PRINT January 1995


Millennium Auction

YOU CAN’T HELP FEELING a little shiver when you buy the Mona Lisa, even though you’re just playing Millennium Auction, the CD-ROM game from Eidolon, Inc. In your role as, say, multimedia artist Tory Swift-one of six inexplicably solvent art-world stereotypes who frequent a rather claustrophobic art auction house of the 21st century—your job is to gather information on the lots under the gavel by flipping through catalogues, eavesdropping on conversations, or snooping through material strewn around the messy office of Zeke the Janitor. Then you bid, in an attempt to predict the fluctuating market. Nuria, a tongue-in-cheek guide with a Kathleen Turner voice, provides supplementary art history, describing the Laocoon, for example, as “rendered by the Greeks in dramatic you-are-there style.” After each auction, developments out of your control determine final sales posted on the "ArtNet'' board. When you learn that your Mona is slowly growing a beard—apparently it was really a retouched portrait of Leonardo himself—you get a queasy feeling: will this increase or decrease its value?

Like Myst, the most artistically successful CD-ROM game so far, Millennium Auction confronts the medium’s biggest problem—glacially long seek times—by choosing an inherently slow-paced activity: since the play takes place in an auction house, the pauses can be as charged as the events. Unlike Myst, though, Millennium Auction blends fact and fiction. Possibly for copyright reasons, but also perhaps because teasing recent artists on the grounds of auction prices might seem like stabbing fish in a sink, the actual artworks peter out around the beginning of this century, to be replaced by parodies. Many of these are at least somewhat informed: bidding goes through the roof for a World Body flag dipped in urine; an estate-full of late-’90s sculpture turns out to have been created by the dead artist’s assistant (actually, robot assistant); and a computer error kills several visitors to “Penn Jacob’s masterpiece Eighteen Holes of Human Misery,” a miniature-golf-course installation that seems to be a dig at a more low-tech interactive exhibition a while ago at Artists’ Space in New York. At the end of the day, one of the six buyers comes out on top.

As a game, Millennium Auction suffers from the new medium’s commonest weaknesses: after a few rounds, your snooping degenerates into a mechanical scanning for so-far-unactivated hot spots, while your trades become simply attempts to second-guess the writers’ petulant sense of humor. But as light hypertext satire the piece is surprisingly rich. The introductory rap on Mona, for instance, tosses off a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s mustache intervention, and it’s easy to see the whole segment as a homage to Duchamp, an artist whose sexualized automata, peepholes, chess problems, and optics research seem to the interactive artist of today like music written for instruments that didn’t then exist.

The first thing I ever saw through VR goggles, in 1991, was a “digital art gallery” created by the Sense-8 corporation, a pioneering VR software company. In virtual reality, I moved forward at an aquatic crawl, looked around at a few abstract paintings streaked with raster lines, and drifted helplessly through a wall into a beige void. Since then, as interactive media have developed, the conceit of the “virtual museum” has-remained puzzlingly ubiquitous in the field, with almost every major firm and institution in the digital boomtown offering some variation on the theme. In some ways this is simply practical: if it uses known images, a virtual gallery doesn’t require much research or original thought; and technically, displaying recognizable paintings gets a lot of information into a simple set—“keeping the interest level high and the polygon count low,” as we say in the interbiz. More important for the future, the three-dimensional model, with its thematic rooms linked by networks of hallways, may be a more congenial paradigm for a computer interface than a desktop full of windows and icons: it’s easier to remember where you’ve put something in a “memory palace,” or what’s known in mnemonics as the “method of loci.”

But there may also be more insidious reasons for this preoccupation: like Duchamp’s mustache, digital imaging contains an impulse of vandalism against the analogue monster. Capturing a painting in computer code comes close to killing it, “Sherrie Levine-ing” it in the most dangerous way. The experience of “buying” a digital image of a great work feels like an allegory of the much publicized efforts of a Bill Gates-led consortium to secure perpetual digital rights to many of the world’s best-known paintings and sculptures. And particularly as crystallized in Millennium Auction, the fantasy of the digital museum may express a certain resentment, the computer jock’s bewilderment at the art world’s continuing use of a medieval craft, his determined “I can do better.” (It’s usually a he.) Digital imaging still reflects a primarily conventional, 19th-century, realist representational esthetic: the main notion is that of “getting the effect,” working out ways of reproducing nature’s laws of optics. Yet most video games, including Millennium Auction, use computer-generated sets and figures even when it would be more convincing to film and digitize live actors. It seems that these games use computer-generated human characters simply because they can, and because they’re “new”—even though these caricatures are still quite stiff and will soon look positively quaint.

However, Millennium Auction’s satire is also double-edged, making vicious fun of the computer world. And since my play-tests suggest that in Millennium Auction the really classic works are usually the safest investments, the game could be seen as implying that analogue will always have the greatest value of all—if only as the necessary starting point for digital versions. This is a less mystical “aura” than Walter Benjamin’s, but still worth owning—as Gates himself demonstrated with his recent purchase at auction of a Leonardo notebook.

Most soberingly, or most excitingly, the game may foreshadow a new economic system. As the technology of digitalization progresses, you’ll eventually be able to “buy” a great painting without having to own it, using a computer chip to “hang” it on your LCD wall. How will value be preserved in an age of informational overabundance? Information may have to be artificially safeguarded to preserve its worth, and money-based restrictions may not be enough. Perhaps we’ll end up with a game-based economy, making Millennium Auction and its descendants part of a trophy system in which we compete for the right to own a digital version of an experience. Like the thrill of the kill, the frisson of the unique purchase will somehow have to be re-created.

Brian D’Amato’s interactive art company, Softworlds, Inc., received the 1994 Residency Award from the Wexner Center for the Arts. A film version of his first novel, Beauty, is in development at Touchstone Pictures; his second novel will be published by Delacorte in 1995.