Ma: The Structure of Space

In his book ‘Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media’, Noam Elcott describes the history of ‘Artificial Darkness’ at it relates to several novel technologies of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Elcott describes the technology behind the use of dark spaces and voids as an apparatus or dispositif of techniques which changed the way people interacted with Art. Elcott in particular focuses on the idea of Artificial Darkness as a void instead of another version of the color black.  This focus on the ‘Void’ as a technological innovation offers numerous insights into the evolution of photography and cinema as well as theatre, performance and the relationship to the viewer.[1] Thinking of artificial darkness as a void instead of the color black served as a useful perspective in terms of the changing relationships of science, philosophy and art, but it overlooks one apparatus of the dispositif of artificial darkness that is always encompassing the void, it discounts the idea of a frame of space.  There can be no ‘Artificial Darkness’ without some frame around it which separates it from the viewer. Consider the void framing Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography; Wagner’s darkened theater with its missing orchestra still framed by his double proscenium; and Georges Méliès dark art cinema still framed in film and sometimes musical scores. Even Oskar Schlemmer’s cubic abstract stage was framed within the envelope defining its edge. A void, even a framed void is nothingness, except when it is not. My argument and one that others even Schlemmer have grasped is that the frame of the void creates a tension and structure defined by its shape and properties.  In his book ‘Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye’, Rudolf Arnheim wrote, “A visual figure such as a square is empty and not empty at the same time.  Its center is part of a complex hidden structure, which we can explore much as we use iron filings to explore the lines of force in a magnetic field… The picture plus the hidden structure induced by it is more than a lattice of lines.  The percept is really a continuous field of forces… These ridges are the center of attractive and repulsive forces, whose influence extends through their surroundings, inside and outside the boundaries of the figure.”…”’Dead center’ is not dead… it is still but loaded with energy.” [2] This concept of hidden forces and structures strikingly aligns with Schlemmer’s concept of the ‘abstract stage’ ‘Tansermensch‘ (human dancer) and ‘auratic flow’ (Fluidium).

There are other similarities in principle to this concept of ‘invisible structure’, in particular the concept of dynamic symmetry as it was “rediscovered” by Jay Hambidge at the same time the Bauhaus was forming in 1919.  Hambidge published a magazine called “The Diagonal” in which he illustrated examples of a compositional theory based on what he believed was the use rectangular proportions by the Greeks, he believed the use of geometry and proportion could lead to a more dynamic symmetry in art.  He published his theories over several years in ‘The Diagonal’ and later in several books. The general structures of Hambidge’s compositional rules were very similar to the geometry and grid structures of compositions created in De Stijl and the Bauhaus school. Hambidge was a neoclassicist and very conservative in his aesthetics; He was no fan of the avant garde, which makes it unlikely that his theory or its application to Greek art carried much weight with modern artists in Europe either.  The two systems must have evolved from some precursor which split at some point to influence two different artistic ideals, Hambidge’s Greek inspired aesthetic and the abstract forms of the avant garde aesthetic in Europe.

At the time Hambidge formed his theories on dynamic symmetry he was also conducting research on the measurement of the human figure at the Harvard Medical School.  Hambidge wrote in first sentence of the forward for the first issue of ‘The Diagonal’, “The basic principles underlying the greatest art so far produced in the world, may be found in the proportions of the human figure and in the growing plant.” [3]  Schlemmer, like many who worked at Bauhaus, was also interested in human proportions as a basis for his choreography, stage and costume design.  Whatever, the source of similar ideas might be, Hambidge’s two dimensional dynamic symmetry, the geometric framework of Schlemmer’s abstract stage and the bauhaus ideal of ‘Der Mensch’ bare a striking resemblance to one another.

