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The Galapagos Syndrome Yokohama Triennale 2017

The statements of the three artistic directors of the “Yokohama Triennale 2017: Islands, Constellations & Galapagos,” which opens to the public on August 4, tell almost nothing about what these islands off South America have to do with an exhibition on an island located on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.

However, they do allude to the “Galapagos syndrome,” a term in Japanese technological parlance that indicates a twenty-first-century phenomenon of technologies evolving only to cater to peculiar domestic needs and becoming useless on foreign markets. The term usually has a negative or ironic connotation: a manifestation of mixed feelings about being isolated from globalization and — as a reaction — a sense of heightened self-regard amid a chauvinistic atmosphere in Japan in recent years.

The number of artists participating in the Triennial keeps dwindling. Nearly eighty in the 2011 edition, sixty-five in 2014 and forty in the upcoming sixth edition. While highlighting international names such as Ai Weiwei, Zhao Zhao, Maurizio Cattelan and Olafur Eliasson, the exhibition also features Japanese participants for whom the term “Galapagos” befits, who are known within local art circles but scarcely exposed to the global art scene, including: Satoru Aoyama, Sachiko Kazama, Susumu Kinoshita and Tsuyoshi Ozawa. Each has a unique style characterized by painstaking handiwork and an introverted, if not obsessive, vision of the realities surrounding them.

Possibly to broaden the perspective of the scaled-down exhibition, “Yokohama Round,” a series of public symposia, will take place during the period, inviting as panelists an anatomist and a cultural anthropologist, among other intellectuals and exhibiting artists.

The “islands” and “constellations” in the title may refer to the exhibition’s layout, as Akiko Miki, one of the three artistic directors, suggests in her statement: “An aggregation of small solo exhibitions by a smaller-than-usual number of carefully selected artists, with many of them showing multiple works.” The two other directors, Eriko Osaka and Tomoh Kashiwagi — both from the Yokohama Museum of Art, a city-run institution serving as the main venue of the Triennial — emphasize the exhibition’s mission to raise public awareness of the role that Yokohama played in Japan’s history of modernization. To be seen will be to what extent this mainly public-funded exhibition can be both local-oriented and international.

by Satoru Nagoya

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Game State /

In Praise of Clunk

When the Western video games press gave The Last Guardian (2016) a set of disappointing critiques, they did so with reluctance. While harsh reviews of Japanese games are commonplace in the West, the creator of The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda, had long been treated favorably. His previous two games (Ico, 2001, and Shadow of the Colossus, 2005) are considered masterpieces and are fixtures in “Are Games Art?” debates.

The Last Guardian seemed to suffer from the very thing that Western audiences most commonly complain about when it comes to Japanese games — a potentially enjoyable experience is undermined by an unforgivably clunky control scheme. They couldn’t handle the clunk.

What gets dismissed as “clunky controls” is often, in fact, a very deliberate design choice, purposefully intended to create certain player limitations. The Last Guardian has you assume control of a young boy who, in turn, is attempting to control a huge beast named Trico. The pair must work together to navigate a series of relatively simple environmental puzzles. Simple, that is, by the standards of modern puzzle-platformers, but made maddeningly frustrating by the limitations imposed on you.

The boy is small, slow and weak, and the monster is big, uncooperative and occasionally straight-up disobedient — as little boys and big monsters tend to be. Communication between the two develops and improves throughout the game but never advances beyond the painfully rudimentary. You gradually develop an understanding of what each button might be intended for, but you rarely see the the desired effect performed accurately. Press square to tell Trico to sit, and he just might. Call him over with the triangle button and, should he not cooperate, try again. Perhaps he’ll be more compliant on the third or fourth attempt.

Every chasm to cross, every collapsed Corinthian column to climb comes with the caveat that you can see what must be done, but the tool required to do it is unresponsive and unreliable, echoing Bernard Suits’s definition of a game: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Herein lies both the fundamental challenge of the game and the very reason it is compelling — this is where the emotional payoff is won. It is precisely because Trico is uncooperative that he is, in pure video game terms, an interesting AI companion. The emotional bond the player forges with the beast is created by these mechanical impositions. Were Trico an obedient and compliant companion, he would mean as little to the player as the buttons on the controller — just another facet of play that fades into the background.

Modern Western players hate clunk, but clunk, it seems, is rather hard to define. Complaints of clunkiness pertain variously to player input, avatar movement and camera handling. At its worst it can break a game; at best it is something the player must come to terms with. But an unintuitive user interface that fosters deliberate play choices is not simply employed for frustration’s own sake. More often than not, there is a ludic logic behind the imprecise jumps and drifting cameras.

