The New Game is Over walkthrough on VRAL from July 28 to August 10 2023. A huge conversation with Matteo Bittanti. Premediation, Richard Grusin, Oxycontin, Sackler, Grand Gignol, political body, Necrologies, Eugene Thacker, Józef Unszlicht, Disinformation, Discord, October magazine, Big Tech, dopamine, Shuffle ticktokers, Korol i Shut, Vito Acconci, Antonio Canova’s Tre Grazie, astroturfing.
Artist: Mikhail Maksimov
Curator: Matteo Bittanti
Location: online at vral.org
Matteo Bittanti: When we last conversed, a worldwide pandemic was causing disruptions to the established neoliberal order and you had just introduced an endless simulator of graveyards, which I deemed very timely. Presently, a major conflict unfolds in Europe, underscoring the contradiction inherent in Fukuyama’s declaration regarding the supposed “End of History”. Considering that artists are perceptive radars, as Marshall McLuhan famously argued, I am curious to know: What do you discern on the horizon? After all, as Richard Grusin argues that premediation is akin to game design rather than mere weather forecast, thus your vantage point should not be ignored. In other words, you possess all the necessary tools to effectively decipher what’s ahead. For the record, premediation extends well beyond the traditional notion of forecasting or predicting the future. It involves a deliberate and strategic approach to designing and shaping the future by preemptively preparing for various potential scenarios. As a game designer/artist acting as a radar, what do you premediate?
Mikhail Maksimov: You use the term “premediation”, and I, really thinking back to our last conversation, found the refrain term “premediCation” as a medical way of preparing for radical changes. Within the realization of premedication, the idea where humanity is given a preliminary portion of the same experience (substance) before the main operation, but on a smaller scale, is also interesting. This does not contradict the beautiful concept of Radical Premediation of Richard Gruzin, but complements it. A complex of any influences including artistic influence works in this case as a prediction and as a preparation. And the game stays closest to this sense, because it functions as a system of influence and response to influence. In general, this idea works like predictive neural networks, but no one would ever think about a single neural network node as an artist, everyone works as a swarm. A swarm of premediation.
Matteo Bittanti: I love this idea of premedication, of taking an analgesic or sedative before a major surgery. The entire planet is sick and thus each living being needs massive doses of metaphorical chemio just to get by, hence art premedication to avoid hypersensitivity reactions. Dexamethasone, diphenhydramine, omeprazole, midazolam… This reminds me of Damien Hirst. His Last Supper series is especially hilarious. At the same time, we must be careful not to let art become a way to anesthetize ourselves from harsh realities. The Sackler family’s aggressive and misleading marketing of OxyContin, and the ensuing opioid crisis, serves as a cautionary tale. Their prolific art philanthropy also prompts difficult questions about the ethical entanglements of money and museums. Is Oxycontin an example of art premedication too? Sounds to me more like premeditated murder. I think you should keep investigating the relationship between art and drugs through video games. Games are often dismissed as merely addictive diversions, yet perhaps they reveal something deeper about our attraction to virtual worlds. What longings or voids are we trying to fill by escaping into gaming?
Mikhail Maksimov: I like our dangerous turn to medicine. I also recall another work by Damian Hirst. in the installation Pharmacy he shows how pharmacy stores have metamorphosed since the Middle Ages, but they are still the same quack stores as the entire Sackler empire. The link follows to the Tate Modern website, which has an escalator named Sacklers escalator (the name is removed now). Perhaps this preserves the democratic principle of allowing all sides to have their opinions. But, jokes aside, marketing oxycontin is criminal activity, not premedication. Oxycontin therapy is about approaching death. Art, on the other hand, is about preparing for death. So art is closer to premedication. Art is preparation for future events.
I’d like to add that a couple years ago I did an exhibition (Abortive Archaeology) opposing the criminal direct invasion to archaeological sites, where I also played with the theme of medical intervention.
