In this interview, French artist Hugo Arcier extols the joys of virtual hiking, explains why game playing is usually a “passive” activity, and what it really means to be stuck in limbo.
Hugo Arcier is a French digital artist - or, rather, “an artist in a digital world” - who uses 3D computer graphics to create videos, prints, and sculptures. Initially interested in the field of special effects for feature films, he worked on several projects with Roman Polanski, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This practice has allowed him to gain a deep understanding of digital tools, in particular 3D graphic images. His artistic works have been exhibited at international festivals (Elektra, Videoformes, Némo), galleries (Magda Danysz, Plateforme Paris, etc.), art venues (New Museum, New Media Art Center of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Le Cube, Okayama Art Center, Palais de Tokyo, etc.), and several contemporary art fairs (Slick, Variation).
Matteo Bittanti: One question I ask all the artists involved in TRAVELOGUE is to describe their personal relationship to simulated and real driving, that is, to video games and cars (= “concrete”, metal-and-plastic automobiles). According to Marshall McLuhan and Charissa Terranova, as a bodily extension or prosthetic, every technology - including cars and digital games - simultaneously augments” and "amputates" human beings. How do you address this tension in your work?
Hugo Arcier: In regard to my personal relationship to video games, I have to confess I consider myself a hardcore gamer. In fact, I play games nearly every day. My passion for gaming goes back to the 1980s. I discovered video games on my cousin’s Amstrad CPC. It was a true revelation. I started with adventure games, then moved onto beat’em ups and platforms. I begged my parents to purchase me this machine, but when we went to the store, the seller was adamant about PCs. This new platform was relatively new at the time and more powerful. So we bought a personal computer, but I was disappointed because the graphics were not as good as on the Amstrad. But things changed, as you know. Home computers eventually disappeared, while PCs became the ideal gaming platform. I have been a PC gamer since then. What fascinates me most about games is their environments. Games are a spatial medium: this is why I am particularly attracted to open worlds: there is nothing I like more than exploring digital places. I am also attracted to first-person shooters. I consider myself a virtual hiker. To me, playing a games means to explore, to take photographs - screenshots - and to scrutinize everything that I encounter. When I play, I eventually abandon the main, imposed narrative to go off on a tangent. I do not own a car since I live in Paris. Paris does not like cars at all: the traffic is insane and parking is nearly impossible. I use my bike and public transportation to go pretty much everywhere. And let’s face it: combustion cars are a relic of the past. They are noisy and cause massive air pollution. Their main byproduct is smog, which in turn causes lung cancer and other health related issues. All that cars produce is detrimental to human beings. Recently I saw a short documentary from the INA archive that discusses an electric car invented by a French engineer called the electric egg. It was available in 1942. I found this document utterly fascinating: it somebody were to launch such a model today, it would be as futuristic and modern as it was back then. I cannot understand how and why combustion cars have lasted so long. It is as if we were still using the Amstrad today: a complete anachronism.
My approach to virtual cars in gaming and 3D animation is very different. These cars exist in a space where they cause no health issues to humans. I love simulated driving: it is a form of pure escapism, devoid of any “real” consequence. I do not fetishize cars per se. When I play a game I am more attracted to arcade driving styles, which emphasize spectacle over verisimilitude. There is something truly hypnotic in virtual driving. Technology has positive and negative consequences, but - all things considered - I disagree with McLuhan that it “amputates” human beings. Technology has mostly positive side effects. It does expand human capabilities considerably. I do not have any faith in organized religions. I am extremely skeptical on anything that evokes the notion of the supernatural. At the same time, I am fascinated by the idea of a technologically enhanced life. Concepts like transhumanism have a certain appeal to me. I admit that my optimism is a weakness of mine. I do recognize that technology is akin to a secular religion. What truly concerns me, in the long term, is that technology can make human beings lazy, complacent, and thus less intelligent. Their technological aids can become like crutches. We increasingly use highly sophisticated devices and we have no idea how they are produced. Artists are a particular kind of user: they want to know how things are done. Artists must show what lies underneath the surface of particular technology. This is why I developed projects like the Limbus series: to show games from an unusual perspective, to disintegrate the alleged realism of virtual worlds. My recent installation, Ghost City, is about the fact that virtual worlds are shallow universes, literally, like empty shells.
Matteo Bittanti: In the TRAVELOGUE exhibition, we showed LIMBUS (GTA V) (2015), the follow up to LIMBUS (RAGE) (2011). These two works exemplify the difference between "found" and "enacted" glitches. What does the glitch represent to you? A fragment of the technological unconscious, a symptom of the true nature of simulation, a purely aesthetic style or something else altogether? And what is the "limbo of the game" you mention?
