Matteo Bittanti: Why did you begin to incorporate video games in your practice? What do you find fascinating about this medium? Its interactivity? Agency? Aesthetics? Theatricality? Or are you more interested about the online communities that blossom around digital games?
Jean-Baptiste Wejman: These are all excellent questions. Why? Well, for a long time I thought that the boundaries separating Art from "everything else" were clear, rigid, and somehow inviolable. Universal laws, so to speak. However, as time went by, I was forced to rethink my assumptions and to question my own prejudices. I was influenced by several critics and thinkers. One is Paul Ardenne, who believes that art should always be contextualized. He says that we must abandon the notion that each artwork is an autonomous object, existing in a vacuum. Ditto for Hal Foster, whose emphasis on theatricality forces us to think about artistic situations as always spatially situated. Since the Nineties, these discussions have evolved considerably: they might have taken new forms, but they certainly have not ended. Initially, what fascinated me about the role of video games within the contemporary visualscape was the ongoing debate around their status as art. As you know, "Are video games art?" is a question that dominated the conversation in the late Nineties and early Zeroes. For several critics, video games are just commercial artifacts, the byproduct of a creative industry akin to Hollywood. Other believe that games are still in their infancy, and, as such they are "under underdeveloped": once artists and intellectuals start unpacking their true potential, they will evolve in unexpected ways, subverting the conventions and clichés of mainstream productions. I began incorporating games in my practice around 2011 when I recognized their cultural value. To me, they were raw material that could - and should - be exploited by artists. Today, it is obvious to me that digital games are just another way of making art. We are overwhelmed by a staggering production of fiction, images, and interactions. We now posses the technical means to navigate virtual spaces. In a sense, we made Leon Battista Alberti's dream finally happen. My generation grew up watching a world unfold not outside "windows" but on Windows, jumping from one tab to another, playing with all sorts of information, assuming different identities and characters. As an artist, I wanted to partake this conversation and to experiment with new media. When I incorporated games in my artistic practice, the process felt natural, almost automatic. Perhaps even necessary.
Matteo Bittanti: Digital games often create parallel, alternative experiences for their users. How do you relates to the complex relation between reality and simulation? How do you address this tension throughout your work in general and specifically in Concentration Before a Burnout Scene?
Jean-Baptiste Wejman: The complex relationship between reality and simulation? This is where all the traditional questions of art clash and collide! Making pictures, chasing mimesis, imitating the real... And this is the reason why video games are so exciting. They force us to confront, once again, the notion of realism. And yet, we must not forget that since the early days of game development, many designers rejected realism in toto, offering instead alternative, more abstract, oneiric experiences. They questioned the notion of aesthetics in art through an image-based form of production. I must also add that, to me, the concept of simulation is closer to the broader concept of fiction. Not only these two notions have strong ties, but they inform each other, they are mutually reinforcing. In my practice, fictions act as simulations. For example, my video Concentration Before A Burnout Scene can be read on several levels. Initially I chose GTA San Andreas because I was fascinated by the very idea of the open world. This is where simulation truly matters. I produced this video by recording my own experience - mediated by an avatar - within the game world. This project qualifies as a machinima. At the same time, I selected a specific context and time frame within the game to extract some elements and to perform a loop. Concentration Before A Burnout Scene depicts the game in a static moment. It is a false movement stuck in an infinite time loop. In short, I simulated play time. Concentration Before A Burnout Scene is not about the "real" game, changing, developing and transforming before our own eyes. It is, on the contrary, a dramatization which offers the viewer the chance to experience an alternative experience of time. A simulated time that produces a duration in the so-called real world.
Matteo Bittanti: Do you consider yourself a gamer? Do you play videogames? If so, what titles do you find intriguing and stimulating, both, as a gamer and as an artist?
