“We exist through our technology and, by turns, we are when we drive.” (Charissa Terranova, 2014)

"(T)he artist is indispensable in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures created by electric technology."    (Marshall McLuhan, 1964). 

 

In her compelling book Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art, Charissa Terranova (2014) examines the function and significance of the automobile in contemporary art. Noting that car-as-artwork is usually treated as “an object distinct from the body”, a thing to “look at”, a fetish, an object of desire, in most exhibitions featuring cars, the automobile is treated as 

(A) technological commodity of value on the global market of consumer products. The car portends the freedom of consumer choice, economic status, unlimited open road, manifest destiny, liberal democratic freedom, and an understanding of beauty that comes together around formal delight. Though often more about industrial design than fine art, the car implies a conventional experience of the art object that epistemologically privileges the sense of vision over the roving body and its other senses. (p. 3, emphasis added)

But for many other artists, the car is “an apparatus — a prosthetic connected to the body, a part of a wider and broader human/mechanic interface— through which to see and experience the world”. By “looking through” the car - herein considered as “a mediator of interaction with the world” - the car-as-artwork becomes

A rhetorical device functioning as a mode of representation, framing device, means of debasement, and conduit for the generalized explosion of media beyond the conventional fulcrum of painting and sculpture. (p. 6)

TRAVELOGUE looks through cars rather than at cars. All the works featured in this exhibition fall under the rubric of what Terranova calls “conceptual car art”, a sub genre of conceptual art that:

  • Does not consider the automobile as a “Passive fetish object to celebrate, but rather as a transformative and existential machine which with humans have a reciprocal relationship” (p. 28); 

  • “Shows us how the automobile shapes, both close up as we see landscapes through the car window and far away as we plunder the earth in search of natural resources to keep the car running” (ibidem);

  • “Comes in a variety of forms - sculpture, painting, photographs, photo-text pieces, interactive educational artworks, performance, video, and new media— and always functions through deferral and mediation” (ibidem);

  • Focuses on the car’s “effects on humans and environments, and its affects as a motivator of emotional response” (ibidem),

  • “Frames the car as a catalyst of emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic experience,” as it deals with “the embodied perception of an interconnected sequence of moments alongside the roadside” (ibidem).

Specifically, TRAVELOGUE examines how automobiles are represented, simulated, and conceptualized in and by video games. Why? 

First of all, because the act of driving and playing share several phenomenological affinities. Contrary to what Ian Borden argues in Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes (2013), it is the medium of the video game rather than film that

provides the most direct sense of what it actually feels like to drive, its visual qualities giving a substantive (if not always entirely accurate or complete) indication of how driving involves movement, bodies, thoughts, feelings, spaces, sights and sounds. (pp. 12-13).

“Real” driving and simulated “driving” are embodied experiences taking place through technological apparatuses, the automobile and the video game. They stimulate both the optic and the haptic, forming a nexus of habits and gestures in which visual and tactile senses participate in the creation of what Terranova calls the “automotive prosthetic” (1).

We see the world through many technological devices (the train, plane, television, cinema, computer, telephone, camera, etc.) and that, as such, our visual experiences are often constructed by technology. (p. 67)

The numbing effect of car driving finds a perfect replica in video game driving, an experience that McLuhan (1964) calls a form of narcosis, or numbness, typical of new technologies. 

Moreover, as Mark B. N. Hansen (2000) remarked, digital interaction is always embodied. Its alleged “dematerialization” effect is largely a myth. This is especially manifest in Torsson’s work Turn Around. The artist recorded himself playing SEGA Championship Rally (1995) by positioning the camera in such a way that the hands holding the controller - shaped as a car wheel - are always visible in the frame. Here, the digital is, literally, finger play. The wheel simply becomes an extension - a prosthesis - of the player’s hands.

