Jason Rohrer


View of “Jason Rohrer: The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer,” 2016. Photo: Thomas Willis.

The programmer and designer Jason Rohrer—whose video game Passage, 2007, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012—recently became the subject of the first-ever museum retrospective for a video game creator. The exhibition is on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 26, 2016. Here, he talks about the challenges of exhibiting video games in a gallery space, and the metaphorical possibilities of his medium.

WHEN MICHAEL MAIZELS, the curator at Wellesley, first contacted me, I initially thought he was yet another person who just wants to show Passage in a museum. But over time it became clear that this was much more involved than anything I had done in the past. As it dawned on me that this would be the first career retrospective for any kind of video game maker, and I thought more about what that means in terms of my history and the history of video games, it became stranger and stranger. A lot of institutions think about putting games into exhibitions, but they tend to engineer a very shallow, surface level of interaction and interfacing with the game for the public—you walk up and fiddle with a controller for a minute, and then walk away. The challenge of this show was trying to figure out how to show such work in a gallery context. Mike and I talked a lot during the two-year planning process about how to give people the feeling that it’s OK to stand for a long time with each of these pieces. Part of our solution was to have laptops in the side galleries with headphones and seats, so that there’s lots of opportunity for people to stop and play.

We made the conscious decision early on to not feature Passage; people expect to walk into a show of my work and see that piece on the wall, and it is playable in the show, but just as one of the many games on little laptops. We chose instead to feature several other games in the main room such as Inside a Star-filled Sky, 2011, which is about what it might be like to get lost inside infinity and recursion. That’s a game where you’re in a level and you’re a little guy running around in a maze and dealing with monsters and collecting power-ups or shooting bullets—standard top-down shooter game elements. But then every enemy and every power-up you encounter, and even yourself—each of these expands into another level you can enter. Another game included is Primrose, 2009, which is like Tetris meets the game of Go. And there’s also Diamond Trust of London, 2012, a two-player strategy game that takes place in Angola in 2000 right around the time the UN was passing this Kimberly Certification Process for rough diamonds to prevent what we now call blood diamonds from coming out of Angola.

Around the time I made Passage, I made another game called Gravitation, in 2008. It’s an autobiographical game that focuses on a relationship and family dynamics. What I made during this time used game mechanics that have metaphorical meaning, almost structuring them as if writing a poem. A lot of people know me for those games, but what I did after that is totally different. Mechanics as metaphor seems to have exhausted its potential. It was a baby step that games needed to take, because designers weren’t even doing that before. But now, how do we deal with more subtle meanings and more complex things that you can’t summarize in words?

With many of the games shown in this exhibition, I tried to put visual aesthetics in the backseat, because what we see now among new mainstream releases are these amazing visual displays, but I feel like that is misguided. It’s a great way to sell games to people, but very often what’s underneath that glitzy presentation has nothing new to offer. The visual delight is not going to last. We haven't even discussed the limitations of 3-D games yet. Even though they’re visually impressive, you’re simulating reality, and for consistency’s sake things are made to behave like they would in a three-dimensional physical world. Which means that you don’t even have a spooky action at a distance—objects can’t just appear and disappear without causality, you have to show the shards exploding or falling on the ground. What that does is cut off an entire spectrum of possible game design by climbing onto this one narrow branch. Everything I’ve been doing in two-dimensional games is about exploring an entirely different part of the tree—all the symbolic, iconic, and metaphorical uses of the picture plane.

— As told to Dawn Chan

Sudarshan Shetty, Shoonya Ghar (Empty House), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 59 minutes.

Sudarshan Shetty is an artist who lives and works in Mumbai and is best-known for his sculptural installations addressing themes of transience, loss, regeneration, and the precariousness of life. His exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, titled “Shoonya Ghar (Empty House),” runs through March 6, 2016, and features, among other pieces, an hour-long film and a sculptural installation featuring the sets from the film.

