If you think videogames are just for sweaty nerds with Quaver-dust-encrusted keyboards, then The Photographers’ Gallery might just smash your preconceptions into a million pixels. Its new show explores the artistic potential of videogames, and there’s a lot more to it than how they made Pacman such a nice shade of yellow.
The gallery isn’t saying that videogames are art. Because they’re not art: just like cinema, videogames are their own thing. Instead, this is about how artists exploit the mechanics of gaming to create works.
Cory Arcangel probably sums it up best. In one video here, he’s removed everything but the clouds from the original ‘Super Mario Bros’, in the other he’s left nothing but the road from ‘F1 Race’. He’s taken gaming out of games, leaving tranquil, 8-bit minimalism.
It’s about finding beauty where everyone else finds entertainment
Justin Berry and Joan Pamboukes take similar approaches, the former screenshotting beautiful mountain vistas, the latter focusing just on the sky in otherwise violent games like ‘Metal Gear Solid’, creating flat planes of meditative colour out of worlds of gore. It’s all classic Duchampian recontextualisation, using the artist’s eye to reframe images from one of the most pervasive bits of modern aesthetic culture, finding beauty where everyone else finds entertainment.
Downstairs, the art is all about memetic reproduction. Lorna Ruth Galloway replicates Ed Ruscha’s famous photos of gas stations but in GTA V, and Roc Herms creates in-game versions of Ai Weiwei’s photos of him giving the middle finger to famous buildings and artworks. The whole room is funny, incredibly meta, and very good.
Other artists here explore how games offer the freedom to edit your identity. Danielle Udogaranya creates SIMS avatars with underrepresented skin tones, while Cibelle Cavalli Bastos uses AR filters to constantly reshape their own face, all shown along identity-twisting greats Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman.
Other highlights include Dries Depoorter and Max Pinckers’ AI camera which is trained to only take ‘winning’ photos. But the show’s insistence on grounding itself in photography just muddies its conceptual waters. It’s hard to see what John Hilliard’s experiments in film exposure or Dorothée Elisa Baumann’s video of a camera being smashed to pieces have to do with anything else here. There’s also a lot of art that uses social media as a platform, which is interesting, but again, tricky to tie into the overall concept. In conflating social media with gaming, screenshots with photography, it all just gets a bit messy.
But the biggest problem here is a pretty good one to have: it leaves you wanting more. The show barely scratches the subject’s surface. This could, and should, be a huge exhibition about a massive topic that artists have been exploring for decades. Just like videogames themselves, it’s addictive, absorbing and probably very bad for your eyes.