Difference + Repetition in Games and Art

January 16, 2020

In the January 2020 issue of Art in America, Matthew Shen Goodman discussed recent works by Ian Sheng in the context of an emerging art world discourse on AI and generative art. As Goodman observes, this discourse has really come to the fore in the wake of the first major sale of an AI artwork at auction. The piece itself, Portrait of Edmond Belamy by the collective Obvious, is rather dull -- a machine learning mashup trained on stuffy oil portraits, and Goodman notes that many in the digital art world have criticized the work as such, not to mention that Obvious largely cribbed the code driving their artistic process from Robbie Barrat, an artist doing far more interesting work with AI. However, the $432,500 sale price for the work (well over the estimated $10,000 tag) made many in the art world take notice -- and also perhaps stoked unrealistic hype for the 'future of AI art.'

The whole January 2020 issue of AiA is dedicated to generative art, with articles providing great perspectives on the history of artists' engagements with these technologies, so I won't rehash that here. Goodman points to Cheng's work -- specifically Emissaries (2015-2017) and BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018-2019) -- as examples of current work with gnerative technologies that evince more criticality and artfulness than Obvious' Portrait. Cheng's works use gaming engines and like Unity to stage simulations of Worlds driven by complex and complicated mythologies and narratives. Artificial lifeforms develop, interact with one another, and enter into these broader narratives.

While crediting Cheng's work as richer than that of Obvious, Goodman still criticizes these simulations as essentially unengaging. Goodman finds the mythologies of these simulated Worlds inscrutable and lacking apparent connection to the actions playing out before the viewer. In contrast to the Worlding of media conglomerates (e.g. Star Wars, Disney), Cheng's Worlds are difficult to latch onto, especially in an art museum context resistant to long or recurring interactions with a piece. Goodman sees similarities to Cheng's work, in which the viewer becomes a kind of Lurker, and more mainstream practices of mass video game watching a la Twitch.

Goodman is ultimately quite dismissive of this mode of cultural consumption, describing this kind of lurking as "passive reception of serialized difference." This almost entirely writes off this cultural arena as purely consumptive, not even entertaining how interacting with others on a platform like Twitch might actually constitute an emerging mode of cultural production (and even cultural preservation, as playing and interacting with a game keeps that game alive as a cultural product).

I haven't directly interacted with Cheng's work, so I can't really speak to Goodman's assessment of that decidedly fine arts application of gaming/simulation, but I have been thinking through similar issues as I've recently plunged back into gaming as a hobby and passion. As I've been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Nintendo Switch, I've been wondering why these recurring series remain (for the most part) engaging experiences. Other examples of series that I've played across multiple games include Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, etc. The positive take gets to the Worlding aspect of Cheng's works -- these immersive environments with near-infinite narratives that run parallel to our own hold open the promise and wonder of altnerative realities where players/readers can take a stake in creating and adding to these narratives. The negative take (which is not mutually exclusive from the positive take) is that these familiar series are easier to market than sui generis cultural creations.

In addition to the possibility of a narrative exploration that traverses iterations of the series (e.g. aspects of the current Zelda game resonate or directly call out to aspects of earlier games, enriching the playing experience across the suite of games), I have also been thinking deeply about repetition as a generative function of Worlding - for games specifically but for other media/genres as well. Rather than construing repetition as 'serialized difference,' I would argue that repetition can be generative of true difference, much in the way Deleuze writes about this. Things repeat over and over, but minute differences bubble up across those repetitions - eventually with the possibility of amplifying to great effect. An aesthetics of repetition attends to the nature and conditions of this amplification -- what forces drive repetition to difference and what forces refrain repetitive activity into mechanization or automation?

This question of what repetitions over time lead to novel and interesting points of disjuncture or difference is a concern of generative art that critically engages with the conditions of machine reproducibility. For instance, I worked with Andy Lomas in my recent dissertation research. He uses simulated evolutionary processes to create 'morphogenetic' forms -- he drives the development of these by tweaking the parameters but the forms take on complex shapes not anticipated by the artist. By Lomas' own estimation, most of these forms are terrifically boring, and so the work of the artist becomes selecting and driving the repetive developmental paths that will lead to interesting lifeforms.

As with watching and interacting with games via Twitch, the appreciation of works by artists like Lomas and Cheng demands new aesthetic paradigms. Kenneth Goldsmith starts to get at some of this in his ideas surrounding conceptual poetics or 'uncreative writing,' with poems that demand practices of reading alternative to a linear path through a poem. As with games, uncreative writing often asks the reader to engage with repeated actions/words -- the equivalent of moving across a map, managing an inventory of items, accomplishing rote tasks. I may be in the minority in finding conceptual poetry fun, but a whole lot of people seem to find interacting with games (either as players or remote viewers) as fun. Something more is going on here than the 'passive reception of serialized difference,' and I think the key to an aesthetic paradigm relevant for digital culture is an understanding of the relationship between repetition and difference.