• "Here are ‘the obsolete industrial plants; the inadequacy of unchanged transport systems and overstrained power supplies … the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital’ and so on. Here is the self-consciously world-historical Lowry, showing us Britain mired in its past, and perhaps the future of China. But here and there is the old local Lowry, whose people cannot see beyond the foreground terraces to the dystopian prospect, and so seem to manage, to cope, even to enjoy themselves, on their own tight patch. People stop to chat or just to stand about; kids play; dogs and babies get taken for walks; women wear bright vermilion, the happy colour of the summer of 2013, and apparently of 1950 too. It’s hard to say this without sounding as folksy as Brian and Michael, and perhaps that’s exactly what it is, but right now what I most admire and enjoy about Lowry is the interest he shows, without any apparent agenda, in what people do. I have no idea why that should be so moving." Wonderful article from this fortnight's LRB about the Lowry retrospective at Tate Britain.
  • "Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled." There is so, so much in this interview, that quoting it feels somewhat futile. It's a really lovely thing piece, that goes far beyond cyberpunk, and delves deep into Gibson's writing and history. There are at least five meaty quotes I wanted to yank; it's worth reading and rereading.
  • Grandpa Wiggly rules perhaps more than it is possible to rule. Highlights: Mayonnaise the cat, general levels of tolerance, Six Feet Under fan, the whole conversation with 420Manda420, utterly charming Reddit manner. Sometimes, the world is awesome.
  • "Craig Raine’s Heartbreak is a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough. The description is true but misleading. It is really a collection of short stories, loosely linked by the topic announced in the title; but perhaps because the English are said to be averse to buying such volumes, the publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers." Yes, this has got a lot of coverage (mainly for that opening sentence) but it's still a powerful piece of criticism from Eagleton.
  • "Henrietta was an African American woman from Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before she died some of her cancerous tissue was taken – without her permission – and the cells have been reproducing in laboratories around the world ever since.<br />
    <br />
    Henrietta Lacks' cells are immortal. They are known as the HeLa cell line, and they have become deeply involved in all sorts of medical and genetic research – sometimes in the most unexpected ways."
  • "What else could we apply crash-only thinking to? Imagine a crash-only government, where the transition between administrations is always a small revolution. In a system like that, you’d optimize for revolution—build buffers around it—and as a result, when a “real” revolution finally came, it’d be no big deal."
  • Cosplaying not only appearance, but also UI. Lovely.
  • "There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the Royal Mail management – who rarely, if ever, come across the public – it is the first. To the delivery officer – to me, and people like me, the postmen who bring the mail to your door – it is more than likely the second." Excellent diary in the LRB from a Royal Mail postman, which at least helps explain a lot of the problems inside the postal system, as opposed to just the ones I experience outside it.
  • "FuckYeahSubways is a tumblelog." And it does exactly what it says on the tin: pictures of subways and metro systems, inside and out, from around the world. Really good.
  • "Ah – The Big Meg, where at any moment on the mile-high Zipstrips you might be flattened by a rogue Boinger, set-upon by a Futsie and thrown down onto the skedways far below, offered an illicit bag of umpty-candy or stookie-glands and find yourself instantly at the mercy of the Judges. If you grew up on 2000AD like me, then your mind is probably now filled with a vivid picture of the biggest, toughest, weirdest future city there's ever been." Jones on future cities, collating and refining thoughts into a lovely piece of structure and rhetoric. Also, the sentence "wrapping himself in Tokyo to form a massive concrete battlesuit".

Is it art?

20 December 2008

John Lanchester has an article in the 1st January 2009 edition of the LRB on games. It shares a title with this post, and I went into it a little apprehensive, with my deflector shields up. I like Lanchester as a writer, but was fearing yet another piece (be it inside or outside the traditional gaming press) touching the old “is it art and can we have a cookie yet?” chestnut. The best responses to that question are not “Yes” or “No” but themselves questions: “Does it matter?”; “Does it have to be?”; “What do you mean by art?”; “What if it is?”

For much of the article, Lanchester avoids that and takes a more interesting tack: he wants to write a smart, balanced piece about gaming for a by-and-large non-gaming audience (the readers of the London Review of Books):

Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t. Video games have people who play them, and a wider public for whom they simply don’t exist. (The exceptions come in the form of occasional tabloid horror stories, always about a disturbed youth who was ‘inspired’ to do something terrible by a video game.) Their invisibility is interesting in itself, and also allows interesting things to happen in games under the cultural radar.

And from that point, he takes a whistle-stop tour of some recent highlights in games – talking about Bioshock’s take on Rand’s Objectivism, Miyamoto’s take on “fun”, the lure of having agency, and what creativity in games now looks like (among other things).

I’m not sure I agree with everything he says, and I think that’s OK – he’s not forcing his opinion onto anyone else. What he is doing is talking about games in a smart, informed, and adult way for an audience that values all of those things except, perhaps, the games themselves. More than that, he writes in a style that is suitably anecdotal in places: he has clearly played the games he writes about, and that, to my mind, is hugely important.

When, at the end, Lanchester says

It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults, video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television.

he’s not just talking as a cultural critic and father; he’s talking as a gamer himself. At the end, he suggest that we might, if things go right, see a “new art form” emerging. I’m not sure what he thinks it currently is, but given the comparison to Film and TV, he might dismiss it as a “communications medium” or some kind of similar terminology; I don’t know, but I think the word “art” is being used a bit too perjoratively there.

As such, that feels a little reductive to me; scattered throughout the past 30 years of gaming, there are many examples that show we’re already there. There might not be a defining “starting point”; it might become clear long after the fact, but right now, in the middle of it all, it’s much harder to assign dates and times to things.

An article titled “is it art?” was always end up going that way; perhaps that’s as much an editorial pressure as an authorial impulse. I could certainly take or leave some of the conclusions. But a lot of Lanchester’s premise and exposition is really good, solid stuff, and it’s exciting to see this kind of thing in mainstream, critical language in a mainstream, critical publication. On balance, whatever you think of the art discussion being dredged up again, this time into the LRB, or Lanchester’s opinion, the article itself is very much worth your time. Like the best writing, it’s not about what it says; it’s about the ideas you’ll have reading it, the avenues it’ll lead you down.