by Antoinette LaFarge, curator
and Robert Nideffer, curator
In October 2000, the University of California, Irvine, opened a new research and exhibition space called the Beall Center for Art and Technology. We were asked to co-curate an opening exhibition for the Beall Center that would in some way be about computer games. The result was "SHIFT-CTRL: Computers, Games, and Art," an examination of games, gaming and related new technologies as interpreted by a diverse group of artists.

SHIFT-CTRL cast a broad net, including artworks created specifically as games, artworks that more loosely appropriated gamelike metaphors and design principles, stand-alone games, networked games and even some commercial games and freeware, intended to help establish a larger historical and cultural context. During its 6-week run, the exhibition occupied both the Beall Center itself and the adjoining University Gallery. It also took place on the Internet, as about half the works included were either Net-accessible or designed exclusively for the Net. The show had an accompanying web catalog as well [1].

The majority of the pieces were distributed across the floor of the Beall Center in a relatively informal, quasi-rec-room fashion that invited visitors to sit down on orange rugs in front of some 15 game stations and begin playing [2]. Across the hall were six large installation pieces in the University Gallery. These works were presented in dark, cave-like areas, with large projection screens and sound domes. In these spaces visitors stood at consoles to play.

Our goal with SHIFT-CTRL was to look critically yet playfully at how games are altering social systems and creative practice as they explode from a niche market dominated by a youth demographic to occupy the cultural center stage. Over the past 75 years, some of the most provocative works produced by artists can be situated as games of one kind or another, and we wanted to extend this tradition with SHIFT-CTRL. The works we selected incorporate elements of play, performance and parody and they all encouraged---and even demanded---interactive participation by visitors in order to be realized.

SHIFT-CTRL gave visitors hands-on experience of the many new forms games are taking today (and even did a little bit of genre-bending), with a special focus on three main areas: role-playing games (RPGs) and shared social spaces; evolvable/emergent systems; and what we loosely termed "world hacks"---pieces that involved the rewriting of existing games or worlds. Many pieces in the show fell into more than one of these categories.

Role-playing games and shared social spaces interested us because they show artists increasingly creating not just individual pieces but entire systems that are internally consistent and richly detailed enough to be thought of as "worlds" rather than "works." Many of these spaces are shared and collaborative, embodying alternative social forms and attracting thousands of players. In this category were works as diverse as the commercial RPG Ultima Online and Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis’s experiments in what they call "desktop theater," guerrilla performances that take place in a graphical chat world known as the Palace. Also included were Eric Zimmerman and’s SiSSY FiGHT 2000, which invites web players to take part in a schoolyard war between girls with the goal of ruining other players’ self-esteem; Honoria in Ciberspazio, a cyberopera in the process of being composed by a worldwide group of Net denizens that currently numbers over 60 contributors; and Eddo Stern’s Summons to Surrender project, which critiques the social and behavioral assumptions built into medieval-fantasy-based RPGs.

We also wanted to highlight the many ways in which artists are simulating life-forms and their environments within the computer, creating elaborate artworks through algorithmic composition and mathematical manipulation. Among the evolvable and emergent systems included in SHIFT-CTRL were Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s Life Spacies II, in which 3D creatures are created out of text typed in by the player; Maxis’s game The Sims, which lets players create an entire neighborhood of simulated people; and Jane Prophet, Gordon Selley and Mark Hurry’s TechnoSphere III, a kind of networked virtual animal park for which players can make either herbivores or carnivores and watch Darwinian evolution at work. Two pieces in this group explored the nature of the soul: Rebecca Allen’s Bush Soul, in which a human soul, represented as a sphere of energy, enters and negotiates a world of artificial life; and Janine Cirincione and Michael Ferraro’s Dead Souls (loosely based on the writings of Nikolai Gogol), which plunges the player into a world where a mysterious stranger has been buying individuals' genetic rights. Another kind of evolvable/emergent system is represented by Josh Portway’s Noodle, a program for composing and performing music using modifiable preset sounds.

Many artists today create games that transgress established conventions, question common assumptions, or rewrite the rules of existing games. These critiques---which we termed "world hacks"---raise fundamental questions about both art and games: Under what conditions can a work be extended beyond its original boundaries? How is agreement reached on rules? How do rule-based systems maintain themselves? In Bio-Tek Kitchen, Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs hacked the commercial game Marathon Infinity to create a new game in which the player has to clean up the kitchen laboratory of a biotech enthusiast using weapons such as dish cloths and egg flippers while being attacked by mutant vegetables. In Faraday’s Ghost, Perry Hoberman questions the blind search after ever-newer technologies with a game featuring ghosts of obsolete household and office appliances brought fleetingly to life by a bar-code scanner. Both Dirk Paesman and Joan Heemskerk’s SOD and Ken Feingold’s JCJ Junkman attack facile assumptions about user-friendly interfaces and meaningful game goals. Natalie Bookchin’s Intruder uses familiar game structures to construct a loose fiction, while Lev Manovich and Norman Klein’s Freud-Lissitzky Navigator and Negativland’s playful Squant use the idea of the informational or archival web site to confuse the boundary between truth, fiction and history. The most extreme hack comes from the group ®™ark, which has deliberately structured itself as a corporation in order to pursue a no-holds-barred critique of corporate capitalism, including corporate sponsorship of art exhibitions like SHIFT-CTRL.

While our three categories may seem a bit arbitrary, they served to delineate what we felt were important areas of common focus among the chosen works---areas that, for better or worse, have yet to be generally defined. Indeed, what makes the intersection of computers, games and art interesting is precisely that there currently exists no agreed-upon set of curatorial, art-historical, critical or economic practices that function to legitimate such works. Are the pieces in SHIFT-CTRL art or are they games? Are they serious, collectible objects or pretexts for frivolous play---or neither? We’ll leave that decision to you.

1. The SHIFT-CTRL catalog is on the Web at
2. The installation design was commissioned from Antennae Design, New York.

Antoinette LaFarge
Department of Studio Art
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697, U.S.A.

Robert Nideffer
2127 Glendon Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90025, U.S.A.
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