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Culture in simulation: Hans Ulrich Obrist on the relevance of gaming, and the art of today


The Swiss art historian, curator and amateur gamer speaks about the evolution of gaming from youthful pastime – to high art, and shares his thoughts on tech’s influence on culture.

In 2006, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, former French Minister of Culture characterized video games as cultural goods as well as "a form of artistic expression.”  Categorizing video games as “high art” allowed the industry to be granted a  tax subsidy similar to that what French cinema is entitled to, leading to the induction of three game designers — Michel Ancel, Frédérick Raynal, and Shigeru Miyamoto, into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a cultural medallion that honors contributions made towards propagating the arts.


Since they were first introduced to the world six decades ago, video games has grown around the world to become one of the biggest hobbies. According to a study conducted by DataProt, there are an estimated 3.24 billion video gamers across the world  — that’s more than a third of the world’s population who spend a significant amount of their lives in a parallel, simulated universe. And as the industry evolves alongside the millennial gamer crowd into a circuit of e-sports, live streams, influencers and the rise of a digital-native generation, video games have become one of 21st century's most defining cultural touchstones, with its influence reaching far beyond the pixelated screens of its players.

Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the ongoing exhibition “Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age” at the Julia Stoschek Collection (JSC), Düsseldorf, explores how the digital world embodies the visual language, aspirations, and norms of its physical counterpart. The show brings together over 30 artworks by artists of various backgrounds from the mid-1990s to present days in a series of single-channel videos, site-specific works, as well as immersive and interactive digital experiences. Steeped in contemporary issues pertinent to the world, the exhibition delivers a playful yet powerful statement that video games are cultural artifacts worthy of discussion. Through the show's one-and-a-half-year run until the end of 2023, each artwork will be given the chance to evolve and further develop, before it travels to the Centre Pompidou-Metz in the summer of 2023.


Artazine spoke to Obrist about the exhibition, the premise behind his curation, and how artists have inspired him in the wake of an increasingly digitized reality.



Artazine (A): What prompted you to curate this exhibition?


Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO): Video games represent a form of worldbuilding — something art has been doing forever. The creation of games offers a unique opportunity for worldbuilding: rules can be set up, surroundings, systems, and dynamics can be built and altered, new realms can emerge. As artist Ian Cheng often told me, at the heart of his art is a desire to understand what a world is. Now more than ever, the dream is to be able to possess the agency to create new worlds, not just inherit and live within existing ones.


Gaming is becoming to our time what movies were to the 20th century and what novels were to the nineteenth century. So having an exhibition that deals with the various approaches to gaming, one that will grow over time, and travel to different continents to expand in content and form feels very urgent. 


A: Are you an avid gamer yourself? What is your favorite game?


HUO: I did not grow up with games like a lot of teenagers today do. But through the research for the exhibition, the various games we were introduced to by artists, I have come to enjoy gaming a lot. I have started playing Elden Ring and the excellent games of Jenova Chen, which have won several prizes and whose game “flOw” is included in MoMA’s permanent collection. 

A: Are computer programs and games capable of conveying narratives and emotions as a physical work of art does?


HUO: Traditionally, video games were created by a small and insular group of people coming from the world of engineering and producing games with a very limited perspective. This is now changing rapidly, with many more people having access to the tools for making games. Artists are increasingly developing the technical ability to invent, design, and distribute their own games on all continents to create virtual worlds of diversity and inclusion.


Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, for example, is an amazing and hugely prolific artist, archivist and game designer whose work is centered on Black Trans people. She works with technologies such as video game design, CGI, animation and sound to document and archive Black Trans experience, creating games and spaces with and for the community. An artist like Lual Mayen creates so-called ‘serious games’ in which one is confronted — in his case — with the reality of refugee camps. Both artists as well as others shown in the exhibition and beyond, call to the viewers or players’ senses of empathy, implement and implicate them in the narratives and actions of the game.


Gaming is to our time what movies were in the 20th century, and what novels were in the nineteenth century. An exhibition that deals with the various approaches to gaming, one that will grow over time, and travel to different continents to expand in content and form feels very urgent.



A: The very technology that shapes the aesthetics in video games is also blurring the boundary between AI and humans as artists. At this point, what differentiates us from artificial intelligence?


HUO: Today, where algorithms of AI are applied in daily tasks, one can ask how the human factor is included in these kinds of processes and which role creativity and art could play in relation to them. There are thus different levels to think about the relation between AI and art. German artist Hito Steyerl once pointed out that programmers are now making invisible software algorithms visible through images. One could say that while the programmers use these images to better understand the algorithms, we need the knowledge of artists to better understand the aesthetic forms of AI. 


