Do Aesthetes Dream of Electric Paint?
Interviewing AIAS President Joseph Olin.
Originally posted June 3, 2009 on Game and Player.
Modernism and deconstruction of the last century taught us a lot about art, but didn’t answer every question. If it’s a game, we’re now asking, is it art? I spoke with Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, about video games, beautiful things — and Into the Pixel, a juried exhibition that seeks to combine it all.
Thank you for sitting down with us. Why don’t you tell us about the Into the Pixel show?
Well, Into the Pixel is now into its sixth year. It’s the only professionally curated exhibit of art from game-makers, and it’s the kind of activity the academy is proud to be able to put together with the academy and the Entertainment Software Association. People always say “video games are art,” and some of them are — Flower is a great example of an “art game.” But at the same time, people understand how much talent it takes to make a game; and, artistically, how much talent is required to inspire a team of 60 people to build out these worlds. And that’s the role that concept art plays.
Regarding concept art, do you think that — now that more developers are releasing concept art in book format, etcetera — do you think that’s going to have an impact on how people think about art that goes into a game?
Kevin Salatino, who is the head juror from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for this year’s edition, said it best just yesterday; that the academy’s position is that we are just trying to establish that game art is the equivalent of fine art in many regards, and that our persistence in advancing this will eventually catch up to the market, and establish the market.
One hundred years ago, people didn’t think that what Toulouse Letrec was drawing, what Alphonse Mucha was drawing — their work for hire — was anything other than advertising posters. Now you pay tens of thousands of dollars for these posters that were made in the thousands.
So our belief is that artistic talent continues to evolve, and that when consumers see this art, they’re going to want to buy it. It’s just a matter of time.
It’s said that some games are not considered art. Where do you think that line is?
First and foremost, art is about the emotional expression of artists trying to communicate something to an audience. I think that there’s commercial art, and there’s fine art; and it’s always that fine art was done for its own reason, not because it was sponsored. Even though concept art could be a commercial application, in some cases it’s not. These images were created because an artist was like, “I want to express myself somehow.”
Even though concept art could be a commercial application, in some cases it’s not. These images were created because an artist was like, ‘I want to express myself somehow.’Within gameplay, we’re now at a point with the craft that we can make games that will make you have an emotional connection in ways you wouldn’t before.Okami is a great example. I think Metal Gear Solid is all about you battling Kojima-san. There are the themes of trust that run throughout Resident Evil 5.
I think Flower is really Zen. It’s all about “in that moment.” And in talking to Kellee Santiago about the work — last year we had a runtime image from Flowthat the jurors selected to become a part of the permanent collection — and I was chiding her. “Oh come on, you didn’t give me a screen image, you gave me concept art.” And she said, “We tried a screen image from Flower, but it doesn’t work. All the things that are happening spontaneously in Flowerdon’t happen easily. That’s why we went with the concept art, because that’s what inspired the team to build it.”
If you had to pick a game as your favorite — just the most beautiful game you had ever seen — what would it be?
Oh, I don’t know — they’re all beautiful! Truly, they are. The worlds are so fantastic. My personal aesthetic tends to float somewhere near Bioshock, just in terms of being lost in that Art Deco, timeless Thirties-Forties period, where it’s unknown but familiar. I really do love Flower — I’m a guy, I play Flower, it’s all right — just because it takes you to a place where you’re not expecting to go. And because I grew up watching The Jetsons, I love Ratchet & Clank — I mean, you look at that whole world and it’s like living in a Pixar movie. So there’s different art styles that give you a feeling of dread, or awe, or just whimsy. That’s the great range of things.
Do you think there might be a kind of stigma to the artwork we see here? Take Mario or Viva Pinata. Do you think that if people see that, it might turn them away?
People’s interpretation of art is so broad; partially because it should be, partially because — what is art? It’s back to that emotional connection. That’s why young children will rip pages out of magazines — it’s because there’s an emotional connection. At a past E3, there was a chalk artist who created a mural, down in the lobby of the south hall. That’s art.
We have a broad tolerance. It’s hard to take Modern Warfare and say, “That’s an artistic endeavor.” Although without the great art, you wouldn’t want to play in that world, there’s not an emotional connection; it’s visceral, the adrenaline rush. More and more you’re seeing games whose narrative component makes you think. And the art will have to help drive that process.
What do you think the future holds for Into the Pixel?
It’s taken on a life of its own. When it was initially put together, it was intended as the tenth anniversary commemorative for E3. We thought it would be once, and done. Here we are, six years later, and people can’t get enough of it. Right now, it’s sitting in the Stuttgart Design Center, it will be at Gamescom, it’s been at a number of different galleries in New Zealand. We thought Into the Pixel would be once, and done. Here we are, six years later, and people can’t get enough of it.Our hope is that we’ll find a welcome audience in the museum world, so people who like art and people who like games will take advantage of the images.
We have about 96 pieces in our permanent collection, and since putting them on the Into the Pixel website on Monday, we’ve had 300,000 unique visits. We’ve been sharing that information with our museum people: 300,000 visitors to a temporary exhibit is a home run. The power of the internet really makes a difference. If you’re generally interested in paintings, it’s something to bridge the world of the established gallery or museum and the world of the independent artist. We’re happy to be part of that bridge.
Do you personally own any gaming artwork?
I do! Once a year, the academy will auction off a strike of the collection to help fund the program, and I wrote a check to the academy for one particular piece. It’s calledGravedigger’s Lab, concept art from Fable II — very dark and foreboding!
Is there anything else you want to say?
Into the Pixel has proven there’s incredible talent from within the world of interactive entertainment. If people wonder where games are going, or whether games are special, all they have to do is look down one of these walls or go to the website and look at some of the images. I think the answer is pretty apparent. Games on the floor, here, at E3 — some are really fantastic. And some are just pure fun. In this world of entertainment, sometimes you want to get lost, sometimes you just want to laugh, sometimes you want five minutes on your iPhone so you can pass the time.
It’s great. And next year’ll be better. I can say that blindly and know it’s true, because the people who want to make games — they’re there.