THE TITLE OF THE EXHIBITION, “SHOONYA GHAR,” comes from poetry by the great twelfth-century nirgun (without form) poet Gorakhnath. In his work he talks about a yogi who is wandering about a city that is made of ten doors, referring to the ten openings in the body. I came to this poetry through Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s music, and then I got interested in the fifteenth-century poet Kabir, who led me to Gorakhnath. Gorakhnath literally invented the doha, or couplet composed of twenty-four matras, and I started examining its structure. Very often it establishes an image in the first line, with a different image emerging in the second line. They come together, though, to make up a worldview and to create an interpretative space. I have been trying to look at how best I can employ this strategy as a maker of objects.

The film is the central piece in the whole show for me. In it you see three things which all work together—the Indian music, the performance, and the building up of the set. These are parallel activities. The protagonist is the building of the set itself that is being created throughout the film, and characters come and go. I thought of it as a performative space. There are a set of four buildings that were made out of wood that came from dismantled structures in and around Mumbai, as a way of weaving unknown stories into the piece. The structures were then taken to an abandoned stone quarry to be reassembled again. The music was not written with the images in mind; it was written completely separately. I said to the musicians, “I am not going to tell you anything—you just make music and I am not even going to give you the script.” All the actors knew as much about what the story was as I did.

The film is very carefully constructed, like stretching a rubber band to a point where it is about to break but does not break. In the conventions of cinema, when you show someone entering a lift and then a house, you construct that linear narrative of how someone has reached that place. I wanted to stretch two moments like that and allow for multiple interpretations, like in a doha. There are times when the building is more complete than it is later in the film, as if it might have happened in the past or the future, and that playing with the notion of linear time is something that nirgun poetry proposes constantly. I wondered: Can you give up a story, even when you are creating a narrative?

When I make works, they are so diverse in terms of materials, but I want them to be read as one experience. Those formal choices are very essential to the show—every piece of material that is used here is recycled, and there is a mix of styles, from colonial-looking pillars, Hindu or Jain pillars, to a dome that is essentially Islamic. Everything is mixed up as a way of including unknown stories. The elements are old, but it is all done in my own idiosyncratic design. I’m interested in playing with the notion of what is old, what is new, what is real, what is not, what does this structure mean and who would reside in it, or what does it mean as an art object and who would buy that? It is about challenging my own relationship with the market as an artist. Since the current show is a museum show, it is an opportunity to push those boundaries in my work rather than doing a retrospective, which is what I was offered. I don’t want to do one of those ever in my life.

My earlier shows had pieces that were big, for those times at least. Now everybody makes big things. I was interested in that kind of aesthetic aspect, but conceptually, it was about building up a world that collapses under the weight of its own spectacle. Here, too, I’m playing with that: The installation is so grand in some ways, but it is also something that is eminently collapsible.

— As told to Meera Menezes

Betye Saar


Betye Saar, Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented), 2014, mixed media assemblage, 25 x 9 x 7”. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

An icon of assemblage art whose work has stood proudly at the intersection of the personal and political since the 1960s, Betye Saar draws from such broad references as the work of Joseph Cornell and occult traditions of palmistry and voodoo. In her groundbreaking 1972 sculpture The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, for instance, Saar issues a challenge to stereotypes of race and gender by reclaiming the power of historically charged materials. Here, as Saar approaches what she calls her “ninetieth revolution around the sun,” she discusses her current retrospective, which brings together works from across her six-decade career. The exhibition is on view from January 30 through May 1, 2016, at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona.

THIS RETROSPECTIVE includes over 130 works in installations and tableaux, along with additional collages and assemblages, all made between the 1960s and the present. They are exhibited in three sections: nostalgia and memory, mysticism and ritual, and politics and race. The work that lends the exhibition its title, Still Ticking, 2005, is a very personal piece. It’s a shelf covered with clocks, and there’s a little calendar that starts out with my birth and goes on to record my going to school, getting married, having kids, and then the death of my husband, Richard. It’s about “I’m still ticking, I’m still living, I’m still recording.”

