Open World at Akron Art Museum: Video Games as Art

Are video games art? Back in 2012, The Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased 14 video games for their permanent collection, and several museums have shown video games on their walls, including a major exhibition earlier this year at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and last year at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Video games are a ubiquitous and expressive medium in modern society – with sixty-five percent of American adults playing them, it makes sense that artists would take up the medium to examine issues of contemporary life.

Currently on view at the Akron Art Museum, “Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art” takes a close look at how contemporary artists have engaged the video game as subject of and vehicle for creating art.  The vast exhibition includes analog media such as paintings, prints, and sculptures alongside projections of games, games on monitors, and a VR game made specially for the show.

Skawennati, TimeTraveller, 2008-13, video

The title “Open World” refers to video games that are set in a digital world freely navigable by the player, giving the player the option to choose their own objectives rather than a linear progression. Some of the more interesting games on view have artists using the format to place themselves and their own interests into the game. For example, native artist Skawennati created a game as a platform for aboriginal people. She explains, “For hundreds of years, people have been telling stories about native people and they have been getting them wrong. They have been showing us from their point of view – which is fine. But we want to present ourselves now. This is a new medium. We’re in at the beginning just like everybody else. I think we have a chance to present ourselves in it and to affect its look and feel.” In the game the main characters wear digital glasses that allow them to time travel back to events in the history of North American indigenous people.

Angela Washko, Playing a Girl, 2013, video

Another artist that uses an open world game to express her own views is Angela Washko – who inserts feminist issues while playing popular games. Washko, a skilled player in the roleplaying game World of Warcraft, noticed how differently she was treated then her male counterparts – and tries to create safe spaces for players who have been harassed due to their race, gender, or sexuality. Her performances are projected larger than life on to the gallery wall – with titles like Nature, Playing a Girl, and FEMI NAZIS – Washko reclaimed the medium and gives a platform for those who might otherwise not feel properly represented.

Bill Viola, The Night Journey, 2007-18, Interactive video game installation

One of the most interesting and cerebral projects on view is by well-known artist and video-pioneer Bill Viola. His game The Night Journey, a collaboration between Viola and USC Game Innovation Lab (Los Angeles), can actually be played in the exhibition, with controllers – and has specific instructions. I watched some people playing, and the resulting ghost-like experience being projected includes walking through the terrain of a black and white universe, and the more you press the X-button, the higher you rise above the ground. It’s spectral and slightly disturbing.

Cory Arcangel, I Shot Andy Warhol, 2002, Hacked Hogan’s Alley cartridge, Nintendo Entertainment System and Light Gun

There are other games you can actually play, including a slightly intimidating VR game, but by far my favorite was “I Shot Andy Warhol” by Cory Arcangel which I honestly played for awhile. The artist took the Nintendo shooter game Hogan’s Alley and altered it to make Andy Warhol the game’s main character, emulating the actual shooting of the artist by writer Valerie Solanas in 1968. The innocent bystanders have also been altered to include Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav, Colonel Sanders and the pope. You even get to shoot Campbell’s soup cans.

Invader, Rubik Wipe Out, 2014, Rubik’s cubes on perspex

Other artists on view use more traditional techniques to reference the world of video games – including the French artist Invader, whose Rubik’s cube sculptures are often installed illegally on the exterior of buildings.

Mathew Zefeldt, Barrel, 2016, acrylic on maple plywood

One of the more humorous pieces on view is Mathew Zefeldt’s Barrel, that references a background object from the 1992 game Wolfenstein 3D, and early first-person shooter. “They were one-sided” he recalls, “when you walked to the side of the they would turn with your field of vision.” He built the sculpture to reflect the fact, putting a 2D barrel on a 3D sculpture.

But the most impressive works on view are animated works by the artist Tabor Robak, who creates digitally beautiful futuristic cities melting into each other in the piece “20XX” which is shown on a screen in the gallery. It is mesmerizing, as the imaginary views slip in and out of view, and familiar logos make appearances – like you are on an airship looking out the window onto a future world.

Equally hypnotic is Robak’s piece “Twisted Scribe” that is truly like a digital painting morphing before your eyes. Robak created the software that generates this churning animation which constantly changes and never repeats. Again, I stood there before it for a very long time.

If you are more of an old-school video game aficionado, then you should definitely try to get to Akron tomorrow (Saturday, December 7) for their Open World Arcade event – where you can try out some of the classic video games that inspired artists in the exhibition. Plus you can explore a showcase of indie tabletop and video games and meet their designers. This family-friendly event offers fun for gamers of all levels – you can sign up for it right here. But I will definitely be getting the high score on Centipede – you don’t stand a chance.


Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art
Through February 2, 2020
Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries, Akron Art Museum

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.