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.

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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.

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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/

 

Festival of the Mind

Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.

An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.

That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!

There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.

There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!

 

Dublin Fringe Queer Oasis

This week I’m presenting work at the Dublin Fringe festival as part of the Fully Automated Luxury Gender Oasis by Trans Live Art Salon. I’m giving a reading of my chapter from the Queer Game Studies book on Friday, and I’m also exhibiting my interactive fiction piece “Elixir”. I’m super excited to be involved in a project that explicitly calls for utopian queer marxist world building! Here’s a piece in the Dublin Inquirer where they talk about it

The collective settled on calling the space “The Fully Automated Luxury Gender Oasis” as a nod to an imaginary future in which robots will do all the work and humans will live in luxury as a result.

“Once all work is automated there are two potential options for the future,” says McQuaid-O’Dwyer.

“Either ten people own all the robots and everyone else is starving, or fully automated luxury communism, where the robots do all the work and we all reap the rewards,” […] “It becomes fully automated luxury gay space communism,” says McQuaid-O’Dwyer. “Where all the gays and all the queers can go into space and set up their own luxury communist state.”

About the stuff I’m showing

Elixir

Elixir uses a constructed language to make players navigate the class boundaries and power imbalances of transgender health care… in hell! Play it here

Chaos and Community Histories

A short piece of writing based on a talk I gave at QGCon in 2013, in which I discuss the kinds of aspirations I had as a queer historian of games. It’s in this book by University of Minnesota Press

About the festival

The Trans Live Art Salon is hosting an inclusive space in the heart of the city with performances, readings, queer skill-sharing workshops, all served with tea and biscuits to keep festival-goers going during Fringe-time. Learn more here

 

Dublin Fringe Queer Oasis

This week I’m presenting work at the Dublin Fringe festival as part of the Fully Automated Luxury Gender Oasis by Trans Live Art Salon. I’m giving a reading of my chapter from the Queer Game Studies book on Friday, and I’m also exhibiting my interactive fiction piece “Elixir”. I’m super excited to be involved in a project that explicitly calls for utopian queer marxist world building! Here’s a piece in the Dublin Inquirer where they talk about it

The collective settled on calling the space “The Fully Automated Luxury Gender Oasis” as a nod to an imaginary future in which robots will do all the work and humans will live in luxury as a result.

“Once all work is automated there are two potential options for the future,” says McQuaid-O’Dwyer.

“Either ten people own all the robots and everyone else is starving, or fully automated luxury communism, where the robots do all the work and we all reap the rewards,” […] “It becomes fully automated luxury gay space communism,” says McQuaid-O’Dwyer. “Where all the gays and all the queers can go into space and set up their own luxury communist state.”

About the stuff I’m showing

Elixir

Elixir uses a constructed language to make players navigate the class boundaries and power imbalances of transgender health care… in hell! Play it here

Chaos and Community Histories

A short piece of writing based on a talk I gave at QGCon in 2013, in which I discuss the kinds of aspirations I had as a queer historian of games. It’s in this book by University of Minnesota Press

About the festival

The Trans Live Art Salon is hosting an inclusive space in the heart of the city with performances, readings, queer skill-sharing workshops, all served with tea and biscuits to keep festival-goers going during Fringe-time. Learn more here

Vancouver! Residency? Desk space?

  • Location: Vancouver, BC
  • Dates: 2 months between November 2016 and March 2017
  • Requirements: Desk space. Nothing else!

I’m currently making plans for a trip to Vancouver. While there, I would like to spend a couple of months embedded in a place where people do cool things. This could be a school, a startup, a community centre… I’m pretty open-minded about the form it would take. Maybe you have some random space that feels a bit dusty and unused. Maybe you’re curious about what might happen if someone was there working on cool things and available to chat with people. Maybe you want someone to bring in new ideas to help your team to think about things from a different perspective.