In addition to the tedious but true idea that games are safe simulators of any kind of human activity, associated with the pleasure of control and confirmation of the right choice at every level, I would like to say something else. As a child, I crawled into the cover of grandmother’s sewing machine and dreamed that there was a large space inside it, rooms and cabinets where favorite and inaccessible toys and goodies were stored. Virtual world is an accessible belief that in addition to our world there is another world, favorite and beautiful. The happy game successfully debunks this fairy tale, gloatingly and prophetically asserts that horror is everywhere.
Matteo Bittanti: In his 2017 book The PlayStation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown posits that videogames primarily function as desire-generating machines. According to the British scholar, gamers are not autonomous individuals playing games. Instead, they are played by the games they consume, as their subjectivity is actively molded by the algorithmic imaginary constructed by corporations. In your most recent project, The New Game Is Over, you explore the concept of a simulation machine that produces emotions, feelings, and desires. In your game, ordinary individuals are elevated to the status of all-powerful demigods, possibly as a compensative measure for their lack of agency in IRL. My question is: What kind of desires do video games generate?
Mikhail Maksimov: Games played by players that are created by corporations that are played by developers – the scary picture of the present must be enhanced by the fact that it’s all about redistribution of attention. Corporations are buying players’ life time with their money, only to give that time to developers who will spend it creating a sequel to the game and it will all start over again. In the wet corporate dreams of game company executives, game development should last as many years as the previous game will be played. A lot of attention is paid to replayability, and the idea that a good game should be long is implanted in the minds of players. Although triple A games are an important subject of game studies (which is rather frustrating for me personally), I would say that I don’t find this area very interesting. And some games, like Animal Crossing, are downright frightening. An important feature of The New Game Is Over is the opportunity to reveal the need/desire to command, to dominate, to control. In the installation version of the game, the viewer is even given the option to control the humanity-puppet using a Leap Motion controller. In general, this game looks like a traditional creche or a public-driven Grand Guignol telling on the local fair how things are now in the province, state, district, country. As a game designer, I deal with the player’s desire, and try to play with that desire using it only as a tool to deliver the overall statement in the piece. If we talk about understanding the world of videogames via Lacanian dream analysis, I have nothing to say here, I am not familiar with this book by Alfie Bown, although I agree with some theses in the book description.
Matteo Bittanti: I completely agree: Animal Crossing is indeed horrifying. Your own work, The New Game Is Over, evoked a different, yet equally powerful, sense of subtle horror in me. Your game, which is also available for virtual reality displays, instantly reminded me of Brent Watanabe’s recent VR project, MINE. It came to my mind perhaps because Watanabe previously explored Animal Crossing. Both projects incorporate a diverse array of objects, artifacts, and allusions to popular culture. The former embraces elements like theme parks, trucks, clowns, and a range of Americana, while your project intertwines marionettes, shooting axes, Brueghelian demonology, futuristic dystopia, and early 20th-century circus aesthetics. It’s like looking at the same terrifying reality from two different angles. Could you share the main inspiration behind your project and provide insight into your creative process? Would you expound upon the intricate iconography present in The New Game Is Over and shed light on the multitude of influences that have shaped its creation?
