Well, how about it then? If art can arrive chalky, chiselled from marble; if it can encrust a canvas in daubs of paint; or if it babbles forth from the magnetic reels of a video tape, can it bloom in the mind, and the hands, of a spectator? This and other such lofty, ready-worn questions echo from the grand halls of the V&A Museum at this very moment.
In particular, from Room 39 and the North Court of the V&A Museum, wherein you’ll find an exhibition entitled ‘Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt.’ If you’re lucky. I spent a good few minutes fumbling around in the weighty gloom for an objective marker; when I came upon one, it didn’t so much as point the way as pose a profound juxtaposition. ‘Frida Kahlo’; ‘Videogames,’ it read. One heading lay below the other, each marked with a small arrow, ushering you in opposite directions – which I didn’t see in the dim light. I couldn’t shake the image of Kahlo’s fierce gaze, cast in her portraits, her monolithic brow furrowed at the fellowship proposed.
Kahlo didn’t take kindly to her association with surrealism, so I can only wonder what she would make of brushing shoulders with the likes of Splatoon’s Inklings, whose bold use of colour rivals her own. In a letter from Paris, she called the surrealists a ‘bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches’; the best parts of the exhibition, housed in the ‘Design’ section, might convince you such charges are better levied at game developers. Peering into FromSoftware’s Bloodborne notebooks is an unnerving thrill, like stumbling upon the lair of a serial killer. Egg-sacks, mouldering bodies, deadly weapons – scraps of scrawled thought that might transcend the paper for the ghostly permanence of polygons.
Perhaps she would gaze at The Last of Us installation and sense, in the sketches and prints of Pittsburgh, a similar rapture to the one that seized her as she painted Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States. The similarities soak through: the jostling towers of industry bruising the skies with fumes, the metal pipes lined up like factory workers; all succumbing to grotesque vegetation, while malformed bodies prowl the rubble. Or would she look at the segment on Journey and recognise something of her own silent portraits in the billowing dress and burning eyes of its protagonist? Maybe she’d make a beeline for the gift shop.
On the other hand, Kahlo, whose work biographer Hayden Herrera says is defined by ‘fantasy, naivety, and fascination with violence and death,’ might find common ground in the ‘Disrupt’ section. It’s here that the reliance on violence and killing, maleness and whiteness, and power fantasies in games is picked apart, while projections of journalists Simon Parkin and Jordan Erica Webber, and developers Rami Ismail and Nina Freeman, among others are beamed onto a wall,sporadically springing to life to weigh in.
This section seems to anticipate the medium cooling off from its adolescence, from the tantrums and doldrums of its thrill-seeking salad days, to be enshrined into the art canon. The exhibits in this section were less like those you’d find in a museum and more like ones that might be presented by an attorney during a trial – The Art People vs. Video Games. They bear titles that sound like a needling procession of pamphlets: ‘videogames are political,’ ‘playing with guns,’ ‘let’s talk about sex.’ The three commands of the exhibition’s title – design, play, and disrupt – cry out for a fourth: validate.
But from whom? The exhibition, wonderfully laid out and curated with care, holds a blurry image in its crosshairs. Unlike the Barbican’s Game On, which drank in early forms of gaming and technology, stretching back to the 1960s, Design/Play/Disrupt focusses on the last decade of games – a time when their artistic potential blossomed. But in so doing, it aims at the initiated. If you hold the artistic potential of games to be axiomatic, then large parts of what you’ll see will transport you back to school, to the nagging of your maths teacher as they implored you to show your working out.
Consider the Journey design documents on display, in which the game’s levels are colour-coded like carpet samples, each area labelled with what the designers wanted the player to feel at that point. I would love to see Kahlo’s face as someone proposed a similar idea for The Broken Column, a portrait that sees her stuck with nails and run through with a pillar that’s covered in cracks. Well that’s all very well and good, but we need annotations Frida! What is it you want us to feel?
Elsewhere, the cloistral spaces are laced with curios, the wondrous likes of which you’d find filed in the special features section of a Blu-ray. The portion devoted to Kentucky Route Zero was a good spread of influences, laid out with plenty of artistic roughage. Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury was splayed on a counter, sparking the game’s surreal depiction of the American South. Magritte’s Le Blanc-Seine, its subject interlaced with trees, dangled like a beautiful graphical glitch, highlighting a similar effect used by developer Cardboard Computer.
What a curious addendum the ‘Play’ section is: the likes of the terrific Line Wobbler, QWOP, and Enviro-Bear 2000 lined up to get the blood pumping from the brain and back to the chest. It’s a blinking, bright reminder that the power of games is only truly communicated with a controller in the hands, and it underlines the odd effect of dissecting them and clasping them in displays. (On a separate note, I did think that Kahlo might have gotten a kick out of the pained contortions of QWOP, and I wonder what her high score would be.)
As I reeled through the gift shop, the effect of seeing games in a place like the V&A scrambled my head a little. Kahlo’s contemporary André Breton described her work as being ‘wonderfully situated at the point of intersection between the political (philosophical) line and the artistic line.’ And large parts of Design/Play/Disrupt are keen to illuminate the same intersection in games. ‘Explore the design and culture of contemporary videogames,’ runs the tagline, and it delivers on its charge; but it’s chosen audience is the audience that has chosen it. It feels designed not to disrupt, but to affirm.