Jean-Baptiste Wejman: Yes, I am a gamer, but a rather casual one. I do not have time to play all the games that I want. For instance, I did play Fallout: New Vegas. Not assiduously, like a dedicated gamer, but occasionally, like someone who finds himself fascinated by something he previously dismissed as "trivial". Thanks to emulation, I discovered old Sega Megadrive and SNES games that I could not play growing up because I found gaming too time consuming. Back then, I was always too busy doing something else, like reading or listening to music. In a sense, I am recapturing a part of my youth through retrogaming... So what are the games that an artist may find interesting? Definitely Minecraft. This is such a creative title, one that uses the very idea of open world in the most sophisticated and empowering way. Another game that truly fascinated me is The Stanley Parable: it was such an incredible gaming experience. There is little action, almost no gameplay. Just a voice that speaks to us, opening us up to almost endless possibilities. This is a self reflexive game, a game that questions itself through the medium of the video game. Very meta indeed. It was such memorable experience! Another title that blew me away is Undertale. This game is a tour de force. Using very simple technical means, this game produces a perfect narrative, engaging the player like very few other titles. Undertale breaks, or rather smashes, the fourth wall. It reminds me of something that David Lynch might have dreamed. You meet these amazing strange characters, and yet the world seems quite consistent. It makes sense even when it should not. When people ask me if there are games that offer experiences comparable - if not superior - to those produced by the best books, films, or paintings, I usually mention these three...
Matteo Bittanti: How do video game aesthetics affect the overall impact of your work? What comes first when you are developing a new project, the concept or the medium?
Jean-Baptiste Wejman: Game aesthetics are truly fascinating because they link the narrative component to the gameplay. They are inseparable. Take Super Mario Bros.. Considered in itself, its universe is completely incoherent. The world that Mario inhabits is just a pretest to play. I mean, what is the deal with a mustachioed plumber who must rescue a princess in a strange world populated by flying fish and turtles? Even as an interactive fairy tale, it makes little sense. It's the gameplay that justifies the narrative. It's the action that makes the scenario, so to speak. I like to analyze video games in the same way that I examine a traditional work of art. I must understand the creator's process to fully appreciate a game. Consistency is by far the most important aspect of a game. The player must understand the logic of the simulated world. It cannot be random. Even randomness must have some coherence! And that's my challenge as an artist. How can I create works and exhibitions that offer situations where the public can establish a relationship with what I present? Is my world "consistent"? I often think of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno's works. They create game-like spaces, spaces filled with characters, objects, and situations. Their works come with links, attachments, and identification processes. The same elements are pervasive in video games. These aspects deeply influence my own work. When I develop a new project, the concept is often the starting point. I try to consider how the final aesthetic position will engage the viewer. So I established a methodology according to the situation to produce a coherent "gameplay/scenario" that can be translated in an exhibition as "wandering/narrative".
Matteo Bittanti: Can you describe the process behind the production of Concentration Before a Burnout Scene?
Jean-Baptiste Wejman: As I mentioned before, I chose to work with GTA San Andreas because at the time it seemed like the best game simulating the real world, at an architectural, narrative, social, and spectacular level. In short, this is a game that contains several layers of meaning and contexts. Additionally, GTA San Andreas allows emergent gameplay. I was looking for a space within the game that evoked the look-and-feel of film. A place where I could shoot a movie like Bullitt. I navigated the spaces of this virtual metropolis for weeks, seeking the perfect spot and finally, I identified the ideal area, located between the suburbs, stuck between a residential and an industrial zone. So I placed the main character CJ here in a car I've chosen because it resembled the archetypical muscle car - a Dodge Charger or a Ford Mustang - that one encounters in these films. I set my camera to capture the perfect angle, using a panoramic POV. The décor of the city, the visual clichés of the American urban environment were all in place. Then I started to capture the gameplay. At this point, I was working on a computer and I could easily capture a video source. I caught several sequences of twenty minute intervals. The challenge then was to create a short loop. The requisite was that the smoke exhaust and the ambient light must appear "natural". I produced a first version in MPEG 2 format in 2011. But for this exhibition, TRAVELOGUE, I reworked the source file to produce another video in 1080p. I consider this a form of digital restoration. It was a long process which took weeks. Although it may not seem like at first glance, I chose to show a passage where the heat effect distorts the image. I think this visual effect can distort the sense of time. The title is an integral part of the work. It contains several possible readings. It is clearly descriptive: what we see is, indeed, a character waiting in his car, idling, the engine running. He may be preparing to leave and make a U-turn in the middle of the road. But it also describes the expectation of the viewer. Lastly, it forces the viewer to concentrate on image and such concentration has limitations. It's a game on the expectation played on the viewer. A pending action, a possible story, an endless wait.