Hampering the search for real criticism: the algoritualism of Youtube culture

This is the fourth post in a series about problems facing games criticism – see part one here. It was inspired by an article by games producer Jessica Price, which appears to misguidedly imply that there is no in-depth games criticism being done. While I know for certain that a great deal of quality games criticism is being made every week – it was my job at Critical Distance to curate it for almost three years – I also think that this work is becoming harder and harder to find, unless you happen to know where to look. And despite appearing misinformed about the current state of games criticism, Price’s article brings up some insightful points about what criticism could offer games culture.

Video games are a geek medium, and the hallmark of the geek is passion and deep engagement. In theory, with an audience primed to devour and pore over every detail, the back-and-forth conversation we have through games should be richer than other media. It’s not.

Price hits on something about games culture here that I find deeply tragic. Yes, geek culture is primed to “pore over every detail”, but this can produce a wood-for-the-trees situation. People make massive amounts of content analysing games, but not everyone connects their experiences in a game to some wider issue, or synthesizes it all into a coherent, concise message. A lot of people are just collecting ludonarrative trinkets in large quantity, and showing off their discoveries like a sort of new media cabinet of curiosities. It used to be that people learned to be concise by writing – either because you believed that nobody would read a blog post over 3000 words, or because you were writing for an editor who helped you to figure out the actual point of what you were saying. These factors are weakening or vanishing for a few reasons: in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on video.

Video seems to get a much larger audience than writing, though my perception of this has admittedly been skewed by figures from Facebook that later turned out to have been falsified. It’s still a notion that makes intuitive sense though – after all, you can eat your dinner and watch a video, but reading requires constant use of your eyes, which makes it a bit difficult to wield a fork. With the sort-of demise of RSS and Twitter, Youtube has looked like the best place to build an audience – a stressful thing to contemplate if you’re someone whose identity makes you more vulnerable to abuse in Youtube’s rabid comments sections.

I have intense feelings about video as a medium for critical writing. My favourite movies are probably Adam Curtis films. To me, arguments have shapes to them, and it’s thrilling to see that shape sketched out using three different mediums at the same time – visuals, music, and narration. I’ve done a bit of video work, and had a taste of how bloody difficult it is to do it well, and how satisfying it is when once in a while you manage edit together a few seconds that actually communicate elegantly.* I don’t think video essays are killing good writing, or that they’re intrinsically bad in any way. But after just a few months at Critical Distance, I was utterly exhausted by them, and I never quite figured out what was the best way to deal with them amid the 300-500 other pieces I had to filter through every week: you can’t skim-read a video, and most Youtubers don’t upload their scripts (Heather Alexandra is a great exception to this), even though most games criticism is heavily reliant on narration, and treats visuals and music as necessary filler, rather than part of the medium of expression. Most of the video essays I was sent left me feeling like I was being forced to sit and do nothing while someone talked at me.

This is potentially a disastrous direction for games criticism to take. Imagine asking where all the “real games criticism” is, and being directed to a one-note feature-length movie where some unseen dude just talks endlessly in a monotone, “poring over every detail” about the level design in Far Cry 4 or whatever, with no clear thesis or conclusion. This overwhelmingly long video is on a website that is a hotbed of fascist recruitment, where the autoplaying next video suggested by Google is some alt-right windbag complaining about videogame feminists. It’s not encouraging. It’s not welcoming. It’s not what anybody imagines when they go looking for critical writing. But that’s where criticism has been steadily migrating since Twitter became less appealing.

There’s not much intrinsic to the medium of video that lends itself to directionless rambling. Most video essays about games are scripted first and then read into a microphone, so this isn’t exactly a case of a diarist talking to a camera unedited for a very long time. Remember the early years of Youtube, when it was believed that nobody would watch an internet video for longer than 5 minutes at a time? It’s just a memory now. By the end of my time at Critical Distance, I felt lucky if I was sent a video essay about games that was less than half an hour long. People who make content for Youtube say that the reason for this is a widespread belief about Google’s algorithm.