My main goals are:

  • be connected to things that are happening locally
  • create a feedback loop so I can learn from others and share my work

[su_box title=”Know someone who might be interested?” radius=”6″]Please put them in touch! A blurb about the general idea of the project can be found below. [su_spoiler title=”Contact me” icon=”chevron” anchor=”contact”]

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Alien Flora exhibition, part of The Artist’s Studio micro-residencies at Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance

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Embedded practice proposal

I am a PhD student in the department of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK, working with supervisors Lucy Suchman and Adrian MacKenzie. My research concerns mobile, social and indie videogames from 1998 onwards; more specifically, I am interested in the development of intimacies between and among people and technologies, and how game design reflects and constructs relationship dynamics. My work uses affect theory and queer theory alongside approaches from Science and Technology Studies. Outside of the PhD work, I work in the games industry as a historian, curator, linguist and writer.

I will be in Vancouver, BC from November 2016 to February 2017, and I am currently looking for opportunities to spend time embedded in a larger institution through a residency or some other appointment. I find that working alongside others allows me to integrate diverse perspectives into my own work, keeps my concerns grounded in the needs of a broader audience, and allows me to put what I learn into action by workshopping ideas and advising on the work of those around me. Examples of things I have done in the past include living with dance and bodywork artists in California, setting up an installation at an art space in a post-industrial English town, and taking a year-long cultural activities position in a small folk museum in Japan. I also have extensive experience with community organising activities such as running conferences, activist groups and running publications.

I am open-minded about the form that my engagement in Vancouver might take, but some examples of the sort of thing I have in mind are:

✺ A further education institution has some vacant space in a foyer, and would like an artist to come and show students something different; in return for use of that space for six hours a day, four days a week, I spend one afternoon a week leading seminars or supervising students.

✺ A start-up has moved into a new office space, which features a ground-floor window. Currently the window is a rather unappealing, dusty display that does not reflect the company’s dynamic, innovative brand. I come in to use the space as a micro gallery and studio, making the company look awesome and consulting with the team to enrich their work.

✺ An LGBTQ+ community project is organising a programme of art events. I join the project as a curator of digital art, bringing to bear my experiences as a queer transgender man and as a design historian to help create workshops and exhibitions.

It would be of great help to me if you could pass on this message to anyone who might be curious about the possibility of setting up a residency, or some other appointment that would involve integrating a researcher, curator or critic into their project.

Zoyander Street
rupazero.com

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Post-genesem: Alien Flora

It’s common practice in games to write up a “post-mortem” of a project after it has been completed. Here the launch of a game is treated as the death of the development project; the social life of the game as it is circulated in the wider world and played by people unknown to the developer is figured as a kind of after-life.

An alternative to the “post-mortem” was proposed by, I think, Anna Anthropy, who began to use the term “post-partum” instead; the release of a game is a birthing, its development a kind of pregnancy, the software beta a fetus whose basic characteristics are identifiable but whose body is still preparing for extrauterine life, under the care of its developer. It is a feminist intervention into games discourse that positions the developer as a caregiver and the game as a living being with an independent agency of its own after the developer lets it out into the world.

I’m calling this little writing exercise a post-genesem largely because I want to make a plant-related pun for a plant-related project. But I also want to explore the idea of writing an analysis of a process that has barely just begun. Plants are not given birth to, but plants and animals share in common a period of embryogenesis, during which cells divide and separate organs form. In humans embryogenesis, if successful, leads to the fetal stage, which eventually leads to birth, whereas in plants it leads to a period of dormancy that may or may not lead to further development. Development of the plant resumes if the seed finds itself in the right conditions to germinate. This might never happen; for example, some being could come along and consume the seed as it is, and get plenty of joy and nutrition from it in this embryonic form. In writing a post-genesem analysis, I hope to claim not to have finished something, but to have finished the seed of something that could keep growing, given the right conditions.


Image from Earthtongue, Eric Hornby: provided by artist
Image from Earthtongue, Eric Hornby: provided by artist

Opportunity

The Alien Flora exhibition came about for two reasons:

  1. A job opportunity at a major museum appeared and then swiftly evaporated in Autumn of 2015. The experience left me angry, frustrated and filled with self-doubt, but on the positive side, it reconnected me with my desire to curate and exhibit games. My habit is that when someone in authority blocks my path to doing something the legitimate way, I become determined to find a DIY path to some version of the same goal, rather than waiting for institutional approval that might never arrive (I suppose my lack of trust in authority might itself be a reason why I am forever freelancing, but that’s a discussion for another day). So one thing I took away from the rather diminishing experience of being rejected for a job for which I seemed to be the perfect fit was the conviction that I would put together some sort of games exhibition in 2016.
  2. Early in 2016 I joined a National Portfolio Organisation based in my hometown of Rotherham called ROAR, as part of my effort to get outside of the games sphere and instead to do games and digital work in the wider arts sphere. In April they sent an email round to members offering the short-term use of a gallery space as a studio, free of charge. Gallery space is often hard to come by at low cost, so I immediately snapped up this opportunity to try out exhibiting games in a non-games-related art space.

