Play Through Pippin Barr’s Art-World Video Games

Photo: Courtesy Pippin Barr

For New Zealand–born, Malta-based video-game designer and writer Pippin Barr, the debate over whether or not video games are art never really held any significance. He already knew games could be art. The real question, for him, was, how can video games reflect on the art world?

In an ongoing series of lo-fi, quirky, web-based video games, Barr has commented on the art world’s intriguing, often absurd insularity with absurdist insularity of his own. First there was The Artist Is Present, an eerily realistic digital riff on waiting in line to sit across from Marina Abramovic in her titular performance at the Museum of Modern Art. Then Art Game, a simulator of what it’s like to be an artist laboring away in a studio at the behest of a picky curator. Except the art-making process took the form of actions from classic video games, like maneuvering a snake or stacking Tetris blocks. If only becoming Jeff Koons were so easy.

With his latest piece, The Stolen Art Gallery, Barr investigates the idea of the museum. Except instead of preserving images of art that is no longer publicly available owing to thieves, his virtual museum only displays empty walls, with wall text suggesting what’s missing. It’s a sly commentary not only on the nature of museums as centers of art preservation but the impact of digital technology and the internet on art’s accessibility. The empty museum holds its own lessons.

Why is this indie developer so invested in the art world? Barr started out young. “My parents are contemporary art collectors in New Zealand, so my childhood was one in which artists were constantly staying with us, or around for dinner, or installing work,” he says. “I’m fascinated and engaged by art, and have ended up, somewhat helplessly, making it myself in my own way.”

He’s not alone in making off art games, though. In December 2014, developer Ziv Schneider created the Museum of Stolen Art, a virtual environment in which images of stolen art are displayed. Exhibitions include showcases of looted objects from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as “Famous Stolen Paintings.” Jeff Koons Must Die!!! is another entertaining example, the only way you can torch a Balloon Dog without getting in trouble with the law. It’s an art-world revenge fantasy in the form of a first-person shooter.

Barr’s games are far more challenging than a simple Halo match. They’re less fun and more philosophical puzzles that players navigate. Barr dwells in this uncomfortable zone, where neither field enjoys treading. “The world of video games is so often so hostile to contemporary art and its ideas, and if not hostile often just utterly indifferent,” he says. Barr’s projects function as a bridge, or a Trojan horse between two creative industries. “Games are a very interesting platform from which to explore ideas about art and to allow or encourage game players to think about those ideas.”

From his collaborations with Marina Abramovic on video games that echo the performance artist’s vaunted method to the empty museum of stolen art, we gathered Barr’s full playable art-world oeuvre in the context of other indie art-focused games.

The Artist Is Present

Visitors to the real MoMA waited hours to sit across from Marina Abramovic during The Artist Is Present, and players of this exquisitely boring game will as well. It’s possible to wait for a full day in the game, and if the player doesn’t pilot their avatar forward gradually, they lose their place in line. It’s the art experience you never wanted to have again. The digital museum is even closed and completely inaccessible during the same hours the real MoMA is. Don’t play at the wrong time!

Art Game

If The Sims were only about artists, Barr would be a champion. This game spans the full arc of a working artist’s process, from making pieces to chatting with a curator to mingling at your opening, overhearing complaints about the quality of your work. Just like the real art world, curators in game will often instruct you to “re-engage with your practice.”

Abramovic Method Games

Designed in collaboration with the artist herself in support of the Marina Abramovic Institute, these tiny digital activities include “complaining to a tree,” “looking at the colors,” and “stopping the anger.” Like Abramovic’s work, they take some thinking to appreciate. But the quiet, meditative experience might be its own reward.

Ancient Greek Punishment: Art Edition Edition

A literal reflection of the commodification of objects mounted on gallery walls, this is a video game in which you play a video game. Hijacking users’ webcams, Barr re-creates the reflection of a viewer on a sheet of museum glass that divides them from art. It’s a meta-game that Barr created after he had an exhibition of prints made from his video games. Reflexive enough?

The Stolen Art Gallery

Like a mash-up of the Museum of Stolen Art and Jeff Koons Must Die!!!, Barr’s The Stolen Art Gallery targets the idea of the museum itself. “I wanted to create a gallery space for showing stolen art as it is — specifically not there. Noticeably not there,” Barr says. “That is the interesting thing about stolen or otherwise absent art, its absence is evocative and strange and thought-provoking.” Like the empty frames visibly left behind from the Isabella Stewart Gardener museum’s infamous stolen Rembrandts and Vermeers, the virtual empty museum is a reminder to think about why and how art is stolen. These objects became all but priceless in the art market — hence their desirability as targets.