“Clunky controls” can be found in Japanese third-person combat and action games, such as the wildly popular Monster Hunter series and FromSoftware’s successful Souls series. The player’s avatar will perform brief wind-up and cool-down animations for each button command. As short as they are (milliseconds), the player is locked into the animation until it ends. The purpose of this is to encourage the player to learn specific move sets and to punish “button mashing.” Frantically pressing buttons becomes like quicksand, as the resulting animation for each incorrect input further removes you from your desired movements. In short, one must know precisely what each button does and when to press it.

The opposite of clunky is smooth, fluid and “clicky” — exemplified in the control schemes of first-person shooters. Crosshairs almost snap into place. It’s a bit like having autocorrect applied to your movements, making invisible the actual device one uses to engage and participate in the game. The idea is that as we untether ourselves more and more from complicated control schemes, we come closer to a meaningful sense of immersion in the game space. It’s an exercise in Apple-ism: making the user interface seamless and invisible.

Why are the Japanese so comfortable playing what the West derides as “broken games”? In part this can be traced back to the fact that the first-person shooter genre was born on the PC in the early 1990s, and would later migrate to home consoles. PC gaming was largely absent in Japan; first-person shooters never took root, and so neither did the associated demands of how they should feel to play. This is compounded by the pronounced absence of firearms in Japanese culture, with the result being that Western first-person shooters are seen as childishly simplistic and are mockingly referred to as “face clickers.”

The Japanese game industry has pretty much given up on trying to court the West, so nowadays they mainly make games for the domestic market. “Clunky controls” isn’t even a thing there. It is merely another mechanic at the designer’s disposal, a tool to be used as creatively as any other. Meanwhile, the standardization, across all genres, of the Western first-person shooter control scheme is intended to make all games feel the same. Everything in its place. Everything “clicky.” It’s the same expectation we bring to a room at a Holiday Inn or a can of Coke — to be procedurally forgotten while it is experienced.

The personality of a game can be found where it keeps its buttons. Ueda’s use of unresponsive controls and awkward camera angles differs in implementation from the forced lag and brief character animations found in Monster Hunter. But the intention is the same. One must adopt a “lusory attitude,” as, again, Bernard Suits put it, not only toward the rules of play, but also the means with which the experience of play is facilitated. This too is a part of play.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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News /

South as a State of Mind / Documenta 14

Founded in 2012, South as a State of Mind is a biannual publication overseen by Marina Fokidis’ Kunsthalle Athena. After publishing five editions between 2012 and 2014, the three most recent issues have served as journals intended to accompany Documenta 14, defining and framing the aims and concerns of the exhibition.

Described as a “manifestation” of Documenta, rather than a discursive lens through which to view the exhibition’s topics, the three editions have nevertheless adopted the publication’s preexisting and politicized aims, just as Fokidis herself has transitioned into the role of a key curatorial advisor to the exhibition.

The title derives from an ambition to question the stereotypes of “the South” which, as the editors put it, “contaminate the prevailing culture with ideas that derive from southern mythologies” such as temperate climate, corruption and general chaos. The publication sets out to suggest that, rather than existing as a series of physical locations, “South” is in fact a state of mind. Its central hypothesis renders it an apt mouthpiece for Documenta, at the same time raising the question of whether the exhibition was drawn to the region out of curiosity regarding the South.

In its tome-like form, South as a State of Mind employs a variety of paper stocks, while maintaining a consistency of design across the editions that mirrors the approach of all Documenta communications. Yet its content is more striking, comprising diverse and quixotic writings alongside artistic projects. The third Documenta edition focuses on the notion of language as necessity, alongside consumption and hunger as political and aesthetic fields. These include a heartbreaking account by Neni Panourgia of the famine that gripped Greece during and following the Second World War, punctuated by contemporaneous illustrations, and concluding with a description of contemporary Greek poverty; Ross Birrell’s photo series depicting the artist tossing philosophical texts into bodies of water, embodying an “Angel of Post-History”; as well as a fascinating interview with Guatemalan composer and sound artist Joaquín Orellana, who has recently presented his Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo (Symphony from the Third World) at Documenta, a work that reflects the atrocities committed in Guatemala by the counterinsurgency against indigenous and mixed-race populations.

As Documenta 14 unfolds, these and other publications will represent an increasingly important body of archival material reflecting on attendees’ discussions. They serve to inspire further dialogue as this whirling discourse begins to solidify.

by Andrew Spyrou

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Review /

Seven Sisters Kasia Michalski Gallery / Warsaw

The uncanny intimacy and sensuality of the exhibition “Seven Sisters” reflects a narrative rooted in womanhood, the need to construct one’s personal space for creation, and the constant battle for control over one’s own life. The show presents the works of six female artists, most of them born in the 1970s and 1980s.

The inspiration behind the exhibition is the “black protest” — a nationwide strike, led by women, which took place across Poland in October 2016. Tens of thousands of people dressed all in black carried black umbrellas to show their stance against antiabortion legislation. Curator Martha Kirszenbaum makes reference to this position of opposition — defending the basic right to control one’s own body — while focusing on pieces that also reflect on the physicality and beauty of the female body.