Youtubers often seem extremely algorithm-focused, in a way that borders on a kind of quasi-religious folk belief system. One tenet of this belief system is that shorter videos are deprioritised, whereas longer videos are given more prominence in people’s feeds. This is a shame, because it is extremely difficult to make a video that is both very long and high in quality – editing is time-consuming, and writing usually loses focus without a time constraint. There are exceptions to this: some videos by hbomberguy, who seems to be absurdly good at editing, make excellent use of their extended play time to submerge you in a particular game, make an abstract point about game design, and leave you feeling a tiny bit transformed. That said, looking at his channel now, many of my favourites are shorter than I remember: his excellent analysis of Undertale is only 14 minutes long, but it’s so rich that it feels much bigger. In general, a lot of good criticism videos only use 15 minutes or less to make a strong, coherent argument (most videos by Mark Brown, Chris Franklin, and Hamish Black are about this size) and thereby do what Price is looking for:

the critic is a guide, an educator, and an interpreter. The critic makes subtext text, traces themes, and fills in white space. Put another way, the critic helps the audience find deeper meaning in a piece of art.

Hbomb is also one of very few games criticism video creators who use the visual aspects of their medium to convey a way of seeing games – as other examples, I like to read Other Places as succinct, poignant, visual essays, and Satchell Drakes is extremely good at using real-world visuals to express a feeling that the video is exploring in a game. But a lot of video essayist games critics make little to no use of visuals or music to express their points. They read an essay they have written in advance, while gameplay footage is shown that may or may not be illustrative of what’s being read out. This easily goes on for an hour or longer sometimes.

When I’ve asked people how they can stand to watch a sprawling lecture for such a long period of time, people tell me that they don’t – they put these videos on in the background while they do something else. This kind of video may reportedly please the algorithm, but the audience isn’t paying attention. In this situation, the critic isn’t acting as an educator or guide – they’re just keeping their audience company for a while. That’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s not necessarily going to help somebody who is looking for games criticism for the first time.

This algoritualism that drives lower-quality, higher-quantity content production on Youtube is also why it’s very hard to find in-depth discussion of niche indie games, which limits the potential for insightful analyses: creators are in a competitive environment, and don’t want to keep their audience too limited. Chris Franklin shared some useful numbers on this today – this tweet was in the context of a thread about why he’s trying to find creative solutions to the problems facing anyone trying to cover indie games:

 

 

As well as being an unsupportive environment for indie games, Youtube games criticism suffers from poor representation of marginalised identities. It is also extremely cis-male-dominated, no doubt largely because it is a hostile space for women. Some exceptions to this include Alexandra Orlando, who does great, succinct work looking at games in a broader cultural context, and Red Angel, whose Late Night Ponderings provide valuable readings of niche indie games.

 

I understand why critics have turned to Youtube. It’s where people who like videogames already go to watch content related to their interests, and it’s noble to try and create an alternative to the alt-right rabbit hole for those people, many of whom are young and impressionable. It’s also sensible to go where you can get the most views. And the main alternative, Vimeo, explicitly had a no-videogames policy until just a couple of years ago. But when it comes to building the kind of community that Price calls for, Youtube is probably not that great of a fit for games critics – the results when you search “games criticism” on the site are mostly nonsense, so how are newcomers supposed to find the better work happening there?

People complain endlessly about the algorithm, but it is up to creators to decide how far they are going to cater to folk mythology about the whims of a secret AI. People passively rely on the recommendation algorithm to link their viewers to other related creators, even while recognising that the algorithm is making shorter, niche work invisible, and instead promoting far-right abusers who have targeted their peers for harassment. Meanwhile, there are under-utilised features on Youtube that could lend themselves to positive community-building in this space. This regularly-updated playlist of videos about art games is a good example of how the platform could be used for something other than harbouring toxic in-groups.

I often wonder what it would have been like if games criticism had found a home on platforms other than Youtube and Twitter. Vimeo is home to a lot of the more reflective, cinematic video essays about film, and it isn’t cluttered with the bizarre ramblings of angry young men. Imagine if the wider context in which games critics operated when it came to video was this relatively peaceful, niche community of people who make subtle arguments about cinematography?