At the same time, both the tangible car and the simulated car are mediators of experiences: the former produces a world through the windshield, the latter through a screen. The driver - the kybernetes - is simultaneously augmented by a technological apparatus (the car as an extension) and limited in his understanding of space (the car as an amputation) (2). As McLuhan suggests:

Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth. One of the merits of motivation research has been the revelation of man’s sex relation to the motor car. (p. 55)

The automobile and the videogame, the road and the virtual landscape, the human and the avatar, create a dialectic, a feedback loop in which one informs the other. Both the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies of video games remediate the form and style of previous media, especially advertising, film, and television: they celebrate the spectacular nature of driving while deliberately ignoring the socio-economical and ecological contexts it produces. As Terranova reminds us:

The car is not a neutral form of technology but rather another seminal player in the creation of naturalized cultural practices. Its material vectors, including access or denial to the car, the urbanism it creates, the social semiology, as well as the wars over natural resources it propagates, constitute our customs as a people. (p. 103)

In video games, the car is virtualized, that is, transformed into data (numbers, statistics, scores) and geometry (vectors, shapes, polygons). Conceptual car artists provide a critical commentary of racing games’ alleged realism through a variety of strategies - both technical - (Hugo Arcier, Clint Enns, Matthew Hallock, and Victor Morales) - and rhetorical (Dave Ball and COLL.EO). As Terranova writes, this is an “Art bearing a function of pointing-to rather than symbolically being-about”. By highlighting the deceptive nature of the ludic simulation, these artists bring into the spotlight the paradoxes and deficiencies of a world experienced exclusively through a technology that is never neutral but always ideologically pregnant.

A follow-up to LIMBUS (RAGE), a machinima depicting a found glitch produced in 2011, Arcier's LIMBUS (GTA V) (2013) depicts urban traffic in a simulated city from an unusual, “impossible” perspective, as if the camera were located below the road, thus destroying the illusion of realism created by the designers. As Arcier writes, “Sometimes a bug in a video game can be magic. It gives the keys to a normally unexplored area, beyond, in the limbo of the game”. (4)

Clint Enns deconstructs a racing game by circuit bending an obsolete Atari console. His real goal is to question the notion of legitimacy in art. "Does this work “qualify” as good or valid art?", he asks. Does the alleged impartial, meritocratic, skill-based nature of the artworld stand this test? The “START” sign loses a couple of letters and becomes “ART” before imploding. The "race" is clearly rigged. Matthew Hillock's montage of video game sequences begins with a classic racing game: Out Run. His work highlights the artificial - and utterly fragile - nature of digital games. In Victor Morales’ work, a city stroll becomes a nightmarish animation where identical vehicles proceed on the streets of a generic American city in march-like fashion. 

COLL.EO’s digital slideshow Intervallo (2016) features glitches, bugs, and ghosts from Forza Horizon 2 (Bittanti, 2015a, 2015). Originally collected by the fans and uploaded to the game server, the screenshots were subsequently appropriated and edited by COLL.EO. This work pays homage to a show produced by Italy’s national public broadcasting company RAI, the eponymous Intervallo, consisting of a photo slideshow accompanied by classical music. The original 1960s version, in black and white, depicted a flock of sheep (3). Some pundits have interpreted Intervallo as an overt allusion to TV's hypnotizing, brainwashing effect: spectators are treated as a docile flock of mindless sheep lacking individual thought that can be easily manipulated with hypnotic images and soothing lullabies. Today, the same brainwashing function is performed by video games, COLL.EO seem to suggest.   

Bob Bicknell-Knight’s Simulated Ignorance (2015) and Max Almy and Teri Yarbrow’ Utopia (1994), highlight the prescribed set of possibilities within that system of conventions and limitations otherwise known as a video game and thus offer a subtle, but penetrating, critique of technology. By pointing to the deception at play in neoliberal proclamations about freedom of choice, the virtues of unregulated competition, and normative entrepreneurship, these artists force us to recognize the dire consequences of technologically-driven capitalism.

