Myfanwy Ashmore Interview
2nd of April 2006
by Alistair Wallis
Given the current pre-occupation here at Little Mathletics with gaming as art (see our fur interview, and our 8-Bit Artist interview), it makes sense that her work would make its way onto the site sooner or later.
Her work from 2000, mario battle no. 1, is a hacked Super Mario Bros. ROM with all the level detail removed - "?" blocks, enemies, power ups, goals, etc. The result is, as Myfanwy puts it, is a game where:
"...there is nothing left to do but go for a walk, run, or jump around, solitary in the landscape and then you run out of time and die."
The "game" that's left is unexpectedly versatile - different players will react in different ways. The choice is there to wait, or to run, or try and find a goal, but the end result is always the same; it's a brilliant example of the user defining notions of postmodernism - that is, no two users, or readers, or viewers, will react to the "text" in the same way.
Two more were later released - mario doing time and mario is drowning, both variations on the theme. Videos of the games were intended to be shown in Dundas Square in conjunction with the Controller exhibition at Interaccess Media Arts Centre in Toronto, until the advertising board's owner, ClearChannel, threatening to pull the videos unless a release for the copyright material was granted by Nintendo. The work was replaced by Myfanwy's gameover: zombienation v1.2 - a one minute video of the"Game Over" screen from the game Zombie Nation slowly fading to black.
During the course of her career as an artist, Myfanwy has been exhibited alongside artists like Yoko Ono, Sol LeWitt, Mark Hosler of negativland and has also short listed for the prestigious K.M. Hunter award in 2003.
Little Mathletics spoke to Myfanwy about her work, her views on games as art, and her history as a gamer.
From your CV, I gather that you did your undergraduate degree in
sculpture and then went on to do your Masters in fine arts?
Sort of. Ontario College of Art wasn't degree granting then, so the only degree I have is a Masters. I have an Associate of the Ontario College of Art diploma from OCA – which is now Ontario College of Art and Design. I like to joke around that an AOCA is more letters than a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) so it must hold more legitimacy.
As well as your own work, you also work as a technician at the Ontario College of Art and Design - what does that involve?
My job involves backend server installs, backups, maintenance, configuration, upgrades blah blah blah. We use proprietary as well as open source software. Also I am involved in front end configuration stuff, as well as some teaching demos for students and faculty. I maintain 4 servers – software licensing server, authentication server, webserver, fileserver, and a lab of 25 computers running mostly high end CAD, sound and graphics software.
I'm pretty much self taught in terms of computer technologies. My first computer was a garden flower. (s)He loves me. (s)He loves me not.
Would you say there's a general theme running through your work?
If I had to commit to a general theme, I'd have to say, that I'm interested in emotional and social connections and the shortcomings of our species. Further to that, I am interested in technology and its impact on relationships.
How do we engage with these technologies on a day to day basis, the effects of these technologies on our culture and our philosophies. What do these technological objects, devices mean to us, and how can we understand them, how can we challenge them.
Do you think there's been a thematic change in your work?
When I was younger I was really caught up in ideas around normalcy. I had never felt like I had fit in – and that created a deep groove in me that took awhile to smooth out. What helped was becoming involved in the Toronto art community and finding people that I could connect with.
I care less now about fitting in – but I am still very disillusioned with societal constructions, models for living, frameworks that we're expected to live within.
Your site states that your work often begins with simple ideas that become more complex with the addition of technology; can you explain this?
My ideas are usually related to everyday experiences. If I wrote the phrase – butterfly fluttering communicates – or drew a picture of a fluttering butterfly – it would be pretty mundane. But because I'm interested in the intersection of technology and its impact on our culture – making a moth powered by motors communicating through Morse code somehow becomes much more layered in meaning, albeit disheartening.
I am interested in social phenomena in relation to technological inventions, in particular consumer grade/every day objects. This could include modular connectable devices, single moments of poetic electrical & metaphorical reciprocity, or the drain gurgling in the basement floor.
I am not only interested in the triumph in configuring a technical feat, but in the meanings that comes out of the technical, and from social interaction/interpretation.