Means

To display a number of different games in a gallery space I would need a number of computers. I explored a few different routes to getting hold of devices, and the route I ended up taking was perhaps the strangest possible.

  1. The most obvious option — as I understand it, the route normally taken by games festivals and the like — would be to acquire a set of brand-new, fully-functional computers.  They might buy them, or receive them as an in-kind donation from a sponsor. This was out of the question for me, because I wasn’t receiving outside funding for the project and was not expecting it to generate much income in the short term.
  2. The next possibility was borrowing computers from people. This is what we did at Critical Proximity in order to be able to display the presentations. I had a couple of people come forward, but the computers weren’t quite suitable, and my experience at Critical Proximity was that getting unfamiliar computers that belong to somebody else to play ball with your project can be quite challenging.
  3. Another option was renting the computers for a week. I found a few rental companies that advertised weekly rates, but none of them filled me with much confidence in the way they presented their services, and many of them seemed to have a minimum loan term of much longer than a week or were actually a hire purchase scheme rather than a straightforward short-term equipment loan. The whole thing confused me enough that it put me off the idea.
  4. The option I went with in the end was buying second-hand computers. This was a chaotic and time-consuming way to handle things, but it ended up being a bit of an art project in itself. The process put me in conversation with local community in surprising ways that constantly had me thinking about how people relate to technology and how technology pushes back. I ended up feeling like a carer for the computers I had bought, feeling responsible for them in a way I wouldn’t have if they were loaned or bought brand new.

How do second-hand electronics end up on Gumtree? How do people have to present their unwanted goods in order to make them appealing to someone else? I ended up buying from three different sellers; two people sold me one tablet computer each which they no longer needed, and one person who recycles computers professionally sold me a job lot of ten refurbished computers, which had been discarded by a local call centre. The tablet computers were 3-5 years old and cost 30 and 80 GBP, and the set of ten desktops were just under ten years old cost 150 GBP all together. I also bought two second-hand monitors from two different computer recyclers, one of which had been custom-made about ten years ago out of a beautiful dark wood! Sadly, I still don’t have the wooden monitor working. Through my Gumtree adventures, I became enamoured with computer recycling as an activity and a part of the local economy. Whereas brand new computers are part of a toxic, multinational process that harms the environment and relies on exploited labour, recycling is easily romanticised as being hyper-local, relatively ecologically beneficial and carried out by small, independent businesses.

In total, between the second-hand computers and some cheap peripherals from Amazon (keyboards, mouses and an audio mixer) I spent just under 400 GBP on equipment. Since the show ended I’ve spent about another 50 GBP on some extra components for the little fleet of recycled call centre computers, which need upgrading in order to be fully effective display machines, and I am sure there will be more money to spend on this in the future. However, the advantage of using old computers is that their compatible components are now considered low value, so they are easy to get hold of cheaply.

I budgeted about 210 GBP total for fees to the artists whose games I was exhibiting; this is very low, but is in-line with the Paying Artists Initiative guidelines for a project that does not make any money and runs for two months, or a project that makes a middling amount of money and runs for three days. Even if I wasn’t able with this project to meaningfully contribute to the sustainability of someone’s artistic practice, it still seems important to establish the principle that I will not build up any sort of curatorial practice without paying creators.

Half of the artists offered to waive their fees as an in-kind donation, and one person donated 5 GBP through the Eventbrite page, giving me about 110 GBP in donations total. This brought the personal cost of the exhibition (not including my own work hours) down to 465 GBP.

