In this interview, British artist Dave Ball discusses the uses and abuses of absurdity in art and how he fell in love with the most boring video game ever.
Dave Ball (b. 1978, UK) is an artist based in Berlin and Wales; educated at Goldsmiths College, London (MA), and University of Derby (BA), and currently researching the use of absurd strategies in art practice at Winchester School of Art (PhD). He is represented by Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin. Exhibitions include Searching for the Welsh Landscape (solo), Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2016; Travelling/Reisen, Projektraum Group Global 3000, Berlin, 2016; Polyphonies, Optica, Montreal, 2015; Picaresque, Ha Gamle Prestegard, Stavanger, Norway, 2014; A to Z: From Aardvark to Axle (solo), Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin, 2013; To Make the Improbable, Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Canada, 2013; Be Our Guest, Oriel Davies, Wales, 2013; Stranded Travelers, Atelier 35, Bucharest, Romania, 2013; Making Mirrors, NGBK, Berlin, 2011; The Dump: Recycling of Thoughts, Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland, 2010; Field Broadcast, Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire, 2010; Artsway Open 09, Artsway, Sway, Hampshire, UK; How to Live (solo), Galerie Art Claims Impulse, Berlin, 2008.
Dave Ball, Artist Masterclass: How to Sharpen a Pencil, 2014; 3min HD video.
"Part of an ongoing series of instructional videos in which experienced British artist Dave Ball shares his expertise on a range of topics, including, in this case, how to sharpen a pencil." (Dave Ball)
Matteo Bittanti: In your practice, you use absurdity as a rhetorical tool. Interestingly, absurdity is a leitmotiv of several avant-garde movements - like Dada, Surrealism and Fluxus just to name a few - which challenged the so-called "common sense" of the bourgeoisie. Incidentally, Dada/Surrealism/Fluxus used games and play as a tactic, to borrow a term from Michel De Certeau. Are you operating within the same trajectory/tradition? Or are you more aligned to contemporary "pranksters" like Maurizio Cattelan who use humour and absurdity to expose the inner workings of the artworld and, perhaps, to sabotage it?
Dave Ball: This is actually the subject of my PhD research. The way I'm thinking about it at the moment is that there are certain structures of meaning in existence, and when absurdity is used strategically, it is a refusal of those structures. So in a sense absurdity is “meaningless” according to conventional ways of thinking, or rather, it operates in the space between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. For me, artworks are only interesting when they have some relationship to the real world, so what I try to do in my work is approach a topic (often quite a “serious” topic) and use absurdity as a tool to sidestep already-existing ways of thinking about that topic. Absurdity is both accessible and challenging at the same time: accessible in the sense that its novelty and humour is very easy to enjoy, but challenging in the sense that there are no straightforward ways of accounting for exactly what the work is doing. Any kind of interpretation of the “meaning” of the work is speculative, precisely because it operates outside of conventional structures of meaning. Dada certainly did something similar, but it arose in a very specific historical moment (when faith in human rationality was collapsing, triggered by the onset of war). I think a lot of neo-Dada work is boring because it lacks any real relationship with its own historical moment. Nevertheless, the subversive “tools” of Dada are very useful in tackling contemporary issues, and artists like Francis Alÿs or Pilvi Takala use them as a fascinating way of exploring social and political structures of meaning.
Dave Ball, I Think That's Best for Both of Us (Lance and Oprah), 2016; 8 min video with found footage from television interview between former Tour de France-winning cyclist Lance Armstrong and presenter Oprah Winfrey, first broadcast in Jan 2013 by OWN.
"The video is comprised solely of the moments of silence, contentless language and non-verbal gestures broadcast during the original interview." (Dave Ball)
Matteo Bittanti: Marshall McLuhan used jokes as “probes”, that is, as devices to heighten awareness about the underlying or implicit meanings of an apparently simple situation. For the Canadian thinker, probes operate as epistemological instruments. He wrote: "The new kind of joke is a gestalt or configuration in the style of set theory." (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, 2003, p. 45). He added that "A joke really requires a hidden ground of grievance, for which the joke is only a figure sitting out front.” (p. 278). Like McLuhan, many thinkers are mainly remembered for their jokes rather than their theories (Slavoj Zizek comes to mind...). Your practice is imbued with a peculiar sense of humour. Why did you specifically decide to use laughter as a tactic? To mask "a hidden ground of grievance", maybe?
