Voices (Towards Other Institutions), Chapter II, #27
The phenomenon by which a game becomes a work of art has nothing obvious about it. It is certainly not a universal fact: the game is an anthropological dimension which follows the most diverse and heterogeneous purposes that vary according to the history, the cultural matrix that generated them, the age and condition of the players. In the last century, Roger Caillois tried to classify games starting from their purpose, distinguishing the competitive struggle (agôn), the challenge to chance or fate (alea), the simulation (mimicry) of a character or a real situation or the dismissal of the sovereign subject (ilinx).1None of these purposes is inherently artistic in itself. To play football, bingo, doctors and nurses when one is a child or to play on a roundabout certainly means having access to a profound and authentic experience of play, but not necessarily being or within a work of art. On the contrary, when some of these playful experiences become works of art — as is the case with Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s film about Zinedine Zidane — it is only because they seem to have abandoned their nature as play.
Even the psychic dynamic that underpins every ludic phenomenon has, in itself, nothing intrinsically aesthetic about it. Caillois tried to classify games according to the force that generated them by distinguishing paidia and ludus. The first class groups together games that are the fruit of “divertissement, de turbulence, d’improvisation libre et d’épanouissement insouciant, par où se manifeste une certaine fantaisie incontrôlée.” The second class groups together those that arise from the need to bend one’s exuberance to “des conventions arbitraires, impératives et à dessein gênantes, de la contrarier toujours davantage en dressant devant elle des chicanes sans cesse plus embarrassantes, afin de lui rendre plus malaisé de parvenir au résultat désiré.”2 While it is clear that both methods — the principle of free improvisation and that of submission to arbitrary rules — may be adopted by art, it is equally clear that they are not sufficient to produce works of art. Thus, how was the union between art and play produced, and how come it allows us to consider the video games featured in the Russian Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale real artworks? According to which mechanism can art and play coincide?
Friedrich Schiller was the first to sketch an answer to this enigma, in what has rightly been considered one of the most powerful and enduring manifestos of modernity, the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, composed between 1793 and 1795.3 In this work, Schiller starts from an extremely radical assumption: art can be embodied in a game and, vice versa, a game can take on the status and mode of being of a work of art only when beauty stops being conceived as a perfect copy or the equivalent of reality (and therefore as a quality of a single object) or as the expression of the technical competence of a subject capable of manipulating reality (and therefore as a property of a single subject: the artist). Beauty is the expression of the ideal nature of humanity: the perfection that is intrinsic to the whole species and that — in contact with all life — leads it to a state of higher existence. It is precisely for this reason that the relationship with beauty can no longer take on the form of the simple, disinterested contemplation of an object and the pleasant sensation that this might generate, but neither can it translate into the simple acquisition of knowledge or otherwise inaccessible experience. The relationship with beauty has psychological and not only pedagogical effects: it leads to a condition of psychic, not material — existence, superior to that which can be had outside of art; they constitute a process of initiation into a higher, different life.
This perfection, in turn, is not only practical and not even only rational and cognitive: on the contrary, it is the perfect harmony between praxis and knowledge, between freedom and form, between arbitrariness and subjection to rules. And that is why it is only in the game that this perfection can be acquired and maintained. In the game, it is the symbol of a form of life that may not exist in us as a form of nature but as both the condition of possibility and the result of a series of arbitrary and free choices. Conversely, in the game, freedom is accessible only by accepting a certain form, a role, an identity. Beauty must be embodied in the game because it must not limit itself to representing freedom but it must make freedom the only way to access a form; likewise, the possession of form must not be the expression of a mere passivity — be it sensitive or cognitive — but a symptom of the exercise of freedom. And playing means questioning our identity through actions and making actions something that can produce nature.
It is within this perspective that the new artistic culture of video games must be studied. Schiller’s proposal, even though it has deeply influenced modern aesthetics, has never really been translated from the speculative sphere to an exhibition or even a work. Video games seem to be the first attempt to build an aesthetic in which art and play coincide. But if this were the case, it would be a folkloric manifestation of the immense continent of the romantic rearguard. This is not the case for at least two reasons.
