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nettime's_roving_reporter on Tue, 27 May 2003 10:23:16 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> matthew barney versus donkey kong


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   May 23, 2003
   matthew barney versus donkey kong
   Barney versus Donkey Kong From the Editor: 

        In this month's feature, Wayne Bremser compares the properties of
        Donkey Kong to the aesthetics of Matthew Barney's provocative film,
        Cremaster 3. Wayne is a writer and old-school game enthusiast. His
        current projects include Harlem.org, a jazz history site, and
        BeatThief.com. It's obvious from his writing that he is skilled and
        smart; but you should also know that he brandishes a positively wicked
        sense of humor, too. He lives in San Francisco and is working on his
        first novel.

   Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 begins a serious negotiation between art
   and video games. There have been exhibits and books celebrating game
   design in recent years, while digital art has introduced interactivity
   into museums. Painters have created canvases with game characters.
   Cremaster 3 lacks the obvious cultural references, but its absurdity,
   repetition, level design and use of landscape as narrative establishes
   a stronger connection to video games than these other works.

   Despite the popularity of the Cremaster films, only a small percentage
   of museumgoers have ever seen an art film. After twenty-five years of
   cultural relevance, video games still do not have a serious place in
   museums and galleries. Cremaster 3 is important not only because it
   has attracted a wider audience to an art film, but also because it is
   one of the first works of contemporary art to incorporate video game
   narrative.
   film and game adaptations 

   Most museums and galleries have ignored games, while technological
   progress has drawn mainstream film and games together. This
   relationship can be charted by the number of games adapted from films.
   More recently, a number of films have been based on popular video
   games. Most of these films have been terrible.

   Faced with adaptation, a film director has less freedom than a game
   designer. Technology limitations are small obstacles compared to a
   mainstream film audience that will not accept the absurd and abstract
   elements found in games. Audiences will not watch a film that has no
   spoken dialogue, forcing the film director to make her video game star
   speak for two painful hours.

   While nuances of character remain a challenge for many designers,
   games have been able to capture film environments for quite some time.
   Film to game adaptation is more successful because the medium forces a
   reduction of plot and character without sacrificing a film's narrative
   world.

   Beyond adaptation, several directors have been able to translate the
   compelling elements of the game medium into original films. One of the
   first successful attempts was Tron, which distilled sweeping, cool
   blue silent film landscapes from early games like Battlezone and
   Missile Command. Incorporating graceful motion and an element of
   minimalist abstraction, the film's gladiatorial sequences are
   wonderful cinema. Audiences didn't respond; Tron's arcade adaptation
   was more popular and profitable than the film.

   Twenty years after Tron, Cremaster 3 presents a mythic narrative
   cobbled together from Masonic legend and Matthew Barney's
   self-referential symbols. This is the last film in Barney's five
   Cremaster films, named after the muscle that controls the rising and
   lowering of the testicles. Without the expectations of a mainstream
   film audience and the responsibilities of a commercial director,
   Barney has the freedom to create a film loaded with the repetitive,
   ritualistic and quasi-mythical elements commonly found in video games.
   Offering three dialogue-free hours of whimsy and discomfort, Cremaster
   3 is an art world adaptation of Donkey Kong.

   At a Cremaster 3 screening Richard Flood, the chief curator of the
   Walker Art Center, mentioned that he had recently seen Gangs of New
   York. He wondered whether Barney was "a better director than Martin
   Scorsese." Answering himself, Flood said, "I think he might be."
   Critics and curators should not be concerned with the comparison of
   art films to commercial films, Matthew Barney versus Martin Scorsese.
   Cinema's journey to get into the museum is over. Today's struggle
   concerns Matthew Barney versus Donkey Kong.

   creating narrative landscapes
   
 | The Masons and Hiram Abiff

 | One of the oldest fraternities, the Freemasons currently have millions
 | of members around the world. Several U.S. Presidents, including
 | Washington, were Freemasons. The group was more powerful in the 1920s,
 | when Barney's Chrysler sequence is set. The Masons have many symbols,
 | including the compass, ruler and other building tools, which Barney
 | appropriates in his film. The fraternity is also known for secret
 | handshakes and passwords.