The idea of invisible structure from shape and proportion was not discovered by Hambidge, Schlemmer or any philosopher of the 19th century.  Eastern philosophy has understood the concept since at least the time of Lao Tzu (601 BC). Lao Tzu wrote, “Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the wheel.  Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space within it is the essence of the pot. Walls with windows and doors form the house, but the empty space within it is the essence of the home.” [4] In Japan they call this idea ‘Ma’ which translates to english as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts.” More than just space however ma includes both space and time.  Hambidge and Schlemmer’s theories of space, choreography, geometry and composition can be united under the concept of ma. Referring back to Noam Elcott’s dispositif of artificial darkness it is possible to relate the apparatus of darkness, void, space and composition to ma.  In his essay ‘The skin of culture’, Derrick de Kerckhove describes ma as “the complex network of relationships between people and objects”. [5]  This can be taken further to describe my historical approach.  I’m looking to find the connections, the ma, the hidden spatial aesthetic structure which connects ideas like Hambidge’s dynamic symmetry with Schlemmer’s ‘abstract stage’ and ‘auratic flow’.  It lies somewhere in the way we perceive within a frame and our attention to proportion in composition.


[1] ‘Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media’, Noam Elcott (2016), The University of Chicago Press.
[2] ‘Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye’, Rudolf Arnheim (1954). The University of California Press.
[3]’The Diagonal’ volume 1, Jay Hambidge, 1920, Harvard University Press.
[4]’A pot is useful for its emptiness’ ‘Tao Te Ching’, Lao Tzu
[5]”The Skin of Culture,” in “Marshall McLuhan: Theoretical elaboration”, Derrick de Kerckhove , Volume 2, Taylor & Francis 2005. p 157.


Examples in VR:  Playing with abstraction of forms in ‘Abstract space’ and ‘2d Composition’


Engaging Complexity and Resisting Marginalization

How do we tell histories and how does that telling do justice, or injustice to the subjects of that history? This question is at the core of all three readings this week. Each reading looks at games, particularly telling a history of games, through the lens of the marginalized. Nooney’s “odd” history of Softporn surfaces the debate on “technology, obscenity, and equality in early game and computer culture,” highlighting the ways in which games are “socially embedded, politically fraught, brittle in its appeal to scientific objectivity”.  Steyerl’s questioning of the “correlation game” that artists are constantly forced to play foregrounds the problematic nature of games-turned-algorithms that result in a simplification of actions and how we determine what is fundamentally human. Street’s exploration of historical methodologies that do the subject of queerness and cross-gender digital play justice, focuses on the potentially damaging consequences of traditional approaches to history that tend to further marginalize already marginalized communities. What does it mean when a commercially-distributed pornographic game forces us to negotiate our social values and computation? What power does an artist, or any of us, have when who we are is determined by game-algorithms that are built on assumptions of homophily and an opaque system of participation and calculation? What does is mean when we attempt to force collections of personal experiences into nice, neat “digestible narratives”? Perhaps different methods are warranted if we are to embrace the messiness and complexity, instead of attempting to force it all into organized, discrete neatness.

There is also an important distinction between the way history is activated in the readings. In Nooney’s case, the history of games is told from the fringe. This moves the center to the periphery and demonstrates the ways in which the edge impacts the center and whole. Steverl highlights how past behavior feeds into game-algorithms in a way that is reductive and is accumulated such that we (particularly the creative) are forced to play and bound by its hidden logics. Street, on the other hand, is really questioning the methods by which we construct histories of marginalized communities.

These readers have made me wonder, how to we approach history in a way that doesn’t “flatten” the human experience? doesn’t “privilege some voices over others”? doesn’t abstract or simplify the real in a way that removes the messiness of what it means to be human?

Gaming Crapstraction: Alternative histories and generating new realities.

Three divergent articles on games history add up to three different approaches with similar results.  In each article the author proposes a counter history to the standard narrative or in the case of “Queering Games History” by Zoya Street and alternate approach to describing that history.  All three approaches result in writing new narratives which border on creating reality.

In “Queering Games History” Street, voices some mistrust in the idea of claiming knowledge of someone else’s history as a form of “expertise”.  Street prefers instead to look at oral histories as told by individuals who played games and without asking the specific question studies patterns, such as gender play, which arise in each player’s narrative.  As someone who has some experience with this topic in the form of role playing and character creation in virtual worlds, I appreciate where Street is coming from. In my own experience gender, or species for that matter, as a representation of the player in a game are a dubious metric for history without some narrative by the player to discuss their own “reality”.  In my past experiences, I’ve been a cat, a troll, a woman stuck in limbo, a dead cow skeleton and numerous other genders, species, objects and things all within the context of role playing my “self” to others in a virtual world. None of these characters was intended as some representation of my sexuality, more they were intended as a representation of my “id”, each containing some secret about me which I wanted someone else to discover.  If I were to write a book about my experience or the experience of my friends who each explored their own avatar sense of self, every character’s story might be different, and so, like Street, I am leery of “expertise” when it comes to writing about game history without player’s testimonies as a foundation for exploration. As we’ve seen in other histories like Rankin’s ‘A People’s History of Computing in the United States’, subjectively assuming some connection between one cause and some ‘perceived’ effect without exploring the individual accounts of the people involved is perilous at best and can border on malpractice as perceived by others given some counter narrative.

