A couple days ago, I linked to something called 911survivor (the site is down as of this writing) in my ‘Destinations’ sidebar. The site was about an Unreal game modification that replaced the standard sci-fi battle arenas with the World Trade Center towers during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time, it looked to me like a surprisingly disturbing attempt to capitalize on the tragedy of the day, and I commented on the link as being tasteless.

This morning, Kirsten left a comment letting me know that while at Siggraph, she had met one of the creators of the 911survivor mod.

something to think about – the game is not a ‘game’ but an art mod (game modification). there are no points, there is no way to win, etc. the point of the game (art piece) for them was to explore the real experience of the victims in the WTC and to combat the commercialization of the event by big media. players also must realize the real experience and the real horror of that day (which has been glossed over by an administration and media that capitalizes on the event).

I mentioned that perhaps they should have made more of an indication of their intent on their website, as it wasn’t clear at all to me upon first viewing it what the point actually was.

Later, Kirsten was able to come back with a little more information, and she also said this:

if this is art…then truly the artist doesn’t have to offer you their interpretation on the subject. modern art never does. it simply presents itself, and then lets you decide. you therefore become a part of it through interaction and the decision process.

While searching around for more information on this piece of work, as their site seems to have gone down, I found this post at Fridgemagnet. In one paragraph, they managed to both grok the concept of the piece long before I did, but also touch on the very reason why I made the initial assumption that I did:

The level of customization allowed by Doom, then Quake, Half Life, Unreal etc, makes for an interesting artistic medium. We’ve had all sorts of ideologically-driven mods and FPSes already – see the America’s Army game (now available for Macs it seems) and that race-hate Quake mod where you get to kill Jews and blacks. It doesn’t appear that this is a propaganda piece, but it is going to be designed to deliver a message of some sort, whatever the designers want to say about 9-11. Assuming it’s not just publicity trash.

This started me wondering about two things in connection to this. Firstly, the role of the media used for a piece of work; and secondly, when introducing a new type of media, what responsibility the artist might have when the public finds that work.

I think that part of the issue I had where 911survivor is concerned is simply that the medium used here — the game interface — is one that hasn’t been used before (that I have heard of, at least) as an artistic medium. When presented with a gaming environment, my first thoughts are that the subject matter is intended to be just that: a game, some form of entertainment. Hence, when I was browsing the 911survivor site, seeing their concept art of panicked businessmen and women and a schematic of the floors affected by the impact of the airplane, and looking at the screenshots of walls of flame and bodies falling to the ground, I didn’t make the assumption that “this can’t be a game, therefore it must be some sort of interactive art project.” Instead, it appeared to simply be a game — a game with a truly disgusting choice of subject matter.

Given that, then, should it have been more obvious what the intent of the work was? Kirsten says that the artist “doesn’t have to offer you their interpretation on the subject.” Certainly true enough, but the majority of the time when seeing art, even when it’s art we haven’t seen before, we do know that it is art. We may not understand it or like it, we may wish that there was more interpretation provided for us, we may not understand the artists intent — we may not even agree that it should be called art. But whatever our reaction, we know that the artist intended their creation to be some form of art. With 911survivor, I had no such reference to work with.

While I’ve been working on this post, Kirsten was able to update her site with more details on what she heard during the workshop where this project was discussed.

The game was made by a group of students for a class (if memory serves) who had not been present at the fall of the towers in NYC, but felt that the media had been capitalizing on the situation and thus glossing over the horrific reality of the event). The game was never supposed to be publicized, it was simply a way for the students to understand the event and to ‘be a part of it’ as it were. The speaker mentioned that so often memorials of wars and tragedies gloss over and distort the truth of the situation, that the horror and the sorrow that was truly there is covered up as much as possible, and instead an idealistic presentation of the situation is given as a sort of ‘reaffirmation’ of life. However, this prevents future generations from understanding the pain/sorrow/horror of the original event. This game actually presents a significant attempt at building a new art form (in my humble opinion) by creating a truly interactive medium in which people feel trapped, upset, frustrated, frightened, disgusted, etc. by a piece of art that is truly interactive….