 | Tracing their origin back to biblical times, Freemasons celebrate the
 | myth of Hiram Abiff, famed builder of Solomon's Temple. Before the
 | temple was complete, Abiff was taunted by three ruffians who wanted
 | his great knowledge. Abiff refused and was attacked by each and
 | finally killed.

 | Like many social orders, such as the military or priesthood, the
 | Masons have created a system of levels (Entered Apprentice,
 | Fellowcraft, Master Mason, Mark Master, etc). Barney's character in
 | the film, the Entered Apprentice appears at the bottom of the order
 | (represented by diagrams of steps or ladders). As a rite of passage,
 | the candidate for Master Mason will be taken through a ritual of three
 | stages, which simulates the experience Abiff went through holding onto
 | his secrets and integrity against his three attackers.

   The plot of Cremaster 3 is taken from the Masonic order and the myth
   of Hiram Abiff (see sidebar), but the narrative center of the film is
   found in its architectural spaces. Before being populated with
   adversaries, spaces in Cremaster 3 and video games are transformed
   sculpturally to create an arena for action. Barney and game designers
   look for strong visual landscapes that are ripe for a character's
   running, jumping, smashing and climbing.

   Barney's locations include a heavy layer of personal and cultural
   meaning that game designers often ignore. He builds and qualifies
   levels with variations on color and light, giving the viewer signs
   about the amount of danger the protagonist faces. The majority of the
   film takes place in the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum in
   New York. The interiors have been altered to remove the buildings from
   reality, much in the way a game that relies on real locations focuses
   on certain details and erases others to establish a backdrop that
   enhances game play without getting in the way of it.

   Both Barney's Entered Apprentice and Mario climb structures modified
   from what architects have intended. In the Chrysler Building Barney
   ascends the elevator shaft, which exposes the building's innards. In
   the rivets degree of Donkey Kong, Mario must climb around an exposed,
   unfinished structure, walking over rivets to remove them. The perfect
   disorder of the titled girders in the ramps degree of Donkey Kong,
   transformed by an enormous jumping ape, match the perfect order of the
   ramps in Guggenheim rotunda, created by the most famous American
   architect. A climbing rig allows Barney to scale the rotunda,
   bypassing the ramps.

   In both Cremaster 3 and Donkey Kong, reaching the top level of the
   structures both rewards the protagonist and punishes him for hubris.
   When Mario reaches the top of the steel structures, Donkey Kong finds
   a way to take Pauline away to the next screen. When Barney's Entered
   Apprentice reaches the top of the Chrysler Building the film cuts to a
   scene where he suffers a setback: his teeth are knocked out.

   [guggvkong.jpg]

   The Entered Apprentice is then placed in the Guggenheim sequence,
   which opens with naked women that introduce players to each level of
   the game. The scene feels like a parody of a television quiz show
   mixed with a video game's level introductions. Recall Donkey Kong
   asking the player, without a wink, "How high can you get?"

 | "This scene was shot in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum on the
 | different levels and feels almost like a video game. There are five
 | levels, which take on five different allegories of the five Cremaster
 | chapters [films]." - Matthew Barney

   In Donkey Kong and Cremaster 3 levels are determined by a combination
   of architecture and dangers that await the protagonist. Each ramp of
   the Guggenheim features a test, symbolizing Barney's five Cremaster
   chapters, his own quasi-Masonic ritual of passage, an artist testing
   his own artistic progress. Barney uses the museum space as an
   interface to both confront and create art. With the tools of a Mason,
   Barney calculates and smashes his way to the top of the rotunda,
   leaving a trail of work cobbled together from shards of previous
   generations.

   Donkey Kong (arcade version) has four degrees:

     * Ramps: Mario must climb steel beams that the ape has titled by his
       ferocious jumping.
     * Girders: Mario must deconstruct a girder structure by removing a
       series of rivets. Kong tumbles to ground.
     * Elevators: Mario must jump between a set of fast moving elevators
       to reach Pauline.
     * Factory: In a pie factory with moving conveyor belts.