Cause and effect seems to be the underlying theme of Hito Steyerl’s ‘On Games, or, Can Art Workers Think?”.  Steyerl explores the history of game theory (cause) as it relates to numerous products of game theory in the real world (effect).  Quoting Turing’s ‘Imitation Game”, Steyerl discusses how game theory always relies on some generative fiction with multiple assumptions about the players.  These assumptions when applied in the real world break the model and create some unplanned side effect for players and people on the sidelines as well. For example, assumptions about perfect markets leads to models which don’t correlate with real world human behavior leading to economic collapse in 2008.  According to Steyerl, the old scientific method where models rely on cause and effect has been replaced by a new method where data correlation is all that is needed. You like your friends, many of them like product X so since you like them you must like product X.  Nevermind that you don’t even know what product X is, the model holds “true enough” with enough data and large abstractions can be painted with a very broad brush, sure the details blur away into crapstraction, but everybody likes it.  Look at all those thumbs up. I found myself decidedly convinced by Steyerl’s arguments and methods, particularly the discussion on CAPTCHA and its evolution to the “Check the box to confirm you are not a robot” model, which uses a model of your online behavior measured against its model of human behavior. This “Game” has real world implications in that we lose the choice or representation by our own narrative (Street’s Queering Histories) and are replaced by a representation of us as a ‘model’ human.  Once we are replaced by model ‘gamed’ behavior, our real world becomes altered to expect that behavior and we must conform to the model. Historical cause and effect becomes correlation and consent, what could possibly go wrong? Steyerl does offer some hope for redemption coming from the world of art. Steyerl believes that we can put the games into ‘museums’ where we can admire their ‘beauty’ but walk away from it as we leave the ‘sandbox’ of art. The idea has merit, I found myself wondering how this might happen in the real world.  These models were originally created to be lab representations for simulations, but eventually they jumped across the firewall to become the package that wraps each user with its own inputs and outputs. I wonder if it’s even possible to put the ‘art’ back in the ‘museum’.

Finally, Laine Nooney’s oddball of eroticism, “The Odd History of the First Erotic Computer Game”.  As someone flipping through computer catalogs and playing on the systems Nooney discusses in her article I found myself wondering about the adjective ‘Odd’.  Nooney’s history does not read as out of the ordinary as it relates the history of Softporn the first erotic computer game.  I worked with and know many programmers who created their own games and applications in the 1980’s as well as starting their own business, and Nooney’s history reads, based on my experience, as anything but odd or out of the ordinary.  It does deviate from the general white male genius narrative typical of most histories of the time, and it seems to shed light on some interesting tracks for alternate histories in its discussion of user comments on the use of erotic ads in ‘Softalk’.  Nooney weaves a narrative of subjectivity, with her reference to the environment in which Softporn was marketed and received by ‘typical’ computer users of the time.  The software in question could have been replaced by a Spanish language learning software with little to no editing and Nooney’s description would be similar.  True, the ads for Softporn and other erotic games were more risque than typical software ads but compared to movie posters or J.C.Penny catalogs they seem relatively normal and tame, if not lame.  Nooney argues that Softporn represents a focal point to discern where possible histories might have evolved differently.  In this I agree, but her argument stands on the assumption that things evolved one way or the other for a reason that relates to computing as a space for communication.  That it was a space where people argued feminist ideals with little or no fear of repercussion while now they are violently attacked for discussing inequity or presumed non-native.  The problem with this history is there is no cause of effect underlying Nooney’s argument. What she says is true in the sense that it relates to the state of computer games as a space.  If the space was different in the 80s then how did we get here? If Softporn and other erotic computer games are not “the distillation of computing’s misogynist kernel” then what do they represent?  Pointing to a difference in one small part of a larger space does not equate to an alternate history of the entire space.