Dave Ball: There's often a moment when you encounter an artwork that really impresses you, when your response is quite similar to hearing a funny joke: you sort of laugh in wonder at it. There's a kind of “jolt” to your thinking that takes place. It's that moment when you realise that something (the logic of the artwork) that seems on the surface to be absurd, actually makes just as much “sense” as a more conventional idea. I used to talk a lot about wanting my work to cause “minor ruptures” - I don't make shockingly transgressive work, but I do nevertheless try to destabilise something in the world by configuring it differently. This, perhaps, is what accounts for the peculiar humour in my work. To put it in McLuhan's terms, my hidden ground of grievance might be the predictability and conservatism of the world: that so much of our everyday lives is ordered and motivated by structures of meaning that strike me as arbitrary, without value, boring, even destructive. Plus, of course, humour is fun, and there's really not enough fun in the world.
Dave Ball, I'Ve Always Wanted to Drive Across America, 2016; (video documentation of) installation with playable Desert Bus video game, accompanied by spoken-word soundtrack in which the artist describes from memory every overseas trip he has ever made. Known as the most boring video game ever developed, Desert Bus (1994) is a cult driving simulator in which the aim is to drive along an entirely straight road from Las Vegas to Tucson in real time. Nothing ever happens, and there is nothing to see during the 8-hour journey – just an endless pixellated desert. The reward for completing the journey is 1 point. The audio begins with the artist talking about his first childhood holidays abroad, focussing in particular on endless journeys by ferry, plane, and car. Moments of disappointment, boredom or confusion experienced during the trips are described in great detail, while the conventional attractiveness of the destinations is barely mentioned. As they move into adulthood the trips become more and more repetitive, and, aside from a series of unfortunate mishaps, increasingly difficult to remember. Desert Bus was originally developed by Imagineering for the Sega CD console, but was never released. A scratch written Java applet version was recreated for the Desert Bus for Hope charity event in 2007. Thanks to Lance Burns for modifying the applet for this installation." (Dave Ball)
Matteo Bittanti: What is your personal relationship to video games? Did you play games growing up at all? Did you specifically decide to incorporate Desert Bus in your piece because generally games are dismissed as "trivial" in the Art World, save for a few exceptions - Cory Arcangel, Miltos Manetas, Jon Rafman come to mind - or did you pick this particular game because of its status as "most boring game ever made?" If so, how did you encounter it?
Dave Ball: I played video games a lot as a child, and then, aged about 15 or 16, I took a sudden and quite conscious decision to stop, and haven't really played them since. I think I was worried that I was wasting away too much time, when I should have been studying or socialising or whatever. Computer games at that time seemed to me to represent something quite unsociable, which I wanted to avoid. I do, however, have some very vivid memories of crowding around an arcade machine at lunch time with a group of school friends, each of us taking turns to play Cloud Master, which was sociable and fun. But in general, no, I don't really have any specific interest in video games; I was simply struck by the absurdity of the Desert Bus game, which seemed to subvert everything you expect about a video game.
Matteo Bittanti: Can you discuss the creative process behind I've Always Wanted to Drive Across America? What came first, the idea (boredom) or the medium (e.g. Desert Bus, the voice over narration etc.)?
Dave Ball: The work was actually developed in response to an exhibition about travel. The premise of that show was about questioning our motivation to travel, given its environmental and social impact. And I'd just been reading about Desert Bus, and thinking about how I could use it (I'd made work before about boredom, and wanted to explore that further). So I started drawing parallels between the subversiveness of the game, and how our lived experience of travel is itself subversive. A lot of my work explores the discrepancies between “proper” experiences (of travel – the enjoyment of new places, the relaxation, the pleasure of companionship), and actual lived experiences (boredom, arguments, tiredness, getting lost). So I suppose I saw the game as a metaphor for an “improper” experience. The narration too, attempts to describe the improper experience of travel. As a child you perhaps haven't yet learnt what proper holiday experience ought to be, so you just fall back on your own experience, which is naturally a mixture of negativity and positivity. The overall effect of the work, therefore, is intended to be one of ambivalence: playing the game and listening to the soundtrack, you recognise that there's something interesting going on, but it has nothing to do with the conventional idea of what's interesting about playing video games, or about travelling. You are, so to speak, playing the game of real-life travel – but it's not exactly clear what the goal of that game is, or even if there is a goal.