As has been recently noted by Alessandro Baricco4 among others, Video games represent the attempt to turn the game into the constitutive logic of the whole of contemporary culture. It is not only the aesthetic experience that is modelled on the game, but also professional and working experiences, the intellectual and the academic, and above all the political. More than an object with specific symbolic and cultural characteristics, the video game is the expression of the fact that the logic of play described above concerns the totality of life, not only social but also material and natural life. The game is now the form of the world and not the mere basis of social interaction. The field of play is no longer defined through its logical and spatial separation from the rest of the world, but through its ability to include as many elements of the world as possible in order to make them exist differently. It is therefore not an evolution of the game but its ‘cosmic’ universalisation. Extending itself to coincide with the boundaries of the world, the game must become even more of an art form. In the game, as we have seen, everything must exist as a symbol and reality of freedom: everything must be recreated, redesigned and rewritten. In a culture that wishes to expand the game to coincide with the entire planet, art must become a game about the destiny of the planet. All the works in the Pavilion bear witness to this cosmic tendency. Together they must redesign the world, or rather, as in AAAA’s Utopias, they must make the world itself coincide with a design that develops from the freedom of individuals. The cosmogony itself is included in the logic of the game. It is in this that the video game surpasses all forms of previous game culture: it is the only one to have objectively transformed the game into an active demiurgy and vice versa, to have made the creation of worlds an activity that is no longer purely material (unlike in ancient mythologies, where a subject created everything in absolute solitude) nor purely social (unlike in rituals or happenings) but at the same time psychic, collective and material. And it is for this very reason that video game culture represents an enormous challenge to the 20th-century culture of the project. It seems to overcome not only the totalitarian delirium of omnipotence of architecture that claims to design (and therefore to establish and regulate) any aspect of the life of a community, but also the well-thinking illusions of participatory architecture that believes a void or a non-doing is enough to include the freedom of the user. The design of the video game is precisely the device that makes it possible to make a series of arbitrary choices (i.e. the freedom of those who enter the space) not only the object of symbolisation (and construction of the project), but also the access key to the designed ‘space’, the means to inhabit a certain visual arena.
The video game does not include in its sphere only what exists but also the fantastic and the non-existent. Thus Featherfall testifies to how the game manages to decline even the dream within its logic. On the other hand, like in Swatted by Ismael Joffroy Chandoutis, the fact that the game (and freedom defined by a form) reaches everywhere makes the very idea of freedom both wider and more fragile: everything, even the most horrible of events, becomes a symbol of freedom. For this very reason, the video game represents a radicalization of Schiller’s intuition in another respect. If the whole cosmos is in the game, it is also because everything that constitutes the world is now playing: it exists in the game not only as an element of decoration but as a player. The video game recognises agency — and therefore freedom — to anyone. This is perhaps the most radical point of all video game culture. The tendency to become a cosmological reality makes the game a space of compulsory animism: the freedom that is symbolised and attributed to the gamer/user is not the exclusive property of a species but the matter that permeates the whole world. It doesn’t matter if they are objects, plants, animals or creatures of some fantastic zoology: in the game, everything is an expression of freedom, everything is called upon to exist through and in the middle of a series of arbitrary choices that will determine its fate. Everything comes alive. It may seem paradoxical, but the video game is the greatest planetary breeding ground of a new form of animism that no longer needs to think of itself as ‘primitive’ or ‘non-Western’ because it no longer needs the romantic illusion of knowing it is closer to a phantom Earth. And from this point of view, it represents the only form of contrast to the romantic drifts of contemporary ecology. Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat by Mikhail Maximov or AIDOL by Lawrence Lek are clear proof of this.
It is in this animist tendency that video games represent not only one of the most interesting trends in contemporary art but the most radical form of art that can be practised today. At the end of the last century, the English anthropologist Alfred Gell5 showed that what we call ‘art’ is nothing more than the equivalent of animism in non-Western cultures: a sphere in which we relate to objects as if they were subjects. We experience this every time we enter a museum: we experience portions of matter in their most varied and heterogeneous forms — bronze, steel, linen, pigments or wood — and yet we are convinced not only that we have encountered the personalities of individuals we have never met and whose existence we could barely prove, but that we have perfectly understood their souls, their most secret thoughts and emotions. Every work of art is for each of us the extra-anatomical (and therefore non-psycho-somatic) existence of a psychic reality. The video game teaches us to grasp psychism as a cosmic fact and not only with regard to living beings. The world has a soul: it is freedom that tries to embody itself in form, and it is a form that never stops questioning its own nature and identity through the choices it makes. In such a context — in which the form of the world is at stake — winning or losing is not important. It is only a matter of striving to play.
1 — Roger Caillois, Les jeux et les hommes. Les masques et les vertiges, Gallimard Paris p. 27–28.
2 — Ibid. p. 28.
3 — Friedrich Schiller, Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung der Menschheit, in Id., Theoretische Schriften, hrsg von Rolf-Peter Janz, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1992, pp. 556–676. On this book, cf. among others Frederick Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher A Re-Examination, Clarendon Press Oxford 2005.
4 — Alessandro Baricco, The Game, Einaudi, Turin, 2018.
5 — Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Emanuele Coccia is a philosopher and an Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. His works focus mainly on the history of religious normativity and on aesthetics. His current research topics focus on the ontological status of images and their normative power, especially in fashion and advertising.