I am interested in hacking – be it machines, objects, social conventions – in my work, I engage in reconfiguring roles, purposes, meanings and expectations, in ways that favour human intimacy, and interpersonal connections, honest moments and saccharine sublime.
You've worked with a number of different materials - is there one medium in particular you feel more comfortable with?
I am pretty uncomfortable with technology – although I am not afraid of working with it. I have some skill with it that gives me some understanding and power over it. I am uncomfortable with its pervasiveness, its ability to dis-empower, to be transparent but yet impacting.
I am formally trained in both painting and sculpture but also find them uncomfortable. I am also at odds with objects. So I guess the answer is not really.
Is the inclusion of videogame imagery in your work there for the same reasons as the stuffed rabbits - that is, as a connection to childhood?
I'm a gamer so the video games do come out of direct experiences with the games. As do the rabbits – having grown up the being the daughter of a scientist.
What is your background as a gamer?
My background in gaming - well you know, 80's teenager, bored daughter of a government scientist. I was 12 and programming hearts moving back and forth on our VIC-20 in the basement and then playing back the data tape on our stereo. Later, I spent an entire summer laying on my back playing Super Mario Bros. after having handed out over 200 resumes in a futile effort to get a summer job....unfortunately I'm way more employable now.
Do you feel that gaming is in need of artistic reinterpretation?
Not necessarily. There are some fantastic games out there, built on amazing ideas and logic. There's a lot of really innovative stuff going on in gaming. But you know, just like with movies – there are some stinkers, and I think when it's part of our culture, we have the need to critique it and engage with it.
What have you found interesting in games recently?
In terms of game-play - what I think is fun and what I think is interesting aren't necessarily the same thing.
I think that online collaborative RPGs are interesting - in that as a gameplayer, you don't have to sit in the peanut gallery anymore - but at the same time - the living room video game party isn't quite the same, even if you have a LAN party.
As for fun - okay, I really like all the Zeldas from Link to Minish Cap. I like thinking that I've figured something out - and for the most part I feel like I am doing that when I'm playing any of those. We've played a bit of Pikmin - it's kind of fun.
I thought I would really like all the Final Fantasys but I find it irritating. BloodRayne is ridiculous in terms of female representation - but gives me fuel for rants...
Do you think that we just lack the vocabulary to discuss games in a critical fashion at the moment?
I think that gaming has been and continues to be seen as low-culture. It also has a kind of geek mystique that personal computers had in the 70's and 80's. I think that it's changing though, as the generations start to get older - and bring their interests in gaming into their various places of power - in particular academia. If you look at Baudrillard, he's been talking about video games for awhile - not literally but definitely experientially and what these simulated experiences mean to culture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacrum.
Do you feel conventional games can function as art?
Yes – although I feel this question can be a bit of a trap – but I am asked it a lot. There was an assumption in a newspaper review of a recent exhibition that my games were in alongside other artists who are hacking games, and their glitches, that as artists, we are outside of the gaming world – we are not hardcore gamers, and therefore are observers critiquing from the outside.
According to the article there was some animosity around “artists hacking games” as though we didn't respect the gamers when really, it's engaging in a critique of the industry more than the gamers or collaborators of the works. It became a kind of strangely class-ist division not unlike when people reference the “general public” as though artists aren't part of the general public, moving around in the same cultural venues and mediated experiences as everyone else. It is also the mode of thinking that divides design and art at an institutional level.
Do you feel, then, that your work is, in some senses, a tribute in that you're pointing out a deeper meaning in games?
Not a tribute so much but yes, deeper meaning. There's deeper meaning available in all of our activities.
Do you think that by dexcontexualising the imagery of games, as you have in the gameover series, it legitimises the visual aspect?
Oddly, yes – it does provide a different legitimacy – but that's true of anything that you put into a gallery context.
Your trilogy of hacked Mario ROMs raise some interesting questions (as you put it “Is supermario walking through the same places as I am?”). I think, though, that the work raises different questions for each person who plays it. Was the intention for it to be left up to the individual to take their own meaning?
