Can computer games be conservation?

Exploring alternatives forms of documentation, Julia finds herself asking what constitutes simulation – and whether even a very reductive form of it might contribute to the conservation of performance art.

I was working at The Museum of Modern Art in New York – my first real job, a fellowship in the Museum Archives – during Marina Abramović’s sensational 2010 retrospective, “The Artist is Present.” The exhibition, organized by the seasoned curator (and social media influencer) Klaus Biesenbach, presented a challenge both to conventions of performance art display and to conventions of museum security. Instead of representing Abramović’s groundbreaking performances of the 1970s and ’80s only with photographs and videos, the retrospective featured live “reperformances” by a group of performers whom Abramović had personally trained. And every morning in the museum’s cavernous atrium, instead of strolling about at a leisurely pace, hundreds of visitors rushed in a frenzied crowd, hoping to be first in line to encounter the artist herself. Many of these people had waited hours, some all night, lining up in the dark along Manhattan’s west 53rd street, in order to take part in Abramović’s new performance, also titled The Artist is Present.

For this now-infamous performance, the artist simply sat in a chair, still and silent, inviting audience members to sit across from her and wordlessly link their gaze with hers. The feverish interest this performance inspired surprised and overwhelmed MoMA, which had expected that only a few people would want to take part, and which had to adapt quickly to the throngs that now appeared everyday, and the long line of hopeful participants. Since each participant was allowed to sit as long as they wished, many people waited all day and still went home disappointed when the museum closed.

When we think about the preservation of performance art – if we think about it at all – we tend to think about documentation: photography, film, video, possibly written accounts, newspaper articles. We may also consider the possibility of reperformance, a controversial attempt to make the historical live once more. But while documentation might give us a schematic understanding of the performance and its circumstances – who performed, what they did, where they did it, who was there – and reperformance proposes to reproduce at least some aspects of the original live experience, neither of these methods can tell us what it was like to really be there back then. When future historians, conservators, and museum visitors confront The Artist is Present, will they understand the centrality of the line to the experience of the work’s participants (and would-be participants)?

Still from Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011.
Still from Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011.

If they do, they might just have Pippin Barr to thank. Barr is Assistant Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montréal, and he’s also a game designer. In 2011, not long after Abramović’s exhibition closed, he released his own version of The Artist is Present, a simple Flash-based video game that allows the player to take on the role of museum visitor and to sit with (a pixelated avatar of) Marina Abramović.

Still from Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011.

The game, with its simple graphics that recall old 8-bit games like Police Quest, is not a very convincing simulation of reality. It doesn’t even attempt to render the museum’s architecture realistically, though it does include a few pixelated masterpieces of MoMA’s collection. (Plus, Barr’s MoMA charges your avatar $25 for entry, while MoMA’s tickets only cost $20 in 2010.) It can’t even hint at the intense interpersonal connections that the performance generated; this irony is part of Barr’s point. And yet, Barr’s game reproduces arguably one of the most fundamental – if unintentional – characteristics of Abramović’s piece: the line.

Still from Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011.

I myself have played the game dozens of times, and no matter how early I try to “arrive” at the “museum,” there’s always a long line of non-player characters in front of me. And the game operates in real-time, following MoMA’s opening hours, so at 5:30 P.M. EST, the virtual museum closes and your avatar might be out of luck.

Still from Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011.

And don’t get too antsy: if you start “pushing” the person in front of you (pressing the forward key while in line), your neighbor will complain, and eventually you’ll get kicked out – and have to start all over again. Likewise, if you get bored of waiting in the virtual line and wander away from your browser window, you might miss the line advancing, and lose your spot when those behind you get impatient. What might the experience of being “present” with the virtual performer be like? Can it possibly live up to the hype of the original? It probably can’t, nor can Barr intend it to. I can’t say for sure, though, as I’ve yet to make it that far in the game – but the real-life museum visitors who waited in the real line at the real MoMA didn’t know, either. In a busy, modern city like New York, people often have to decide which lines are worth waiting in, whether it be for a once-in-a-lifetime art experience, a seat in the audience of Saturday Night Live, or a slice from a famous pizza place. Conventional forms of documentation have difficulty registering these nebulous yet central aspects of the audience’s experience, which ties Abramović’s piece to the place and time of its original performance as surely as her earlier works were rooted to their historical moments. Intentionally or not, Barr has captured something fundamental about this important performance. Might there be room in the conservation of performance for games like Barr’s?

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