Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"1st Person Shooter" (Bartholl, 2006)

Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen

In the hyper-realist console and arcade gaming space, the closer a game gets to emulating reality, the better chance the game has of succeeding in an already over-crowded market place. Taking this hybrid of realism and screen-based entertainment to an extreme is Berlin based media artist Aram Bartholl. From his experiments of adding a "virtual" machine gun to a pair of ordinary glasses in "1st Person Shooter" to creating physical versions of the large blinking arrows from the ubiquitous console game, "Need for Speed 2", Bartholl creates work that intends to both disrupt, engage, and highlight our pre-occupation with virtual forms and experiences. His work is both a playful and cautious reminder of just how far technology has infiltrated our lives and public spaces. Gizmodo caught up with Bartholl to discuss his views on the future of gaming artifacts, the potential impact of technological imperialism, and just how closely our daily lives are influenced by the virtual entities we engage with everyday.


Name:Aram Bartholl
Age: 33
Education: Diploma, Architecture, University of Arts, Berlin, 2001
Affiliation: Independent artist, Interaction designer, Urban Media Salon Berlin, CCC
"Bits on Location" at the Competition Browserday 1.Price Berlin DE 2001, "Silver Cell" and "Paper Pixels" at 21.Chaos Communication Congress of the Chaos Computer Club Berlin DE 2004, Presentations "Bits on location " at Transmediale05 in the lecture of Open.Plan Berlin DE 2005, "Random Screen" at 22.Chaos Communication Congress of the Chaos Computer Club Berlin DE 2005, "Random Screen" at 3rd (A) r4WB1t5 Micro.Fest at ENEMY gallery Chicago US 2006, "Silver Cell" at Viper New Media Art festival Basel CH 2006, "Random Screen" "WoW" "de_dust" and "DIY" at project space "ceci n'est pas un restaurant" Berlin DE 2006, "Speed" at Plattform Bohnenstrasse public space exhibition Bremen DE 2006, "Random Screen" "Paper Pixels" and "Silver Cell" Exhibition / Workshop at Ars Electronica Linz AT 2006


GIZMODO: "First Person Shooter" consists of downloadable, paper cut-out glasses that affix a gun in the style of a first person shooter video game (such as Quake, Doom, or Half-Life) to the lens so that the wearer feels as if they are playing one of these games. How closely do you associate video games with reality and what was your overall intention with the project?

AB: All my projects I am working on are dealing about the relationship of the digital net data space to the every day live in real space. With the series of the computer game objects I am trying to connect these both worlds in a new way. Computer games becoming more and more realistic: high resolution models, better textures, physic engines etc. try to imitate or real physical world. Like some of the other projects First Person Shooter poses the question about the reality you are living in. I think the online game worlds have a great impact for gamers on the way they perceive their reality. There is a shift between the real and the virtual world which is not visible. These worlds are not connected at all. The game worlds stick to the screen but they are very big in players' minds. In fact the FPS glasses do not really work when you wear them. The Ak47s are to close and blur in front of your eyes. But it makes you think about this virtual arm holding a weapon, when you look at yourself wearing these glasses. It is supposed to be your own arm who reaches into cyberspace but in the end it is not connected to your body. Additionally you can read this project also as a comment on the discussion of violence and computer games (which is very big in Germany). An average gamer is not able to become more violent in real life than wearing FPS I think.

Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"SilverCell" (Bartholl, 2004)

GIZMODO:Your "Silver Cell" project exists as a pouch for a cell phone that acts as a "Faraday" cage to prevents the phone from communicating with the tower or receiving signals in an attempt to stop the owner's location from being tracked or followed. Do you think this form of passive surveillance poses a threat to our personal security? What other types of technology integrate methods of surveillance that might be worth giving us control to over?

AB: A lot of computer and communication technologies offer great possibilities of being passively traced and tracked. Not only secret services or Google do data mining and can tell about your behaviors but also your girlfriend wants to know why your cell phone was shut off last night. Surveillance on all levels is increasing constantly and people are getting used to it. We are not living in the classic Half Life 2 / George Orwell - scenario but we are closer to this than we think. It is just not so obvious. But surveillance is only one side of the project "Silver Cell". [It is] very important to me is the fact that this simple piece of cloth knocks out this highly developed communication tool. Again the analog and simple object is stronger than our fragile digital world.

Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"Speed" (Bartholl, 2006)

GIZMODO: With "Speed", you interjected the large flashing arrows from the video game "Need for Speed Underground 2" into the urban landscape by placing large scale replicas onto city streets. How closely do you see virtual and physical landscapes relating to each other? How did this transformation effect the normal flow of city traffic and what types of reactions did you receive from pedestrians and motorists?