   Guggenheim in Cremaster 3 has five degrees:

     * Order of the Rainbow for Girls: Duck the legs of Rockette-style
       women in bunny suits.
     * Agnostic Front versus Murphy's Law: Recover Masonic tools in floor
       between two 1980's hardcore bands in a battle of the bands.
     * Aimee Mullins: Battle beautiful woman that transforms into a
       deadly cat.
     * Five Points of Fellowship: Assemble one of Barney's sculptures.
     * Richard Serra: Confront the sculptor tossing Vaseline.

   characters and myth 

   Donkey Kong's myth of a man fighting a giant ape on a skyscraper has
   its origin in the King Kong films. After being captured in the jungle
   and brought to the city by greedy men, the largest ape in the world
   climbs the tallest building in New York where he fights humans to the
   death. Cremaster 3 is based on the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, the
   architect of Solomon's Temple. Barney uses the Chrysler Building as a
   character to play the temple.

   The construction worker Mario moves in pursuit of Pauline, while
   Barney's construction worker, the Entered Apprentice, climbs in
   pursuit of the architect, Hiram Abiff. Both workers are presented with
   a single facial expression, no dialogue and no significant character
   development except their determination to move ever upwards.

   [barney.mario.jpg]

   The hubris of the Entered Apprentice and Mario is both awarded and
   punished. The ability to honor the rites is highly valued in Masonic
   culture. During his climb of the Chrysler Building, Barney's Entered
   Apprentice bypasses rites by casting rather than carving a Masonic
   stone. He is punished by having his teeth knocked out. By jumping for
   a hammer, Mario also gets the chance for an easier climb to the top.
   The hammer gives Mario the power to smash the barrels headed towards
   him. If he stays confident for too long, the hammer vanishes, leaving
   him dashing into the deadly barrels.

   Game designers populate levels with a higher concentration of
   adversaries than friends. These minor adversaries have varying degrees
   of animosity towards the player. Upon the player's entrance to a new
   screen, level-specific characters charge immediately or wait for a
   trigger, which allows a player to observe sentries walking a beat,
   workers building, monsters feeding or shitting.

   The minor adversary plays an important role in Cremaster 3. With the
   camera disconnected from the Entered Apprentice, Barney allows the
   audience to observe ceremonies and rituals of level-specific
   characters, showing us what awaits the climber at the top of the
   Chrysler Building. These characters include a group of Freemasons
   smoking cigars, the Cloud Club Barman and Aimee Mullins playing the
   Entered Motivate.

   At the top of the Chrysler Building, the Entered Apprentice interacts
   with the Cloud Club Barman in silent-era comedy scene. Because of the
   tilted bar, representing the uneven structure of the unfinished
   temple, the Barman can't quite deliver a glass of beer to Barney
   without spilling it. Besides recalling the physical humor of Chaplin
   or Harold Lloyd, the scene evokes Tapper and Burger Time, funny, yet
   stressful early video games in which players faced the never-ending
   production of food and beverage.

   The rhythms of adversaries vary dramatically in Barney's Chrysler and
   Guggenheim sequences. Characters in the Chrysler sequence move slowly
   and deliberately, arranging things, cutting potatoes, smoking cigars.
   There is a feeling of the organic ritual operating in the world of the
   late 1920s, bodies in synch with the turning wheels of industry. Even
   the dread evoked in the lobby by the 1967 Imperials smashing the 1938
   Imperial results from a precise rhythm and slow edits that give the
   viewer time to anticipate. In the Guggenheim sequence the absurd mix
   of adversaries are kicking, dancing and flailing. The atmosphere and
   tempo of the cast recall Fellini's Roma and Satyricon.

   [women.jpg]

   (fay wray, pauline, aimee mullins, hungry like the wolf)

   Model, athlete and double amputee Aimee Mullins plays the two primary
   female characters. Many early video games, including Donkey Kong, also
   had singular female roles, where women played the fetishized captive,
   goal, and prize saved for the end of the game. Barney fixates on
   Mullins' truncated limbs, sculpting fetishes, elaborate prosthetic
   legs for her to wear.