When I was young, my mother was always encouraging us to draw and take craft classes. My grandmothers made quilts and painted china, and my mother was also gifted at making jewelry and sewing. That’s what women did then, and it was just a natural thing to follow. One of the things that moved me away from printmaking and two-dimensional works was inheriting the remains of my great-aunt’s trunk. She moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to California in the early 1920s, and when she passed in 1974, there were all these objects that had belonged to her when she was a girl—dance cards and invitations, handkerchiefs, gloves, and dresses, things like that. That was the start of using something from a previous generation and integrating it into my own work. I felt like I was paying homage to her, as well as expanding on my own creative expression.

Light is an important element for me, especially with these installations. I’ve had some experience with theater—I think that’s one reason why I feel comfortable doing my little assemblage boxes, because they’re very theatrical too, but mini-sized. And then when I started making installations, I could blow them up to room size. One of the more recent pieces in the show was originally shown in a tableau in my 2013 exhibition “On the Shelf” at Roberts & Tilton Gallery—just a simple shelf that had all these objects on it created from found scales. It was inspired by the recent events of violence against black people over the last two or three years. There are countless police shootings of black people—so I thought, This is how I can vent my anger and frustration, and it’s called Weight of Persistent Racism (Patented), 2014. I used the scale as a physical object to determine that weight, how it just won’t go away, against black people, and others.

I think of my process as a personal ritual: The first part would be finding the materials, the hunting and gathering. I go to thrift and antique stores or estate sales, looking for things and picking objects that have a sense of history or a story to tell. Then I move into the second part of the ritual, which is combining these pieces and manipulating their surfaces so they can tell another story—my story. Sometimes I work in a subconscious way and let the piece create itself—it’s a lot more fun to do it that way. The final part of the ritual is the release of the work.

I’ve always had a really vivid and active imagination, ever since I was a kid, and so every time I see objects, my mind just goes wild. Not that I can always verbalize what that is, but it’s a feeling that says, “If I had that, I would use it in a piece of art.” Similar to what a bowerbird does—sometimes they are so creative that they even select a color, and then they only collect that color. When the male sees a female, he makes a little arrangement to impress her, to woo her. I think it’s really interesting that when this behavior moves into the human world, we call it art.

— As told to Maya Harder-Montoya

Gerald Ferguson, Choral Reading of the Standard Corpus of Present Day English Language Usage Arranged by Word Length in 20 Units for a Chorus of 26 Voices, 1972/2016. Performance view, January 16, 2016, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

From 1967 to 1990, artist Garry Neill Kennedy served as the president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. It was a tenure that in many respects has become the stuff of legend—not only for the radical experiments in the institution and the classroom that Kennedy endorsed, but also because of the pivotal role NSCAD came to play as a far-flung focal point in the rise of Conceptual art. Kennedy captured much of this in The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–78 (MIT Press, 2012), a chronological look back at the artists, projects, and events that marked his first decade at the school. A major survey exhibition of the same name, featuring NSCAD-related works by Joseph Beuys, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, and Hans Haacke, among others, is on view through April 3, 2016 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Here, Kennedy reflects on that heady era.

I ARRIVED IN HALIFAX in June 1967. I’d finished graduate school at Ohio University a couple of years earlier and had been teaching at Northwood College in Ashland, Wisconsin. I’d heard of a job opening at a school in Halifax and I thought, Let’s go for it. I got the job—as president. I was thirty-two. At the time, the Nova Scotia College of Art was located in an old church hall. It was an extremely conservative place with a very Victorian sensibility, drawing from plaster casts and that sort of thing. In Wisconsin, my students had been doing Minimalist work and Pop art. The difference was amazing. The first year we graduated fourteen students, and I didn’t renew the contracts of four faculty. All hell broke loose. There were all kinds of phone calls and serious protests with students in the streets. I’m not sure they quite understood what they had gotten themselves into when they hired me. I mean, Color Field painting was, you know, far out in Halifax, let alone Conceptual art! So I landed with a bang.