Mikhail Maksimov: In Brent Watanabe’s Mine we see an endless graveyard of consumerism values, but I can only watch the trailer because Horizon Worlds is not available: Meta is recognized as an extremist organization in Russia…
Matteo Bittanti: Well, it is an extreme organization if you consider the amount of massive damage it has inflicted upon the world since its inception…
Mikhail Maksimov: …and so, indeed consumerism is buried and it gives way to ideological angels (although I would like to bury ideologies). My sources of inspiration are Bruegel, Bosch, icons like Our Lady the consolation to all the afflicted. The schemes of hell from The Divine Comedy are designed to be used in the game. Look at Sideview of the Inferno, from the Marc Musa translation, Penguin Classics This is The New Game Is over in section regarding additional sources of inspiration, I would like to mention that my past work Crowd Sign: Emission was the cause of some anxiety about my freedom, and I spent more than half a year outside Russia, specifically in Armenia and France, so I was very inspired by the architecture in Yerevan and Marseille. Originally the game was even made in Armenian language. Now I am in Moscow and my ability to speak out is limited, but I can say that in general, the idea of NGIO is a question of responsibility for actions. And also a conversation about the possibility of continuing to learn about the world in a state of permanent horror and catastrophes that have no plans to end. That’s why there’s a notion of an anxiety pipeline, by closing it from Afterlife to Utopia you can finally leave the space of the game, win it… The commodification of anxiety is the key message of the work. This commodification comes in addition to other goods in the attention economy. There are a bunch of details in this work that may not be very clear. For example, in the Utopia space, the blue-colored characters are chatbots of the Russian government service system Gosuslugi, with the help of which, among other things, the delivery of subpoena for participation in the Special Military Operation in Ukraine is planned. These characters in turn talk to the player with lines from the Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.
Matteo Bittanti: Right, the “Special Military Operation”… The New Game Is Over delves into the intricate exploration of player agency, its implications, and the resulting effects. It offers players the opportunity to strive for emotional mastery or succumb to the overwhelming tide of feelings. How does the dark and profoundly hopeless interface design of The New Game Is Over resonate with and shape the overall experience? In what ways does this deliberate design choice contribute to the profound examination of emotions and enhance the player’s engagement with the game’s overarching themes?
Mikhail Maksimov: Of course I am far from the truly poetic interface of Mu Cartographer , but I tried to create a narrative interface like a smartphone settings UI, but with weird names and strings. In general, the interface panel can be visualized as a text work, each line of which is equipped with a button or a switch. For example, the Universe Interface looks like a poem:
Axe can`t shoot?
Black color matter?
Fire hole on/off
I hate green screens
Let`s railotheque begins!
And at the same time, each line creates a concrete change in the space of the game screen. This perverted embodiment of the idea of the Soviet poetic avant-garde, in whose conception art outside of rational assistance to the proletariat was recognized as irrelevant and harmful.
Matteo Bittanti: Speaking of the avant-garde, the Russian Pavilion at the 17th Biennale of Architecture in Venice was completely dominated by avant-garde video games and game art performances, all created by insanely talented Russian artists. You presented your outstanding work SAR: Online Sessions (Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat: Online Sessions). This daring and thought-provoking display stood out as a trailblazer, pushing boundaries and challenging conventions. As one contemplates the promotional essence of such grand-scale events often likened to the “Olympics of art”, the “World Cup of architecture,” and so on, a curious question arises: What drives the Russian State’s deep involvement in the artworld utilizing video games as a tool for propaganda and nation branding? Was this part of Vladislav Surkov’s grand plan? Is this akin to what Walter Benjamin calls “the aestheticization of politics” in his seminal essay “The work of art in the age of technological reproducibility”?
Mikhail Maksimov: That’s a terrific question! You know, the West plays a key role in Russian history. For example, according to the art critic and cultural critic Boris Groys, Russia is constantly trying to peel off the patina of the West, trying to find some of its own features, and underneath they find another patina of the West, and this endless undressing of Matryoshka dolls. Returning to the Architectural Biennale, remembering that the Moscow Kremlin was built by Italian architects with the participation of Russian artists, the exposition of the Russian pavilion at the 17-th Venice Biennale was curated by the Italian curator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli. And it was the only time in Russian history when the Russian pavilion was honored with a Special Mention award. I don’t know anything about Surkov’s participation in the preparation of the Russian pavilion exposition. According to my observations, in Russia the authorities are not interested in modern (or contemporary) art, they are more interested in cinema. I also know that the Russian cultural agency allocates some money for the creation of patriotic computer games. In contrast to Benjamin’s Aestheticization of Politics, I would suggest the concept of “political body”, which Eugene Thacker discusses in his book Tentacles longer than life. The living dead are key characters in culture and especially in computer games (dead speculative realists are also present in the SAR: Online Sessions ). Thacker declares the current era to be the era of dead political body politics and suggests that the current situation should be studied through Necrologies.