Another problem with Youtube games criticism is a somewhat surprising lack of citation or linking to other voices. I’ll discuss this in the next post, which covers another problem that has emerged around Youtube but that also affects criticism in general – the focus on promoting individual personalities, which has been smothering opportunities to build creative communities.


* Though I’ve never done the Youtuber thing, and I’m by no means a skilled video maker, I’m not a total stranger to it: I was able to participate in a documentary film course for trans people a couple of years ago, and as part of that I wrote and presented a short film about the role videogames play in trans people’s self-discovery, which got shown at a bunch of festivals; my video essay about single-point perspective was included in BFI Sight and Sound’s list of the best video essays of 2017; and I’m still trying to finish off a series of short films about people who collect and archive games.

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Hampering the search for real criticism: Two platform deaths

See part one of this series

This is the third part in a series of articles about barriers to critical writing on games. It is partly in response to an article written by games producer Jessica Price.

There is, I think, a historical reason why we’re still seeing articles like Price’s on a regular basis that ask “where is all the good writing on games?” Not only is critical writing hard to access, but platform changes happen so quickly that it’s hard to even keep up with the most relevant methods of finding things. Solutions to the discoverability problem quickly become outdated. And the newest platforms hosting the critical discussion might actually be increasing the barrier to entry.

The following is just my read on what I’ve seen happen around me. I’d hesitate to even call it a personal history without doing more research. I bet there’s proper evidence out there that has been examined by someone already, that will show all the ways in which I have the story wrong. I’m only going to cover videogames criticism in online communities here: for a history of more general media criticism pre-internet, see this article I wrote for ZEAL.

Games criticism was until recently focused on blogging – and when we talk about “sites outside the mainstream” we’re still basically talking about blogs (the biggest exceptions to this are PDF zines like Heterotopias.) Blogging used to be at the centre of the discussion, but in the past few years, it has become more diffuse, as attention has been diverted to private platforms.

My early memories of the internet are about little websites on Geocities and Angelfire that were interlinked to like-minded folks’ websites using “webrings”; this was followed by diaries on Livejournal, where people would get into very intense arguments in comments and/or build supportive communities based on productive dialogue. When I was an undergrad, journalling had mainly shifted to blogs, and I had an RSS reader that I would consult at least once a day to keep up on what everyone else was writing. The stuff I wrote on my blog went into an RSS feed that was being read by other people, and they’d publish their own RSS feeds, and we’d write more or less in response to one another. Often you’d comment directly on someone’s post, but even if you only linked to their post in yours, your post would often still be automatically linked as if it were a comment, using a “trackback” or “pingback” system. This way we could get into productive discussions or vicious rows with one another while still having the space to develop our own ideas in full, and build a sense of a web of people who all had interests in the same things and all wrote in-depth stuff about them.

At this point, search engines were a major discovery path for audiences, so as a blogger on any topic you learned some rudimentary search engine optimisation tricks – you made sure your headings were relevant, and you made sure that your posts linked to other posts you’d made in the past. Lots of bloggers would also guest blog on someone else’s site to try and increase their chances of having their work found by wider audiences. So an internet rabbit hole could quickly direct you to a whole online community interested in a niche topic. Critical Distance came about to serve this sort of context.

Proper social media, the kind of thing that I associate with Web 2.0, led to an increasing focus on sharing our thoughts on other people’s platforms, instead of on our own sites. With this shift to a sort of rentier relationship to publishing platforms, people have became increasingly concerned with the algorithms that determine how content is shown to others. This changed blogging, but it didn’t end it – it just meant that everything you wrote on your blog was going to be shared in the form of a title and a lead image, so you had to come up with a title that would attract people. You’d often discuss the content of the post on the platform where people were finding it, rather than in the comments on your own site. Before too long, many of us fell into the habit of just writing long threads on social platforms directly, rather than composing blog posts. This platform was usually Twitter – for whatever reason, Tumblr never became a significant hub for games criticism, and this may have been key to some of the particular dynamics of how games criticism proliferates as compared to criticism of other media. Twitter is far less searchable, and doesn’t really provide a stable home for medium-length pieces of writing.