That bit of information alone does a lot to explain the nature of the project to me, and I have to say, I agree with a lot of the motivations mentioned here. The media (and the government) has not only glossed over the horrors of that day in the intervening months, but has gone on to capitalize on it in ways far more disturbing and far-reaching than I originally took this game to be attempting. Over the past two years, the fall of the WTC has gone from being presented as the tragedy that it was to being the justification for our incursions into foreign governments halfway around the world. 9-11 has become a motivation for revenge for far too many people (and to make it worse, that revenge hasn’t even been directed at the right targets, thanks to the propaganda techniques of our current administration).

I guess it was the combination of the medium of the game engine; the lack of a clear disclaimer that they were using the game engine because it was the best technology for their purpose, not because they were actually attempting to create a ‘9-11 game’; a website that seemed to support my initial assumption that it was a game; and the horrific imagery based on real events and real deaths that disturbed me. Knowing more about it now, I can understand and respect the aims of the creators. However, given the combination of a new medium not traditionally used for anything other than entertainment purposes, and the subject matter of the work, a little more caution and straightforward stating of ideals on the website may have been very much in order.

7 thoughts on “911survivor: Game? Art?

  1. argh. third time i have tried to add this comment, this time it will work.

    note – i’ve been trying to add a link for the guy for you – everytime i type the end tag (/a) for a link into your comment box, my browser (ie 5.1 on os x) freezes. maybe this is typepad? it didn’t happen when i made a link in MT from my site.

    two thoughts, quickly.

    first: the game was never supposed to be publicized (according to the speaker on sunday), this would explain why they did not make note of the fact that the site was art. i don’t know why they had screenshots up – probably wasn’t the original class’s website but a mirror instead. the point being that sites that are not for public consumption don’t contain directional info for the public.

    second – even if the site was supposed to be publicized, putting up the art statement would have been a disclaimer that would have reduced the effectiveness of the art. meaning – you had a real experience with the art (being disgusted, horrified, all appropriately) while I had no such reaction because I was viewing the project through ‘art goggles’ This means to say specifically, that the effectiveness of this piece is primarily that you do not originally interpret it as art, but as a game, and that the statement therein is important too.

    the name of the speaker was brody condon. he’s an independent artist. the link to his website is tmpspace.com. check out the velvet strike stuff – he spoke on that as well. basic concept – these are war-protest graffitti sprays for a first person shooter. they started with very tame images but moved on to the homoerotic military men in order to be more shocking and to get the attention of other users more quickly.

  2. re: Live preview crashing: I’m thinking it may be something with your particular machine, possibly IE5.1. I’m typing this on the OS X machine here at work, and not having any issues.

    (well, one minor issue, in that it doesn’t seem to be converting newlines to <br> tags correctly…odd).

    Anyway, I’ll get back into the rest of this conversation later. :) Just wanted to hop on and test making links.

  3. I find this use of game design tools extremely intesting, but it’s not the first time this form has been used for art. The machinima movement (making movies using these game design tools) is several years old, and gaining popularity. Additionally, art is where you find it and not subject to a blanket definition… if you feel something (anything!) is artful, it is art, and if you don’t, no amount of assertion on the part of the creator will convince you that it is in fact art. And I certainly don’t think it’s a valid requirement for any art form to exercise “caution and straightforward stating of ideals”. That’s a requirement for politics, not art.

    I find it most interesting that the media presentation of 9-11 has so permeated the fabric of life that even a game mod such as this comes under fire. The wargames that have been available for years have included “horrific imagery based on real events and real deaths” that far outnumber the casualties of 9-11, but those are taken in stride. Indeed “the media (and the government) … has gone on to capitalize on [9-11]” so that any reference, depiction or discussion of 9-11 has to be run through a PC filter, or be subject to disparaging comment.

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