Matteo Bittanti: “the body politic implicates a medical ontology that it is nevertheless always attempting to supercede […] while the body politic is certainly not exclusively a medical affair, this sort of medical ontology forms its central problematic. The medicalized view of the body politic is thus that beyond which the body politic must always move, but that without which the body politic cannot be thought as such.” (pp. 150, 151) Here we go again: preMedication… Let’s talk about another kind of “disease”, at least as it is framed by contemporary media scholars. In the video walkthrough of The New Game Is Over currently featured on VRAL, one of the main themes is pervasive дезинформация, often translated into English as disinformation, which exactly one century ago, Józef Unszlicht, deputy chairman of the KGB, described as the dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion. Unszlicht introduced a special disinformation office to conduct active intelligence operations. Today, all information is дезинформация, and we have a situation in which a former convict who became a hot-dog seller then creates the most effective troll farm in the world whose operatives performed as Black Lives Matter activists among other things, the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, and then an equally successful mercenary group named after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. In short, perhaps you cannot have nice things, but at least you have both green screens and green men. Meanwhile, in the so-called “free world”, a 21 year old gamer obsessed by guns distributed hundreds of classified documents on a Discord originally created to discuss a zombie video game to impress his acolytes. Because reality has become indistinguishable from a video game, what kind of counter gaming options are left to those who decide to sabotage the status quo? I mean, you can change your point of view (within the game), but can you change the mechanics? Is there a “way out”, which incidentally is the goal of your game?
Mikhail Maksimov: I realize this is your curious notice, the three spaces in my game are very reminiscent of movie sets for the production of disinformation but, the fact that there is a green screen in the game suggests that I am at least not hiding the fact that the whole world – theater… Disinformation is at the heart of dramaturgy, at the heart of any surprise: literally, man is created to have the pleasure of not understanding what is around him, and after a while to discover the truth… People from childhood are accustomed to disinformation: remember unpacking presents under the Christmas tree or the game when an adult comes up behind, covers the child’s eyes with the palms of his hands and asks: “Who am I?” Do the pigeons walking on the sidewalk shake their heads to the beat because they have air pods in their ears? What is the music in the air pods that makes the pigeons’ bodies rock? As an artist, I’ve been shaped by October magazine and the leftist view of art, which believes that only a critical perspective creates the condition for a work of art. It’s incredibly hard to think that this was disinformation too. So in this game, the green screen could be anything, even the green screen itself. As for the exit… I thought for a very long time, and of course tried all the ideas of the end of the world, from nuclear apocalypse to black square … In the end I came to the conclusion that the ideal end of everything is stupid nothingness, fluff, emptiness, ridiculousness, not solemn chaos and not global catastrophe – but painted butterflies on silly theater sets with the most unassuming sound … Dummy is the end.
Matteo Bittanti: In the visible layer of The New Game Is Over, people literally spring from coffins, suggesting that they are living dead, that is zombies. They move mechanically onto an assembly line aka magic carpet that quickly leads to their demise, that is, another coffin… The old saying from cradle to the grave is hereby changed “from the grave to the grave”. The message is clear: their lives are linear, predetermined, and uneventful-by-design, mainly controlled by the visible hand of, you name it, the Market (?), the State (?), Big Tech (?) possibly all three combined, which pulls the strings and rotates the gear. In such a situation, the adage “touching grass” results in nothing more than an exercise in astroturfing, both literally and metaphorically. Apps like Instagram and Skype are specifically designed to give people the impression of autonomy. In reality, they control people, making sure that their movements, actions, and even desires are manufactured in a top-down fashion. Zuboff says it better but I’m too lazy to find the perfect quote. My question is: Can one actually cut the strings and become, gosh, free?