Image from Orchids to Dusk, Pol Clarissou: screenshot taken by author
Image from Orchids to Dusk, Pol Clarissou: screenshot taken by author

Motivation

My main goal was simply to put some games in a gallery and then be able to talk about the fact that I had put some games in a gallery. I also wanted to be sure that the games I chose would work well in the particular context they were being exhibited; they needed to be grokkable in a short play session, to not rely on longer-term player-character growth for their enjoyment the way that most RPGs do, and they needed to be visually striking. Although this wasn’t a dealbreaker, I was also interested in sounds that would mix well together, as I would be playing all of the games’ audio through one set of speakers, so I was pleased to choose several of games with ambient soundtracks or generative soundscapes and only one game with more of a jingly melody.

When thinking about the kind of games I wanted to focus on for this show, I was torn between exhibiting some of the esoteric digital art tools that I have enjoyed thinking about (e.g. Icosa and Super Sculptor) and exhibiting games about plants and fungi. I decided to go with the latter for two reasons:

  1. My PhD research has brought me to thinking about the relationships between humans and nonhumans, with reference to theorists such as Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway who have written about fungi, mushrooms and ecologies. Focusing on this topic was an opportunity to think through these ideas in a less abstract way.
  2. Digital art tools would make a great topic for a future exhibition in the same space, when I’ve learned more about how to do this sort of show effectively.

I selected six games for display, but set up three computers (I’d aimed for 5 but technical problems prevented that) and cycled the games being shown over the course of the three days.

Strawberry cubes – full post

Earthtongue

This digital terrarium was an easy choice. It was introduced to me last year by Loren Schmidt, the creator of Strawberry Cubes. As a more passive game that responds slowly to user input and will get along and do its own thing over time, it works very well in a gallery space. The slow, automatic panning across the game’s world is particularly appealing for display in a gallery, and while it was up I made sure that it was facing towards the traffic of people in and out of the building. What I love about this game is that it is an ecosystem, and immediately recogniseable as such. The pixel here is almost cell-like, proliferating and reproducing in dynamic but discrete units. There are all kinds of ways you can probe Earthtongue to reach conclusions about its figurations of plant life.

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Gardenarium

A relatively late addition to my list of games to display, Gardenarium appealed to me for this project because it is itself a communication between games and other art disciplines — ROAR has illustrators in its community, but no other games people, so objects like this are interesting reflections of the spaces between disciplines. It brings to life hand-drawn illustrations in a lush, psychedelic environment that challenges popular notions of what a videogame looks like. Putting Earthtongue and Gardenarium next to each other makes me think about the spaces in which we manage plantlife to fit into human life; the terrarium vs. the garden as very different plant-related settings, with different figurations of nature, wildness and aesthetics.

ko-op.itch.io

Orchids to Dusk – full post

Prune – full post

Lieve Oma

Although I wasn’t able to get this game working in the gallery, it was an important starting point for my thinking about the whole exhibition. Lieve Oma is another interesting contrast to Earthtongue, because they share in common an interest in mushrooms but put the player in totally different subject positions. Whereas in Earthtongue you are in control of a little alien terrarium, in Lieve Oma it is the protagonist who feels alienated in a world that is ostensibly terrestrial; the dialogue between the protagonist and their grandmother brings up notions of not being in control of your own life in fairly fundamental ways during childhood, and the therapeutic benefits of mushroom picking in the forest as a way of coming to terms with the flows of life that we don’t get to micromanage. These games offer different perspectives not just on our interactions with mushrooms, but our interactions with the natural and social world itself.

vltmn.itch.io

Image from Lieve Oma, Florian Veltman: provided by artist
Image from Lieve Oma, Florian Veltman: provided by artist

Outcome

I did not plan to spend so much of the exhibition time wrangling with technology, but that is what happened! Although I spent the day before the start of the exhibition getting the computers up and running, it still took a lot of work to get the games running properly — and I wasn’t able to get all of them running well or even at all. This didn’t feel like a failure as such, though. For one thing, it meant that as ROAR members came through the gallery over the course of the three days, we were able to have multiple conversations about the process I was going through getting the games to work.

I too was in conversation with the games and the machines, as I tried to work out what was going wrong and how to fix it. Doing this in the context of an art gallery feels different to just trying to get a computer to work in daily life, as it already feels like a display object. Trying to get a game to run on a low-end machine in Ubuntu while your mind is in art interpretation mode transforms troubleshooting into a kind of analytical enquiry about the materiality of computer games. By the end of the first day I had 3D games running on the recycled call centre machines, with beautiful audio, but with no textures.

