[NetBehaviour] Mary Flanagan Interview

Eduardo Navas eduardo at navasse.net
Tue Feb 19 19:24:50 CET 2008

The following interview complements the exhibition "An 8-bit Moment in
Gameplay: [giantJoystick]," currently on view at gallery at calit2, located in
Calit2, UCSD.

Please visit the gallery's website to learn more about the exhibition:
Calit2's main website:

Mary Flanagan Interview:
Social Change, Video Games and the Visual Arts
by Eduardo Navas
Mary Flanagan is an artist and media theorist invested in developing games
for social change and performance/action installations.  Based on her
interests Flanagan produced [giantJoystick] in 2006, and gallery at calit2 is
proud to present this working large-scale game-interface from February 4 to
March 17 of 2008.  As it has been outlined above, [giantJoystick] brings
together Flanagan¹s diverse interests as a cultural producer.  The oversize
custom-made playstation is evidence that Flanagan¹s production borrows not
only from the visual arts and video games culture, but also popular culture.
[giantJoystick] is the result of a new form of critical practice which does
not fit neatly into previous models.  For this reason, gallery at calit2 is
excited to present the following interview with Mary Flanagan in which she
shares her experiences as a young girl who played video games, and as an
artist invested in social change.  The following interview is an important
source for the above text. gallery at calit2 publishes it with the aim to shed
light on the creative process of the artist.


Eduardo Navas: You use the term Social Sculpture to describe
[giantJoystick].  Could you elaborate how you see your work in relation to
Joseph Beuys' aesthetic and political views?
Mary Flanagan: I use the term Social Sculpture to suggest the alignment of
[giantJoystick] (which we will refer to as [gJ] from here on) not only to my
other projects (particularly my social activist research lab) but also to
the larger idea of creativity being applied to all human endeavors.  Play,
to me, can be instrumental in realizing some of the goals of both Beuys and
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), whose Anthroposophical Society advocated
holistic medicine and even organic farming in addition to pursuing social
ideas in human freedom, democracy, and sustainable economic forms. I use the
concept of social sculpture to consider how an object or artifact can work
to structure, on the small scale, interesting and progressive social
interaction, and on the large scale, contribute to the reshaping of larger
social and political organizations-- literally shaping and molding the world
we live in.  Beuys' project was ultimately very political, and so is mine.
In contemporary US culture, there is little dialogue about serious issues:
class differences between rich and poor are the highest since the troubled
Gilded Age of the 1920s, with increased, dire ecological consequences.
Corporate culture has continued to conquer global production, consumption,
and consciousness, disempowering citizens, and unhinging much of the social
fabric and traditional means of living.  Then we have corporate driven
violence and war.
The response to make a play object in the fact of such a grim framework may
appear frivolous. But note that games are popular right now for a reason --
they present fun, but of course, escapist scenarios in which we are faced
with quantifiable enemies and concrete goals. We might be onto something if
we can use this model for real social change.  And, if people are meeting
physically with this joystick, breaking down communication barriers and
playing together, this may be the start of an interactive dialog which might
be transformative, even healing.
EN: Based on your answer you do see [gJ], contributing in some way to a
model of real social change; would you then consider your critical
investment linked to activism?  I think of the great interest in the work of
Guy Debord and other Situationists, which now is being revisited to talk
about play as a form of critical intervention in the real world.  Do you see
[gJ] or other projects you have developed contributing to this dialogue?
MF: I do see many of my play-related projects linked to political and social
activism. That said, I don't think just because something is playful it is
automatically subversive or progressive. Not everyone has the same
permission to play. For example, a group of primarily white college students
playing a mobile media game in a cemetery or on the streets of New York
would be read very differently than, say, a group of non-English speaking
Latino players or young African Americans congregating en masse to play a
game. So this must pervade a designers consciousness: how can we expand the
permission set of who is allowed to play? This is also the same cautionary
approach I have with the current revival in Situationist thinking... who is
allowed to drift? Under what conditions would it be possible to propose
larger, universal play paradigms? What would have to change?
And of course these questions lead to one doing design work that calls into
question and reformulates, for example, the role of technologist (who is the
maker, and how can more people be in this position?), and the role of
spectator (who is the artist, and how can more people be in this position?).
EN: How do you contextualize [gJ] in your critical interest of play and
locative media?  Are there any links, or do you see it as a completely
separate research endeavor?
MF: I have multiple tracks in my research project, and this work and
locative media have in common my interest in participatory culture. [gJ]
does not claim to represent the space in which it is housed, and is a rather
obvious intervention, so its quite the opposite of most locative media
projects. This work falls more in line with inquiries into collaborative
play and alternate reward systems in game design research. Sometimes, my
research erupts as artwork; at other times, it finds its home in
collaboratively produced research projects at my laboratory.
EN: [gJ] can be read as a subversive work of art.  By this I mean that it
puts in question some general assumptions about sculpture.  For instance, it
demands to be not only touched but also played; it's designed to withstand
heavy physical abuse.  Do you see [gianJoystick] in line with the work of
Felix Gonzalez Torres, for example, who often created, shall we say,
interactive artworks that demanded certain actions and destruction of the
work from the viewer? I think of his candy installation "Untitled, Public
Opinion," (1991) which was completed when the museum visitor took away a
piece of candy.   Or other artists from his generation, who were definitely
influenced by conceptual art, but were also heavily invested in making
objects that somehow questioned themselves.
MF: Both my work and the work of Gonzalez Torres move the attention from the
object to the object's relationship. As Nicholas Bourriaud wrote, "the aura
of artworks has shifted to their public" (Relational Aesthetics (1998) 2002,
58). This also is, for me, informed by software art and the lack of "true
object" so highly prevalent in art history.  Dialog with software art,
however, stops at the form: the form of the joystick itself functions as a
fetish or totem as well, constantly referring to game culture.
[gJ] formulates an interaction by posing questions about play, touch,
embodiment. It does so primarily through its scale: after all, if the work
were smaller, one player can play on his or her own, and the sense of
participatory play and collaboration would be lost.
EN: The fact that [gJ] demands that gallery visitors become heavily invested
in the work with their bodies and actually sweat after playing for a few
minutes may open a door for critics skeptical of New Media and art games to
claim that the usual critical distance necessary for a work of art to be
reflexive about its context may be lost. How do you respond to such
criticism, which in part has separated New Media art from the work of art
usually found in more commercial art galleries?
MF: I think the disquiet that commercial art galleries display towards new
media art is not about critical distance but about the financial
conservativism they carry forward (or imagine) from their audience,
collectors. We are in a cycle of quite conservative investment practices in
the arts. In addition, many new media artists have not wished to sell their
work in more traditional ways, because it may be against the ideas the work
is investigating.
EN:  [giantJoystick] is a phallus.  It should be safe to say that many
gallery visitors give it such reading, yes?  If so, how do you see your work
in line with feminism: the fact that you, a woman, has created a sculpture,
which you also explain could be seen as nostalgic, making reference to a
gaming past ruled by mainly boys?  You also explained in one of your videos
that you were the only kid in your neighborhood who played video games, how
does this relate to the stereotypes that have defined video games?
MF: I've discovered at openings and public events that many visitors new to
the work initially assume that it is created by a male artist! Which is very
fun for me, because I have been significantly involved with feminist
art--this poses a challenge that involves gender assumptions in popular
gaming culture, and in art practice as well.  [gJ] is definitely nostalgic
for a significant number of players/viewers, and this can be useful of
course, because ultimately, nostalgia may end up being a great tool if used
for particular ends... The fact is, male gaming culture is appropriated
through this work for play, yes, but also for a kind of reconfiguration of
who can play and how we play.
I had a rather lengthy, extended childhood where I played and read far
longer than most children I encountered, male or female. This involved
computer play, but also dollplay and building fantasy structures. I also
busied myself with Rube Goldberg style contraptions, telepathy, elaborate
costumes, etc.

