This interview took place in February 2010 via email and it's part on an ongoing series written by Mathias Jansson on the seminal milestones in the history of Game Art (for additional information, check the links at the end of this entry).
In 1998, Sylvia Eckermann and Mathias Fuchs participated in the exhibition “Synreal: The Unreal Modification” (1998), curated by Konrad Becker, at Public Netbase in Austria. Their work ”Hotel Synthifornia” and modified Unreal level, is described as a mix between the interiors of Stanley Kubrick’s movie “The Shining” and the music from the Eagles's legendary song “Hotel California”.
GameScenes: How did you get involved with the exhibition? Did you have any previous connection with Public Netbase?
Sylvia Eckermann: In the 90th Public Netbase was one of the most interesting and important places for digital culture in Vienna respectively in Austria. Konrad Becker and his team were not only responsible for the very first email and web accounts of many artists and people working in the field of art, they also supported the discourse of a critical and contemporary approach to new technologies. The conferences, talks, exhibitions held by Public Netbase where always on the cutting edge of what was going on in media art and theories. So, it was the place to be – for me too.
GameScenes: Was this the first time you worked with a videogame as a medium for artistic expression?
Sylvia Eckermann: When I was invited to take part in the game art exhibition “Synreal” I was very excited. I had no clue how to use a game engine or whether it could serve as an artistic tool. I couldn’t claim for myself to have been a gamer either. And – I had never heard before that there was a comparable exhibition in Europe. I think it must have been one of the first of its kind. During this time I was working with Mathias Fuchs on audio-visual installations that had a strong link to to spatial conditions. The engagement with space has always been the very first step of my concepts for immersive, interactive environments. I immediately got trapped when I got in touch with the “world editor” of the first person shooter “Unreal”. For weeks I could hardly leave my computer and became totally‚ ’addicted’. The “indoctrinator” was Max Moswitzer who was already pretty much into the techniques of game modification. He had a very important role because most of the invited artist then had little knowledge of Computer Game Modding – but some of them are still involved in Game Art. In my earlier works of spatial electronic art and media architecture I was confronted with given qualities and conditions that for me served as frameworks. By using a Game Engine this framework went through a complete shift. The space was no longer the given starting point – it didn’t exist – instead there was a huge “something” from which I could carve out any kind of “space”. By pressing the “play” button, I – respectively my digital embodied appearance – could immediately experience the environment I had just now created. No SGI-machines, no expensive computers where needed to create a 3D-virtual world that moves with you in real-time. I worked a lot with digital images and digital video – now I had a tool to explore the 3rd dimension.
GameScenes: What is the key idea behind "Hotel Synthifornia"? The music plays obviously a crucial role in this work.
Sylvia Eckermann: At a flea market, we found an old record by accident: the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. There is this line in the song: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” – somehow that reminded me of the state I was in and the spaces I made. Spaces that only lead to other spaces but never to an exit. We decided to create a kind of Hotel – as in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Shining” – with endless corridors and rooms, elevators, staircases and a pool on the lower floor. Everything was covered with seamless textures that were reminiscent of these wallpaper ornaments of the 70th. Mathias had the idea to install an old synthesizer in each room that could be triggered and one could then listen to the characteristic tunes of each machine. So we called the Level “Hotel Synthifornia”.
GameScenes: How did the audience react to your work?
Sylvia Eckermann: Games are now acknowledged as culturally significant, generally speaking, comparable to film or television. But back in the 90ies people considered videogames as an activity for nerds or children and even today many still think that way although there is immense theoretical discourse at universities, conferences and in the public media. I still have the feeling that whenever I tell somebody that I am an artist who does art installations with the use of Game Engines people react with astonishment. Personally I think that one reasons for this is that I’m not young, I’m female and I do not fulfill their imagination of such a persona. But the main reason was that most people had no idea what I was talking about. Of cause that has changed.
GameScenes: After the “Synreal” exhibition you continued to work with videogames in works as ”FluID - arena of identities”, ”Expositur” and ”Femcity”. What did you find in games that you couldn’t find in other media?
Sylvia Eckermann: For the “Synreal” exhibition in 1998 I did my very first work with a Game Engine – I knew that there was a lot more to learn, to research and to experiment with and that I just got to know and see the tip of an iceberg. For me the possibilities seemed boundless, if you had the knowhow. At that time you had to look for the expertise in all the numerous forums in the internet and you found yourself sharing your interests with mainly young, male kids all over the world. There was something new – something you couldn’t find in books or learn in a university course – that was quite thrilling and challenging. I invested a lot of time to learn how to use and modify the “Unreal” Game Engine for my purposes. I had to broaden my skills in 3D-design and I had to understand at least a little bit of the language – which was something between C++ and Java – in order to not need to ask a programmer for every little detail. And the more I found out the more I was sure that this it is my artistic tool for the next years. I started each project with a greater library of scripts, textures, animations and characters. But as “Unreal” released new versions that were not convertible to the previous ones my libraries were not very useful. I thought that it is not a good idea to depend on the ideas of the game industry. So I bought my own Game Engine, a license of a professional application that allows me to build up my own structure. If you invest a lot of time into something you really have to think whether you stop or continue. After ten years I still use Game Engines but it is not satisfying any more to be engaged solely with the virtual world. My interests are still in space and its perception, in interactivity and immersive environments, in the real and the virtual space. But I try to work out ways where both worlds interlink and merge. One example is “The Trend Is Your Friend!” 2009 (MKL, Kunsthaus Graz, Gerald Nestler, Peter Szely, Technical University of Graz) an artistic translation of a futures trading pit where I tried to make the body and mind split visible by a horizontal membrane. People wore LED-devices on their heads and had to slip through an opening in the membrane. They could only use head movements and voice to interact with a 24 meter projection that dealt with financial markets and the idea of markets in general.
GameScenes: You have been working with videogames for a long time and thus you have a full understanding of their history and evolution in the Game Artworld. What do you think of the future for the videogame medium as an artistic tool?
Sylvia Eckermann: Meanwhile there are many universities with special courses for game design all over the world; art universities are also providing courses. There are more and more huge exhibitions dealing with Game Art and even galleries have begun showing this kind of work. There are institutions that deliver the theoretical backgrounds and – today there is a generation of fathers and mothers that have been played computer games themselves. This new media is not new anymore. It has become an inherent part of a worldwide contemporary culture called Game Art.
Text by Mathias Jansson
Link: Sylvia Eckermann
Link: Mathias Fuchs
Link: Download and play the “Hotel Synthifornia” level.