Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pokémon... it's not cute by accident.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of Pokémon Go.  You’ve probably seen people playing it in the streets too – hunting and capturing cute bug-eyed creatures, and collecting potions, eggs and balls from the Pokéstops that dot our parks and streets.  15 million people downloaded the augmented reality game in the first week of its release last month.   Thanks in part to the media frenzy, the game has achieved almost mythical status.  Naysayers like to quote the car crashes by distracted gamers, muggings at Pokéstops, and people falling over objects, walking off cliffs etc. etc. The pro camp cites the number of people getting out into the world, away from the couch and the telly (although from personal experience, if you sit on the couch long enough the Pokémons come to you). Friendships flourish among the hunters, who bond over the shared goal of seeking and collecting digital creatures. 

Proof that you don’t have to leave the couch.  The Pokémons will come to you. Originally posted on Instagram @stealthpooch 
Obviously, I’m not a hater, but I’m not obsessed either.  Call me a semi-enthusiastic dabbler.  I like the thrill of the hunt, and I’m a user of other geo-location activities, like the games Ingress and Munzee, as well as the more grounded Geocaching, orienteering and rogaining.  With the exception of Munzee, I’d say that these other platforms are just as, if not more, enjoyable than Pokémon Go.  So why has Pokémon Go received so much more attention? 

One obvious answer is that Pokémon is a well-known franchise. Pikachu appears on our cereal boxes, on our TV screens, and even on the sides of planes.  Pokémon cards have been traded in Australian schoolyards since the 1990s, which means gen Y is not only familiar with Pokémon characters, but have a great deal affection for these cute creatures.   The original Gameboy game from the mid-90s had a similar basic premise: hunt the Pokémons for points (although in the original there’s an endgame: you train your captured Pokémons for the ultimate battle with the Elite Four - but that’s another article).  The Gameboy Pokémons were pixelated and black and white - far from the brightly-coloured creatures of today’s game - but it appealed to the part of us that likes to collect, explore, collect and collect some more.

However, Pokémon Go’s popularity cannot be explained brand saturation alone.  Nor is it solely due to the novelty of having our surrounding environment turned into magical hubs, or the human urge to collect and classify.  Collecting and problem solving is a key part of Munzee, but its interface is based on scanning boring old QR codes. Similarly, Ingress turns our surrounding environment into a web of portals: sites of battle and exchange. Ingress has a dedicated community, but its mass appeal is limited by the complexity of the game and the rather hostile machine-aesthetic graphics (I always think of the 90s movie Hackers when I open Ingress). 

Essentially, I think the popularity of Pokémon Go is largely about aesthetics.  Pokémon is cute and humans like cute.  This isn’t just a learned-in-the-schoolyard-over-obsessive-card-swapping thing either.  Humans are naturally attracted to and want to care for animals with juvenile features - ‘cute’ features - such as large eyes, large foreheads and retreating chins.  Within the Pokémon universe, even the most hostile animals are manipulated for appeal.  The snake, Ekans, for instance, has an unusually stunted snout, making it appear cuter than a snake ever should.  And don’t get me started on the mouse, Pikachu.  Pokémon Go therefore has hit on a winning combo, appealing to our biological attraction to cute, our urge to collect and classify, the novelty of augmented reality gaming on a widely used platform, existing brand awareness, and, of course, a significant leg up from the media. 

"Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins (left column). 
Small-eyed, long-snouted animals (right column) do not elicit the same response." 
Drawn by Ephert from a diagram diagram in "Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II" by Konrad Lorenz. 
Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

We have also convinced ourselves that Pokémon Go is somehow a healthy game, a morally acceptable game.  I don’t know how many friendships or social encounters have really been facilitated by the game, but my dog has definitely benefited.  The dog park and oval at the end of my street seems to be quite a hub for all things Pokémon.  There’s a ‘gym’ at the seniors centre (no joke), and multiple Pokéstops.   There are few lights in the park and, at this time of the year when our nights are long and cold, there are also very few people.  Since Pokémon was released, however, the park is filled with ‘fairy lights’, as groups of people (and their dogs) chase elusive Pokémon, phone screens glowing.  For the first time in memory, I’ve been happy to take the dog there at night, rather than sticking to the safe, brightly lit streets.   Whatever the reason for its popularity, I hope it lasts if only for my big-eyed dog’s sake.

This article was originally published in the August edition of Warp Magazine, 2016.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: Brainstorm at the Plimsoll Gallery

On opening night, Brainstorm has a carnival feel to it.  Visitors thread through the exhibition on the way to Dark Park in the adjacent former shipping yards. The Plimsoll Gallery exhibition, curated by John Vella, is part of the official Dark Mofo program, and manages to both mimic the aesthetics and themes of the winter festival, but hold its own as a separate exhibition.  It’s dark, novel, and entertaining.

From the art school’s tunnel entrance, I follow a deep growling sound coming from the wood yard.  I’ve always thought it bizarre that the gallery’s adjacent courtyard garden and other surrounding areas are never used, particularly considering the current popularity of site-responsive art, which is why Brainstorm appeals to me almost immediately. The exhibition spills into the adjacent wood yard, the art school’s delivery bay, and gallery storeroom.

