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The New Wing

Imaginary Bang is an approximately monthly column about art shows.

The New Wing was new not in a squeaky, brand-spanking way, but new as in fledgling — new and ailing — like a fresh and crippled wing formed awkwardly under the calcium shell of the Somerset House courtyard. The festival was small. It was cramped, messy, dark and cold. Alongside spotty, bedroom teens and their raincoated parents I trudged through dark halls, moving through a pearl necklace of adjoining rooms which each held games consoles. Now Play This was a week-long event showcasing experimental and artistic game design, the festival, in its tenth year, showcased twenty-nine works of art. 

The rather inane and loosely followed theme of the exhibition was ‘liminality’. Multidisciplinary artist, Natalie Maximova, riffed off the theme most strikingly with a work of machinima, The Edge of The World (2021), in which a video game character explores the edges of an unfinished digital landscape. The artificial scenery often dropped off or reconfigured nonsensically, leaving only darkness and the sharp edges of the land, oftentimes the figure could be seen standing in entirely empty space. Whilst the player ran through this world which built and unbuilt itself, a script played which considered in rather ambiguous language the line between the real and the unreal, finding ultimately that they coexist. A couple rooms over a mass of machines mapped the humming and throbbing sounds bouncing around the room with graphic lines, one could manipulate both the sound and the image on the screen by twiddling the nobs on a controller: turn it right the machine moaned. This work by Kevin Kripper was called Abiogenesis (2023) and was created through the hacking of a vintage games console, transforming it into a sonic landscape generator which looked to simulate the early electromagnetic currents which birthed life on Earth.

Likely due to the prohibitive cost of cutting-edge game design, many of these experimental designs, like Kripper and Maximova’s, were reminiscent of the early games console. At its best the festival felt anarchist and DIY, at its worst rudimentary and backward-looking. With many notable exceptions — Kripper and Maximova being among those I enjoyed — the festival seemed burdened by the aesthetics of gaming history rather than empowered to imagine more expansively what the form could be.

Over the river, several miles further south, Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley’s exhibition The Rebirthing Room takes place in Studio Voltaire, five minutes walk from Clapham Common station. Her exhibition has received a significant amount of press, she graces the cover of ArtReview this month — I am consequently keen to see what she will do with the form. Separated from a gallery cafe only by a heavy curtain, the exhibition room is abruptly transportive. It is a vaguely maternal alien vessel under low aubergine lights, discordant elements such as a collection of shrubs, a Jesus Christ clock, towering zig-zag structural pillars, and a wig head covered in scarves, create a junkyard feel that speak to Africana, grandma’s living room, and the subconscious. On the back wall there reads a script in which Braithwaite-Shirley describes who the “space” has been designed for. The script speaks with the safety-conscious sincerity of social activism — this is a “pro-black” space, this is a “pro-trans” space, it bleeds. In the middle of the room is the console and tall screens surround. The controller is simple, the bottom left and right buttons allow you to manoeuvre, the one in the middle to shoot. And you must shoot, or the demons get you. The demons being: anxiety, fear of failure, low self-esteem, bigotry, addiction; all of which look like shrouded shapeshifting angels.

The game design harkens back to early lo-fi animation and recording technology, Braithewaite-Shirley has said to the Guardian that this was so as to allow the user to fill in the gaps, and to think more so of the content of the work than its aesthetics. I find this to be an interesting (if not perplexing) assertion seeing as there is little ambiguity to fill in, there is no real subtlety to The Rebirthing Room. And was that not, after all, the point? Her aim, seemingly, is to confront. Game designer and critic, Anna Anthropy in Rise of The Video Game Zinesters (2012) said of game design that “A painting conveys what it is like to experience the subject as an image; a game conveys what it’s like to experience the subject as a system of rules.” Braithwaite-Shirley's video games want us to consider the ways in which the artist and others like her (specifically black trans women) navigate the world, the choices she makes, the ones that we do. Consider her piece Get Home Safe (2022), which is a game in which one must help the protagonist move safely through the streets at night. In The Rebirthing Room, the confrontation inherent in the work means the sacrifice of a certain subtlety. Shooting your figurative demons with lasers is a satisfying and amusing notion, even if it is not one that I find to be particularly moving or complex. The exhibition seems however entirely unaware of the proverbial toilet paper on its shoe. The flat, therapised language used in the exhibition has all the blindfolded simplicity of a Sunday horoscope, whilst also assuming the role as gateway to your rebirth. It is in this way spectacularly camp, it lacks the ability to see its farce and insists that it is entirely serious. The Rebirthing Room remains nevertheless a much welcomed novelty, game design still a somewhat niche fine art practice. And how equally as farcical for me to complain of camp when in Clapham (of all places)! Where else can one be so? I would of course rebut that it was never really a complaint of mine to begin with. More a statement of the supremely obvious, I’m good at those.

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