The next year I appointed a good number of friends. Some of them were from the Kansas City Art Institute, like David Askevold and Gerald Ferguson, both of whom had ties to New York, and Jack Lemmon, who packed up his lithography workshop and moved it to Halifax. We were all teachers and active political artists. CalArts was experimenting with the same sorts of things that we were doing at the time, but there was no specific model for how we wanted to run the school. Whatever we wanted to do, we did it. And as the president, I had the authority to make those decisions. This was the time of the Vietnam War and there were a lot of artists avoiding the draft by coming up to Canada. Students wanted answers to their questions. It was all about relevance—that’s an important word—we made the school relevant.

And it just so happens that, as a port city, Halifax is perfectly located between New York and Europe. The Italian Line stopped in there, and I remember Larry Weiner in 1969 got a first-class ticket for him and his wife for fifty-two dollars on the way to New York. It’s unbelievable. As word got out, people like Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, and Dan Graham came along—he recommended Kasper Koenig for the director of the school’s press. Kasper did very important books on Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, which became the model for Roger Conover at the MIT Press. He has every one of the books we made. And then there was the Projects Class that David Askevold came up with and the envelopes with all of these projects that were suggested by amazing Conceptual artists. So you felt like anything was possible.

In 1969, we renamed the school the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and in 1970 there was the Halifax Conference. It was Seth Siegelaub’s idea to have these well-known artists come to Halifax and talk about issues in contemporary art. Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Mario Merz, Richard Serra, Michael Snow, Robert Rauschenberg—all of these people were in the boardroom right next to my office. Robert Smithson and a couple of other invited artists were demonstrably angry that the college was going to make all of this money out of the transcriptions and tried to break up the conference. The other artists didn’t agree. It was so interesting. I think it was Lucy Lippard who wrote and said, There are no women artists in this gang! What’s going on? She was right and we got the message, even if those weren’t the issues that the conference started with. We all became smarter. That is a really important part of the NSCAD legacy in general: It was a wake-up call.

— As told to Bryne McLaughlin

Tammam Azzam


View of “Tammam Azzam: The Road,” 2016.

Like many Syrian artists, Tammam Azzam left his homeland five years ago in search of safer shores. After arriving in Dubai, where he still lives, Azzam spent years making political art that lamented the international community’s passive efforts to put an end to one of the bloodiest wars in recent history. In 2013, Azzam’s Freedom Graffiti, a piece in which the artist superimposed Klimt’s The Kiss on the demolished facade of a Damascus building, went viral on social media and landed the artist in the news. His current exhibition, “The Road,” which is on view at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai through March 3, 2016, marks Azzam’s return to painting after years spent working in digital media.

AFTER I LEFT SYRIA FOR DUBAI IN 2011, I didn’t have a studio and had to stop painting for a couple of years. This drove me to make digital collages, which I saw as an interesting challenge and took as an opportunity to explore what had until then been uncharted territory for me. What began as a temporary fix became an integral part of my practice even after I was able to set up my new workspace.

My current exhibition is a culmination of that effort. As time went by, I found myself further invested in painting and this body of work. Most of the canvases on display are from 2015, which is when the work really started coming together. When I was living in Damascus, I used to draw my inspiration from the city itself and my daily encounters with its inhabitants. But now I’ve had to adjust to another reality—one that requires me to source my information elsewhere. As such, I began relying on journalistic images, as these photos represent the closest I’ll get to Syria. I chose photographs of places that felt completely vacant and desolate. I became obsessed with the brutality that this emptiness conveyed.

I’ve always been drawn to images of urban life and the liveliness that used to abound in Syrian cities. Now that the people are gone and the atmosphere is entirely different, I’ve begun to seek narratives found in the abandoned houses and the desolation of the deserted streets. The empty places have me wondering about the fate and whereabouts of the people who once filled these neighborhoods. I wanted the paintings to reverberate beyond the wreckage, perhaps as a way to counter the desolation brought on by the war.