Discussions on Twitter attracted readers because they were in a public space, and using Twitter made it easier to discover that a particular conversation was happening, compared to relying on search results. Nevertheless, people still wrote articles claiming that games criticism wasn’t going on; to be fair, discovering these conversations depended heavily on being connected to the right people, and a Google search might no longer be a useful way of finding the most relevant critical discussion.

Although none of this is truly consigned to the past, both of these ways of distributing content have suffered some small kind of platform death.

RSS hasn’t been a major thing since Google Reader died – I remember that when they shut it down, I was already getting most of my content through Twitter anyway, and I didn’t really mind. Now I’m using RSS again, but I’m keenly aware that it’s not the main way that other people stay up to date, and it changes the way I imagine my audience.

Twitter, which has never been good for discourse, has been a drier place since 2014 – far fewer people are on Twitter to make friends or have interesting conversations these days, because nobody who was involved in games in 2014 feels safe there. Twitter always had a mean and sarcastic atmosphere, as did the comments sections on blogs, but now it’s also a place where you might end up attracting the attention of someone who wants to sent a SWAT team to your house.

The conversations that used to happen on Twitter are now happening in private spaces, like Discords and Slacks. This should be a positive move, since it increases safety and democratises online spaces in the sense that groups can self-govern more easily. But I think it has led to an increasingly opaque and balkanised atmosphere for online communities like games criticism. It is extremely difficult to learn which Discords to join as a newcomer, so the discussion is harder to access.

Periodically, I go through a phase of trying to figure out where the good Discords and Slacks are. I haven’t yet found the one that’s right for me. And I think a big part of that is because this private form of organising often ends up being intertwined with unequal fan-celebrity relationships. You join the Discord of someone whose games criticism Youtube videos you like, and find yourself surrounded by other people who like that person’s videos – the person you were actually drawn to have a dialogue with is mostly not there. These aren’t peer creator communities, and it’s very difficult to work out the etiquette of sharing your own content in these spaces. It’s hard to imagine how someone new to games criticism would use these spaces to get a bigger picture of what is going on in the space.

Let me be clear: the internet was garbage at every point in this history, and I’m not trying to portray some prelapsarian state when it was all easy and fun. Though I do sometimes like to imagine that a mass migration to Neocities would solve everything.

Instead, we’re seeing a migration to YouTube – that will be the topic of my next post in this series.

See part four.

Hampering the search for real criticism: Mainstream vs. fringe

See part one of this series

This is the second part in a series of articles about why we keep getting articles asking “why is there no real critical writing on games?” – despite there being a large quantity of good critical writing produced every week, and a project dedicated to making sure it doesn’t get lost. This series is partly in response to the most recent such article, written by games producer Jessica Price – but rather than criticising the article, which is relatively insightful, my goal here is to explore the reasons why articles like this continue to be written.

In what I think might have been an edit following some Twitter backlash, Price quickly acknowledges in parentheses that “brilliant game critics” do exist, writing for niche outlets. More thorough guidance by the editor could have ensured that some of them get named here, but by this point the article is what it is, and there isn’t scope to put in a survey of the lay of the land. It’s a shame, because this would have given readers a chance to delve deeper into the kind of work for which she makes such a compelling case, from the perspective of a game producer.

[M]ost of the entries on major game review sites […] tend to focus on specifying what content is in the game and whether it’s fun. In an economic sense, such reviews certainly serve consumers, but they’re not exactly serving those who consume media. (That’s not to say that no one’s doing real criticism: there are plenty of brilliant game critics – mostly writing for sites outside the mainstream.)

This distinction between the “mainstream” and the “brilliant” is particularly interesting in the context in which this article was published. Wireframe is a new videogames magazine sponsored by Raspberry Pi, a hardware platform that is specifically designed for lo-fi, creative projects. These kinds of platforms are behind some of the most exciting work happening in the art scenes that overlap with the games industry. So it’s surprising to see Price’s article, and the magazine as a whole, focus so much on AAA games and mainstream outlets.

Although Price makes a number of comparisons to other media forms, stating that the mainstream of other mediums is more critically engaged, my own experience is that the mainstream of any medium is typically on well-trodden ground, not fertile terrain for critical work that explores what Price calls “the rules of the games artists play”. This goes for film, for novels, for videogames and for critical writing about them. A few years ago I argued, in an article for excellent niche games criticism publication ZEAL, that media criticism has only ever briefly flourished alongside commercial interests – it’s almost always hard to find audiences and make a living doing this, and most writers doing “real” criticism have made a living doing something else.

