A WAR GAME THAT
YOU CANT CONTROL
Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com
[ November 26th 2001 ]
Klima, a New York artist, is using the visual
language of computer amusements to depict the
not at all amusing war in Afghanistan. As a teenager
John Klima spent his allowance at the video arcade,
plunking quarters into Donkey Kong in a relentless
quest to defeat the evil ape.
Mr. Klima, a New York artist, is playing a different
sort of game, using the visual language of computer
amusements to depict the not at all amusing war
Mr. Klima's online artwork, "The Great Game,"
is based on news events, it is among the first
Internet projects to address Sept. 11 and its
global impact in an aesthetically creative manner
rather than in a strictly documentary one. And
as digital artists finally start to produce works
inspired by the terrorist attacks and their political
aftermath, the documentary efforts may be becoming
more provocative, too: an M.I.T. professor has
a plan, which may or may not be realized, to send
a robot into Afghanistan to do the on-ground reporting
he says the Pentagon is not allowing the press
Klima's "Great Game," at www.cityarts.com/greatgame,
he has built a digital relief map of Afghanistan.
Its mountainous terrain has been rendered with
the cartoonish verisimilitude of a standard computer
"shooter" game, realistic but not real. Yet the
map is merely a blank canvas or an empty game
board. Since Oct. 7 Mr. Klima has been monitoring
daily Defense Department briefings. Each morning,
as he learns the most recent location of armed
camps, bombing runs and Taliban-held cities, he
updates the map, marking it with brightly colored
game pieces, like a military version of Monopoly.
to the site initially see the map as it was on
Oct. 7. Every minute or so, though, it automatically
advances a day, eventually arriving at the present.
Over time the digital skies fill with blue bombers,
and the green Taliban strongholds within the country's
red-limned borders vanish. More significant, the
map is in 3-D, which means that viewers, as they
witness this history unfold, can actively change
their perspective. What they cannot do is control
the action; all they can do is watch it as it
occurs. As Mr. Klima said, "You can't actually
play the game."
is no trivial pursuit, and Mr. Klima risks reducing
a flesh-and- blood conflict to a danger-free diversion.
But, he said, "The Great Game" is intended to
dramatize how the limited amount of information
flowing from the region restricts the ability
to visualize, and thus understand, what is happening
there. It appears realistic but remains unreal.
slick graphics and interactive 3-D environments
of computer games come easily to Mr. Klima after
his video-game adolescence. At 36 he is part of
the first generation of artists to grow up immersed
in an entertainment medium that with $8 billion
in annual sales is as large as the film industry.
Although game makers clamor to have their products
recognized as art, digital artists are turning
the tables by incorporating the look and feel
of games into their work.
Klima this is a natural development. From movies
based on the Lara Croft character to simulated
military exercises that resemble a round of "Doom,"
computer gaming's influence is increasingly pervasive.
"On the news last night," Mr. Klima said, "I heard
somebody referring to the state we're in now as
the endgame. The language of gaming has become
part of culture."
Mr. Klima is hardly original in applying the game
metaphor to a geopolitical hot spot. "The Great
Game" takes its title from the 19th- century struggle
between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central
Asia. The war in Afghanistan, Mr. Klima said,
"is not the first time that an empire has tried
to manage that particular corner of the world.
It's never worked in the past."
moment the war in Afghanistan is widely considered
to be a just cause, so his reminder is not likely
to be well received. Of course artists often voice
unpopular opinions, and the Internet's immediacy
may allow digital artists to express them first.
But in the weeks since Sept. 11 and the start
of the bombing, the digital equivalent of Picasso's
antiwar painting "Guernica" has yet to emerge.
Garnett, a New York artist and editor of the Newsgrist.com
new- media newsletter, said topical works have
been slow to appear on the Internet because digital
artists are still unsure what the appropriate
creative and political response should be. She
said a debate on this issue, taking place in a
number of online discussion groups, was dividing
the Internet-art community.
especially strong in Europe, advocates pacifism.
On the other hand American artists, especially
those in New York, have been so jolted by the
attacks that they are reluctant to join such a
protest. "Suddenly," Ms. Garnett said, "the locus
of geography and of cultural baggage is back after
all that utopian theorizing about the Net abolishing
Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Computing Culture
group in the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (news - web sites), is more concerned
with crossing borders. Like Mr. Klima he is disturbed
by the dearth of information from inside Afghanistan.
Without detailed news reports on military action
or first-person accounts from that nation's people,
he said, "I have no idea what's going on there."
Mr. Klima, whose new work comments on this problem,
Mr. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek- sent-me-HI-yee)
seeks to solve it. Last week he began to build
the "Afghan eXplorer," a remote-controlled robot
modeled on the Mars Pathfinder that he intends
to send into Afghanistan in January. The four-
wheeled, solar-powered gizmo will have a video
camera and a satellite- enabled Internet connection
that will transmit live images and sounds from
the foreign land. "I thought, `Why not develop
a technology that will allow me to get personal
information from Afghanistan?' " he said. "After
the Pentagon (news - web sites) clamps down a
news hold, it's as if Afghanistan is as remote
33, insisted this was no hoax. He is working with
Middle Eastern arts groups to arrange a way to
release the robot into Afghanistan. Once inside,
the robot's chest-level video screen will display
a human face, to make it more approachable. He
has enlisted Afghan students at M.I.T. to act
as translators so that he can conduct interviews
with anyone the robot meets. They will be viewable
at a Web site at compcult.media.mit .edu/afghan_x.
expecting it to get shot fairly quickly," Mr.
Csikszentmihalyi said. This is artist as social
provocateur. Even if the robot does not survive,
"its actual mission is with the military and public
opinion about war reportage," he said. "The secondary
mission is the one in Afghanistan."
it seems, is playing games, or something like
games, these days.