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Games & Systems

Digital art in Cuba

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Rewell Altunaga, Coward, 2007, modified video game

Rewell Altunaga, Coward, 2007, modified video game

In 2010, Cuban artist Rewell Altunaga curated a selection of his peers’ work in the show ‘The Tip of the Bullet’, a title that evokes a straight-shooting avant-garde: art as a bullet aimed at the future. Bullets, as it happens, feature in Altunaga’s own art, principally video-game modifications (or ‘mods’) and ‘machinima’, films made from video games. Bullets echo the militarized language of the Cuban government, but also leave it behind, for while they may suggest residual Cold War discourse and the post-2006 succession of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl – former head of the armed forces – their real target is global conflict, video game culture and the rise of information systems.

Most of the artists in the show were either born or came of age in a post-1989 Cuba shorn overnight of the Soviet subsidies that had underwritten its economy. However, unlike the Cuban artists who grappled with the ensuing crisis during the 1990s, those working two decades later seem more interested in engaging global media culture. The work of Altunaga, Rodolfo Peraza and Fidel García (who goes by the name T10, the wing of a Havana housing complex where he lives and works), among others, speaks as much to a global society of control as it does to the peculiarities of Cuba’s authoritarian government. But just because digital culture is ubiquitous doesn’t mean it looks the same everywhere, and new media art in Cuba confronts specific challenges. While digital photography and video art flourish on the island, whose Instituto Superior de Arte continues to train excellent artists, access to the Internet is scarce, slow and state-controlled. The meaning of game art – often mods of popular games modelled on real wars – likewise varies according to place. Market-savvy game creators know this and employ ‘localization engineers’ to make culturally specific changes. But what constitutes ‘local’ culture today? Popular games based on real wars are as virtual to players in Cuba as they are to Americans – or to American army trainees, as Harun Farocki explores in his ‘Serious Games’ series (2009–10) – and not at all virtual, of course, to citizens of the afflicted nations.

‘Serious Games’ shares its title with a subgenre of game art designed to make us think. Altunaga’s own serious games often set up violent situations but hobble their players, who are shot at but can’t shoot back, or rehearse the last 15 minutes of great leaders’ lives, unable to avert death. Altunaga’s mod Coward (2007), adapted from Delta Force: Black Hawk Down – Team Sabre (2006) – which depicts both real and fictive un missions in Somalia, Colombia and Iran – features Arab, Latin American and African figures crouched in submissive positions; prayer or imminent execution? Players walk among them, but can realize no action. Other works use built-in cheats to bring to the surface the violence secreted at the heart of games, whose technology often derives from the military. For example, the ludic Ammu-nation (2006) modifies Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002) by over-firing the ‘Panzer’ cheat, producing a plague of tanks that rains, like so many biblical frogs, upon a Miami ammo store, highlighting gun culture and urban decay.

Exploring game art’s debts to film, Modernism and appropriation, Altunaga messes with code to produce fractured, cubist images, cites other game artists or, in the machinima The Journey (2009), achieves a mesmerizing tone of meditation by stripping all traffic and human presence from a scene of a Manhattan bridge in Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), recalling us filmmaker Phil Solomon’s machinima Empire (2008), which modified the same game. In The Journey, a deserted bridge arches across a mottled sky that shifts from dawn to dusk in the span of an hour. A soothing voice from Grand Theft Auto’s radio station, ‘The Journey’, emits opaque existential commands. As 24 hours are compressed into minutes, an expansiveness paradoxically opens: a space typically blasted through here becomes the entire journey.

Inevitably, game art pioneer Cory Arcangel is recycled, as Altunaga’s Mario’s Dream (2011) modifies Arcangel’s Naptime (2002), itself a mod of Super Mario (1985). Both artists are fascinated by ageing technologies: Arcangel amidst relentless upgrading; Altunaga on an island whose charm, per countless clichéd photoessays, owes to its wholesale exclusion from capitalism’s planned obsolescence. But are the two so far apart? Visual shorthands for Cuba, such as old cars and terrazzo signage announcing long-departed corporations suggest, in a post-American century, nostalgia for the superpower’s eclipsed era of manufacturing and technological innovation – like memento mori for its one-time pre-eminence. Post-Soviet Cuban art and post-imperial us art meet in themes of infrastructural decay, consumer nostalgia and cultures of control.

The art games of Peraza, now living in Miami, repurpose spaces of state and institutional control as sites for new forms of play. In Play and Learn: The Trees Obscure the Forest (2008), players shoot at a 1963 Cuban conduct manual on how to be a Revolutionary New Man – kill the manual or it may kill you. Peraza is now working on a multi-player game, In First Life (2011–ongoing), the result of research and photography at the abandoned 1930s panoptic Model Prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines. Avatars include a doctor, priest, prisoner or guard. Does play enact a flouting of repressive control, or make abuses of power more fun?

García is likewise interested in systems of control, and he’s developed a body of hacker art to disrupt them, releasing computer viruses and hijacking phone and radio circuits. Update (2011–12) consists of a cubby-hole in a gallery wall outfitted with frequency inhibitors blocking televisual, radio, wifi and cellular access technologies, imagined as opening a chink in a system with the very technologies whose lattice of networks constructs it. An earlier work, Self-Organization (2008), made for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, generated a third territory beyond North and South Korea by cultivating a bin of earthworms known for excreting a rich humus. García controlled the worms’ waste through electric impulses that translated a fluctuating quantity of propaganda produced by the Korean states about one another: the more ideological verbiage spewed, the more excrement the worms produced, the more a new terrain came into being. Logic Bomb (2008), the title of which alludes to malware triggered when certain conditions are met, hacked into the police radio from the historic section of Havana and broadcast it in a local gallery. Like ‘Serious Games’, García’s rerouted circuits depend on strategies of failure or exaggeration. Logic Bomb’s inscription as art depended on the necessarily irrelevant audience in the art gallery: to succeed as art, it had to fail as political intervention. In a moment of state control, it’s striking that García’s broadcast elicited no official response. Or it’s not striking, since, after all, it’s only art, which enjoys state support and relative freedom. Either way, García was not interested in an easy fingering of Cuban state vigilance, all the more visible for being less sophisticated: Logic Bomb sought to comment on the deeper global increase in surveillance since 9/11. García’s work has also tackled the planet as the ultimate system, and the global market as one of its principal webs. The Fourth Power (2009), produced during a two-month residency in Chongqing, China, attempted to render a ‘totalitarian’ model of the global economy from the heart of its new centre, featuring screens that ran lists of 20 years of the world’s gdps from within hulking black boxes, seemingly salvaged from the sunken cockpit of the 2008 financial crisis.

Systems art of the 1960s and ’70s commented on what was then an emergent network society. But is there anywhere today far enough outside these systems to gain a prospect onto them? Have the infra-spaces of viruses, bugs and nanoseconds replaced the impossibly distant view of earth from space? Cuba has often been (wrongly) imagined as an outside within the global market. But as intensifying environmental catastrophe reminds us, no one can opt out of our shared single system. Cuban new media art functions on a planetary scale, but indicates gaps within global networks.

is an assistant professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures at Princeton University, USA.

Issue 153

First published in Issue 153

March 2013
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