Interview with Eddo Stern, by Thomas Beard

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Interview with Eddo Stern, by Thomas Beard

Last month at Cinematexas, Eddo Stern unveiled Darkgame (prototype), a
videogame installation in which two participants, playing against each
other, maneuver avatars around a two-dimensional plane, their movements
projected against the gallery wall. What's unusual about this scenario is
that the experience for both parties involves elements of sensory
deprivation. One person is completely "blind," unable to view the main
interface and responding only to nonvisual cues: the vibrations of a headset
Stern designed to correspond with the location of the opposing player, and
related audio signals. And while the other character is able to see the
action play out in real time, the field of play becomes obscured when he or
she is hit and small patches of gray begin to expand. Sure to open up new
avenues for gaming, it's an education of the senses and a truly heady mod.

Well known for his work on such projects as Tekken Torture Tournament, where
gamers endured electric shocks relative to the injuries of their onscreen
fighters, and Waco Resurrection, in which players assume the role of David
Koresh as government authorities advance on the Branch Davidian compound,
Stern's art challenges and expands not only our relationships with
videogames, but also the social and political histories from which they
spring. In this interview, Thomas Beard speaks with Stern about his latest
work, as well as MIDIs, memes, and the act of straddling the worlds of art,
industry, and internet culture.

Thomas Beard: Let's begin with Darkgame. How did the piece evolve and when
did you become interested in this idea of sensory deprivation in gaming?

Eddo Stern: Well, it's an old idea that I've been sitting on for a few years
now. Before Waco I wanted to make a game where you can't see but it got
sidelined. Eventually it evolved into this new gaming concept that I'm
trying to work with, a kind of empirical role-play. In researching my
article "A Touch of Medieval," I was getting to this place where role play
breaks down: the idea of the "real"-non-roleplaying player, the real
character action, how dexterous their fingers are, or how social they are or
how aggressive, the idea of real physical and mental abilities versus the
idea of role playing, how those aspects of the person eventually come
through into a game and what it would be like to build games around these

Where it happened for me was in Everquest–because I have a really bad sense
of direction–and in the early days of that game they made it hard for you
to get around. There were no maps, so basically your memory and your sense
of direction were all you had. Eventually they developed the Ranger class,
and they had this ability called tracking. As a Ranger you would have an
extra interface, like a radar you could use to navigate, and for me this was
the decisive reason to "roll" that character class, a class that
artificially compensated for a physical/mental weakness that I had. I was
kind of like a bionic character; suddenly you're experiencing the opposite
of what happens in real life, being the guy with the super sense of
direction who people ask for directions

Two other big inspirations for Darkgame are certain Paul Bowles short
stories–one is called "The Tender Prey," which has to do with torture and
exoticism–and JG Ballard's "Manhole 69," which is about a sleep deprivation

TB: Do you see this particular project moving in new directions?

ES: I'm interested in making it a game that blind people and seeing people,
for instance, could play together, a game where the abilities of the blind
person would become a benefit in the game, a boon to them, kind of what I
was talking about before, the relationships of different types of talents
that people have and different types of disabilities that the computer
processes into different character types. The game is going to evolve into a
3D game using Torque, which is the same engine we used in Waco, and I'm also
going to play around with having the players fluctuate between deprivation
and full sensory overload, bombarded by too much information. So for example
having them process mental puzzles or challenges or quizzes while performing
with hand-eye coordination. That's a part of the game that I'm pretty
excited about.

You know Open Mind? It's a research project started at MIT, creating a
database of common sense knowledge for an artificial intelligence by feeding
it true/false statements, and last I checked they were up to three quarters
of a million. Curiously, while I was researching this in the beginning of
this year I found another project online called Mindpixel, which is
basically the same exact project except it's a corporate venture, not
attached to a research institute. Something about this idea really hooked
into me, and at the time I was using the data from the projects to make up
elements of the overstimulation aspect of the game. So while you're playing,
for instance, you come up to these big robots or creatures and they start
bombarding the players with questions verifying truths from the database. As
you're playing the game you need to respond yes-true, false-true and the
questions move from being very scientific truths to historical truths to
religious truths to truths where you really kind of stop in your tracks.

It also becomes kind of a language poem, this constant staccato of
questions, anywhere from: "The universe is expanding. True or false?" to
"White is a color. True or false?" So there's this idea of certain sensory
deprivation where you will lose your vision as part of the gameplay and
you'll lose your hearing and you'll gain this haptic feedback, which is the
part that I demoed so far, but you'll also be dealing with this
poetic-cerebral layer. Seems very simple at first but before you know it
it's a really high computational order, your brain shuts down. I'm
interested in stressing the brain, in this case logically, but also on a
moral ethical belief level as well with more arbitrary questions about truth
and what we know to be true.

TB: Along the lines of sensory deprivation and stress, considering past work
like Tekken Torture Tournament and Cockfight Arena, you have a longstanding
interest in transforming the experience of gameplay into a decidedly
physical one. What do you find significant about those more corporeal
aspects of your work?