Absolutely – although I usually anticipate some of the reactions, meanings, interactions. So it is not a “whatever happens” scenario. There's still constructed experiences – but I am often surprised at what ends up happening.
The unpredictability is reflected in the keywords used at runme.org too:
It could, in many ways, be considered to be a list of contradictions, but it seems to fit the work perfectly - even “violence”, despite the fact that, on a superficial level, at least, nothing happens. Would you consider it violent? And do you consider the keywords appropriate?
I guess it's violent in terms of erasure – but that is not really the intention of the piece. I thought the keywords were odd initially – they seemed to lack the presence, or legitimacy that other keywords for works on there received – but as time goes on – I am realizing that it's really accessible work, and sometimes people think that reaching a wider audience translates to friendly, cute, and folkish. I'm okay with that if it means that more people will play it.
The idea of creating something that is, essentially, illegal from the start is interesting too. Do you think this is an integral part of the work?
Well, I have never been much for following rules and laws although it's not usually my intention to break them. More that I have an inherent disregard for authority, and like to question systems of behavioural control when I encounter them. I think however, making the illegal aspect of the work a primary concern is not really my battle – as a singular being – I can only comment and hope that in some way my comments are meaningful and viral.
Recently, one of my works was censored – in a public square on a large media pixel screen. There was a request for a release from Nintendo. Since I don't believe that Nintendo owns my work – or my experiences of their work – I refused to get one. Not that I thought they would give me one - but also I did not want to wake the sleeping giant. I am pretty sure they aren't aware of my games – or maybe the fact that I work at an academic institution has allowed me to dodge them somewhat gracefully.
I have some opinions on trademarks, copyright, intellectual property and cultural experiences that bleed into things I'm working on but isn't usually the driving force behind me.
The request for the release from Nintendo came from ClearChannel, though, didn't it?
Yes! Michael Alstad is the curator of Transmedia 29:59 and he is awesome. ClearChannel donates the time. apparently the city agreed to let ClearChannel have the ad space in the new public square on the condition that they provide some community space on the boards - so ads for socially conscious charities, and other things, including year01.com 's Transmedia 29:59.
And the piece gameover: zombienation v1.2 was a kind of response, directed at ClearChannel?
Yes, they killed my piece. It is a one minute death - also I thought the premise of the game played out nicely in relation to the big media taking things over in a zombie like manner.
As much as you're careful not to "wake the sleeping giant", are you curious as to what someone like Shigeru Miyamoto would think of your work?
I would hope there would be an understanding that once you create things - and it becomes part of culture and cultural icons it then belongs to everyone. I would hope that it would be seen as a huge compliment - and maybe even a little funny. But I also think that Nintendo should feel that way about the whole game modification scene and uh, it doesn't. So...
What's the aim of the piece controller?
In controller - I am a bad mother – fighting my kid for the video game controller. In the end, I give myself over to him – by giving him the control. It kind of came out of a conversation I had with a friend who is also a mother. She told me she thought I was a bit of a control freak with my kid.
I know that relationships with children change over time and when they're 2, and they tend to run out into the street traffic, you need to be able to have control over them, and it's slowly something that you let up on, as they grow. You start to say "maybe" instead of "no".
Negotiating authority with my kid is something I don't like doing – hovering on the edge of control and friendship – it's a strange place to be. I make mistakes a lot – it's very humbling. but I think a lot can be garnered from this idea – as we become more and more controlled by systems around us – we are losing our abilities to move into adulthood and people are taking less responsibility (becoming less able to?) for their actions in both local and global terms.
What is the idea behind the series that controller is part of, the loser series?
There this kind of machismo that goes along with gaming as well as sys-admin geekery. It's aggressive and conquering. But if you suck at playing games, you're a bit of a loser, you don't become empowered by the experience, at least not until you redefine it.
Is this an ongoing series?
Maybe. It depends on how much of a loser I am, and if I'm noticing it or not.
Myfanwy Ashmore's homepage can be found here.