   Barney dances with Mullins in the Guggenheim sequence, symbolizing the
   moment at which the fetus becomes either male or female. She morphs
   into a feline and tussles with him, but he easily strikes her down.
   This sexy pussy that scratches cliché takes form in a scene
   reminiscent of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" video. Undertones
   of bestiality are also significant in the King Kong films, but are
   stripped away by the primitive graphics and animation of Donkey Kong.

                                                        [serra.kong1.jpg]

   Richard Serra plays Donkey Kong, waiting at the top of both New York
   buildings. Serra is one of the most famous living sculptors, a great
   white man from the previous century, Picasso-like in appearance, gruff
   and bald. He maintains this persona playing two roles in the film.
   Both Barney and Serra are Yale alumni and, by placing him at the top
   of the order in both sequences, Barney makes it clear that he
   considers Serra the most important artist of the previous generation.
   With this casting, Barney praises Serra as Master Mason, but also
   winks at the art world's Warholian order of celebrity.

                                                        [serra.kong2.jpg]

   In the Chrysler sequence Serra plays Hiram Abiff, the Architect of
   Solomon's Temple. He wears a sharp suit and waits at the top of the
   building drawing and constructing two pillars of black metal plates (a
   reference to temple pillars Jachin and Boaz). In the Guggenheim
   sequence, Serra plays himself, donning an apron and tools with which
   to mold hot metals. While Donkey Kong tosses barrels at Mario that
   catch fire and populate the ramps with happy, dancing demons, Barney
   engages Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture with his own hot stuff.

   [serra.kong3.jpg]

   Richard Serra tosses melted Vaseline at the top level of the
   Guggenheim, which trickles down the rotunda. Vaseline is one of many
   materials, including tapioca, which Barney has become famous for
   using. The tossing is a reference to some of Serra's most important
   work. Using molten lead thrown against a wall, Serra performed the
   physical dance of Jackson Pollack's dripping and tossing, challenging
   the assumption that sculpture is a static object on a pedestal that is
   separate from the space around it. Barney challenges the need a
   sculptor like Serra has to create any physical object, instead making
   his sculpture exist as characters in films. While Mario causes the ape
   to fall several stories onto his head, Barney castrates his Donkey
   Kong, robbing the older artist of his material of choice.

   discount myths 

   The art world has suffered a deficiency of myth in the past fifty
   years. Critics are both impressed and confounded by Matthew Barney as
   mythmaker. In an article titled "Strange Sensation" Time's Richard
   Lacayo calls Barney a "gee-whiz mythomaniac." "OK, it's weird," writes
   Jonathan Jones for the UK's Guardian. These critics are aware that
   Barney's film is inspired by the Hiram Abiff myth, but are swept away
   by fact that he dabbles in myth at all. They never refer to video
   games, where myths are a dime a dozen, where characters regularly
   morph shape and gender.

                                                  [starwarscremaster.jpg]

   At the same time that they are overwhelmed by the films, critics have
   routinely panned the sculpture that Barney has created for the
   Cremaster series. Some snidely compare filling the Guggenheim with
   artifacts from the films to the "The Magic Of Myth" museum show of
   Star Wars costumes and props

   The Guggenheim exhibit allows Barney to show Cremaster 3 in the
   physical space in which the film was set; an opportunity never given
   to a game designer. Barney transforms the rotunda like a designer
   would. Flags and icons adorn different levels of the museum. Sounds
   echo through the spiraling chamber. A spaceship attached to the
   ceiling delivers scenes from Cremaster 3 on five video monitors. The
   exhibit feels like a visit to watch movies and play video games in the
   finished basement of a wealthy childhood friend. The first gallery has
   elaborate cases that Barney has designed for videodisc and DVD
   versions of the films. From these discs at the bottom level, up to the
   giant fantasy television that dominates the top of the rotunda, the
   Cremaster exhibit is an exaltation of video, but without the game
   depicted in the film.

   Barney uses the building as an interface, confronting the Guggenheim
   with the goal of creating a single piece of art. Barney wants each
   piece of sculpture, each of video screen and the museum itself to
   organically fuse into one experience. The exhibit is another masculine
   battle, an arm-wrestling match. Will Barney be able to reign in the
   landscape and make it work for the piece? The stakes are high: If the
   art merely reacts to the space it becomes decoration for the rotunda.