EN: You consider [gJ] to be in a "public space."  But how public is this
space really?  Is the art gallery really a public space?  Do you see your
gaming installation opening the door to a new type of audience, perhaps?  If
so what kind?
MF: This work has not only functioned within a gallery space. It was in
residence at the London Games Festival and seems to go to venues with a lot
of unusual 'gallery' traffic, such as the Beall Center and Laboral in Spain.
Ideally, it would be housed in a space where a wide range of players and
viewers could encounter the work. The initial plan was for a public artwork,
linking several joysticks in various global cities, so collaborations could
take place between a group in, say, Berlin, and a group in Taipei. This is
still on the burner.
That said, this work does attract groups to art spaces that might not
normally visit them. This too is a wonderful opportunity to bridge those
interested in the art scene with, well, everyone else. By the way, I didn't
enter a formal Western art gallery or museum until I was of college age. So,
I'm interested in those kinds of radical transformations we can imagine
which cross cultural, economic, and linguistic barriers.
EN:  [gJ] is definitely about the aesthetics of video games.  But how do you
see your intervention of the Atari 2600 when considering the concept of
play, or gameplay?  The often cited "magic circle" comes to mind.  How do
you see [giantJoystick] relating to the concept of the magic circle and
playing by the rules?  Are there any similarities between the rules of play
that make the magic circle special, and the gallery space?
MF: Huizinga be praised! The sheer absurd scale of [gJ] creates a kind of
magic circle all on its own, whether it is set within a gallery or not.
Actually, I would say the gallery atmosphere tends to have its own,
competing magic circle, where, as you have noted in your questions, the
rules are "don't touch," or "behave quietly." Involving the body is a  risky
proposition, reminiscent of happenings and other participatory events.  By
using games that many people might be familiar with (or that are simple
enough to parse on one's own due to common game conventins), participants
seem more willing to take on play in this embodied way. Sometimes groups get
to shouting and yelling as well.
gallery at calit2 would like to thank Center for Research and Computing in the
Arts (CRCA: htp://crca.ucsd.edu) for their support in the realization of
this exhibition.

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