YOU ARE DEAD (2013)

by Coll.eo

Programmed electronic display sign made of metal and plastic 50 x 6.5 x 2.5 inches.

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Artist Statement

"Death …, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus)

YOU ARE DEAD is a commercially obtainable single line electronic display sign that Coll.eo has programmed to visualize a series of statements relating to death and its ramifications in video games. The statements take the form of quotes, judgments, and sentences. Overall, there are approximately two hundred texts selected from a variety of video games.

YOU ARE DEAD hijacks Jenny Holzer’s Truism series produced between 1977-9, which was subsequently adapted to programmable LED display signs. Specifically, YOU ARE DEAD is based on Holzer’s T03959 (1984). While Holzer’s statements were aphoristic - e.g. “DECADENCE CAN BE AN END IN ITSELF”, “DRAMA OFTEN OBSCURES THE REAL ISSUES”, “ENJOY YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU CAN'T CHANGE ANYTHING ANYWAY” - several messages displayed by YOU ARE DEAD are apodictic. They include imperatives, commands, and comments. Some may appear cryptic for a viewer unfamiliar with video game jargon. Consider, for instance, “LOOTING IS GOOD”. Looting refers to the process by which a player characters obtains items such as in-game currency, equipment, or weapons, often from the corpse of a creature or possibly the corpse of another player in a Player vs. Player situation.

Some messages are double entendres. For example, the opening text, “GOD MODE” refers to a game mechanic or cheat which prevents the playing character from being harmed or killed in a videogame. But it may also refer to God’s mode of being - which has been the subject of intense philosophical diatribes well before the invention of recreational electronics. Each quote is complete in itself, but overall, the texts can be read as a coherent discourse about death (as a state) and failure (as a process). For instance, “GOD MODE” is followed by “YOU ARE DEAD”, “PERMADEATH” (a situation in which player characters die permanently and are removed from the game), “YOU FAILED” and “EPIC FAIL”, which could suggest a nietzschean reading.

Other texts include “YOUR DEATH WILL NOW BE IMPLEMENTED”, “YOUR SKILLS WERE NOT UP TO THE TASK”, “STATUS: DECEASED”, “ fell to a clumsy, painful death”, “HAVE A NICE DEATH”, “I’LL RIP YOU HEAD OFF AND SHIT DOWN YOUR NECK”, “I WILL MAKE YOU MY BITCH”, ”KILL & TEABAG”, “KILL YOUR BOSS”, “STAB THE TROLLS”, “CATASS UNTIL YOU DIE”, “HATE”, “FARMING KILLS”, “NUCLEAR LAUNCH DETECTED”, “GRINDING IS HELL”, and “AGGRO”.

The memory of the electronic sign, which has a capacity of approximately 10,000 characters and commands, limits the amount of material that can be displayed. The messages are shown in loop. Holzer’s T03959 sequence took approximately half an hour to run. The entire set of YOU ARE DEAD messages take less than five. Times have changed. Attention spans have shortened. The statements always reappear in the set order. Most of the quotes move left to right across the display. Simple visual effects have been implemented for specific words or quotes, e.g. “flash” or “explode” modes. Some, like “ZOMBIE MODE”, scroll up. Others, like the aforementioned “GOD MODE”, scroll down. Some texts are displayed on the screen for one or two seconds before disappearing, suggesting an emphasis All messages are displayed in bright red.

In Holzer’s Truisms series the theme of death was specifically addressed by the following message: DYING AND COMING BACK GIVES YOU CONSIDERABLE PERSPECTIVE. Depending on the context, this statement can be interpreted as paradoxical - due to the physical impossibility of “coming back” from death, as death is commonly understood as the irrecoverable discontinuation of vital processes - or perfectly logical if applied to videogames where resuscitation (respawning in first person shooters) is often contemplated. In digital games, lives might be lost then revived. Or restored. In real life, death is the “extreme possibility” (Martin Heidegger). In games, just a possibility. Dying in games can constitute a learning process. Hence, coming back from death gives [the player] a considerable perspective.

The incongruous nature of death in videogames is linguistic rather than ontological. The textual communication - YOU ARE DEAD - emphasizes the schism between the person and the persona, the player and the avatar, the human operator and the alter ego. On one level, videogames tend to blur the distinction between these two entities - so that the player often refers to the actions performed the avatar in the first person (“I have killed the monster”, “I reached level 5” and so on). On another level, players’ failures - which culminate with the death of their digital counterpart - radicalize such separation. The message YOU ARE DEAD suggests an equivalence between the player and the avatar and, in doing so, it constitutes a paradox, a statement that is seemingly contradictory and yet is perhaps true.

“YOU ARE DEAD” is a performative contradiction, that is, a statement whose propositional content contradicts the presuppositions of asserting it. To be meaningful, the statement YOU ARE DEAD requires a cognizant, operative, conscious subject recognizing herself or himself as bereft of life, defunct, erased, which is clearly impossible as being cognizant and defunct are mutually exclusive. In other words, the very act of proposing such a statement (YOU ARE DEAD) presupposes the receiver of such message to be able to understand it (i.e. to be familiar with the rules and conventions of the English language). But in order to understand it, the receiver must be alive.

In a sense, for the game to end - and to be recognized as such - the Game must continue.

Coll.eo is Colleen Flaherty and Matteo Bittanti

San Francisco, April 30, 2013

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