Mikhail Maksimov: Matteo, that’s incredibly funny, ‘’d like to put another log on the fire.The carpet is a map of the Earth, people are thrown onto the carpet-map of the Earth and after a while they get to the golden gate. This gate is a copy of the North entrance to the VDNKH exhibition. VDNKH is the Soviet analog of EXPO World’s Fair created in the early 30s of the 20th century. This permanent exhibition was a symbol of the ideal soviet system, a simulation of future communist life. Therefore, the golden gate is also an allegory of the entrance to the meaningless paradise, but of course, yes, it resembles the entrance to the cemetery, which is the end of human life… Look at North Entrance Arch of VDNKH in the Foundling movie (1940)
So life is controlled by someone from outside, and the outcome is bleak… But that’s an important question, maybe what we need is not freedom, and we need witnesses to our unfreedom, in other words, spectators. Three is enough.
Matteo Bittanti: [Mental note: I loved the inclusion of Cory Arcangel/Super Mario Bros’ clouds, perhaps suggesting that climate change is a hoax and the permafrost thawing in Siberia will bring joy and happiness to a cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony like pure water touching clear sky.]
Mikhail Maksimov: Every one of your questions is incredibly interesting and this premise is a storm of emotion too.
Matteo Bittanti: For that, I’m definitely blaming the copious amounts of opioids I’m taking, courtesy of Purdue Pharma. Next, we’re off to the eternal/afterlife layer, hereby represented as a subway or train compartment turned into a disco club. Everybody is dancing amongst scantily dressed prosperous bald women in short shorts, slow lizards, balloons, and stroboscopic lights, while panic emojis take over the screen. I thought that social media and the likes used dopamine to keep us scrolling diligently. But you’re suggesting instead that anxiety is the default condition. But if anxiety is the dominant feeling, wouldn’t that be counter-productive to the powers that be? Don’t they want obedient sheep? Aren’t video games and social media and deepfake porn akin to the soma drug in Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World? [perhaps here you can introduce Eugene Thacker’s theories about the commodification of anxiety]
Mikhail Maksimov: Yes, it’s an afterlife moment where disco rails spin in an empty train compartment. Look out at the shuffling tictokers and think about the fate of the animals that didn’t make it to heaven. When I make a game piece, it doesn’t mean I’m going to use the techniques that corporations use to tie players to a service. After all, when we step forward with our left foot and then our right, the body also releases dopamine as a reward for what we’ve done, but we don’t criticize walking. When February 24th came around, for many months, everyone around me was turned into an anxiety production machine, literally every morning, people were using news feeds instead of tinder and scrolling around trying to get their anxiety down: doom scrolling. Although it started during the Covid-19 pandemic. Anxiety can be used to control people. But ultimately, maybe anxiety can be used to understand the world? Using the ability to explore the world with anxiety, the horror production in each layer of the game can be adjusted so that the worlds connect, at which point the Exit sign flashes. It is a sign of a way out, a possible knowledge of the world. But is it a way out? What awaits us behind this door? To go over the limit you have to be unlimit desperate. I realize that anxiety is a new commodity and management tool, but maybe it’s also a new vision, a new optic?
