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GAME MASTERS: ACMI curator Conrad Bodman speaks about videogames in galleries

At the media launch of ACMI’s new Game Masters exhibition on Wednesday, I had the pleasure of sitting down with ACMI’s Head of Exhibitions, Conrad Bodman. While I was originally planning on using the interview as background in my final review of the exhibition, the material ended up being so interesting that I’ve decided to present the full thing here. In the interview, Bodman covers a huge range of topics—from the challenges of curating videogames, to archiving, to playing in public, to artists using videogames, to fairgrounds, ephemera, and the future.

DG: Thanks so much for speaking with me.

CB: That’s alright. You’re welcome.

DG: I’m really impressed with the exhibition. It’s a very impressively put together environment.

CB: Well, thank you. It’s been a bit of a collaborative effort. We’ve had a number of people working on it. [ACMI curator] Emma McRea and I are really sort of lead curators, with people like David Surman, Helen Stuckey, and Jason Hill, to various other academics, all the way through to gamers who have been just very helpful. It’s not a crowd-sourced show like the Smithsonian.

You might have seen I had a colleague review that for us. He wasn’t that impressed.

The thing about working for ACMI which is so fantastic is that we’ve got this amazing technical support in house, which really enables us to do a big show like this, with that many playable games. So you’ve got electronics people who can look after arcade games, we’ve got media producers and editors, and camera people to help us interview the developers and so on, and people who can do media intergration. There aren’t that many venues around the world that could really do a show like this, to be honest. If I dare say so myself!

Perhaps I’m skipping ahead here, but the Barbican exhibition that you curated, Game On, came here. I was wondering if Game Masters is going to have that reverse effect, of travelling outwards?

Well I hope so. We’re certainly looking at it at the moment. We’re looking to tour the exhibition. We haven’t announced any venues yet, but we’re going to do that in the next few months. We’re talking to people. We’ve got people over in the next few weeks looking at the exhibition. Once the show’s open, that’s the time when you kind of show it off, as it’s hard to do that on paper. Certainly the idea is to tour it far and wide. Certainly in America and Asia.

Okay. So what were the hurdles in putting on a show like this?

One of the issues is doing an exhibition which is about games design essentially is who to choose to be in an exhibition like this. Some people will find this one of the most controversial aspects of the show. Is the developer or publisher that I’m very passionate about going to be represented? The hardest point was selecting the exhibition down to an achievable number of people to focus on in the gallery. We knew we wanted to have a historical arc through the exhibition, all the way through, particularly starting in the classic, ’70s golden age of arcades, and to try and reveal the personalities of the individuals, try and find out who they were and what they did. That’s why we’ve tried to group some of the games together to see the range of work that an individual designer or programmer was working on.

But yeah, boiling the show down was a problem. We’ve got about thirty individual developers in the show, but boiling it down to that was kind of hard. We wanted to get some representation across genre, but we knew we couldn’t have half the exhibition focussing on first person shooters, that wouldn’t be right, although they’re completely ubiquitous. Though people might come along and say, you know, where’s Medal of Honor, or Call of Duty. But we’ve gone for Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear Solid, really because he’s been in the industry for so long, and really defined that particular genre, and had very long term collaborators that he’s worked with, like Yoji Shinkawa who’s done all the concept art for his games. I really wanted to reveal some of those relationships that are quite persistant over a long period of time. That’s why we chose him.

And then there are a number of developers that really stood out. Yu Suzuki was one, because he’s really a legend in that whole world, working for Sega in the early days, coming up with classic arcade games. Without him, I don’t think the Harmonix, and some of the SingStar kinds of games wouldn’t have ever happened. He’s a real legendary figure.

And then there are people we were just fascinated by, like Tim Schafer, who is really there for his storytelling capacity. And also the quality of the artwork produced for those games. Emma [McRae] went to see him in San Franscisco at Double Fine. Their studio is amazing. It’s full of artwork. You often go to developers and they hide you away, and you can’t actually see where people are working, but at Double Fine, you come in and it’s, ‘this is what we do, it’s all on the walls’.

So there were certain people that were really prepared to open up archives, which was really helpful for us, because we didn’t just want to show games, we wanted to show some ephemera, and really try and tell the story of the creation of the games. Certain people like Tim [Schafer] and Warren [Spector] who’s here as well, and is a prodigious collector, and very interested in popular culture, which feeds a lot into his games. They were really helpful in that way.

The indie section is really a new bit in a way. We didn’t cover it like that in Game On. Although people like Masaya Matsuura have been around for twenty or thirty years, who you could describe as an indie in some ways, a lot of the companies are really ten years old or younger. So there’s a whole bunch of content out there that we really wanted to showcase.

David Surman came in and shaped that whole area with Helen Stuckey. He helped think through who we might approach and we’ve been doing a bit of work with the IGF over the years. We’ve shown a lot of the indie developers in our smaller gallery space, but we wanted to give them a bigger platform in the exhibition. And to showcase some of the Melbourne-based Android and iOS developers as well, like Rob [Murray] and people like Halfbrick in Brisbane and so on.

