From Picasso to Pac-Man? A New Museum Show Explores How America’s Obsession With Video Games Changed Visual Art

“Open World,” a new exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, explores the many ways artists are influenced by video game culture.

Skawennati, "Epiphany (featuring a digital representation of Cloudscape, an installation by Hannah Claus), from TimeTraveller™" (2008-13). Courtesy of the artist.

When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired 14 video games in 2014—including Myst, Pac-Man, and The Sims—it raised a lot of eyebrows. Should such arguably lowbrow entertainment be given the seal of approval from one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in America? But artists, always ahead of institutions, had already been using video games as source material, or even as a medium, for years. “Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art,” which opened last month at the Akron Art Museum in Akron, Ohio, examines this developing history. Rather than focus on the games themselves, the show looks at broader ways in which gaming culture has shaped art. 

Theresa Bembnister, curator of exhibitions at the Akron Art Museum, oversaw the exhibition. She wasn’t interested in simply revisiting tired questions (“Are video games art?”). “Video games are so prevalent in our culture,” Bembnister says. “Of course they’re influencing movies, but they’re influencing artists, too. I’d seen little focus on how artists are making traditional drawings, paintings, and quiltwork, for example, that were influenced by video games.”

Nathan Vincent, <i>Playing with Fire </i> (2011). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by David Wang.

Nathan Vincent, Playing with Fire (2011). Courtesy of the artist. Photo by David Wang.

Bembnister isn’t exaggerating the ubiquity of video games: she notes a 2018 Entertainment Software Association survey which showed that over 166 million Americans play them, a little more than half the population of the country. It’s no surprise that many of the artists in the show, including Cory Arcangel, Rachel Rossin, JooYoung Choi, Jacolby Satterwhite, Angela Washko, and Ueli Adler, are responding to this shared passion.

Bembnister notes that the artists in “Open World” hail from different eras of video game technology, each era affecting their work in notable ways, whether they were from the “Atari generation, the NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] generation, the N64 generation, or beyond,” she says. 61-year-old artist Suzanne Treister’s Fictional Video Game Still/Q. Would you recognize a Virtual Paradise (1992) evokes the 8-bit aesthetic of the 1980s and ’90s, which is vastly different from the photorealistic gaming world that 33-year-old Tabor Roback evokes in his HD video 20XX (2013). 

Suzanne Treister, "Fictional Video Game Stills/Q. Would you recognize a Virtual Paradise?" (1992). Courtesy of the artist, PPOW, New York, and Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

Suzanne Treister,
Fictional Video Game Stills/Q. Would you recognize a Virtual Paradise? (1992). Courtesy of the artist, PPOW, New York, and Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

But some things, says Bembnister, cut across generations.

Grand Theft Auto V seemed to be a common favorite, she says, as well as role-playing games in general. “Story and world-building really appeal to the artists,” Bembnister explains. “Some of the artists in the show are really world-builders themselves, and they’re using the various ways that video games allow them to explore: music, animation, cause-and-effect, and making rules. They’re building worlds in their own work and taking advantage of the ways video games allow them to be creative.”

Tabor Robak, "20XX" (2013). Courtesy of the artist and team (gallery inc.).

Tabor Robak, 20XX (2013). Courtesy of the artist and team (gallery inc.).

What didn’t resonate with artists?

“Not a lot of sports games,” Bembnister says, laughing. “There are artist-athletes out there, but in terms of artists who are interested in making work about video games, there isn’t a lot of crossover to sports games.” 

“Open World” is on view through February 2, 2020, after which it is slated to travel to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire (hometown of Ralph Baer, the “Father of Video Games,” who developed the blueprint for the Magnavox Odyssey, known as the first home video game console). From there, the exhibition will move to the San Jose Museum of Art, which is “in the middle of it all, in terms of video games,” says Bembnister.

And on December 7, the Akron Art Museum will host “Open World Arcade,” a day-long arcade of indie video games “judged by a panel of museum staff and video game professionals based on novelty, professional polish, aesthetics, quality of game experience and ‘wow’ factor.”

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