Gaming and Playing on Display at Media Archeology

sniff540.jpg
Karolina Sobecka
Who's playing whom? "Sniff," by Karolina Sobecka.

Each year, the Aurora Picture Show and the Mitchell Center for the Arts present a festival of "live cinema performance" that they call "Media Archeology." This year they present three artists in three nights that will put the audience in three distinct positions with respect to the work, and will make the performance component of the festival its most salient feature. The festival's title, "Rewind - Play - Fast Forward," refers to an overall theme of games and game-playing, so it's only fitting that these presentations rely on the audience's interaction.

"This year I wanted to think about how games have influenced media and how they have influenced the art world," says festival curator Mary Magsamen.

Houston artist Robert Thoth offers the most traditional evening on the lawn of the Menil Collection, performing a set of classic hits in the guise of "The Chip Tune Crooner." Chip tune (or 8-bit) music uses the technology from vintage computer game systems to compose new music or to restage old songs in new settings. Projected onto the walls of The Menil Collection Building, jaggie pixel-art videos will accompany and illustrate the songs, karaoke-style.

Before and after his set, the audience can play some of the actual video games from a range of systems, including an Atari 7600, a Nintendo 64 and a Wii. They'll be set up side-by-side and projected onto the Menil in enormous dimensions. Most of us knew these games in their living-room context, so taking them out into the lawn and making them billboard-size should shake up our childhood memories. The game players, their little Pac-men on view for all to see, emerge from couch-bound isolation to become performers themselves, at least until they lose their last lives.

Karolina Sobecka's performance is only partly a "live." Instead of hacking the music processors, Karolina has deployed the game system itself -- namely a Unity3d Game Engine, along with Microsoft's Kinect -- to produce an interactive experience that is more about playfulness than about playing games. There are no rules, and no one wins or loses. In "Sniff," a lively, computer-generated dog inhabits a storefront window and responds convincingly to the movements and actions of passersby. The real performance here is by both knowing and unsuspecting participants, patting their laps and cooing at the dear simulacrum.

The Orange Show Monument serves as the backdrop for a large-scale interactive game-performance by Eddo Stern, who a few years ago startled audiences with an FPS video game restaging the Branch Davidian massacre.

Stern is preparing a new performance called "Wizard Takes All," in which members of the audience use game controllers to interact with a video that is projected onto screens hung strategically through the carnival grounds that is the Orange Show, wrapping the already disorienting environment in digital forms. From atop one of the towers, Stern plays the Wizard in both physical and digital forms, using hand gestures and chants which are analyzed into "magical powers" by the gaming software.

2011 Media Archeology Teaser from Aurora Picture Show on Vimeo.

"Sniff" takes place at Chick and Chica, 3710 Main, on Thursday, September 15, 8 p.m. The Chip Tune Crooner performs on the Menil Collection's front lawn on Friday, September 16, 8 p.m. And "Wizard Takes All" happens at the Orange Show, 2401 Munger Street, on Saturday, September 17, 8 p.m.

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