Tuesday, March 6: Heaven Is a Place

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So, this blog became something of a ghost town in February. The reason for that is that I’ve been hard at work on a number of projects, which means that the coming months will contain a slew of announcements.

To inaugurate these announcements: this Tuesday, The Nightingale Cinema is screening a program entitled “Heaven Is a Place,” curated by my friend Jesse Malmed. (It’s an offshoot of the exhibition of the same name he curated at Heaven Gallery.) Each of the filmmakers & video artists showing work in it have been commissioned to create work for another historical exhibition or screening—i.e., it’s a chance for them to finally be a part of Frank Stauffacher’s “Art in Cinema” film series, or Douglas Crimps’ “Pictures” show, or Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst,” or whatever catches their fancy.

I have a short video showing in this screening, entitled OREO NABISCO secret planet POISON january 2018 Concealed Information CONFIRMED!!!! The exhibition I’ve chosen to align myself with will remain a secret for now. If you’re in Chicago, and you are able, I invite you to show up—7:30 PM on Tuesday March 6, at The Nightingale. It promises to be a great show. (Indeed, I’m preemptively both honored and embarrassed to have something I put together more or less on a lark to be shown alongside the work of filmmakers I genuinely admire.)

I’ll eventually post the video on Vimeo, but not until after it’s premiered. [UPDATE: I’ve uploaded it onto my Vimeo page, here.]

Here on My Side of the Screen

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(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)

Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]

Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.

Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.

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Lewis Klahr’s Sixty Six

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Ian here—

The University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center has been having a fantastic year so far when it comes to experimental cinema. Hot on the heels (-ish) of their “Troubling the Image” series, last night they booked Lewis Klahr’s twelve-part, feature-length Sixty Six (2015), for what is I believe its Chicago debut.

Klahr was there in attendance, taking part in a very animated Q&A after the screening. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Q&A with such an extreme questions-asked-to-time-filmmaker-talked ratio, and while some might have accused Klahr of self-indulgent rambling, I really rather enjoyed his tangents, and found that he had quite a lot of fascinating points to make about his process.

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Inscrutability in Game Design: Perils and Possibilites

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Ian here—

Earlier this week, I sat down with some friends to play David OReilly’s Everything (2017). We were all suitably hyped, and ready for an evening of being different things while chuckling over the political indefensibility of object-oriented ontology. (Yes, really. We’re those people.)

But our evening hit a snag. Somewhere along the line, in our first playthrough, beginning as a cougar, we encountered a weird bug. One of the little “gain a new ability” thought bubbles failed to pop up in the environment. No matter how far we traveled, or how many objects’ thoughts we listened to, we simply could not unlock the ability to scale up or down into bigger or smaller entities. We were doomed to be a cougar. (Or, cougars, rather. We were able to expand our ranks, and become about a dozen cougars, rolling across the rocky landscape. But being a dozen rolling cougars is small consolation in a game that promises that you can be, well, everything.) For 75 minutes, we wailed at the screen. “I thought you could be lint particles and galaxies and stuff!”

We tried, to no avail, to look up walkthroughs to Everything. Everywhere we looked, we found glowing reviews of how chill the game was, how it allowed you to sit back and let the experience of being everything wash over you. We couldn’t fathom how we got stuck in a game with no real objectives. To pour salt in the wound, the game seemed to be actively mocking us. “As long as you keep moving, in any direction you choose,” thought a tree, “that will take you where you need to go.” “Over time,” thought a rock, “you might find there’s no right or wrong path to take here.” We were seriously stuck, and the only feedback we were getting were Zen aphorisms that told us to take it easy and not worry so much.

Eventually, we deleted our save file and started over. Thankfully, this solved the problem, and we spent the rest of the evening enraptured. But it did get me thinking about the trickiness presented by purposefully inscrutable game design.

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Lesson Plan: Borders, Boundary Crossings, and Subaltern Images

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Ian here—

Well, you can’t win ’em all. Over-ambition gets to the best of us, and sometimes a somewhat incoherent lesson is the result. Consider this post to be less of a how-to guide, and more of a postmortem on what is clearly still a work-in-progress.

Migration is a topic that, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to tackle in my Avant-Garde Film and Video Art course this term. US immigration reared its head quite explicitly in my week spent on Bill Brown’s The Other Side, but I also wanted to try out some more conceptually far-flung approaches to the topic. Key here were two texts: Hito Steyerl’s article “In Defense of the Poor Image,” which re-casts image quality as an image of global politics, turning a close eye on how media objects circulate around the world in the current neoliberal order, and Jacqueline Goss’ video Stranger Comes to Town (2007), which tells tales of entry into the US that have been metaphorized into World of Warcraft machinima.

I thought I could draw out some sort of grand theme from this material, about how the circulation of images maps on to the migration of people in our contemporary political regime. It turns out I wasn’t really up to this task. And it’s a shame, too, because I dearly love the videos I assembled for this week, and wish I could have done better by them.

[Update: I asked for feedback in the last day of class, and it turns out that several students actually really liked this class session. They thought its sketched-out argument left them room to think, and really appreciated having to fill in the blanks themselves. Apparently, for some students, it was perfect seminar material. Their only real complaint was that I could have expanded this material, and stretched it out over several weeks! So take the self-criticism in this post with a grain of salt, I guess.]

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Discussion: Robert Breer’s Recreation and Jodie Mack’s The Saddest Song in the World

Ian here—

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m hesitating to call write-ups of classes in the section of “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” I’m teaching this semester “lesson plans.” The course discussion I’m reporting back on often proceeds more from my students’ on-point engagement with the films than it does from any carefully-planned questions on my part. I still want to post some details on this blog, though, because I’m certainly learning a lot about how to tackle these subjects in the future, and would love to share.

Up today: two animated films, one of which unexpectedly became one of the most contentious things I’ve shown so far in any class.

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Discussion: Bill Brown’s The Other Side

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Ian here—

My teaching style for my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” first-year seminar course at the School of the Art Institute this semester has been relatively hands-off. I show students things in class, give a short 10-20 minute lecture, have students give presentations (you can see their handiwork here!), and then launch into discussion.

One way to conduct class discussion is to have a very specific set of interpretive moves you want to make, and to tailor your questions in order to guide your students through your own thought process. Sometimes I’ll do this type of in-class discussion. (My lesson plan on Bruce Conner’s A Movie details a lot of the points I like to hit up when discussing that film). I’m drifting away from that, though, in this particular class. I give students more work to do, in the form of blog posts and presentations. Likewise, I’m more fully embracing the seminar format in class discussions, allowing conversation to be guided by students’ interests, instead of carefully crafting questions to serve a particular road map.

This has lead to some really wonderful in-class moments that I wanted to report back on. I bristled at the thought of calling these “lesson plans,” given that such language gives me too much credit, and my students too little. Instead, they’re best thought of as the collaborative results of loosely-planned conversations, that hold within them the potential to become future, more strictly-planned lessons.

Up today: some points made while my students and I discussed Bill Brown’s essay film The Other Side (2006). If you haven’t seen it, the entire film is available on Brown’s Vimeo page, here.

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