Hugo Arcier: Video game glitches are very important because they grant the user access to something that is usually inaccessible, something users are generally not allowed to see. Thus, glitches produce a powerful distancing effect: the player is abruptly reminded that each simulation is an artifice, a conceit, and a deception. Although gamers are usually considered “active” in their interaction, they are mostly passive. The glitch awakens the player from her torpor: suddenly the player realizes that the ultra-realistic world she is immersed is a “just a game”. This distancing effect - almost like an epiphany - is relatively uncommon in other media. In movies, this effect can be encountered only in auteur (think Jean-Luc Godard) or amateurish productions (Z-movies and the likes), but in video games, this phenomenon happens even in triple AAA productions, the equivalent of a highly polished Hollywood blockbuster. To create the Limbus series, I specifically looked for a point of view outside the level of the game. I took advantage of a technical optimization technique of video game production: every polygon is single sided, so if you see something from the wrong angle it becomes transparent. This conundrum leads to something visually fascinating. If you can see the level from below, the ground completely disappears, but the characters and props behave as if nothing happened. I have discovered this glitch completely by chance and I captured it to create the first Limbus, in 2011. The process entailed a documentation of the glitch encountered in the video game Rage via screen capture. I felt I had to save something that a subsequent patch might have erased forever. To create the second Limbus in Grand Theft Auto V, I intentionally used a cheat mode: I made myself invincible and I teleported myself to a specific area of the game. But the process was not necessarily easy. The cheat mode did not always worked well and the “perfect spot” was hard to find. In regard to your question about the “limbo” dimension of a game, to me it’s basically a place outside the game itself. But limbo has religious connotations as well. It is a synonym of purgatory: a place where the soul is temporarily “parked” after someone’s death. It’s an in-between area, a liminal space. The video game equivalent to me is when you reach a point where you cannot proceed in the story as if you were dead: you can only wander around and look in a sort of out-of-body experience. In short, to be stuck in limbo means to be waiting for something to happen in a grey zone, not hell, not paradise. Something else altogether.
Matteo Bittanti: The notion of simulation occupies a central position within your practice. Your work brings to the surface the ideologies of digital technologies that we usually take for granted, from first-person shooters to action games, from computer animation to machine learning. How do you approach these issues as an artist, that is, as opposed to a scholar who is interested in using words and concepts to illuminate a process or a documentary filmmaker whose main goal is to document a situation via an edited audiovisual recording? How do you grasp and communicate the essence of computer graphics and algorithmic worlds through your artistic practice?
Hugo Arcier: An artist focuses on the same subjects that may fascinate a scholar or a filmmaker, but with a less theoretically-oriented approach. Art is not about explaining something. Art is about addressing the sensible. Here, the emotional and the experiential always come first. They may lead to reflection - which in turn leads to enlightenment - but only at a later stage. My artistic practice focuses mainly on computer graphics. As you know, the video game is just one of the many artifacts using computer graphics. I try to capture its essence by applying different strategies. First of all, I operate through a process of dissection: I remove layers of data until I can show one single, bare element in each series. In a sense, my modus operandi is similar to an autopsy: this is how one learns about anatomy. You start from a very complex, opaque, difficult to understand whole - a body - and then you start to take it apart, cutting smaller sections. Secondly, my goal is to make computer graphics and algorithms visible, legible, and recognizable. In fact, these elements tend to be generally invisible, under-the-hood so to speak. Even in my more realistic projects like the film Nostalgia for Nature, the simulation is rendered visible. This was meant as a meta-discourse on computer graphics, in a self-reflexive manner, a film-within-a-film.
Matteo Bittanti: Terms that "ghosts", "nostalgia", and "disappearance" recur in your works. Does simulation replace reality, as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio argued? Or is simulation just another layer, another mode of being? And why is it so important for you to document this phenomenon through your artistic work?
Hugo Arcier: These notions - disappearance, substitution and more - are absolutely central in my work. I don’t know exactly what qualifies as “reality” any longer and probably I don’t care because what is important is what you experience, what you see, what you hear, and - at a deeper level - the information stored in your brain. From this vantage point, we can say that simulation replaces reality. Simulation has already won the battle because it is more malleable, efficient, flexible. You can’t take any risk in real life: people don’t like that. They like “safe”. Many years ago, I was commissioned a project to make a very realistic tree in computer graphics. That did not make much sense to me: so I asked “Why don’t you just shoot a real tree with a camera?”. They responded, somehow annoyed, that it is cheaper to make a tree in computer graphic that paying a filmmaker and a professional crew to film it. Plus, you need to spend time finding the perfect tree with all the leaves in the right spot, a certain kind of trunk… The shooting may be compromised by real-life situations like unpredictable weather conditions (rain, wind, low light etc.). In short, they said, a simulated tree is better than a real tree. When I heard this explanation, I was shocked. I realized I just witnessed a turning point. As an artist, I chose to work with the medium of computer graphics because that puts me in the trenches, in the frontline of the contemporary. To me, it’s essential to document the transformation of our world into a massive simulation and to accomplish such goal there is no better tool available than the simulation itself.