While I know that my work will always be seen through the scope of the war, I’m more interested in exploring the theme of existential voids that comes out of this destruction. This is why I’ve turned the gallery’s staircase leading up the second floor into an installation by filling it with rubble and setting up a mirror at the end of the staircase that forces the viewers to face themselves amid the wreckage. I’d like to think that my work can go beyond the political narrative people will undoubtedly assign to it, and I hope that the viewer can judge my work based on its formal qualities as well. Political events come and go, but what remains is the art produced as a testimony of that time.

— Translated from Arabic and as told to Lara Atallah



Matmos (M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel), 2015. Photo: Josh Sisk.

The music of Matmos, a partnership between the composers M. C. (Martin) Schmidt and Drew Daniel, often elides boundaries between musical genres and acoustic and electronic sounds. The duo’s latest album, Ultimate Care II, will be released on Thrill Jockey on February 19, 2016, and is a single long-playing track that the musicians, made entirely by sampling the sounds of the washing machine at their home in Baltimore. The appliance’s model name lends the album its title. Though the machine’s manufacturer, Whirlpool, declined to sponsor Matmos’s tour, the duo will nevertheless embark on a short run of shows at the end of this month, with performances in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.

AT FIRST it was a kind of dare—can we even do this? Then the washing machine began to seem a lot richer, in terms of its sexual and cultural politics, than we first thought. The album is not just a futurist celebration of everyday mechanisms as music, but also a reflection on how this machine creates a space in your day for dreaming, for time when you might dissolve into a little bit of a reverie. It gives you a baseline upon which to free-associate as you sit there and hear this drone. We want to have an experience that’s long form, and we think this album lets people have that.

There is still this idea floating around that all nonclassical music is made for impatient teenagers, and everything one does has to be measured against its popularity with such a young audience. We have a reputation as being willfully perverse, difficult people whose work takes hours to explain—but this time it’s easier: We made an album out of a washing machine. But we didn’t want to change what we actually do, and that’s a strange middle ground to inhabit. That’s what’s inspiring to us about musique concrčte and the way it could be an academic form on one face and then have this other face that’s, like, Perrey and Kingsley’s The In Sound from Way Out! [1966], something utterly pop and which can circulate in that sphere—yet they belong to the same DNA.

The limitation of working with the machine put pressure on us to take its palette of sounds in the directions we wanted through synthesis and transformation. The sound of the washer with no clothes in it is more muted than with clothes in it. It’s more of a low-to-mid-range slop sound. And with clothes in it, it has much more high frequency content. I tried to do some laundry every time we used it. Dan Deacon brought over a weird modular synth rig that made these incredibly fast complex patterns and then sent that to a control voltage to MIDI converter, which would turn the signal into notes. And then we fed those notes to our samplers that were filled with samples of washing machine sounds. So we ended up with this kind of ecstatic pattern from him on the record, like a bit of his sheet music but played only by washing machines.

For the tour, we’re getting a special rig constructed with a submersible pump and a regulator, so that we can supply the machine and drain it safely on stage. Twenty-five gallons of water on a stage is not something your sound person wants to hear about. But you’ve got to dance with the one that brought you.

Electronic music in particular right now is so fertile and molten and in the midst of a lot of change. We’re not done with objects, though, and what they afford. There’s the boom now of object-oriented ontology and people obsessing about “thing theory.” This album is maybe picking up the same questions but from a different direction. I would much rather hear a bowl of chocolate pudding than an 808 kick drum.

We’re interested in the perversity of objects and the material world. One goal that’s been pretty consistent across our work is that it’s not about self-expression so much as letting the world in, allowing the world’s textures to be the music—a queerness that’s not human. A lot of queer, trans, and African American electronic artists are now talking about issues of representation explicitly, and also making records that are really good. But this music, from Wendy Carlos on, has always been a place where one explores such questions: What is natural, what is the body, and what is the virtual? What’s possible—what electronics makes available—goes beyond the acoustic immediacy or the givenness of bodies to open a space of freedom. Those utopian ideas are easy to make fun of, but on the other hand there is a political edge to the utopian imagination. Electronic music is one place where people are thrashing out those visions.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley