— The heritage of Surrealism & Lowbrow in video games —
written in March 2009
The aftermath of World War I was characterized by an unparalleled affluence of stylistic currents whose virtues inspired original tendencies in art, philosophy and academia. This reciprocal communion between separate areas of knowledge culminated in a critical and not so distant segment of history during which anarchic mentalities, capable of the most eccentric and incendiary outbursts, exalted a distinctive conception of social practices. Surrealism, in the quality of a cultural reform, stemmed from an isolated cell of preeminent members belonging to another Post-World War ensemble, the Dada, fundamentally demarcated by its anti-academic and politically-abhorrent stance. Once the movement was disbanded, a few from among the most distinguished Dadaists suggested an innovative approach to writing, formidable enough to instigate an altogether new cause in the year 1924, its onset signaled by the circulation of the first Surrealist Manifesto.
In the wake of two decades of ideological debates and numerous publications which formed a body of literature strictly based on automatic writing techniques – no doubt empowered by the latest advancements in the disciplines of cognitive science –, this formerly organized anti-establishment offense was dissolved; its scattered founders converging around a pledge of untried opportunities to be found in exile, a little further to the west. Notwithstanding, a style of executing art did endure, in itself a fertile ground for an atypical embodiment of Reason and Thought that would find continuance in the works of those who devised and embarked upon the surrealist revolution, together with the many factions who avidly assimilated this methodological dissonance in subsequent years as the basis of their individual utterance. Surrealism evolved into a school broadly definable by the absence of censorship in the flow of assessments and creativity. Today, the persisting image correlated to its name is first and foremost one of synthesized impossibilities, of uncanny dreamscapes – an imagery embraced during the ascension of Metaphysic Painting, albeit derivative of a Symbolist conviction – and aberrant juxtapositions of unchained elements, not unlike those immortalized by the work of Dali, Ernst, Tanguy or Magritte.
In effect, the disbanding of the pioneering group certainly did not implicate the terminus of the surrealist momentum. By the end of the 1970’s, an uncompromising cluster of leftfield creatives from across the United States of America engendered an alternative branch, resting on analogous precepts, consisting of a mass-appeal surrealist hybrid which is admittedly visual, urban, hurriedly flourishing in voguish formats such as comic strips, punk music and, adequately, the emerging digital arts. This selection of surrogate and vanguardist means of communication as an agency with which to explore novel breeds of artistic statements is at very root of Lowbrow, a designation resulting from the forced opposition to Highbrow, in other words the intellectual superiority as promoted by the traditional and consecrated cultural elite.
Planned as a recurrent feature, the purpose of Non Sequitur will be to heighten a number of digital specimens whose attributes may hopefully demonstrate how these enlightened insurgences have also permeated the creative space of other, more recent forms of expression, namely video games, a medium which in its unremitting quest for an identity has been exercising a sizable influence in pop culture since the late 1970s. If the concept of ludus lays claim to a substantial intimacy in relation to Surrealism, then it is also true that digital games have equally established their design and mechanics on selected enunciations of this early twentieth century school, not to mention the palpable aesthetical references it once emanated with admirable vigor. To a series of artists and theorists who have envisioned the dramatic changes leading to Surrealism as the evasion from the tyranny of convention or, more expansively, the invariables to which corporeal beings are bound, the field of videogames proposes a tempting deviation towards the circumvention of objectivity.
As an effort meant to identify the disposable principles of a suffocating existence, the surrealists earned a reputation as zealous architects of illusory subjective spaces that sheltered them from a repudiated establishment, an attribute of equivalent alienating effect as that sought by the inquisitive explorers of digital games and their manifold virtual dwellings. In a wider sense, and given the exception of genres sustained by the colonnades of simulation, every game that deposes or manipulates the rules of reality, be they related to the decrees of physics or pure sociological consensus, is uniquely consonant with the aspirations of the Surrealist consortium in light of the literal definition of the term sur-réalism, as introduced in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire.
From a lengthy list of titles and individuals, only a strict collection of works whose nature finds itself in truer harmony with the proposed theme will warrant brief scrutiny. More importantly, this selection, distinguished either by the full adoption of surrealist conceptual techniques or the allusion to Lowbrow, is not to be mistaken for an addendum to a fallible construct of digital games as a legitimate art form. In its aspiration for some degree of width and depth, this exercise of pairing the Surrealist essence with a product of the entertainment industry will merely attempt to accentuate those elements displaying reasonable mutuality between distinct or contradictory artifacts; while preserving the adequate distance between Art and a polygonal variety of digital media, hitherto delineated by the exiguity of its prevailing recreational concerns.
II. STARTLING VOLATILITY
SWITCH | Tomohiro Kondo, Katsuo Murata – 1993
To the school of Surrealism, the importance of game playing outweighs the mere gratification of indulging in social leisure, having operated in countless junctures as an instrumental method of investigation. The nuclear parameter which defined the surrealist game lies in the intention of denying the rational flux of thought, producing unrestrained reactions that will develop in this privileged environment, away from conscious restrictions such as plausibility. Remarkable throughout, a popular example of the surrealists’ sincere esteem for mirthful and edifying pastimes can be detected in a game entitled Time Traveller’s Potlach. As the name preemptively indicates, its sole aim consists of transforming the ancient American-Indian gift exchange tradition with the imaginary situation where the participant is offering an object to a relevant historical figure. The choice of personalities and of suggestive gifts allows the liberation of the mind, seen that the implicit humoristic element derives, for the most part, from the absurdity of the spontaneously selected items.
A comparable precept sustains the anarchic game plan sustaining Switch, whose pixelated milieu is grounded on the free expression of original and unpredictable repercussions. In a universe where computer systems have been corrupted by a potently infectious virus, one child is ensnared by a mainframe inside of which he is forced to navigate between illogical situations using the only concievable interaction between Man and Machine: the insinuating act of pressing buttons. The haphazard activation of every key and knob thus enables a result scenario in which humorous and cryptic outcomes are revealed, seeming at first glance deprived of any acknowledged logic or perceivable efficacy.
The works of art contained therein, either paraphrased or alluded to inside the simulated maze, are exploited as an object of mind-bending comedy relief. Its forthright abuse of iconic landmarks, paintings, sculptures or musical compositions suggest an instructed tone that many failed to understand. Sights as those of Rodin’s Le Penseur pulling the string of a flush toilet and erecting from its seated position, the jocose Duchampian diversion of formally distorting La Gioconda, or even the contraposition of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony against the banality of a modern living room introduce a rare and select experience of surreal humor for which there exists no known parallel in the field of digital games.
By rendering a lopsided representation of the relation between Humankind and its Technological triumphs, Switch deregulated the sacrosanct structures of normative contents in video games; their inflation beyond proportion being achieved in such an insolent fashion that the player is likely to yearn for a refuge of conventionality and predictability. Intuition, empiricism and even the commonest of senses soon become purposeless within the beguiling layers of its quaint and provocative fiction.
III. FIGURATIVE INHERITANCE
BLUE ICE | Carol Nudds, Richard L. Yapp – 1995
Doctor Jacques Vaché was a reputed member of the French anti-bourgeoisie faction and a respected neurologist who dedicated his life effort to the interpretative study of dreams and cognitive processes of his mentally disordered patients. Following the tragic suicide, his friends and work colleagues Breton and Phillipe Soupault initiated a period of writing d by free association techniques, wherefrom surfaced an experimental publication named Les Champs Magnétiques. This compendium of written pieces is considered to be the original practice of écriture automatique, embodying the ideals signaled by Breton who regarded this procedure as a channel of unrestricted production of art, in itself rather similar to the subjective monologue of spoken thought. Such a resource of artistic devising was later transported to the domains of the pictorial by the hand of the German painter Max Ernst, in the year 1919, at a time when he spearheaded the Cologne Dadaist circle. By combining scraps from store catalogs and brochures, anatomic diagrams and old engravings in an arbitrary manner, the artist reached an untapped sensation of poetic unison, confrontational and hallucinatory. This method, whose raw matter is found in random fragments, became known as Collage.
The principium sustaining this diversified technique suits the ambition of providing a valuable resource to the visual construction of Blue Ice, in addition to the schematization of an entire ludic sequence, composed of tantalizing enigmas whose resolution presupposes the habile rejection of formatted patterns of thought. Only with the aid of unconscious reasoning does it become possible to overcome this unrelenting and progressive march of challenges which tortuously defy the player’s ability to interpret, to calculate and to abstract. Misguidedly labeled as graphic adventure, Blue Ice consists, in truth, of an interactive succession of daunting digital canvases, their plasticity subjugated to vague phrasal constructions, in themselves remarkably reminiscent of the aforesaid free writing.
The interdependency between the ambiguous mystery and the soberness of ludic rigor converge in an eminently pensive experience, gradual and distuning, where the symbolic meaning at the core of each object is reproduced by means of its contextual significance, with the assiduous use of aural complements announcing their singular identity. The timid vestiges of its plot revolve around the ordeals of a young child seeking to prove his worth as the heir to the throne of a faraway kingdom named Icia – a term most befitting of the wintry and impersonal nature of this domain. Oppositely, the archaism of this monarchic imaginary, embroidered with many a reference to venerable stage tragedies, is crowned with contemporary musical tendencies, its synthesized and ethereal tones emerging from the unceremonious culture of the London techno underground.
At the height of its brilliance as a game, Blue Ice recaptures some elements from a conventional adventure template, alluding to the recollection of items, each providing their unique and predetermined function if associated with a specific element. However, and underneath the common and utilitarian use of these objects lies a non-linear and highly symbolic dimension. In one early instance, it is possible to steal the sun from a bright azure sky and conceal it in an inventory, only to be applied in a different venue as a heat source with which to thaw a frozen lake. As demonstrated, this unremitting fascination for the multiplicity of values within a single sign is a persistent and imperative surrealist element, embedded in this nearly impenetrable and oneiric paradox whose arduous resolution, not dissimilar from the supreme mystery of existence, is always drawn further than the grasp of rational contemplations.
( NON SEQUITUR is to be resumed in future posts. )
Illustration: René Magritte, “La Folie Almayer” (Almayer’s Folly)
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