I’d like to see more discussion on the idea of putting ‘Game Theory’ into a museum and how that might play out.  It strikes me as similar to trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Playing with the notion that we exist in a ‘Possible Reality’ that exists because of the the way things ‘played out’ in some simulation of history.  How do we extract game theory from our reality and place it back in the museum (Steyerl’s argument)? How do we change the ‘Mysogenist Kernal’ reality and alter it to be more inclusive of the ‘Real’ history of computing (Nooney’s argument) ? How do we conduct a history of games or any other history in a way that includes the narrative and voices of the people who’s history we are trying to record?  How do we describe history from our perspective without ‘whitewashing’, ‘gender neutralizing’, ‘stereotyping’ or otherwise subjectifying the topic to the point of exclusion?

Video Games and Community

The gaming articles this week present different methodologies that look at marginalized communities, erotic computer games, to even the nature of creatives thinking in the gaming process. Nooney’s article focuses on the text-based game Softporn the first commercially released pornographic game in America(2). The historical approach begins with considering the impact of the game on American culture from how much it gained in sells to who was playing Softporn. What was most impactful from the analysis was the detail on the analysis game interface, from the picture provided to the description provided by Nooney, show how the information conveyed through the text-based interface presented a game form that wanted feedback from players. What the creation of Softporn illustrated was misogynistic ideology and demonstrated the need for more women in the computation to have the ability to join these conversations. Zoya Street’s paper pushes this concept of the gaming community and queer voices. Street provides a detailed analysis of gender play in games by implemented by an ethnographic and qualitative approach. They state, “Historical knowledge has its performativity, and maybe it’s possible to play with that creatively, to embrace the fluidity of our role in its constant social construction” (41). The statement shows that historical narratives with queer identities are an essential part of understanding how individuals perform in the gaming community.
In contrast, Hito Steyerl work focuses on the question “can creatives think?” The paper is interested in if gamers are in a sense performing free labor for companies and stifling their creativity through this action. Steyerl uses the concept of imitation games created by Alan Turing as a method of understanding the logic and formation of games. Steyerl presents several case studies that consider how technology differentiates the human from being a robot and how that relates to creativity among the medium. Each of these approaches on the concept of gaming has led me to consider the broader questions on the role of inclusivity and diversity among the field of computing, but what does it mean to perform as a robot. From reading these essays, reminded me of the game studies research done by Professor Kishonna Gray. Gray’s work looks at gaming platforms like Twitch to consider how Black gamers perform in that space and how many have to face constant questioning of their skills due to race. The research has led to a larger question on has platforms like Twitch allowed more marginalized voices to be heard or are perspectives still missing?

This week on video games

This week’s articles cover a wide range of ground from gaming implication, to the experimental erotic game to queer studies. The writers fine-tune their writing style to fit the content respectively to inquiry the effect brought by the gamification of much online application, the making process of softporn game in the 1980s, and

Steyerl’s On Games explores some of the fascinating nature of game design into a social context. She examines gaming behaviors and game design as if she was an outsider. Although the article is mostly about games and artwork rather than media, Steyerl dives into the discussion of social context with an emphasize to illustrate the inevitable fate we have into our near future. She frequently got derailed to discuss the technical aspects of the games instead of thinking profoundly on the reasons behind Chinese online payment service or the necessities of the online data training website.

Most of her viewpoints came from an artist’s mindset that how could the meaning of lives be improved through entrainment. The war is wrong, but the dedication and sacrifice by the people and the soldiers were not something that the game could replace. Nor could the online gamification of the CAPTCHA was just an identity game that resembles the Turing game to her as it is massively hard to collect trained dataset for machine learning. I am afraid I certainly have to disagree with her comparison between gaming labor in China to a robot, and the example of a socialized new equation to measure people’s credit score. Nor do I agree with the newly founded evidence that human’s decision is complex. There are great sandbox games made already to accommodate the fact that people’s reasoning is not linear. The behavior-cause reasoning that has played an essential role in her essay was too simple to be validated. From my perspective, the real question is how to create meaningful moments through games and to motivate people to engage in their real lives.