   The most significant thing Barney has changed in the museum is the
   light. A giant blue object covers the skylight of the building. In the
   midday sun, this dims the light and casts a blue tinge. The blanket of
   blue material is in the shape of the Cremaster logo.

   Both the film and exhibit are heavily branded. Like Freemasons, game
   designers and advertisers, Barney pays careful attention to logos,
   colors, flags and uniforms. During its three hours, the film sometimes
   feels more like an advertisement for Barney's imagination than a myth.
   The epic cinematography is not unlike Ridley Scott's famous 1984
   Macintosh television ad. We are hammered with serious faces and
   statuesque bodies. Shots of Barney climbing the elevator shaft could
   be adopted by a financial firm to advertise its perseverance. By tying
   the disparate elements with the thread of ritual and mythology,
   Cremaster 3 is mythic without imparting an actual story.

   In both the film and the exhibit, this absence of story keeps the
   viewer at a distance. The film reaches its most visually luscious
   point with women in bunny suits kicking, two hardcore bands thrashing
   and Matthew Barney climbing, dancing and tumbling though the
   Guggenheim. It feels like watching a foreign sport that you do not
   know the rules of. Barney rejects the inviting qualities of film
   narrative and creates a virtual space between viewer and art that
   mimics the feeling of seeing a large piece of classical sculpture in a
   museum. Don't get too close and don't touch. We aren't called to join
   the parade like we are in a Fellini film. We don't feel emotionally
   involved like we do in a good musical, action film or video game. We
   never get to play.

   Experiencing Cremaster 3 in the exhibit space of the Guggenheim
   bridges the distance between viewer and art, but there is also a sense
   of loss. You are the Entered Apprentice moving up the ramps. You are
   in the landscape of the game, but there are no adversaries. It's like
   arriving to engage in LARP (live action role play), but finding nobody
   dressed as alchemists and orcs. Even the Star Wars exhibit had
   mannequins dressed in costumes. Looking down from the top level of the
   museum, you see no punk bands or dancers. You see no naked women
   frolicking in the fountain. What you see are museumgoers gawking up at
   the video screens with their backs turned to the sculpture.

   While the film successfully alters the narrative landscape of the
   Guggenheim to inspire characters to dance, climb and interact with
   objects, the exhibit's use of the space obliterates the impulse to
   action. Watching Barney on a giant video monitor toss white plastic
   sculpture as you stand in the same space, next to the same objects
   does more than just distract you from the sculpture. It taunts you.
   The museum interface keeps your body still as the video images
   violently tease you with Barney's body in action. Kafka would have
   enjoyed this situation. Characters peek out from film stills on the
   walls, their stoic faces and muted voices whispering: Pick it up and
   throw it. At the same time the giant monitors scream at you: You are
   helpless. You cannot climb. You cannot pick up the objects. You cannot
   throw them. You cannot be the epic hero. If you listen to Barney's
   characters, if the art inspires you to action, you will be thrown out
   on your ass to wander aimlessly around Central Park.

   Barney may have successfully re-imagined the Guggenheim in the film,
   but despite placing his logo over the building and changing its light,
   despite the overwhelming combination of video and sculpture, the
   Cremaster exhibit fails to conquer the museum's interface.
   the future of video games and art

   A game adaptation of Cremaster 3 could include all of its characters,
   sculpture, mythical elements and action. You could climb the rotunda,
   pick up objects and toss them. You could confront punk rockers and
   legless felines. Why would a game designer want to create this game?
   The effort could be the first game recognized as a relevant piece of
   contemporary art. It could be more compelling than the film or the
   exhibit. It could even be a great game.

   The dialogue between those that create games and those that decide
   what is art has just started. Adaptation and the exchange of ideas
   will expand what is considered fine art and what is considered a video
   game. The critical feedback that artists and cinematographers are used
   to will force designers to view their work as part of the larger
   continuum of art. This will spawn some bloated egos and boring games,
   but a wider set of influences and greater personal responsibility will
   inspire game designers to create engaging works of art that are also
   fun to play.

        The Cremaster films open today at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

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