AB: As I said before computer games on one hand try to be realistic as much as possible. On the other hand there are a lot of behaviors, functions and objects which do only relate in a distorted way to our physical real world. The red flashing arrows from NFSU2 seem to be classic traffic signs which are a little bit oversized but in fact they have a semi-permeable function. Somehow they look like a virtual projected object in the game but in fact they serve as a very strict race track boundary during a race. The drivers' car is not able to pass them and bumps into them. The simulated city traffic which in general serves as an additional obstacle during a race can cross these boundaries as if they were just virtual objects within the game. Rebuilding these animated arrows in real space ads up an other layer onto this real/virtual object. Somehow the computer game becomes real and at the same time the city is transformed partially into a computer game. This of course depends on the recipients point of view. The city traffic was not affected but some drivers told me that they were irritated for a short time (which is good). The younger audience who mostly knew the game all recognized this object very well after I explained to them what I am doing.

"Speed" - making of - video, (Bartholl, 2006)

Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"Random Screen", (Bartholl, 2005)

GIZMODO: "Random Screen" is an electricity-free thermo dynamic display whose pixels are controlled by rising heat from 24 burning candles. Why did you build this project and what types of output would it ideally display?

AB: This work is one of a series of low-tech screen projects that was originally inspired by the Blinkenlights media facade of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin. The predecessor of "Random Screen" is the Papierpixel project in which a manual screen was controlled by a punched tape system that had to be pre-programmed by hand. Random Screen takes the reduction of the electronics one step further. To use as little technology as possible but still talking in the digital language is a common subject in all my projects. The Random Screen is a very good example for creating a digital look in a most simple and analog way. Loosing the control of the pixels is part of the concept. Each pixel becomes an individual and controls itself. Randomness is the only type of output the display can show. After 20 years sitting in front of a computer screen it was really exiting to develop pixels which are run by fire. With the first prototype I almost burned down the whole office-workshop space I am sharing with ten other people. That was a quite shocking experience and it showed to me how real reality is and how powerful fire is. Coming back from the virtual worlds you do notice that there is no undo or backup in the physical world.

Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"de_dust", (Bartholl, 2004)

GIZMODO: With "de dust", you've created physical versions (with printed texture maps) of the wooden crates that exist inside the online game "Counter Strike" and installed them onto street corners in urban spaces. How does implanting this "virtual" architecture into real spaces reflect both our pre-occupation with technological escapism and the infiltration of digital objects in our everyday lives? What types of reactions did the crates receive from pedestrians walking by?

AB: Thinking about the relation of game worlds and our real world there is always one question I pose myself. How many people know the same places in virtual worlds and in real life? How many people e.g. have been to Times Square in New York City and how many to "de_dust", the very popular map of Counter-Strike? Millions of gamers have been to the same cities in "World of Warcraft" or have been sitting behind the same crate next to a certain bomb spot in the game Counter-Strike. These spaces and places [have become] a part of our common spatial experience and cultural knowledge. The spatial perceptions of virtual and real world are getting mixed in our experience. Gamers even take group pictures (in fact screenshots) as a souvenir after killing a big monster in "World of Warcraft". On the other hand how well do you know the city you are living in? Which places in the world have you seen with your own eyes? The real physical world we live in should be of course more important than cyberspace. Bringing the crates back from Counter Strike to physical world is a good way to express the merged realities in our heads.

Pedestrians mostly turn around after passing the crates. They get irritated because they think it is a real wood crate and then realize that the pixel pattern is just a flat texture. Some pedestrians who were into game worlds got quite exited because they recognized something very familiar. There is a very nice anecdote about the project "de_dust". About a month ago I got an email from Chris Ashton a game developer of Turtle Rock Studios who told me that he liked the project very much. And, by the way that he was the artist who created all the textures for the map de_dust back in the days when the Mod was developed. Isn't that great? The guy who scanned and Photo-shopped some wood pictures into a game which is essential for a whole generation contacts me, [the person] who brought these wood pixels back to the real world. A cycle has been closed. I really felt honored. Thanks Chris!

Gizmodo Gallery: Aram Bartholl Sees in FPS Mode

"CaseMod", (Bartholl, 2004)

GIZMODO: The "CaseMod" combines a slab of ancient sandstone with a fully functioning Dell 386 DX40S from the 1990s. Why was it important to you to combine these two objects? What new relationships occur and what can we learn from combining old and new materials into hybrid forms?

AB: One of my neighbors is a sculptor and has his workshop in the backyard. He showed me how to use his tools and I had great fun working on sandstone. This craftsmanship is so far away from computer work that I just had to combine it. It breaks up the perspective we are looking at technology, especially at computers. How old is an outdated PC? How old is a stone? Pure nature and human technology combined into one piece. Case modding is a very popular phenomenon. Computer users want to work on their loved machines which is not possible. The technology is so highly developed and so tiny that we can't form computer chips with our bare hands. Instead of the machine itself the covering and periphery of the technology is the victim of the human will to change things.

GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?

AB: Right now I am working on some new screen ideas. A new version of "Random Screen" might appear soon. But I am also still very interested in low-tech locative media and mobile projects. I will not rebuild every object of any computer game but there will be a simultaneously performance of the project, "WoW" at Oklahoma, Boston, Istanbul and Munich within the Upgrade International Network on November 30th, 2006.