Rachel Rose, a video artist who thinks about the questions posed by AI, employs computer technology in the creation of her works. She also talks about the importance of decision-making in her work. For her, her artistic process does not follow a rational pattern but is done in a succession where each step builds on the next and in the end, it comes to a conclusion which is unpredictable. It is not a logical or rational succession but a process that mostly has to do with the artist’s feelings in reaction to the previous result. Rose said about her own artistic decision-making:  “It to me is distinctively different from machine learning because at each decision there’s this core feeling that comes from a human being that has to do with empathy, that has to do with communication, that has to do with questions about our own mortality that only a human could ask.”

A: Galleries and museums are increasingly playing into mixed-reality, presenting both physical and digital components, and becoming increasingly open to approaching Web3. As a curator, how does that challenge your curatorial vision? 


HUO: Ben Vickers, who started the art and technology program at the Serpentine, always said: Can we network an existing institution, or do we just need a new institution? I think the answer is both/and instead of either/or, something mixed reality projects are trying to do. Of course that raises the question of what a completely new institution from scratch for this age would look like.


John Littlewood, a pioneer of street theater, and the architect and urbanist Cedric Price — it’s very important to credit them both because very often only Cedric is named — dreamt of a space they called the Fun Palace where people in the community could come together to celebrate art, science and culture. You could choose what you wanted to do. You could watch someone else doing it. And that’s what happens at a gaming exhibition — you can learn how to play a game by watching others do it.


For the “Worldbuilding” exhibition, all artists answered a questionnaire. One of the recurring answers was the artists talking about the patches — how games are released unfinished, and then later are updated with feedback. And that of course means that an exhibition can also be in that sense unfinished, which is what I've always believed. Even with analogue shows I've done like “Cities on the Move”, or “do it”, two of my bigger group shows, the latter of which is still ongoing after 30 years. They're like analog algorithms that keep evolving and changing. I've always believed that the exhibition should grow over years and years and never be finished. So the exhibition as it is now is an interim report of our research which will continue to develop.

A: How do you think the prevalence of tech is shaping the future of art, or culture in general?


HUO: “NEW FICTION; KAWS” was KAWS’ first major solo exhibition [at the Serpentine Galleries] in London and was a collaboration with Fortnite and Acute Art, and Daniel Birnbaum. The show functioned in parallel at the gallery and online, through the game Fortnite. We have had up to ten million people per day online and a much younger audience visited the galleries. Its success shows the importance of combining both in real life and virtual experiences. After COVID-19, the digital will not go away, and this kind of combination shows a new possibility. It was also the first time a visual artist went into Fortnite after musicians like Ariana Grande and fashion designer Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga have done so. The prevalence of tech thus has the ability to reach larger and more diverse audiences — in physical spaces as well as online, precisely through their mixed reality approach. I also believe that, for example with AI, new forms of public art can emerge, whereby a work you would encounter on your commute would never be the same.



We're understanding it [games] as a medium to resist passivity, to instead resist the status quo of what the art world is, what the art usually has been.



A: History tells us that the art world is often resistant to change, and many artists may feel the same way about digitization — NFTs, AI, video games — that they have yet to be proven a worthy medium for creating art. What is your take on that?


HUO: NFTs, AI, and video games are yet to be grasped in their full potential on a larger scale. As Brathwaite-Shirley explained about the power of video games: ‘...we haven't really seen video games as a medium of art. We've often seen them as a medium of entertainment, but something that is now being explored is the idea that a piece of art can be held within a game, and a game is capable of even greater emotional impact than perhaps a film. So we've seen this as a new medium now. We're understanding it as a medium to resist passivity, to instead resist the status quo of what the art world is, what the art usually has been, to observe and to digest, and instead [of] saying this art only exists when you interact with it. And the type of art that exists is determined by your interactions and by how you treat the work.’


A: What do you hope visitors will take away from your exhibition at the JSC?


HUO: The games we present in “Worldbuilding” give players new forms of agency and create spaces of self-reflection. As Anna Anthropy writes in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (2012): “What I want from video games is a plurality of voices. I want games to come from a wider set of experiences and present a wider range of perspectives. I can imagine — you are invited to imagine with me — a world in which digital games are not manufactured for the same small audience but one in which games are authored by you and me for the benefit of our peers.” Artists contribute strongly to this plurality of voices and different perspectives by producing and distributing their own games. I hope that visitors will appreciate the immense potential of video games as an art form and, [as] with Brathwaite-Shirley, their ability to resist the status quo. The artists enable us to become immersed in a multitude of alternative realities, spanning past, present, and future, and questioning the very nature of reality. As Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” 




Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age
June 5 2022 – December 10 2023
Julia Stoschek Collection
Schanzenstraße 54
Düsseldorf, Germany