Reprogramming the White Cube: Video Games as Fine Art

John A. Tyson

The white cube gallery, following Brian O’Doherty, is a space “devoted to the technology of esthetics”; art institutions provide cultural cachet as well as prompt spectators to consider even the most familiar of contents in a new light (Beyond the White Cube, 15). This paper will explore the ways that the operations described by the artist and theorist have, in the last decade, been performed on video games. In 2012 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired and exhibited 14 video games. Almost simultaneously, the Smithsonian American Art Museum sent The Art of Video Games on a four-year national tour. In 2016 the Davis Museum (Wellesley, MA, USA) mounted the first retrospective exhibition of a game designer: The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer (curated by Mike Maizels). In addition to the influx of video games exhibited in museums, artworks that employ the language of video games have gained visibility and prestige. Various examples appear in MoMA’s current New Order Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century (curated by Michelle Kuo). Last month, Von ammon co, a Washington, DC gallery dedicated solely to digital art, opened with an exhibition of video-game-based works by Tabor Robak.

Due to the institutional approbation, the future of art will surely see increasing numbers of projects by artists, such as Robak and Ian Cheng, straddling artwork and game, contemplation and play. In many cases, they derive their poetics from uncoupling the (already aesthetic) visual idiom of games from competition. For example, Robak’s Xenix (2013) is a looped seven-channel video that uses real-time 3-D graphics. It juxtaposes the imagined bountiful contents of a “smart” fridge–apparently wired with 5G technology–with scenes of automatic weapons, outer space game play, and amusing descriptions of fabricated reality television programs. The smooth graphics are undercut by the mixed messages (some of the guns evoke the tools of mass shootings) and an apparent system overload, prompting a reboot that restarts the work.

Human participation is withheld in Cheng’s Emissary trilogy (2015–17) too, a series of evolving live simulations, which plays itself. While the idea of watching games being played may seem strange to some, it parallels the rising popularity of eSports. Cheng’s autonomous game-works consist of various characters, from scampering foxes to a human skeleton, that interact with a rich and haunting environment. His Bad Corgi (2017), a free app with similar graphics (winkingly referencing Queen Elizabeth I’s pets) commissioned by London’s Serpentine Gallery, does enable users to play—and to contemplate art directly on the screens of their own devices, as opposed to mediated by the white walls. Bad Corgi’s design is such that imperfection is inevitable; players fulfil the title’s implied promise, quickly racking up hugely negative perfection percentages.

By undertaking visual analysis, tracing exhibition history, and culturally contextualizing video games in the artworld, I will advance understandings of how they reprogram contemporary art. Although not always played by humans, works like Robak’s and Cheng’s have a humanistic bent: might they constitute philosophical meditations on (and with) video games?