Games criticism doesn’t pay many people’s bills, and it certainly doesn’t pay the bills if you take your focus away from the mainstream for too long. Audiences typically want writing that explores and embellishes their experiences as players, and that means covering games that lots of people are playing – once in a while, pieces that do this can be very insightful and innovative (I think Kirk Hamilton is good at finding weird, off-kilter ways of exploring player experience that appeal to Kotaku’s mainstream audience), but it’s easier to just tell someone why they’re going to enjoy consuming something. Mainstream audiences want to read about games they have heard of, and they don’t want to feel excluded by the writer’s tone or approach. Writing about art scenes connected with games, and writing about it in a way that makes use of what Dia Lacina recently referred to on Twitter as a “real critical framework”, is a very hard sell to mainstream outlets.

So even at Critical Distance, where we curate and archive the writing that is pushing the conversation forward and helping to do what Price calls for – “guide, educate, and interpret” – AAA releases that make some nod towards intelligent storytelling still dominate our roundups, because that’s where writers’ energy is being focused. Articles about critically-engaging indie games often don’t go into much depth; just making the case that a weird art game is worth playing usually feels like enough educational medicine for one day. Really good criticism thrives, I think, where there is space for in-depth writing on games made with a clear artistic intent (as one example, Lana Polansky has been doing this for basically forever). As Price recognises, you can do this on sites that are outside the mainstream, that pay pocket money or not at all – it is very difficult to do it on a site that sustains its writers, or that is easy for newcomers to find.

So while it’s frustrating, as someone who cares about critical writing on games, to frequently read articles claiming that it simply isn’t being done (or that it isn’t being done enough to the writer’s satisfaction), it’s understandable that this keeps happening. Critically-interesting stuff happens outside of the mainstream, and anything outside of the mainstream is going to be hard to find. I like to think that Critical Distance goes some way towards remedying that problem, but we suffer from the same visibility problem as any niche, critical publication.

And here’s the thing about sites outside the mainstream – it’s really, really hard to keep them going for long enough to make a name for yourself with a large enough audience. My own publication has been in an unplanned hiatus for a long time now, because it is extremely difficult to keep this kind of work high priority when you’re also working to pay the bills, and doing the creative work and research that allow you to actually develop that critical insight to a higher level. I think this is why outlets like Wireframe focus on AAA games despite what looks from the outside like a lot of potential to do something more interesting, and it’s why outlets like Capsule Crit and Deorbital need support.

See part 3: Two platform deaths

Hampering the search for real criticism: Discourse Empress of the World

Discourse Empress of the World

Adapted from Carl Orff’s translation of the Carmina Burana

1. Oh Discourse

Oh discourse
Like the moon
You are changeable,
ever waxing,
and waning.
Hateful career,
first oppresses,
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
obscurity,
and renown
it melts them like ice.

Blogosphere – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is in vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
To your villainy.
The algorithm is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always on duty.
So at this hour
without delay
mash that subscribe button;
since the algorithm
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

The wheel of discourse is always turning, always bringing us back to where we began. Today we find ourselves at a new high noon, as a freshly-launched videogames magazine publishes a “where is all the critical writing on games?” article. This is where we are reborn – in the frustrated wailing of sincere critics, leading to a surge in shares for thoughtful writing that had gone mostly ignored for years. New people are inspired, new writing is done, and the wheel of discourse turns on, driven forward by a fresh crop of writers.

[G]iven the inherent conservatism in the way the industry makes decisions about content, would we be making more art if customers demanded it? Probably, but that’s not the core audience for most triple-A games. Besides, very few sources are providing audiences with the tools to even recognise art when they encounter it. I’m speaking, of course, about the lack of genuine criticism in games.

