Game Theory: Bang Bang (your not dead?)


Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?)
by Brian Wallace
Bellevue, Washington 2000

In her new project, Bang, Bang (you're not dead?), Kathleen Ruiz - an artist with longstanding interest in investigating the line between the virtual and the real - targets one of the more controversial issues of our digital landscape: the representation of violence in computer games. Ruiz, whose previous work mapped the unseen spaces of cognition and offered interactive meditations on the biological and the technological in works such as "The Body 21 Series", "The Enumerated Repositories" and "Dwelling" is now experiencing a kind of phase shift as she directs her sights on game culture and decision theory. Exploiting her technical facility in both traditional and digital media, she has constructed a provocative interactive installation that reconfigures the dynamics of game culture.

Consisting of 8 by 20 foot digital prints, an interactive projection, a mix of audio sources, and a modified gaming console, Bang, Bang (you're not dead?) catches the viewer in an imaginary crossfire of gaming and the disturbing questions it often raises. In this installation, Ruiz offers the viewer wall-to-wall images of young people caught in the act of operating - "playing" - violent, multiple-user games. The gamers in the images are aimed to shoot into space, at one another, or, perhaps, at the viewer, suggesting that the entire installation is criss-crossed with implied gunfire. Instead of a digital game, the console presents on its screen video footage of frenzied gamers blasting virtual targets. Ruiz has created a visual displacement that functions to critically rearrange the conventions of gaming: there is a wall-sized projection of a digital game at one end of the installation onto which viewers’ shadows intermittently become "targets" for the gun-wielding gamers.

Ruiz created Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?) in response to her visits to gaming arcades. During the past decade, questions have been raised about links between particular types of shooting found in the virtual games and kinds of violence occurring in recent multiple shootings. But Ruiz's Bang, Bang (you're not dead?) is not a simplistic anti-gun or anti-gaming project. Rather she has stated, "I am continuing my exploration of the interrelationships between reality and fantasy by staging the question, 'does our recreation re-create us?'

In the violent game, and in Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?), point of view is all. The weapon directed by the player, always in the foreground and around which all action is organized, is characteristic of what is called "first person shooter." This domination of the subject is also a reminder of cinema’s complicity in the drive to frame and contain subjective experience. The structure of the game suggests that the user’s freedom to understand space - to define space - by shooting at it is simultaneously total and meaningless. Images of users enmeshed, Laocoön-like, by the hardware of immersive technologies underscore the extreme vulnerability of the gamer, a vulnerability inextricably related to the fantasies of violence and invisibility of the medium catered to by the dominant conventions of immersive environments. Viewers moving freely through the installation interfere with the freedom of other viewers to see, and to shoot at, objects and images. Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?) compels the subject to come on out ("hands up!") from behind the instrument of subjectivity - be it camera, gun, or Cartesian point of view - to be recognized.

Of all the suspensions of belief necessary to the operation of cinema and its progeny, the consensual removal of the subject (the viewer) is the most fundamental. It is a predicate to any understanding of mise-en-scene and narrative. But, as Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?) reminds us, in the immersive environment of the interactive game, the subject doesn’t leave; instead, he or she is incorporated into the panorama of the work. This incorporation is a mark of the assiduously cultivated, monolithically marketed brand of "violent game." Stripped of agency but hooked on action, the game player is constantly compelled to register himself or herself through the only channel available: shooting up the virtual scenery.

Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?), suffused with the legacy of cinema and shaped by the artist’s own past work, mixes the signifiers of aesthetic discourse with those of everyday experience. In so doing, it extends the artist’s deep interest in quotidian pleasures: the stranger observed; the sense-memory noted, the operation of the mind acknowledged. And yet, the work also questions the radical dissolution of boundaries between observer and the observed, between viewing and participating, and between subject and environment. Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?) provokes important questions regarding the complicity of gamers in the eradication of distinctions between reality and fantasy - and between responsibility and irresponsibility.

The conceit - the unexamined assumption -"game equals life" runs through contemporary systems-oriented culture: decision theory, game theory, and their progeny buttress dominant models of finance, information, education, scientific inquiry, and creativity. Game theory assumes rational decision-making and propounds a system in which randomness is, within the limits of the game, predictable. Embodying a cathartic culmination that can blur the lines between artwork and viewer, Bang Bang (you’re not dead?) reminds us that, even in a virtual culture, the bloodlessness of fantasy and the blood-rush of reality overlap.

Brian Wallace is Curatorial Director at the Bellevue Museum, Bellevue, Washington and is a graduate of The Bard Center for Curatorial Studies.