Molleindustria: An Interview with Paolo Pedercini

I met Paolo Pedercini about three years ago when he was hired into the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon. A few semesters later, we ended up teaching together. Paolo struck me as funny, kind, sometimes irreverent–a teaching artist with the ability to make a well-placed quip that was both insightful and witty, especially so in his lilting Italian accent. Paolo was born in 1981 in Northern Italy, got his BA in Visual Arts and Multimedia Communications from Libera Accademia di Belle Arti (LABA), followed a few years later by an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He is currently an Assistant Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

 Kim Beck: Today is May 1st aka May Day aka International Workers’ Day—the perfect day to start our conversation. One of the things I like about your work is the way you weave social and political issues through your games; you champion little guys and fight back against bigger guys in the context of bright cheery color. Can you tell me how you start a new piece? Do you start with a character, a story, an issue and so on?

Paolo Pedercini: It depends, I often start from something I read. The inspiration for the McDonald’s videogame came mainly from Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of The Cattle Culture, by Jeremy Rifkin, and I decided to work on “Unmanned” after I read the P.W. Singer’s, Wired for War. Sometimes I see a game-like mechanic as the basis of certain issues, sometimes I want to make a complex topic more accessible, sometimes I just want to say something and the media I’m most comfortable with are video games.

KB: We tried to have this conversation in person a couple weeks ago and when we were supposed to meet, neither of us could find the other and then I tried to text you but realized my phone had somehow deleted your number, so I sent a text which went as a weird MMS to your email, which came up as a mysterious number. In short, we had a communication glitch. What role do glitches play in your games, if any?

PP: When I started Molleindustria around 2003, most artists working with video games were embracing glitch aesthetics. I’m talking about JODI, Retroyou, Julian Oliver or Brody Condon, among the others, who radically modified the code of commercial games in order to turn them into abstract, generative artworks. Their concerns were mostly formal: they were attacking the polished three-dimensional surface of 3D games, breaking the immersion and revealing the ‘raw matter’ of the medium–code, meshes, bounding boxes–a process conceptually not too dissimilar from Lucio Fontana’s or Gordon Matta Clark’s for instance.

Now the glitch is becoming more like a visual style, or a narrative device to break the ‘fourth wall’ of digital media: you show a glitch to announce a jump to a meta-narrative level. While I’ve never been interested in glitch as a visual or sonic motif, I often end up making games that betray players’ expectations, games that appear mechanically broken, precisely to produce a suspension of disbelief and force players to confront these artifacts critically.

KB: Who are some artists you like especially at the moment or previously? Artists working with video games or otherwise…?

PP: There are very interesting game makers working outside both the industry and the fine art world, and they are unfortunately mostly known within certain indie gaming circles: Richard Hofmeier, Porpentine, Lucas Pope, Anna Anthropy, Lea Schoenfelder, to name a few.

Gaming aside, I really like Mike Merrill’s project of becoming a publicly traded person, and the hacktivist projects by Paolo Cirio and Julian Oliver. Trevor Paglen, Jill Magid and Voina are still among my favorites, without mentioning my colleagues at CMU.

KB: It’s been a busy semester this spring: teaching, meetings and also all the other stuff we do as artists and teachers and humans. How does all that stuff figure into your work, if it does?

PP: As a rule, I never complain about being a full time professor: we have plenty of time to pursue our own projects. I know it’s a cliche but teaching in an art school is extremely inspiring. We get to work with some of the brightest minds around and are also forced to formalize and continuously reconsider our knowledge. I am also compelled to stay up to date with current critical discourse and technical tools to work within this fairly youth-oriented and technology-centered field.

KB: I find it tricky to switch from the mindset of teacher to that of artist. I’m more able to do the kind of work that deals with setting stuff up and not as much the kind that requires deep concentration. It also requires shifting from extrovert to introvert, from a space where I talk a lot and am quite verbal to a quieter focused head. Is that similar for the kind of work you do? I also find that if I focus too much on my studio work during the semester, I’m not as present for my students.

PP: Luckily, I find programming quite exhausting and I can’t really work on my own projects for more than a couple of hours a day. The problem with working on a computer is that procrastination is always one click away and it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that surfing Wikipedia or checking Twitter is part of your ‘job.’ This era has a lot of mediated sociality for the benefit of introverts.

KB: You mentioned how you got started using the medium of games to make your work. Could you tell me again?

PP: In a way it was just a continuation of the kind of artivism I was already doing in other forms: comics, fanzines and music. At some point I wanted to start a pirate TV station. In the early ’00s, many DIY ‘street televisions’ started to appear as a symbolic challenge to the influence of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s media empire. It was a period of lively media experimentation. I eventually settled with games because there were no alternative voices, no subculture or counterculture in that field. I felt that much could be done.

KB: I think of you as an active Facebook fellow. I think you told me I’m a troll because I mostly just snoop around. Troll or otherwise, I really like following your posts. Is there a blurring of personal, social and artwork through Facebook or other social media sites when one’s work also exists primarily on the internet?

