Are video games art? An exhibition in Germany explores just that

The late American journalist Roger Ebert once said that video games can never be art. But the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf disagrees. The German cultural institution is currently devoting an entire exhibition to video games, showing how they are increasingly integrated into contemporary visual culture.

For Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of “WORLDBUILDING: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age”, video games “are to the 21st century what films were to the 20th century and novels to the 19th century”. To support this assertion, he has selected around thirty multimedia works that elevate the world of games to the level of art. Some come from the Julia Stoschek collection and have been specially adapted for the exhibition, while others have been commissioned for the occasion.

The works presented in “WORLDBUILDING” are all very different from each other in terms of scale, scope and purpose, but also in form and function. Some, like “SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE” by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, are actual video games. In this installation, the British artist raises awareness about the life and situation of black transgender people. She challenges players to protect this marginalized community in three scenarios: the ocean, the dungeon, and the city. Visitors are equipped with a pink gun, which has the texture of a brain, to eliminate threats to the characters in the game. This is not an invitation to shoot on sight, but rather to s wondering about the (illusory) power of a firearm.

Meanwhile, Lu Yang’s “The Great Adventure of Material World” is a three-channel installation that looks, at first glance, like a classic role-playing game. Visitors are invited to embody the character of the Knight of the Material World. The goal? Complete multiple quests while fighting enemies. But, as in all the works of Lu Yang, the game is a pretext to address existentialist themes. “[W]We create various ideologies, mental states and social systems in order to rationalize and justify the material world,” explains the Chinese artist through one of their other characters, Uterus Man.

The “WORLDBUILDING” exhibition shows how visual artists use the aesthetics of video games to address questions relating to our existence through virtual worlds. And Internet users are spending more and more time on it, it seems. According to data from GWI, digital consumers now spend 6 hours and 58 minutes a day on the Internet. No doubt some of those hours are spent playing, as Hans Ulrich Obrist points out. “In 2021, 2.8 billion people – almost a third of the world’s population – played video games, making a niche hobby the biggest mass phenomenon of our time. Many people spend hours each day in a parallel world and live a multitude of different lives,” the curator said in a statement.

Art lovers will be able to discover the creations of Ed Atkins, JODI, Peggy Ahwesh, Lawrence Lek, Meriem Bennani and Cao Fei presented in “WORLDBUILDING” until December 10, 2023, at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf. The exhibition will then head to the Center Pompidou-Metz in France, from June 2023 to January 2024.

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