Posts Tagged ‘situationists’

American IV

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

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I’ve written before about the emerging importance of video games as a medium, but I recently came across a great article in Time magazine about one specific game, Grand Theft Auto.

There isn’t much that I can really add to that article, but I remember walking around New York last summer when the GTA IV ads were all over the city and thinking about how wonderful it was that such a brilliant and ambitious work of art such as GTA IV was able to advertise itself with such prominence (see below). Because of the thematic nature of GTA, these things didn’t feel like advertisements: they felt like a narrative layering on top of the cultural atmosphere of New York. They insinuated themselves into the culture-scape of the city. There was something so uncanny, surreal (and dare I say meta) about it: a video game whose subject was the American Dream, based in a fictionalized New York City, being advertised in the “real” New York City.

From Nicknoromal via Flickr

From Nicknormal via Flickr

Imagine William Faulkner being advertised and celebrated on a scale like this in Mississippi, or Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. . .

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Artists and architects have been trying to develop new ways to understand the city since the dawn of, well, history. The Situationists in the 50′s and 60′s used new media techniques (collage, montage, and psychotropics) to attempt to better represent and understand the city, and some of their documents are equal parts beautiful and challenging.

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There have been a number of articles that have talked about the way Grand Theft Auto represents the city. It’s more than I want to get into at this point, but I think it may be helpful to point out that not too long ago another medium was struggling for artistic relevance, dealing with issues that seemed outside of propriety and taste, and was starting to develop novel techniques to address those issues. That’s right, I’m talking about film; and I think the Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver is a good analog to compare Grand Theft Auto. It helps that both Taxi Driver and Grand Theft Auto share certain thematic ideas about the American city in general and New York City in particular.

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It struck me that this may be a golden period for video games, much like the one enjoyed by movies in the 70′s  (a period where directors were working under a studio system that was flush with cash and willing to gamble on unproven talent): it is clear that video games are worth commercial investment, yet because the field is so young there isn’t an established authority to dictate the way that the medium will progress. In essence, video game creators are working with nearly unlimited means and almost no authority. No ivy towers, no establishment, no metaphorical patriarchs. One of the game’s creators says in the article that, “It’s not academicized; there’s no orthodoxy on how things are done, so we can do whatever we want. We make it up as we go along! As soon as we get told, ‘Yes, games are high art. They’re almost as high as painting and slightly less than dance,’ it’s over. Freedom is dead at that point. Then the argument just becomes about people’s egos.”

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I love Grand Theft Auto and can’t say enough about the game itself and the ambitions it represents.