IN THIS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, AMERICAN ARTIST KENT SHEELY DISCUSSES HIS PRACTICE WITH VIDEO GAMES, BEING AT THE MERCY OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN BIG CITIES, AND THE DEMOCRATIZING EFFECTS OF MACHINIMA.
Kent Sheely (b. 1974, United States) is a new media artist based in New York City. His work draws both inspiration and foundation from the aesthetics and culture of video games, examining the relationships between the real world and virtual ones. Much of his work centers around the translation and transmediation of symbols, concepts, and expectations from game space to the real world and vice versa, forming new bridges between simulation and reality.
Kent Sheely's installation READY FOR ACTION (GRID, SECOND VERSION) (2013) is on display in the ASSEMBLAGE level of GAME VIDEO/ART. A SURVEY.
This interview was produced by the students of Master's Degree Program in Arts, Markets and Cultural Heritage at IULM.
GVA: Can you briefly describe your education?
Kent Sheely: I initially went to school as a graphic designer, but after three years of studying the requisite art history and learning the tools of the trade, I realized I was absolutely not on board with the kind of rigid structure I was heading toward and migrated into a more organic, concept-driven area of study instead. I started reading about early performance and video art, and some of the people who were already experimenting with digital media and video games as a medium, and quickly decided that was where I needed to be.
GVA: Can you name some influences - not necessarily artistic ones - that played a key role in your evolution as an artist?
Kent Sheely: I think the first real influence on my own work was Red vs. Blue, a web-based show that was filmed entirely within the game Halo. It was my introduction into the concept of Machinima, the process of constructing narrative within video games. Of course I wanted to move beyond the classical structure that show worked within, but it was definitely a key factor in my early progression as an artist. I also did a lot of research into the artists who were already working in similar ways, such as Aram Bartholl, Brody Condon, Mariko Mori, and so many more. I really wanted to contribute my own voice to this rapidly-evolving scene.
GVA: When and why did you begin using video games in your practice?
Kent Sheely: As I mentioned before, I didn’t start using games to make art until I was in college. I was already obsessed with video games, and I wanted to essentially validate all the time I was spending playing games by using them as a tool to say something meaningful. I started out making work that either served as love letters to games or just used them as tools for creation, but as years have passed I’ve started getting much more critical toward the medium itself, incorporating themes of politics and institutionalized violence into the underlying themes of my artworks.
Kent Sheely, dust 2 dust, 2012.
Two teams of weapons battle for control of a small Middle Eastern town in Counter-Strike: Source.
GVA: Why did you specifically choose a video game to make art? What do you find especially fascinating about this medium? Its interactivity? Agency? Aesthetics? Theatricality?
Kent Sheely: I think I’ve created work that touches on all of these over the years! Game-based art pulls from traditions of appropriation, interactive media, video, photography, and more than I can possibly detail. Games are an endless playground of possibility.
GVA: The creative opportunities afforded by machinima are greatly constrained by existing copyright law, which prohibits many possible uses, including commercial purposes. What’s your take on the paradoxical nature of this artform?
Kent Sheely: This is a subject that actually comes up a lot, and I’m not sure how things are in other countries, but at least in the United States the appropriation of video games is covered by the Fair Use copyright law. That’s how properties like Red vs. Blue have been allowed to exist and make a profit. This means that as long as you’re adding commentary to the material you’re using, creating a parody, or manipulating the original material to a sufficient degree, you’re free to do what you wish with the source. Regardless of the way the law sees machinima, I like to think of it as an inherently subversive act, especially when used to comment on the subject matter in the game being used.
GVA: Would you agree that machinima has democratized the art making process? Has it lowered the entry barrier for creators of video art, as some critics argue?
Kent Sheely: The tools that have been developed in recent years for creating machinima have brought it into the mainstream consciousness & made it easier for people to use for their own creations. Resources like Source Filmmaker have made it easy for even children to craft their own stories using their favorites games. I definitely don’t see this as a bad thing, even though the medium is now flooded with an overwhelming amount of very poorly constructed works; I see it as an opportunity for more people to become aware of video games as a valid medium, and more diverse voices to be added to the conversations that have been happening for years now.
Three Experiments in Virtual Photography by Kent Sheely SITUATION #34: http://situations.fotomuseum.ch/portfolio/kentsheely/ Interview by Marco De Mutiis, fotomuseum, Winterthur, 2016
GVA: How do video game aesthetics affect the overall impact of your work? What comes first, the concept or the medium?
Kent Sheely: My creative process almost always involves playing games, and the work emerges from my experience of looking at them from different points of view. For example, Ready for Action emerged from playing Grand Theft Auto IV while I lived in New York City, where the game is set, and realizing how vastly different my experience of the city was from the main character’s. He is in no way bound by the constraints of a normal citizen; he doesn’t have to wait for buses or trains or taxis, because he’s afforded the freedom to just steal cars & mash the gas pedal until he gets where he wants to go, ostensibly without consequence. The game expects this of him, and expects he will enact any violent means necessary to realize this potential. I found a lot of joy in forcing him to take the long way round, living as an ordinary citizen even though he still carries an automatic weapon around everywhere he goes, a visible reminder that he’s doing something wrong as far as the game’s framework is concerned. This is how most of my work develops, through play.
Kent Sheely, Ready For Action #10, 2016
This is part of an ongoing series of scenes featuring video game characters at the mercy of public transportation. Audio from the game has been blended with audio captured while waiting for public transportation in the real world.
GVA: What kinds of games have you selected to create Ready for Action?
Kent Sheely: When making a new iteration in Ready for Action, I primarily look for games that feature some form of public transit as a set piece, but more specifically I seek out games that try to emulate the way those spaces look and feel in the real world. They’re generally pre-populated with stationary characters whose only purpose in the game is to look like they’re waiting to be picked up, or at least built to look like they are in operation. As the main character, I try to blend into this setting as best I can. A lot of games also feature an “idle animation” that makes it look as though your character is growing impatient, which always makes it look that much more authentic when I’m simply standing around at the mercy of a force I can’t control, yet wielding an incredibly dangerous weapon that I could use at any time to inflict my agency on my surroundings, yet I don’t.
Kent Sheely, Ready for Action #9, 2015
Part of an ongoing series of scenes featuring video game characters at the mercy of public transportation. Audio from the game has been blended with audio captured while waiting for public transportation in the real world.
GVA: Ready for Action can be considered as a kind of Waiting For Godot 2.0. Do you think there is a parallel between the exhausting and unsettling urban wait of your characters and the real and dreadful one lived by a soldier waiting for battle?
Kent Sheely: Although there are weapons featured in Ready for Action, I try to disconnect the characters as much as possible from the idea of combat and violence, and instead let the weapons represent agency and the ability to take action, which my character clearly does not employ. In that sense I suppose the connection to Waiting for Godot is appropriate, as the main character’s purpose of existence is inevitably called into question. If you take away a game character’s freedom, what’s the point?