Always the difficulty in doing a show like this is getting people to understand what we are as a venue. Videogame design is used to showing at trade shows and product launches and so on, that’s sort of what they understand. Talking to people about ACMI and what we are and what we do, how to get people to understand what we are is the challenge. It’s funny, talking to Warren, he was sort of brought up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So we didn’t need to explain what we were trying to do, he completely sees games as an artform, he sees the gallery as a natural space for videogames. And he’s spent a huge amount of time in galleries and museums around the world, and sort of believes in this kind of context. We didn’t have to sell it with him.

With other organisations it’s been harder.

The idea of games in an exhibition space is really kind of fascinating.

I agree.

I was thinking as I was walking through the exhibition that the way you’ve set up a bottleneck through the arcade machines, with the wood panelling behind the machines. It sort of plays to that idea that arcade machines were that public space for videogames for many years. It feels like a place were people are going to congregate and form around these physical machines before the exhibition opens up.

Yeah, it does. We didn’t want the whole exhibition to be immediately revealled. We wanted to keep people back a little bit, and have a more focussed, intimate experience, and then have a higher visual impact. We really wanted to use vibrant colours, like the ones you see in this strapping material [neon coloured strapping from the Game Masters logo]. Our designer, Clare Cousins, is based in Melbourne, she found this material, and we thought, wow, it could really work everywhere. It’s going to go out the front on the facades of the building in the next couple of days. And that could be the holder that creates continuum throughout the show.

In that section and the indie section is a bit different. It feels very Melbourne, that final section, with blonde wood. It’s relaxed and casual. We don’t have a coffee bar down there but you feel like you could have a coffee down there and be with your friends.

And I love the clouds up the top. It almost feels like Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds.

Yes it does. That’s right. That’s actually one area where we had to define the territory for the show. The territory really is focussed on commercial games industry. That whole area of contemporary visual art, and artists working with game iconography and technology is not been the terrain for the show. It would make an equally good show at some point! I like [Arcangel's] work a lot.

There is a slight tension in the idea of people playing games in a gallery. Games have often been quite a private thing, within people’s homes, in their living rooms. To then take that into a gallery space, I would think it would be a challenge.

It’s interesting. I think when we originally did the Game On exhibition, that was ten years ago, we showed it in an art gallery, in the Barbican art gallery, and it was hard to make the case that videogames were a very strong part of contemporary visual culture at a point where that had never been done before. But we felt very strongly that that could work.

Games have always been shown within social context, they are solitary experiences, but it’s like, yes, you can read alone, but you can also be part of a reading group. Or you can listen to a radio play, which is a narrative. Games have been played for decades in arcades, which has a social element. People play together at home, in context with their friends. People began to play online at the end of the ’90s, to have that social experience. Now we have people playing in all sorts of different ways, sometimes socially, and sometimes individually.

It’s amazing for me, because I have a son who’s eleven, who plays Minecraft a lot. While it can be a solitary experience, because you can just build your house, and play in your own zone, you can also play multiplayer. My son is on Skype with his friends, he’s sending text messages, he’s talking and being creative all at the same time. I found that fascinating. As human beings we’ve got capacity to communicate in multple ways simultaneously. Gaming is showing us the real capacity we have for both creating and transmitting information.

But when we had Game On here, it was amazing that there was a strong sense of social validation for people in coming here. You’re quite right that people play games on their own in solitary ways, and perhaps they’re quite drilled down into a particular genre, and they might define themselves in that way. But seeing a cultural institution finally saying yes, this is a form that we recognise, and want to interpret and talk about and showcase—that validated people who were very passionate about their hobby, if you like.

We’re doing these late night events on Thursdays of every week and we’re open late on Friday. And the whole point in doing that is to get people coming in and play with their friends, and have that shared experience. So it doesn’t seem unusual for me. But there are complexities, because you’ll get families coming in, and you might find that children are much more engaged, potentially, with the subject matter. Which is why we’ve tried to surround the playable games with a lot of context, so there’s that level of interpretation for people who maybe want to hold back a bit.

We’re asking people to do quite a lot here. Asking people to put themselves on the stage to play Dance Central in a gallery is asking quite a lot of anybody! So I’m fascinated to see how people engage with it. The media are holding back a bit today!

When you were speaking before about the collaborative effort that’s gone into this, I found it surprisingly similar to what the videogame designers [at the launch event] were saying before about how they work. I guess questions of authorship could be applied in a similar manner. Do you consider yourself to be the one “defining the box,” as Warren suggested?

I think Emma [McRea] and I have definitely played that role. We’ve tried to sort of channel a lot of advice and opinion from a lot of different people. We’ve found that the way we’ve done it is to share relationships, really. It’s not just having relationships with thirty individuals it’s having relationships with thirty individuals and their people. There are publishers, developers, studios, there are people that co-own rights and have to understand what you’re doing as well.

Our next exhibition is a contemporary art show with a Berlin-based video artist called Candice Breitz. And in that show we’re showing seven works. Essentially there are seven objects in the show, if you want to call them that, they’re videos. That’s very straight-forward for one person to look after and work with the artist.

