirty overnight. As the player engages the corndog with the figure, it slowly disappears and leaves trails of oil slipping down the character’s face. As the player nears completion, the figures in the background undulate wildly and, in some cases, start to dance around. It is orgasmic, clearly, and the entire purpose of the game is to essentially face-fuck the character with a corndog until the corndog is gone and you are rewarded with a humorous ending.
In Free Lives’ piece Genital Jousting, a friendly-looking penis ambles around life with various prerogatives such as asking another pair of friendly penises out on a dates and trying to go on vacation. The penises are stand-ins and have multiple genders as well as anuses which feature prominently in the game.
As the player navigates through the game, butt plugs show up at various stages. The penis can pull these into its anus in order to ejaculate. While this generates pleasure, and the game seems to center around this function, another confounding factor is the presence of hazards such as cacti. Bumping into any number of these results in the projection of blood instead of semen. At the show’s opening, players seemed visibly wary at first to play, though it seemed to enthrall everyone with humor. There was not a moment that a crowd was not circled around this piece.
In at least two other video pieces, the point was to kiss. One that caught my attention occurred in an 8-bit world where the player is given essentially two functions and one prerogative: to move a queer couple about a screen, occupied by small houses and police officers, and find the place where they can kiss without being “seen” by the police.
Stills from Robert Yang’s Radiator 2: Anniversary Edition, 2018. Video game. Image courtesy Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery.
Again, I suppose because it is gaming, there is a humor and excitement to playing. However, the game is self-consciously built upon the criminal history of queer affection. Even as late as the mid-2000s, sodomy laws were being debated in state courts. The game not only riffs off of historical fact but also “gamifies” this history. As opposed to feeling like a trivializing gesture, the game feels relevant to a dynamic which many would still understand: the things which we do that are simply a polymorphic manifestation of living are often illegal and must be done secretly to avoid sociopolitical punishments.
I left the show thinking about how the world is inherently polymorphic. This concept serves as a stand-in for “queer” in the biological and computer sciences. We exist as polymorphic beings already. This does not exclude the possibility of a gender or sexuality which has heretofore been the traditional, handed-down category. It simply means there’s more. In fact, there is an infinite number—as many possibilities as there are people to feel them. What this show does provide is an awareness that within every binary is the automatic existence of infinitudes. The binary is just one way of thinking about it.
Kara Stone, the earth is a better person than me, 2018. Video game. Image courtesy Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery.
VGA Gallery itself is an interesting space. The opening was packed full of people, some from the world of art, some from the world of computers and video games. It was diverse and interactive, surprising in its breadth and scope. I had the feeling that there is probably a lot more behind the idea than just the Chicago space.
When asked, Puls mentioned Babycastles in New York, the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) in Oakland, the Computerspielemuseum in Berlin and the Digital Art Demo Space in Chicago. More mainstream art galleries and museums such as the V&A in London and Schwules Museum in Berlin are just two of many others catching on to this growing genre.
Despite the vivacity of the medium and its relevance to contemporary thought around art and culture-making, Puls noted that the idea of video game art still struggles to find validity in a traditional art world. “Video games are art just as much as any other medium,” Puls says, “and therefore, video game artwork as a core definition is, well, any video game. Unlike other mediums though, the outlets that people have to show off video games are most often blatantly commercial and have more similarities with a trade show than an exhibition.... So, I think we have a responsibility to not only show the history but show work that doesn't have a real venue to be publicly displayed in the manner of a traditional fine art gallery.”
As the world becomes more and more deeply affected by the digitally parallel world, the effect that the aesthetics and interactions we have in this space has on the physical world can potentially become more pronounced. With this in mind, places like VGA Gallery will most likely be seen, in retrospect, as a burgeoning avant-garde location where these ideas first took hold.
Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games is on view through April 28, 2019, at Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery, 2418 W. Bloomingdale Ave., Apt. 102, Chicago, IL.
Whit Forrester is an artist living in Chicago. They have shown at the Satellite Art Show, the International Museum of Surgical Science, Aspect/Ratio, the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, and at Kuir Bogotá in Colombia. Their solo show opens January 11, and you can find their work currently exhibited in the show "Groundings" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
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