Andrew Harper, Fort Evil, 2016. Image credit: Gerrard Dixon     

The wood yard, with its high brick fence and metal bars, forms a cage around Andrew Harper’s breathing, growling, anthropomorphic Fort Evil. It’s a raw collage of materials, mostly a mishmash of roughly nailed wood and corrugated iron, with sharp wooden ‘teeth’ from which a small doll hangs.  The artist later tells me that for OH&S reasons, visitors can’t enter the yard, but the distance and walls between the work and viewer only increases the mystique.  I’m also told that the doll, toilet bowl, corrugated iron and many of the other materials were found in the yard and automatically incorporated into the structure.  I can’t help but think that it’s a list of materials that should probably be found in a tip, rather than a university workspace.

For the exhibition, the Plimsoll’s floor to ceiling windows have been levered open so that the garden becomes a seamless extension of the usual gallery space.  Onto the pond, Scot Cotterell has projected text, which breaks into nonsensical syllables on the uneven leaf-covered surface.  The group of visitors surrounding the small pond call out words as they pick them: “climate!”, “fires!”, “scientists!”, “meaningful!”  Distracted, I worry about the resident fish.

At this point I start to get a little irritated at the lack of artwork information.  I can pick Harper’s installation, and Amanda Davies’ self-portraits are easily identified, but the ‘guess the artist’ game I play with my companion quickly tires.  There’s a growing aversion to didactic texts in contemporary art spaces, partly because of the difficulties in label placement when it comes to darkened spaces or installations, but it’s also an ideological move.  Later, someone told me there are artist flyers underneath Cotterell’s stack of ‘mindfulness colouring books’.  The blind experience is evidently intentional, but I do wonder if the lack of, or limited attribution, is fair to artists.

Scot Cotterell, Shitstorm (Compromised Version), 2016.  Installed on the building facade top level from 0200hr 08.06.16 until 0700hr 10.06.16.  Image credit: Scot Cotterell.

One of Cotterell’s other works received a great deal of attention when it was controversially removed from its original location - the top windows of the art school – and partially installed in the Plimsoll Gallery. The artist stated it was “removed with urgency due to student and bureaucratic request,” primarily “due to student wellbeing and institutional public safety concerns around decency and offence.” The subsequent (and surely inevitable) media attention was therefore a bit of an own goal for the university, plus the drama made an interesting work even more so.  I’m wary of wading into the cesspit of rumours that currently surrounds the incident, but apparently a small number of painting and/or printmaking students took offense at the corflute boards in their studio windows, which scream in fluoro ink: ‘your work is shit’. Interestingly, the boards did not face the students, but instead faced outwards towards the half-constructed Federal hotel, the disused shipping yards, and Dark Mofo’s Dark Park.  The aesthetic is akin to the hate signs of the Westboro Baptist Church, but while the message, repeated over and over, can be seen as derogatory, it can equally be interpreted as a form of self-talk.  I don’t know a single artist who isn’t plagued by self-doubt.  On my desk at home, there’s a drawing by David Shrigley’s that reads in bold: “your work is terrible and you are an imbecile”.  It’s followed by “they said” in tiny writing.  It’s a good reminder that everyone has an opinion.

David Shrigley, Your Artwork is Terrible and You are an Imbecile, 2013.
Copyright: David Shrigley 

I’m entranced by Pat Brassington’s enigmatic Chambre Vide.  The raised curtain of slightly translucent red plastic is deliciously shiny.  A self-ordering line of viewers walk slowly and quietly around the work in a clockwise direction, each person stopping at the end, hesitating, trying to decide whether they want to break the spell and look under the curtain. 

Pat Brassington, Chambre Vide, 2016.
Image credit: Pat Brassington
So many of the works are defined by barriers, fences and walls – frames of a sort.  In addition to Harper’s fort, we view Michael Schlitz’s prints through Entrepot bookshop’s storefront, Jacob Leary’s blacklit installation through Entrepot Gallery’s gridded windows, and Matt Warren’s sound and video works from behind the loading bay barriers.  Darren Cook’s multimedia installation is also viewed behind the gallery’s storeroom fence, with the plinths, screens, and other paraphernalia, acting as a canvas for his projected videos. In this darkened space, Warren and Cook’s soundtracks bleed into each other, a haunting mixture of thunder, static, and flat-toned speech.   The use of these spaces are one of the exhibition’s key strengths, but at the same time, the gallery’s location within the university and associated bureaucracy has evidently limited the exhibition’s full potential.  Let’s hope fear doesn’t muzzle future Plimsoll Gallery programming.

Installation shot of the gallery storeroom showing part of Darren Cook’s Take it Outside.
Image credit: Gerrard Dixon

Brainstorm, 10 June – 19 June 2016. Plimsoll Gallery, Tasmanian College of the Arts.  Curator: John Vella. Artists: Michael Schlitz, Pat Brassington, Matt Warren, Andrew Harper, Scot Cotterell, Amanda Davies, Darren Cook, Grace Herbert, Jacob Leary.

Disclosure note: The author is employed by Mona, but has no direct involvement in this year’s Dark Mofo or the Plimsoll Gallery.

This review was first published in the July edition of Warp Magazine.