In On Beauty And Being Just, Elaine Scarry mentioned about the phenomenon of how a visual event may reproduce itself through other senses, such as touch or smell. It can happen in a non-linear way, extending inward and outward towards many directions, both imaginatively and reflectively, at any moment of time, and continue indefinitely.
In Aesthetics and Aesthetics Education, Maxine Green described the experiences of the ordinary and the extraordinary as moments when the presence of a part takes away from another, versus moments in which each part “flows freely” into what ensues next. There is no sacrifice of the self, but a culmination of the whole. I tried recalling moments when I encountered moments of “art”, and stayed with waves of endless thoughts without noticing the passage of time. I asked myself, what was the secretive message of invitation? A signal, through poems, video games, interactive installations, music, light, paint strokes, that it is safe to just be, to unfold layers after layers of hidden dimensions, until I feel that it is ok to grow and be more, in a space of infinity, where there is always enough space for all of us, without taking something that’s not meant to be mine?
What does it mean to make an artwork that’s intimate? What does it mean to make a piece of computer software that’s intimate for oneself and one’s viewer? I recently encountered an Art Game exhibition. A few pieces in this exhibition caught my attention. I invited the curators to give an artist talk to my students. I learned about a few other Art Games that the curators considered exhibiting for the show. In On Beauty, Scarry writes that the willingness to revise one’s own location “in order to place oneself in the path of beauty” is the basic impulse underlying education. I think that the courage, as an educator, a friend, a listener to honestly acknowledge one’s location is equally important. In a time and space where things change at a speed that’s approaching the limit of comprehension, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to “revise one’s location”, and be at a place as quickly as we are needed. It’s happening more and more often, that when we speak of a specific experience, our listeners can no longer understand exactly what we mean. Pushing ourselves to change beyond our limits will drive us crazy, and eventually hurt and break us. Beauty becomes those inexplicable moments when one look at other in the eye, and say, “I do not understand what you mean, but I believe in that moment you must have felt something very real and important to you”.
The first one is a video game called The Tearoom, created by NYU Game Center professor Robert Yang. Playing this video game felt very intimate for me. As an adult, asking others to sit down and listen to us isn’t always an option. Video game becomes a safe space to experience someone else’s fear, and in return, reflecting on our own. Because game play is to a large extend a personal experience, it feels safe to be exposed to content that’s more explicit and controversial without worry about being judged. In this game, I gazed at, hooked up, and “licked” a male stranger’s genitals while peeing in a public bathroom. In some ways, interacting with AI felt safer than with people in real life. AI characters are programmed to behave consistently based on a set of rules and regulations. In the case of depicting a deeply personal and controversial experience, I can focus largely on my own actions without having to worry how my virtual partner will react. I was able to clarify my own intentions for every single decision I made.
I like how video games look fake. I can take on a completely different persona, controlling it through a joystick with immediacy, be very attached yet removed from my game personal at the same time. For example, in Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, she allowed herself to become a piece of Tetris that’s “trying to fit in”. It allows her to express her feeling in a way that’s very intuitive, yet without risking being judged. After all, she is not her. She is not a male journalist undergoing years of gender transformation surgery and hormone therapies. She is just a piece of Tetris. Dis4yia offered potential solutions for questions that are hard to answer. How do you talk about feeling humiliated or insecure, when others already think of you as crazy, weird, or disgusting? You turn yourself into a razor, shaving off unwanted hair from your female body. You do something, anything you can to take care of yourself, even when everyone else think you are disgusting, even when you think of yourself as disgusting sometimes. What if your parents don’t understand that sometimes, it’s important that you have your space, so you can try things, even if they don’t always work out. You need time, to make a little change here, a little change there, so eventually, things will work out ok. In describing the concept of sadism, a central theme in her games, Anna Anthropy remarked, “This was a story about frustration—in what other form do people complain as much about being frustrated? A video game lets you set up goals for the player and make her fail to achieve them. A reader can’t fail a book. It’s an entirely different level of empathy that most people simply cannot comprehend, and so the game makes this particular empathetic frustration available for all to experience.”
Anthropy’s comment reminded me of an experience I had last year. For an art education research class, I had to observe a K8 public school classroom. Part of my job entailed reading a children’s literacy, part of which was explicitly designed to solicit negative emotions from the children, and compare gender differences between boys and girls’ reactions. However, when a few children drew guns, the teacher immediately stopped them. “No Guns! No fighting in your drawings…” But what if life is just really hard sometimes? For children, for adults, for everyone? What if sometimes we don’t think about doing well, we are just simply doing what we can to get by? What about characters that are ugly, and weak, and can never guess the right answers? What if sometimes when you look into the mirror, you think you look ugly? You feel like you should look prettier but you don’t? What if the makeup, the dress, everything you try seemed to make you look more stupid? What if you have all these questions in your head but you can’t ask your mom, because she is the one who showed you how to hate yourself in the first place? What if you also cannot ask your friends, because their parents are also divorced, drunk, or not there when they needed them?
Nathalie Lawhead’s interactive Zine, Everything Is Going To Be Ok, is her attempt of creating a space for one to be with their own feelings – negative feelings. In her artist’s statement, she states “A lot of it is presented via humor, or creates ridiculous circumstances, because I feel like life is ridiculous. It’s one damn thing after the other and after a while there’s nothing left to do but laugh at it. Humor is what helps take the edge off, perhaps even create a platform for transcendence. Either way, it has been cathartic.” The pages of her interactive zine are filled with adorable little bunnies and other creatures thrown into terrible situations. They fall from the sky, get boiled in lava, or chopped into piece. While having a genuinely bad time, they try to do something about it, chatting, bouncing, chasing people, and getting on with things. There’s a lot of the language of pain, self-doubt, and trauma. But the way it is voiced made me laugh and find joy in my own internal struggles.
The language of video game is explicit. A single individual’s complex feelings can be represented with character design. In Nintendo Switch game Octopus Quest, at any any given point of the game, player can choose to switch between any of the 8 give heros, each of whom with their unique stories and personalities. For example, I finished part of my own game play as Tressa the merchant, a bubbly young merchant who obtained her parents’ blessings to travel around the world, learning new skills and knowledge along the way. For another part of the game play, I switched to a different hero, Primose the dancer. Primose’s father was murdered by a mysterious group of gang with a strange crow tattoo marked on their bodies. In order to revenge her father, she eventually wandered into a pub frequented by random travellers looking for companionships. One of Primose’s secret powers is “allure”, which allows her to captivate a townsman, exchanging his aid for a dance.