Again, Terranova:

Critical consciousness of technology is coeval with taking heed of the full effects of technology, knowing today, for example, that by using a global positioning system in your car or a Roomba to clean household floors you are imbricated in the American war machine, as the technologies for both were developed by the Pentagon. Or, for that matter, that in driving your car, whether a Prius or Hummer, you are equally bound up into the global political economy of petroleum. (pp. 44-45)

The profound interconnectedness of the entertainment-industrial complex has altered the very nature of humanity. Quoting McLuhan, Terranova suggests that

Humans do not simply use technology in causal, unidirectional fashion, as a user simply utilizing an object in terms of figure A using tool B to act upon object C. Rather, each use of every distinct kind of technology creates a relationship whereby human and technology are transformed. (p. 18)

Moreover,

The car has, like computers and digital technology, contributed to the creation of the posthuman subject. In experiencing the automotive prosthetic, the human being enters the realm of the “posthuman.” [...] As her body mutates from biological to mechanomorphic, the human who experiences the automotive prosthetic, the person who sees the world through the car window, becomes “posthuman.” (pp. 97-98)

But far from being a naive, passive subject, the player-as-artist-as-cyborg can produce a powerful deconstruction of the ideological imperatives underpinning a technological-driven notion of “progress”. Why artists? McLuhan explains:

No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may be able to provide such immunity. In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand. (p. 10)

The work of Max Almy and Teri Yarbrow can be read as an urgent warning about the effects of technology on society. Consider Utopia (1994), which mimics the interface of video games to critique the alleged empowering nature of interactivity. Originally conceived as an interactive installation, the work is presented in TRAVELOGUE as a video.

The same applies to Kristin Lucas’s BLAM! (2000) which depicts a player (Lucas) stuck in a chaotic environment of a racing game. In the original live installation, one video played on a monitor and was networked to a live game in the same space. Players of the live game could enter text messages that were subsequently displayed on the video monitor playing BLAM!. The text messages graphically overlay the video, animating across the screen, adding another layer of distraction. Unable to distinguish important messages from trivial updates, the player eventually reaches a saturation point. Another victim of information overload. Like Turn Around and Utopia, BLAM! depicts a human being engaged with technology. Here, the artist’s body is superimposed onto game imagery. Ironically, such inclusion heightens the sense of social isolation and alienation produced by video games.

Paraphrasing Terranova, these works of art describe a new mode of human experience, the cyborg experience of the human-becoming-videogame.

Both Dave Ball’s interactive installation, I’ve Always Wanted To Drive Across America (2016) and Leonardo Sang’s Back Seats in Video Games (2013-ongoing) deal with time and travel, storytelling and documentation, dislocation and boredom, memory and imagination. In the former, the artist provides an interminable account of “real” journeys while inviting the viewer to play “the most boring game ever”, Desert Bus. The latter uses photography - remediated by digital games as “screenshots” - to document a set of "car-views" from non-existent back seats of virtual cars. Presented as a black and white digital slideshow, Sang’s work alludes to the genre of travel photography, but also to the practice of conceptual artists like John Baldessari, whose The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday 20 January 1963 (1963) exemplifies the particular style that Terranova calls “the photoconceptual view to the road” (5):

Once again, the viewer assumes the position of the driver. She looks through the windshield, out to the red hood of the car, and beyond to the back of various trucks directly ahead. Telephone poles, high wires, white highway lines diminish into a frontal, varying-point perspective that is cropped and abutted by the backside of semis, pickups, and dump trucks. A few of the photos show an old rearview mirror clipped to the right side of the hood of the car. There we see reflected a blurry semblance of the driver behind the wheel, hunkered over with hands steering the machine. Baldessari shows his skills as master of the forthright. Later describing his process in another context, he says, “I tend to pick out things that are obvious.” The will of the automotive cyborg, the subject of the artist and viewer, is deflated. Her volition deliquesces into the becoming wholeness of the car directed by a human rolling through a changeful continuum of scenery. (p. 85)

Likewise, in Sang’s photographs, the documentative nature of photography is evoked to re-present situations that have little or no importance within the economy of the game. Sang situates himself in a back seat of a virtual car, taking snapshots. His images depict the driver, a rear view mirror, a dashboard, a car seat and not much else. The mundane aspect of driving - with its repetitive, numbing, dull routine - is documented through virtual photographic practices.