I also paid much attention to Nooney’s article that it deserved the “first” as an erotic computer game. Looking closely into the details, I found that the game did not feature any graphics or sound with the sole motivation was the plot and the wording. However, it was amazing to think that during a time when most people’s focus to use the computers was to do work, an initial programming exercise by an engineer would generate eventually a much diversified collection of gaming. The game itself, as described in the article, was not “innovative on the text game,” but the game was creative from its narrative perspective. However, the lines were not either exciting. It is safe to argue, after reading this article, that a brand new sensory stimulation could attract attention that may be unproportional to its quality.
“While Softporn seemingly affirms every long-suffering trope gaming has to offer—its latent misogyny, its middling cultural stakes, its limp internal humor—it was also developed under shifting social and spatial constraints within an emerging populist computer culture. “
It is worthwhile to notice that some of our current experience with VR or AV is not so perfect, but the tremendous attention has both accelerated the development and application of such media. One friend recently told me that the initial implementation of VR might happen in the news or the adult industry because these are the fields where people had the most desire. Moreover, I had also found that the mature-rated content had already been legalized before the Softporn game came out. What is the reason why this game did not come out earlier than it actually did?

Steyerl, Nooney, and Street’s Histories

The three articles, “The Odd History of the First Erotic Computer Game,” by Laine Nooney; “On Games,”  by Hito Steyerl; and “Queering Games History,” by Zoya Street; each propose, implicitly or explicitly, radically different, yet not incompatible, answers to the question, “What is a game and what does a history of one look like?”

On its surface, the article by Nooney, written for The Atlantic, takes the most straightforward approach. Its subject is a particular piece of software, Chuck Benton’s 1981 Softporn. Its frame of reference is bounded by its sources: a contemporary Time magazine article which prominently featured the game’s famous box art, letters written to the computing magazine Softalk in protest of its inclusion of the same advertisement, a “handful” of extant alternative photos from the shoot—each allegedly less enthusiastic than the last. Nooney uses these references as evidence for building a case that “the dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate happened within a microcomputing and gaming community itself.” In itself this is a standard historical strategy; but within the context of games historiography it represents a profound movement away from histories which—out of the very same misguided assumption of computer culture’s heterogeneity which Nooney characterizes as being “exposed” by the discourse around Softporn—tend to view (computer) games either as disposable products of mass culture, or as socially disconnected, sui generis entities.

A similar kind of complication to established narratives is found in Steyerl’s article. Here, Steyerl takes us back to the origins of what still remains a prominent understanding of the term “computer”: a machine used “to calculate possible outcomes and strategies” of the zero-sum economic and military formulations which emerged out of mathematical game theory. “For Neumann,” Steyerl writes, “the computer is, so to speak, a rational game player” (105). Thus, Steyerl’s argument runs counter to the technological determinism of history. “The point is that games are not a consequence of computers making the world more unreal. On the contrary, games made computers become real” (105). Far from being a controllable product of culture, however, what we now understand to be computational, algorithmic games, played by computers and interpreted by humans for economic and military profit, have “embedded” themselves into the very structure of developed society (106). Each of us begins to resemble that which Big Algorithm predicts each of us as resembling, based on others who resemble us. “Thus, correlation or pattern is the new model, and similarity or likeness replaces cause and effect” (108).

By way of 20th century game theory and the speculative aesthetics of the art market, Steyerl’s is a history of politics and culture as mediated through the expansion of computational capabilities, rather than a history of the computer itself. In this regard, it is more in-line than Nooney’s with what is, of these three articles, by far the most radical approach to games historiography: Street’s queer history. “Queerness,” as Street argues, “might be described as a resistance against that coercive attempt to claim knowledge of other people’s experiences” (38). Street not only distrusts experts, but the notion of expertise, of knowledge itself, in its prescriptive, “authoritarian” (41) incarnation as traditional (white, patriarchal, Western) history. The recognition of history’s own “performativity” (Street, 41) does not go untouched by either Nooney or Steyerl. Each is, in many respects, a precise, targeted, counter-historical work of “upturning knowledge” (Street, 39). But, nevertheless, neither goes so far as to claim outright opposition to the overall historical project of “trying to teach [a public] how to see their own past” (Street, 38). A counter-history, in some regard, is still a didactic history. And it’s not immediately clear how to resolve that.