But this is something completely different. We’ve had to work in a team-based way. Helen Stuckey was involved a lot in trying to think through the nuances and balances in the exhibition, weighing up different developers. Sometimes we’ve approached people and they’ve said “I don’t feel comfortable showing my work in this context, I’ve never shown my work in a gallery and I’m not quite ready for that experience.” We’ve handled that reaction.

And with Emma going to Blizzard, they’ve got a fully formed museum archive there. There’s so much material that you’re overwhelmed as a curator or editor, and it’s difficult to find your way through it. In those cases we’ve really needed to draw on other people’s support. We’re not making any claims to be the world’s experts in any of these specific areas. We’ve had to draw on a lot of support and advice to make that happen. Particularly with the developers themselves, who know their work best.

Did you find difficulties working with some of the larger companies, who unlike a Blizzard, might be somewhat reticent to hand over information, or even let you use their name? Do you find there’s a snowballing effect, that they start to feel that there’s momentum behind this project and are then more willing to work with you?

I think so. It’s always a bit like that when you’re doing exhibtiions. Particularly as we’re quite geographically remote from the rest of the world here. There’s always a certain amount of cajoling and convincing. I never let anybody tell me no. There’s always a way of speaking to somebody, or finding someone who might have a sympathy for what you’re trying to do. Everybody has been to museums and galleries, so it’s not too difficult for them to udnerstand what we are, what we’re doing here.

Some of the developers work in a way that is very similar to artists. We worked with Fumito Ueda, who did Shadow of the Colossus. He really operates as a visual artist in many ways. All the conversations that we’ve had with him about how the work would be displayed, how his interview would be edited, which versions of the games were going to be shown, which platforms and in what way, what the user experience is like, all of those conversations we’d have with any artist that we’d work with in the galleries. So we’re used to working with peope like that.

The best experiences we’ve had have been with those companies who have spent a lot of time thinking through their archive of material. They’ve preserved material, they’ve got staff there who understand it, know what it all is.

There are great tragedies, really. Sega doesnt have an archive of historical material. In fact, they’ve got brilliant staff, we’ve really had the best experience with Sega Japan, but there’s very limited original artwork from Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s all in the memories of Yuji Naka, what it’s like to work on that game, and the issues they had to solve, the game mechanics and so on. There’s not that documentary material that as curators we’d like to go to a museum or gallery archive, pull all that material and showcase it. It’s doesn’t really exist.

That’s why we were so keen to do all these interviews we’ve done because we’ve filled that oral history of videogames. Even for some of those games only made about ten or twenty years ago, it’s often the last remnant of what will exist of that game, as the audio and the dialogue of the devleoper and what they felt the experience was like. There aren’t the drawings, there don’t have any of the code or access to the original software used to create the game. That’s the great challenge for a cultural organisation like us. We want to create some kind of legacy for this whole area, but there’s very little that’s tangible that we can acquire, or buy, that will signify what that moment in time was. Which is why we’ve got more playable games than we have printed ephemera.

The ephemera itself is a real strength of the show though.

Yeah, we’ve worked hard to get that. But it’s partly due to the fact that people like Tim Schafer have an amazing archive, Blizzard have got an amazing archive, you know, Konami were prepared to give us a lot of digital artwork that we wouldn’t have got our hands on otherwise.

If you said to someone, that there’s an exhibition of videogames, they might just imagine discreet screens, isolated from each other. Whereas here, the first thing that I noticed was how the actual materiality of games is on show.

Yeah, that’s what we wanted to achieve. I’m pretty pleased. I’m starting to think through what the next project might be, it’s the end for me [Bodman is moving on from ACMI]. Where is this whole trajectory of exhibitions about videogames going next? I’m convinced that the next place to go is actually an entire focus on an individual developer. Blizzard did a big show in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taiwan a couple of years ago, which was really the first exploration of the work of an individual devloper.

There are certain companies that have got to that scale and range of output that you really could look at Nintendo Development Studios, and look at individual EAD studios and what they produced. There are some bigger shows like that waiting to be done, which I’m really just starting to think though. How easy it is to achieve those sort of things, I don’t know! But we’ve done the history of videogames, and now we’ve done a focus on key designers, I think the next place to go is to really drill down and to really mine an individual. It would be amazing to look at someone like Shigeru Miyamoto from Nintendo, to really get behind him and his work, and how he “shaped the box,” and how he works.

I did find that conversation before with Warren really fascinating, getting at that director role. I guess it would be the equivalent of looking at someone like John Lasseter, and how his creative mind works. Our Pixar exhibition was a bit like that. I think that’s another place to go in the whole videogames terrain.

I’m also thinking of doing a big show that really focusses on arcade games. There are people in the States like Van Burnham who did that Supercade, who’ve got this massive collection of arcade games. It would be amazing to see an entire show that documents that whole history. Maybe looking at some contemporary arcade games too. I love that whole interface between the arcade and the fairground. One of the collectors we’ve been working with has this amazing Yu Suzuki arcade collection here in Melbourne.

To a certain extent, that sort of fairground culture, you can draw most modern entertainment forms back there at some point.

Yeah, cinema in particular.

Anyway, you’ve been very, very generous with your time! Thank you so much for the interview.

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