Through October 4, the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach is presenting “WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon”, an exhibition that considers the fantasy environment of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft and its broader cultural impact. It includes works by gaming-conscious artists like Tale of Tales and Radical Software Group as well as pieces produced by staff at the company that develops WoW, Blizzard Entertainment. Curator Grace Kook Anderson answered a few questions about the show.
What aspects of World of Warcraft as an emergent media phenomenon do you find most interesting as a curator?
WoW has been a rich subject. What I find compelling in this game is that the narrative lineage passing through J.R.R. Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons sets the framework of the game, but the players add that extra narrative layer. Another aspect that is remarkable is the democratic nature of cultural production that a game like WoW stimulates, such as the enormous volume of fan art and machinima to artists working in different media. And as an MMORPG, WoW is also a network and a community for so many people. It is amazing how game culture and reality interact.
Could you discuss a few of the artworks you selected and how they expand on these aspects of gaming in general and massively multiplayer gaming in particular?
In the case of quite a few of the artists, WoW imagery or content is used to point to greater issues, such as questioning the idea of networking and community or looking at the implications of globalization and the threat of terrorism. Aram Bartholl led a workshop and performance takes an aspect from the virtual world of WoW and displaces it in the real world to create a humorous, public intervention. Participants produce signs with their own names and then walk through a city with the signs above them, going about everyday activities such as getting coffee, crossing the street, walking along the beach, or playing basketball.
Jacqueline Goss’ Stranger Comes to Town (2007) juxtaposes interviews with six people about their experiences coming to the United States. Their voices are heard through their animated WoW avatars, who appear in a WoW landscape that is cut with reworked animation from the Department of Homeland Security. Banal yet suspicious bureaucracy meets a strangely rendered environment, which takes on a sense of liquid movement and continually shifting perspectives.
Robert Nideffer’s 2007 BC (2009) is structured in a triptych format that references medieval iconography and painting, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1504). 2007 BC depicts an epic battle between two of the top guilds in WoW. The artist used screenshots of the guild’s leaders and recreates the social subplots between the players, which he deduced from message boards.
How did you go about researching the topic? Did you feel the need to immerse yourself in the topic by playing?
I come from a generation that grew up with video games, but my own knowledge of gaming stopped at consoles like the Sega I had at home. Learning about WoW was very different and I did feel the need to immerse myself. I played for a dedicated month and read as much as I could about gaming and about WoW in particular. But in my research, I also became interested in overarching ideas of medievalism and neo-medieval currents in today’s global and political climate—Umberto Eco’s Dreaming in the Middle Ages and Bruce Holsinger’s more recent Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror were particularly useful—and subversive attitudes using the medium of an MMORPG.
How did you coordinate your work with Blizzard’s Tim Campbell and Eddo Stern, one of the participating artists who also acted as a curatorial consultant?
Tim Campbell is the curator at Blizzard Entertainment, so naturally I worked closely with him on the concept of the exhibition. Eddo Stern was one of the first artists I had in mind. I was first introduced to his work by a 2004 group exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco titled “Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifact.” I also knew Eddo had curated quite a few machinima screenings, so I asked him to curate that portion of the programming. Both Tim and Eddo have been really great in helping me understand the game from different ends of the spectrum. Robert Nideffer, Antoinette LaFarge, and the Third Faction have also been really great at helping me understand the impact of WoW while I prepared for this exhibition.
“WoW: Emergent Media Phenomenon” is funded in part by Blizzard Entertainment. The connection between topic and sponsor brings to mind exhibitions like the Chanel retrospective at the Metropolitan, or “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim, which drew criticism for using the museum as a platform for corporate PR. Did any of the artists involved express concern about being instrumentalized in the promotion of Blizzard Entertainment?
All fourteen artists outside of Blizzard Entertainment expressed interest in this dialogue to the range of works in the exhibition, whether in favor or in criticism of the game and its producers. In many instances, I think it makes for an unusual commingling.
Does the display attempt to balance the approaches of game designers and the discourse of contemporary art, and if so, how?
I don’t think my attempt was to create a balance to the approaches of game designers and the discourse of contemporary art. I was curious to see how these apparently disparate pieces of game design and contemporary art worked together, by putting an image from Blizzard’s creative team alongside an artist’s appropriation of it. My other intent in mixing these in the exhibition was to invite gamers less exposed to art to see what is being produced, and museum-goers unfamiliar with gaming to consider the cultural impact of a game.