Matteo Bittanti: The constant unleashing of anxiety is a great way to control the masses. It works even better than fear. You fear something and then you do not, like Covid. Anxiety is vague yet pervasive. You cannot switch anxiety off. It’s always on, like our smartphones. The news feed, like social media, is an extremely effective anxiety machine: they keep us in a constant state of constant unease and uncertainty. But I guess anxiety can be used as a raw material to create something new. Perhaps art feeds on anxiety. As you design a new artwork, a new game, do you find yourself in an anxious state? It seems to me that you are able to tap into the nervous energy anxiety provokes while steering clear of its more paralyzing and destructive tendencies. Am I delusional? After all, there’s a fine line between harnessing anxiety’s charge and being consumed by it…
Mikhail Maksimov: You’ve described exactly how things are in the world, and what my game is really about in depth. Anxiety is the fuel, the energy that now powers the batteries of the universe. The state is the plumber of the anxiety pipeline, and we will soon be paying the anxiety bills because the “anxiety reduction” that Oxycontin provided no longer works. This absurd suggestion confirms your sentence about how thin the line is between anxiety and how we perceive anxiety. The Beatniks had projects to put LSD in New York’s water supply, in the 90’s there was an engineering project to provide the internet through the electrical networks, now we can also talk about how artists can use anxiety for cognitive and reflective needs, stirring in waves of anxiety to make their artistic statement.
Matteo Bittanti: Utopia is represented as a post-scarcity land of milk and honey where the market rules, hereby represented by a cash register that literally prints money out of thin air, and nuclear energy assures endless power to the masses. I get the reference to Antonio Canova’s Tre Grazie, hereby floating gracefully around material wealth, but what’s up with the pigeons and their constant pooping?
Mikhail Maksimov: You have very elegantly described the state of affairs in the sky, but that is half-truth. I would like to add that the three graces are three dead punk stars named Mikhail Gorshenev, the bloody pigeons are generally dangerous creatures, being both symbols of peace and animals that according to Russian sources carry a military virus to the territory of Russia. The symbol of nuclear energy is the danger of nuclear threat, although your explanation is very beautiful!
Matteo Bittanti: Likewise, I appreciate your patience and especially how you elegantly state that I completely missed the fucking point 🙂 Let’s move on to the next question as I admit defeat. The format of the video walkthrough is to game play what photographs are to performances. For instance, take Vito Accoinci’s seminal performance in New York, Following Piece (1969), where he randomly selected and then followed individual passersby he encountered in New York City, maintaining his pursuit until the person entered a building. Today this performance exists only/mostly as a set of photographs, specifically gelatin silver prints, or, more likely their digital reproductions scattered online. The photographs, by the way, were staged, that is, taken after the performance itself, a sort of insta re-enactment and remediation. What role does a video recording of an avant-garde video game like The New Game Is Over play, no pun intended? Is it pure documentation, is it a form of art itself, is it what will remain after the game is no longer playable because emulation is not an exact science and technology is notoriously unreliable and we will all be dead due to either climate apocalypse or nuclear holocaust or both?
Mikhail Maksimov: It’s a very important question. I’m sure that every artist working and creating video games decides this question for themselves. I started as a visual artist working with video, and when I was introduced to game engines 10 years ago my goal was to make video walkthroughs of non-existent games, let’s plays, streams of strange games that could never be released. I never even thought I would build execution files and release apps in the AppStore. Video games as a medium are not only unreliable – for example, the huge pool of Flash programs has now disappeared) – but also inaccessible to many people. It’s worth recognizing that video is also a game, only the gamepad is in the player’s head. So it’s definitely important to me that games exist as video.
Matteo Bittanti: Long live game videos. Considering that most classic video games are unavailable today, they can only exist through video documentation. Last question: The New Game is Over was installed at GES-2, Sorcerers Exhibition. As I only experienced the game on my screen, I was wondering if you could briefly discuss the specific nature of this installation? How was it received?
Mikhail Maksimov: In addition to some details, the installation implements a technological scheme with a Leap Motion controller so that two people can play the game at the same time, one of whom turns their hands into hands of death with which they can control the game. Also I want to thank Andrey Parshikov as a curator of the exhibition.
Matteo Bittanti: Well, I would not want to high five you with my hands of death. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mikhail Maksimov: The Oculus Quest version of NGIO is available in Meta App Lab
VR version is here
And finally a PC version is on itch.io
Thank you very much for your time and consideration, Mikhail.