PP: If you follow without participating you are a ‘lurker,’ not a troll! I’m not that active on Facebook and, by the way, it seems it’s slowly declining as a platform. Recent surveys suggest that teenagers and young adults, typically the core user base of a social network, are simply not interested in the constant identity posturing required by Facebook. Plus, now their moms and dads are among their “friends,” so the performative construction of identity is now constrained. Not surprisingly they are moving to quick, more intimate, and ephemeral social networks.

KB: Oh, that’s good. A lurker sounds more like a creeper in the bushes. I would rather not be a lurker nor troll. Good thing it’s in decline. I actually just read that in the New York Times, which must mean it’s been in decline a while now, or at least in the last month since we started this email conversation.

PP: As far as digital art and internet creativity goes, I try to stay relatively low key. There is this interesting essay called “Athletic Aesthetics,” outlining the emerging figure of the artist embracing/struggling with the information overload of the digital age.

KB: That’s a great essay. I like this word the author, Brad Troemel, uses: aesthlete, which he defines this as “a cultural producer who trumps craft and contemplative brooding with immediacy and rapid production.” Everything in art has been flipped on its head. Tell me more about how you think about games in general. Are you and other artists creating fictions that allow the viewer to follow their own paths or narratives or is it more directed? As a follow up, do games manipulate a player’s experience? Are video games essentially different than other kinds of games?

PP: Ouch, too many big questions. No, I don’t think games or interactive media allow users to “follow their path” more than non-interactive media. The artist or designer always defines a rather narrow field of action. Of course, when you are experiencing a modular, dynamic artifact you are more likely to come up with configurations that the author did not predict, but at the end of the day the realm of interpretation–that is: what happens in your head when you are trying to make sense of an artwork–is always more important.

The player’s agency in a game can be used expressively but it should not be confused with a substantial transfer of power from the author. Interactive art is not more democratic nor less authorial than any other cultural form.

There has been a long debate regarding what makes a game art in the last six years or so. It’s a debate that mainly happened within game industry circles and non-specialized media so it may appear totally preposterous to people in touch with contemporary art. I tried to summarize some of issues here. My shorthand answer is that art games are simply games that cannot live or thrive outside of an artistic context or practice. If you can distribute and successfully market a game alongside other commercial products, then you don’t need a protected (and in some countries subsided) playground for cultural experimentation; you don’t need a specialized audience, spaces, criticism and markets. Needless to say, the “art” status has nothing to do with the quality or cultural significance of an artifact.

KB: In that essay, you conclude by writing that “Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate with them.” While it’s somewhat rhetorical, how do you think art can be more like games? As someone who makes art that sometimes exists primarily as an object on a wall, I would certainly hope that drawings, for example, are engaged with by people deeply, and in a way that increases with time. Or is your suggestion more about expanding definitions of art?

PP: Well, one thing I was pointing at is the notion that it’s not generally reasonable to expect an engagement of more than, say, five minutes with a work of art in a gallery or museum space. Of course, we are all struck by an exceptional works from time to time and we may decide to spend some more time with them, but that’s a sort of unwritten rule related to the “white cube” as a medium. Yet, few minutes are rarely enough time to get to know a game, even a small one.

Of course it is not that more time is better, but it’s a limit we rarely question and very few artists bother to challenge.

It could be interesting to approach art making with a game design mindset. You may start to see those spaces and situations we tend to consider ‘neutral’ as platforms with their own affordances and bias, platforms upon which we set up experiences for the viewers. But I admit that the idea that art as user-centric experience design may sound troubling. From that perspective there would be no difference between Disneyland and the Venice Biennale beside the degree of art literacy expected by visitors.

KB: As I was heading to meet you, I was riding in the elevator in the computer science building and there was a student in there with me who had a t-shirt that said “Hackivist.” We starting talking and I asked him if he played video games, and when he said yes. I asked him what question he’d ask a game maker if he had a chance. He said, “What next?” This struck me as funny because he had no idea what was last or before or now, and already he was at next. So, rather than ask you about what’s next, if we’re all wrestling with aesthletics, could you tell me instead about the speed of the online world and how or if it affects your work specifically?

PP: Underneath–or aside–of the boring and techno-centric game industry there is a very exuberant scene of independent game makers. Every week I find at least one small, obscure game that does something I haven’t seen before. Thankfully, this is an “expansive” movement, made of people trying out different things on different levels. It’s a linguistic expansion that doesn’t follow the cycles of planned obsolescence of hardware manufacturers–and incidentally doesn’t create that anxiety deriving from keeping up with a rapidly changing landscape. When people ask “what’s next?” they usually take this linear narrative of progress for granted, as if it was not determined by a bunch of executives looking for new gadgets to sell and new ways to make you more dependent on their products.


Images courtesy of the artist.

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