I think that there was a good idea behind this article. Although on the surface it looks like a newbie games critic mouthing off about how they’re the only true critic in their field, this is actually an article by an industry person who wants to read more criticism. Someone who wants to see audiences having more educated and nuanced conversations about the medium – a remarkably productive desire to express after having borne the brunt of under-educated troll discourse earlier this year. This is a great idea, because it often feels like people in industry simply don’t care about educating their audience – persuading industry of the case for nuanced art writing is important.

Jessica Price, the writer of the article in Wireframe, is a games producer who seems to be motivated by her desire for AAA games development to operate within a larger critical community, so that it can be read by people who appreciate more nuanced work and complex messages. This desire is completely laudable, and it’s unfortunate that her collaboration with Wireframe did not lead to a more interesting excavation of the kind of writing and communities that might give a person that sense of intellectual and creative fulfillment.

Having been editing and curating fringe critical writing on games for many years now, I’m inclined to feel less irritated by the writer’s lack of knowledge, and more by the editor’s. When I’m working as an editor, my job is to understand the context in which a writer’s piece is going to circulate, and to help the writer to develop it so that it makes a meaningful contribution in that context. Writers can only know what they know – it’s up to editors to put their work in perspective and help them to grow. Unfortunately, my experience as a freelancer tells me that not many editors do this, and my experience as an editor tells me that this is totally understandable, because it’s time consuming and doesn’t really get you any recognition or reward.

The role of the critic isn’t purely that of tastemaker or judge – the critic is a guide, an educator, and an interpreter. The critic makes subtext text, traces themes, and fills in white space. Put another way, the critic helps the audience find deeper meaning in a piece of art. Or: the critic teaches the audience the rules of the games artists play so that they’re on a level ground with the artist.

I quite like Price’s description of what distinguishes criticism from reviews. I think it’s a fine way of describing what we’ve curated and archived at Critical Distance every week since 2009, precisely because we hope to make it easier for people to find. Goodness knows, Price is right when she says that most people in this field *don’t* know what criticism is. I think that’s one of the main things that holds games criticism back – not a lack of good critical writing, but an overwhelming mass of consumer reviews that call themselves criticism, making it very hard to filter through and find what you’re looking for.

This article is just such an unfortunate error. Any editor should know that it’s going to make their writer look foolish. In academic writing, you learn that if you’re really thinking, “Nobody has ever done this very special thing I’m about to do,” you still have to pretend to have an ounce of humility, so what you actually write down is, “While there has been extensive work on things closely related to what I’m about to do, scholarship tackling the thing I’m about to do has been scarce.” In academic writing, and in the first issue of a new magazine, the purpose is the same – you’re trying to identify what you bring to the table that others don’t. It’s an opportunity to tip your hat to people who are doing things that you respect, and position yourself in the landscape. What a shame for Wireframe to miss that opportunity, and instead give this impression of sophomoric naivety.

While I’m certainly frustrated that an editor of a videogames publication is apparently either unaware that critical writing is being done on games, or simply doesn’t care to acknowledge it, I don’t blame the article writer Price, or anyone whose main focus is something other than publishing writing on games, for being unaware of the field. Since I started nine years ago, finding audiences for games criticism has not gotten any easier – in fact, it might now be harder than ever. I say this after spending almost three years curating it every week for Critical Distance. So I’m going to use a series of blog posts to articulate some of the factors that make “real” games criticism relatively invisible.

See part 2: Mainstream vs. Fringe

Pattern Swatches for Pico-8

A while ago I made myself a kind of digital haberdashery for Pico-8, that allows me to sample randomly-generated patterns and colour combinations. It is very simple, and mostly just looks like this:

pattern swatches_0

This is a useful tool when making other things in Pico-8, as it lets me choose from “ready-made” fill patterns and colour combinations, rather than designing them myself from scratch or having them be randomly generated in whatever cart I’m building.

Fill patterns probably have some legit reason for existing that has to do with “dithering” and pseudo-3D shading, but I like them because they look like fabric or knitting. They’re very easy to use in Pico-8 code. Here’s an example, using one of the patterns generated in the sampler above:

PICO-8_2

Also, it turns out that when you set a colour in Pico-8, you’re actually setting two colours at once: an “on” colour and an “off” colour. In the example above I set the colour to “8”, which is really “8 and 0” (red and black). The pattern swatch generator uses the full range of possible colour combinations, and then gives you a number that translates into that pairing of colours.