Finally, with his machinima Concentration Before a Burnout Scene (2011), Jean-Baptiste Wejman creates an interesting paradox: it deprives the racing game of its essential element - fast motion - to document, instead, a prolonged, stationary moment. For the entire duration of the video, the protagonist is idling, running the vehicle’s engine while waiting in a parking lot. Sitting in his car underneath a tattoo parlor sign, the driver is “concentrating" before a burnout scene". The scene, however, is endlessly postponed. Thus, Wejman subverts the conventions of the cinematic/ludic driving experience that include “rushing road surfaces, squealing cornering, dramatic overtakes and near misses, flashing road signs and fragmentary glances in rear-view mirrors, as well as, of course, the bewitching vanishing point of the driver’s single-point perspective vision.” (Borden, 2013, p. 115) And yet, this frustrating suspension - this endless wait - is surprisingly suspenseful.

Presented both as video installations and projected onto the screens to highlight the hybrid nature of machinima - a genre situated at the intersection of video art, experimental cinema, and gaming - these works use motion and stasis to engage the viewers at multiple levels.

TRAVELOGUE is a survey of artists on the move across the screen. A documentation of virtual road trips: journeys in which the point of departure and the point of arrival always coincide.

Where do(n't) you want to go, today?

Matteo Bittanti

 

NOTES

1. Terranova explains that automotive prosthetic theory examines how “mobile perception” is illustrated in conceptual art car. Specifically,

First, the phrase “mobile perception” refers to the interlocked physical experience that begins when one takes the driver’s seat of a car, the wheel hits road, and car and human together become a nomadic vector in the matrices of highway infrastructure. It is the phenomenology of motion whereby ear-eye-skin coordinate in an epistemology of mobility. In a space-time split, the outer landscape of the car, characterized by shifting urbanisms, sky, and fellow travelers, competes with the interior landscape of the automotive womb, where the mind and emotions circulate through a body seated and protected in a moving car. The mobile subject drives a car, plugging herself into an assemblage of machine, road, and infrastructure, and a host of subjective responses unfold. Second, the theory of the automotive prosthetic analyzes this set of relations as they appear, manifest, and perform in works of conceptual car art. (p. 58)

2. "Extension" and "amputation" are two terms used by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964) to illustrate the effects of technology on human beings. In Chapter 4, "The Gadget Lover. Narcissus as Narcosis" McLuhan writes:

Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body. (p. 45)

3. Later iterations, in color, featured postcards-like images of Italian landscapes, small cities and/or monuments.

4. See http://hugoarcier.com/en/limbus-rage/

5. For an in-depth discussion of conceptual photography and car driving, see David Campany's introductory essay to the magnificent The Open Road. Photography and the American Road Trip (2015) and Diarmuid Costello & Margaret Iversen's anthology Photography After Conceptual Art (2010).

 

WORKS CITED

Bittanti, Matteo. Orizzonti di Forza. Fenomenologia della guida videoludica. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli. 2015a.

Bittanti, Matteo. Extra Miles. Estetica della guida videoludica. San Francisco: Concrete Press. 2015b.

Borden, Iain. Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes. London: Reaktion Books. 2013.

Campany, David. The Open Road. Photography and the American Road Trip. New York: Aperture. 2015.

Costello, Diarmuid and Iversen, Margaret (Eds.). Photography After Conceptual Art. London: Wiley-Blackwell. 2010.

Hansen, Mark B. N.. Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Terranova, Charissa. Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 2015.