ES: I think one of the quests for game designers is to enhance the gaming
experience beyond these familiar experiences, categories. The idea of action
is one that they've always done, the pleasure of action, that's sort of the
main genre really. But game designers have gradually expanded the play arena
to humor, games that make you laugh, to competition, to social games like
The Sims, to nurturing games where you're building things. But for example
horror poses a problem where cinematic devices used in horror movies simply
don't work in games. I always find that horror games are really not that
scary. The idea of genre that's inherited from film in the game design
thinking process presents a lot of challenges, like drama or true suspense
and horror. And I wanted to see if there's a way to design games that move
into psychological realms of horror and suspense, beyond the boundaries of
irony and cinematic cliches.

For me one place to reclaim a wider range of experience was to incorporate
the body. In a way the body allows for an undeniability of certain emotions,
fear is one that I've worked with, as well as surprise, anxiety and
embarrassment. Tekken was trying to create an experience that can be quite
scary for some people and that really heightens the gameplay. The idea of
anxiety and stress in the face of physical harm, and the process of
overcoming that, allowed a much more compelling experience for a lot of
players. Cockfight was a more casual piece, there's a social element there
of course, the physicality of the game allowed for players to really perform
beyond the confines of something predefined and preprogrammed.

TB: I was also hoping we could talk about music. In a video like Vietnam
Romance, for instance, there seems quite a bit invested in the pop
mythologies of the songs you make use of and the powerful sway that the
nostalgia they evoke holds over us. What kind of role do you see these
soundtracks playing in your pieces, both individually and as a whole?

ES: I use sound in two ways primarily, often simultaneously. I use music
ironically and sometimes very unironically, employing their emotional force.
Sheik Attack is a piece where the music is central to creating a rift
between the more neutral, more mechanized visual footage that you see for
most of the video, so most of the footage that's very lo-res is accompanied
by very rich, baroque music that has a historical and political
significance. At that time it was the most powerful tool I found I could use
to metaphorically recreate this relationship between the emotional weight of
utopian Zionism and growing up under its powerful ideology, and the reality
of manifested Zionism which is much more rough and harsh and harder to come
to terms with. The richness and warmth of the music and the cold tinniness
of the visuals mirror this relationship and constantly temper each other.

Then in Vietnam Romance it's quite a different relationship because I used
MIDI tracks. When you have a very emotional song and then strip out all the
lyrics, all the human voice, but leave the melody, your preserve the
emotional gush but also introduce a feeling of alienation. Somehow I feel
this is the emotion of nostalgia. Regarding the use of MIDIs, I once saw
Alexei Shulgin use them in his show and that really inspired me, his use of
a hollowed out emotion, a hollowed out Russian nostalgia for America.

And in the new piece I'm kind of going in a different place with the music.
I was at the MacDowell Colony earlier this year and I heard a great musician
who was there at the time, Elizabeth Brown. She played a beautiful piece
that was Theremin and flute, pure sci-fi emotion, but not in the way that
cheesy Theremin music can be. I was overcome by it, and in Darkgame, I am
going for a science fictiony, yet politically referenced world. This whole
recent history of post 9/11 events feels like science fiction to me. There
was something about the way 9/11 happened that was so over the top, so
fantastical, as I am sure many people feel, and images from Iraq and
Afghanistan are still resonating on that layer, like a giant statue of
Saddam being felled is so linked for me to JG Ballard's story "The Drowned

TB: Exactly, as though the past five years has just been one long alternate
history story.

ES: Or the high-tech marine with the laser counter and F16s flying over him
riding on a horse in Afghanistan. That was just crazy. The whole conflation
is the visual inspiration for me towards the feel of the world that I want
to recreate in Darkgame. Elizabeth Brown's music for me is that, a strange
connection of science fiction and history, the sort of reality we're
experiencing now.

TB: From film festivals to commercial galleries to conferences and seminars
of various stripes, you've exhibited in a number of very different forums.
Have you been struck by any interesting differences or similarities in how
your work has been received or experienced from venue to venue?

ES: Yeah, it's interesting. The art world I think is somewhat aware of
gaming art but is really fighting to process it on its own terms–of genre
or its historical lineage as fitting it into a movement–and I think pop art
is where it ultimately will fall. On the same hand, that fascination with
pop exists in a parallel non art-world world, internet meme culture, which
to me is really interesting. Recycling icons and mutating them through flash
animations and Photoshop and what they now call mashups–All your base are
belong to us, Punch a Spice Girl–is totally alive and well on the internet
as digital folk art. Tekken was targeted in some ways for that audience, so
once we did it we put up a little QuickTime movie and it had gotten picked
up by Memepool and Metafilter and Fark and other Slashdot-like sites. It's
funny that something like Tekken can work on both worlds at the same time,
net meme culture and within a history of body art and performance as well.

Showing Waco at E3 was exciting, having the industry take a look. I think
with games there's potentially a more complex relationship than we're used
to with, say, products that you buy as gadgets versus fine art objects. The
idea of a game busting into a gamer community, a game that's very different
from what they're used to but that still adheres to some rules and standards
of game design and gameplay technology, that's where I am most happy to be
now. I can see game projects like Tekken and Waco and hopefully the new game
project feeding back into a much larger awareness of what can be done both
with gaming and art.

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Thomas Beard is a writer and curator of film and electronic art. From
2005-2006 he was Program Director of Ocularis, a non-profit media arts
organization based in Brooklyn. Prior to that he served as a programmer at
Cinematexas, and has organized screenings and exhibitions at such venues as
Aurora Picture Show, Chicago Filmmakers, MassArt Film Society, Pacific Film
Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.