Interview with Georgina Goodlander, exhibition coordinator for the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games”
posted by Laura Hall
As if we needed another sign that video games are gaining acceptance as a legitimate modern art form, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will host an exhibit about video games in 2012. Even while preparing for the exhibition, the Smithsonian sought fans’ input about the games to include and is continually posting updates and behind the scenes features about the show. The results of the fan vote, which was a first for the Smithsonian, will be announced May 5.
Georgina Goodlander, exhibition coordinator for The Art of Video Games and interpretive programs manager for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Luce Foundation Center explains why it is so important — and challenging — to preserve the art found in video games.
Q: How did the idea for this exhibit come about? Were there challenges getting this idea accepted?
Georgina Goodlander: The Smithsonian American Art Museum has often been at the forefront of the museum field in working with emerging technologies. It was one of the first art museums to create a website (1995), start a blog (2005), and in 2008, it implemented the world’s first museum-based alternate reality game. The museum’s permanent collection includes many examples of artworks that use technology , such as David Hockney’s Snails Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance,” works by video artists Nam June Paik and Cory Arcangel, and a new permanent installation of video art. These activities led museum staff to consider how video games are a part of 21st-century visual culture and the pervasive presence games have in the broader popular culture. The museum’s mission (in part) is about telling America’s story through its artists. Video games and the people that create them are an important part of this. While museum staff was thinking about these ideas, we were introduced to Chris Melissinos, founder of Past Pixels and collector of video games and gaming systems who is the curator of the exhibition. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution as a whole is exploring different ways to engage and excite 21st-century audiences, and this exhibition is a part of that larger initiative.
GG: Video games are a relatively young medium and many of the founders of the industry are still working today. This is a great opportunity for us to capture and highlight some of the creative milestones, and speak with influential early designers and developers. Even though video games have not been around that long, the technology required to view and interact with them has changed extensively over the years. Many groups are already working hard to preserve video games and all that they encompass. We hope that this exhibition will help raise awareness of the importance of this work and why we need to act now to ensure that the history and diversity of the medium does not disappear. As for why I consider video games to be art… with some of the incredible work going on in video game development today, I am surprised that this question persists! As with any other form of art, from paintings and sculpture to film and new media, video games use visual aesthetics to tell a story. The element of player-interaction with the medium is not a new concept in art, either, as many artists experiment with creating works that encourage and even require the viewer to actively participate. I do not believe that all video games represent great art, far from it, but there are many examples of games that do and we will highlight some of them in the exhibition.
Q: How has the art/history world’s view of video games changed over the decades (if at all)?
GG: I think that we face similar challenges with the acceptance of video games as an art form as we have done with almost any new artistic medium or movement throughout history. From abstract painting to photography and film, every new form that emerges challenges established definitions of art. This exhibition will hopefully help show the world that video games are an important, exciting, and valid form of artistic expression.
Q: What sort of challenges come with exhibiting video games in a museum setting? In what ways will visitors be able to experience the games during the exhibition?
GG: The exhibition team and the curator are working through many challenges! The Art of Video Games is a departure from anything the Smithsonian American Art Museum has done before. The goal is to explore the entire video game experience as the artwork, not only the concept art or game graphics, but a combination of visual experience with player interaction. There will be five featured games that visitors can play for a few minutes, but most will be illustrated through screen captures and video footage, challenging us to create engaging and relevant multimedia experiences that evoke the full games. In addition, the exhibition will travel around the country after it closes at the museum’s main building in Washington, D.C. September 30, 2012, compounding the design questions with issues of durability and scale. Overall, however, I think the biggest challenge we have encountered so far is the issue of space! Yes, video games haven’t been around that long, but the sheer number of games that could be included in the exhibition is overwhelming. The games that will be included contribute to the story that we want to tell, but we appreciate that there will always be games that people feel should have made the cut but didn’t. I am hopeful that there will be future exhibitions at art museums that really delve into some of the themes and experiences that we are only able to touch on with this show.
Q: You invited people to vote online for the games to include in the exhibit. Why? Has the Smithsonian sought public input like this before?
GG: Video games are inherently interactive, so early on we decided that the selection of materials should be interactive, too. As the curator says, “we want the content of the exhibition to reflect the voices of the players as well as the artists and developers.” The Smithsonian American Art Museum often seeks public input, from visitor comments to participatory activities in the galleries, but we have not done anything on quite this scale before! It’s certainly been an adventure.