The repetition of a single theme — the mouth — makes itself apparent in the erotic alabaster sculpture Queen (2016) by Nevine Mahmoud, alongside Liz Craft’s Ashtray Table (2014), in which the latter plays with aspects of form and function. In Barbara Leoniak’s Metamorphosis (2017), two heads connected by a single swanlike neck suggest a phallus. The most dominant work in the show is Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili’s installation, which comprises a Woolfian “room of one’s own” delineated by semi-sheer cotton curtains imprinted with abstract patterns. In the room stands her analog selfie, titled Monitor 1 (2016) — whose sensuality is heightened by visible fingerprints.

The selection of formal works is consummated by a projected work by French artist Mélanie Matranga. Her video You (2016) refers to the cinematic aesthetics of the New Wave, formulating an account of the emotional perplexities of four young characters involved with one another across a range of sexual configurations. The message regarding the right to decide what one does with one’s body and sexuality is one of the essences of this work, reinforcing the overarching premise of the entire show.

by Agnieszka Sural

(Translated from Polish by Agnes Monod-Gayraud)
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On Art and Surfing / Malibu

The Depart Foundation — a West Hollywood-via-Rome nonprofit — opens their current show even further to the west, in a former Banana Republic storefront in the high-end Malibu Village shopping center. The forty-six-artist exhibition is called “Sea Sick in Paradise,” and it’s curated by artist and surfer Amy Yao.

All the classic surfer signifiers are there: a barrel wave pavilion by Matthew Lutz-Kinoy (who is in something called the Horny Surf Club with Yao), documentary photos, boards aplenty, a sandy mattress by Samantha Jane Clark, beachcombed trash, environmentalist expressions, and loads of work by surf-art legends and insiders like Barry McGee, Billy Al Bengston, Jeff Ho and Alex Knost.

Yao’s personal surfing history gives the show that clique-y vibe — and it’s common knowledge that surfers don’t take well to outsiders. But there are plenty of entry points here, due in part to the humor and excitement implicit in surfing, and partly owing to the curation itself.

The show is reminiscent of “Swell,” a three-gallery exhibition held at Petzel, Nyehous and Metro Pictures in New York in 2010, but “Sea Sick” diverges from that in a few significant ways. For one, it isn’t exclusively populated by works from “artists who surf,” nor by “surfers who make art,” but by a unique fusion of both. Most striking, however, is the pointed emphasis on gender and race; the show includes voices not often heard in surf culture, let alone in art that has to do with surfing.

The exhibition can sparkle at times because of this: a video by Eve Fowler and Mariah Garnett looks at surfers who identify as lesbians in the context of a hyper-hetero beach scene; a painting by Cristine Blanco vibrantly depicts cool surfer girls draped on a car (Blanco is a surf instructor and makes flyer art for Bay Area collective Brown Girl Surf); and Hawaii-born artist Sarah McMenimen sources flotsam from her uncle — the former keeper of Mauna Kea, who was exiled near Parker Ranch in the 1980s — and hangs it on mic stands.

Like McMenimen’s sculptures, “Sea Sick” happily jumbles together overlooked treasures and gives them the amplification they deserve.

by Maxwell Williams

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Review /

Tobias Kaspar kim? Contemporary Art Centre / Riga

What is Anna Karenina? A depiction of a Freudian woman? A complex, realist work of fiction that excites the imagination? Tobias Kaspar sculpts a manifold portrait of Anna Karenina in his solo show at the kim? Contemporary Art Centre.

At first, the exhibition seems to be about about everything but her. An old pair of boots suggesting a nineteenth-century worker’s footwear, filled with bronze and cut into two pieces, meets the visitor at the entrance. A pile of clothes hangs over a chair back. Bottles, coffee cups, discarded wrappers and other small, insignificant objects are strewn on a rug on the floor. A refrigerator is partially encased in flowers. These and other objects, amid wall works and signage, create a curious spatial world. The photographs on the walls attract particular attention. Shot in Riga and Rome, they depict empty tennis courts, accompanied by random associative sentences taken up from the novel and written in three languages — Latvian, English and Russian. For example: “We have two women always specially kept for washing small things, and the clothes are all done with a machine” and “All the surplus value is taken away by the capitalists.”

Here Anna Karenina is about our obsession with the organization of commodities — about wearing, being, associating, belonging to a certain symbiosis of goods. And that is exactly what the nineteenth century has in common with the twenty-first century. These are objects that we can carry with us wherever we go; they don’t belong to a particular place, but makes us feel connected to a certain world. The dialogue and subtle resonance presented by Kaspar’s work through the aloofness of objects delivers an almost cinematographic presence, similar to the one that Tolstoy captured as well. Yet it also keeps the viewer wondering whether a hidden critique is embedded within — or is it just a form of affirmation?

by Maija Rudovska

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