I decided to continue displaying the games in this broken form and talk to visitors to the show about it. What resulted was a constant enquiry in conversation with artists from lots of different media about the nature of videogame creation and the kinds of poetry that can result from digital media. We also talked about stereotypes about games as a medium that is dominated by violence and misogyny — not my words, but those of someone else at ROAR who said she was once curious about videogames but was put off by the culture around them. I talked with a musician about trippiness and the difference between goal-oriented play and open-ended exploration, and the grey area between the two that he was experiencing as he became entranced by Strawberry Cubes. I saw several people of older generations who feel intimidated by technology become completely engrossed by the intuitive, meditative puzzles of Prune.

I talked with an 89-year-old painter about his frustration with the game’s simulation of autonomous tree growth — to him, a game that only allows you to prune the branches is pointless, because a technology should be facilitating more agency over the growth of a tree than you would have in real life, not reproducing the relationship between a tree and a human in real life. He brought out his sketchpad of trees, showing me how he likes to create them from observation and from his own imagination, and showed me his paintings of the natural landscape as he remembers it from his pre-war childhood. In digital art and in other media, we’re always in tension between realism and fantasy.

I’ll take just one example: Orchids to Dusk runs very slowly, and the player-character’s body does not load. This fundamentally alters the nature of your experience in two key ways: firstly, the pottering, excited little movements that the game is supposed to be based around are slowed to a meditative crawl; and secondly, there is no intimacy with the body, and instead the player is experiencing the world through a silent and invisible protagonist, imagining their own body in the space occupied by a shadow on the ground on the screen. All other aspects of the game are preserved perfectly, because of the low-poly, texture-less nature of the game’s art style. I would often navigate the camera into one of the planet’s beautiful gardens and let it automatically pan around, with the gorgeous soundscape making the gallery feel warm and restful.

I ended up feeling deeply affectionate towards the ten call centre graduands. I’m hoping that installing proper graphics cards rather than relying on on-board graphics (which sounds obvious now of course) will get their performance up to scratch for future shows and allow these little old workhorses to find a new life as art machines. The advantage of displaying alt-games is that typically they will run pretty well on a low-end machine. Earthtongue and Strawberry Cubes were trouble-free once I got Wine working correctly. So I can imagine these little machines that were rescued from the reject bin like the Raggydolls having a long life ahead of them as art display devices — if I can find more opportunities to exhibit games.

What’s next?

Alien Flora was a seed, digestible on its own but also full of potential for something more. I have some of what I need in order to allow this seed to germinate into a curatorial practice; the recycled computers are already numerous enough to facilitate a larger show in the future, and with some small upgrades should be able to display 3D games in the form intended by the artist. I also have access to some display spaces, within certain limits: I’m sure I can use ROAR’s gallery again, for example.

However, when I do have things working well from a technical standpoint, I would like to have much higher footfall. The final day, when everything was working perfectly and I simply sat in the gallery and did Critical Distance work, I felt quite lonely and wished that more people would come through and take a look at the display. So I will need to look for busier spaces, perhaps — though I do rather hate to say it — in Sheffield instead of Rotherham. Of course there is something particularly meaningful about doing this sort of thing in Rotherham, and there is a particular kind of support that people give you there that you don’t get somewhere like London. In Rotherham, nobody asks “is it really art though?” Nobody gives a shit about that kind of elitist gatekeeping because they have all experienced it themselves and have often simply come to do their work outside of the gates.

Another space issue I will be considering in future is whether or not children will be part of the audience; in particular, whether under-12s will be present. I had considered under-18s and concluded that nothing I was displaying was unsuitable, but I was a little caught off-guard when I found myself trying to explain Orchids to Dusk in front of a ten-year-old. Normally the topic of age-appropriate content is triggered by sex or violence, but with Orchids to Dusk the discomfort I felt was about the topic of death. I don’t want to put a parent in the position of suddenly having to explain what happens when we die or why people would choose to give up their own lives, particularly in the context of an exhibition where that isn’t one of the main themes.

I’m excited to have come into possession of this little mechanical fleet of labourers liberated from a call centre and put into the service of art. In the end, they became the focus of the show for me, and have become an art project in their own right. My hope is that they will tour lots of different gallery spaces in the coming years, becoming ever more fabulous as time goes on.