The use of fill patterns and “off” colours – including how to set “off” colours directly, using a hex bitfield – is explained here: http://pico-8.wikia.com/wiki/Fillp

How to get it

Postmortem: Hanging textile for Interactive Portraits by Anne Smithies

In the post about Festival of the Mind Futurecade, I mentioned this collaboration with Anne Smithies on a gorgeous, huge textile to accompany my interactive portraits. I first approached Anne about this because of a chat I had in Tokyo with Zep, the maker of the Pico-8 platform that I’ve been working with to make these small software pieces – we were chatting about how a particular graphics feature he’d introduced to the platform a few months earlier was giving works a textile-like quality to them, as you could now build landscapes out of 4×4 repeating pixel patterns. When the Crossover Labs people asked me if I could think of some way to blow up the works to something large-scale that could take up more space in the room, the first thing I thought of was textile arts like crosstitch, knitting, or patchwork. I brought this to Anne, an artist who does a lot of work with textiles, has a giant quilting machine, and does a lot of mixed-media art depicting animals – an important theme, since most of the portraits take animal form. Anne suggested applique, which allowed her to combine repeating patterns with large circle shapes, which is a pretty faithful reproduction of how I’ve coded the portraits’ appearance.

The image I gave Anne to work with is the design for the portrait of Iriya. Iriya’s portrait is the first one I made that wasn’t based on an animal – I generally try to choose an animal that matches something related to a person’s story or a name they use online, but I couldn’t find anything in my interview with Iriya or in their online persona that corresponded to any kind of animal. Then I saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting shown above in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and something clicked. I was really moved by the image of this small being with a huge aura, nestled in an imposing landscape. A lot of things changed when I translated this image into the circle-and-pattern-based system I’m using for the portraits, and I still wanted Iriya to have facial expressions like everyone else, so I made the little glowing being a bit bigger. Anne took this image, and re-inserted colour in the applique process, which ended up bringing it to a good middle spot between the stark black environment of that one portrait, and the very colourful appearance of some of the others.

41934100_1374965032639663_1035833244349628416_n
Photograph by Festival of the Mind

There are so many surprising little details that Anne incorporated into this piece that I won’t be able to remember them all. She took a load of old computer keycaps that I’ve been collecting and made them into buttons for the text panels, which are detachable – this way, as the interactive portraits tour spaces with different dimensions, the textile can adapt to fill the space differently. We had a whole conversation about which keys on the keyboard are a good fit for the theme, and which are too on-the-nose (we decided that the “shift” and “alt” keys were good, but “m” “t” and “f” were not). The character’s shadow is made of reflective fabric, so that when the textile is photographed with flash it seems to light up. Anne even made sure that her giant quilting machine would follow a route that resembled a circuit board, so that when seen from the back the piece still has interesting visual features that reference its digital origins. One of the most striking features is a result of Anne using vinyl printing to create a very rigid overlay with digital accuracy on the soft fabrics – I think that’s what really makes this piece look like a hybrid between pixel art and patchwork, and makes it into something that I never would have imagined.

I was attracted to the idea of a textile piece because I thought the traditional features of weaving textiles had an intrinsic similarity to the features of coding patterns in Pico-8 (a connection that was certainly inspired by Emilie Reed’s article on the historical link between weaving and coding) so to be honest, the idea of using vinyl printing made me slightly uncomfortable at first. I had this prejudice in my mind about it, like maybe printing is a bit contrived or inauthentic? But nothing Anne does is either of those things, so I trusted that she was onto something, and I am so glad I did.

One of the greatest joys in my life is letting go of my preconceived ideas, so that my eyes are open to something beautiful and fresh, that I could never have seen through my old conceptual goggles. The precision and flatness of the vinyl ended up being very important to this work, and made it into much more than a piece of textile art inspired by a piece of digital art. It’s actually something new, that clearly has a place in both mediums.

Mozilla Festival

My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.

The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery (https://foundation.mozilla.org/opportunity/artists-open-web) and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.

They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.

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You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/opportunity/artists-open-web/