Walk into any of the world’s biggest institutions, and you’re unlikely to encounter many video games. Right now, however, if you visit the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf, these playable works will be the only thing you’ll encounter. To celebrate the space’s 15th anniversary, the eponymous German collector has turned her private museum over to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who organized the show “Worldbuilding: Gaming and Art in the Digital Age.” After its run there finishes in December 2023, the show will be travel to the Centre Pompidou Metz in France.
Taking as its starting point works from Stoschek’s collection, including a Sturtevant work mimicking the form of Pac-Man, the show explores why artists have been drawn to the medium over the past few decades. Participants run the gamut from Harun Farocki, a pioneering filmmaker whose essayistic works explored how technology has reshaped the way we see, to Balenciaga, the chic fashion brand known for its collaborations with young artists. “Worldbuilding” is also somewhat unusual as exhibitions go, in that its checklist isn’t final and may never be—Obrist has brought on young artists who he hopes will realize dream projects during the show’s 18-month run. Many of the show’s artworks will be playable; almost all of them will change over time.
To hear more about the exhibition, ARTnews spoke with Obrist by Zoom.
ARTnews: How did you end up organizing this show?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Julia and I have known each other for almost 20 years, and we’ve collaborated in the past on exhibitions—for example, the Arthur Jafa show [in 2018]. She invited me to do this anniversary exhibition. I’d seen the 10th-anniversary exhibition she did, where [artist] Ed Atkins was the curator, and I thought it was interesting. I realized that, in her collection, there were a lot of works—for example, one by Sturtevant—which have to do with gaming and video games. For quite some time now, I’ve been researching younger artists who work with games.
There are multiple levels on which artists work with video games. On the one hand, artists like Sturtevant or Peggy Ahwesh or Rebecca Allen have been inspired by the aesthetic of existing video games and have brought that into their work. More recently, also, Cory Arcangel has been working with that. The second way that artists do that is by actually going into video games and doing projects in them, like exhibitions. The third thing, which is a more recent thing because the technology and the tools have become more accessible, is that more and more artists are making their own games. We can see that from Jacolby Satterwhite to Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. I thought it would be interesting to bring all this art together.
In particular, I was in interested in how this show would last so long. Typically, shows last two or three months. The invitation from Julia was to do a show across the entire building in Düsseldorf for 18 months. That will allow the show to evolve, because often these games keep changing, so we’ll be able show different versions over time. Some of these artists also have unrealized games, which they’ll be also realizing over time.
In addition to the Sturtevant, what other works in her collection did you end up relying on?
The majority of the works are new and by emerging artists. There are a couple of works that were there, like BOB (Bag of Beliefs) by Ian Cheng and Even Pricks by Ed Atkins, who has used the aesthetics of games in his work.
Why do you think artists are attracted to video games right now?
Now, in the current moment, artists can make their own games. It has a lot to do with the fact that they can be like portals, a form of world-building. Another aspect is agency within these games. And there’s another dimension: artists are questioning stereotypes that we have in mainstream video games. [French theorist Guy] Debord would call it detournement—they’re doing something totally different to these existing games.
Are these artists trained in video games, or are they taking it up as outsiders to that field?
It’s both, I would say. Some artists have a background in gaming, and then they come into the art world. For example, when I met Jakob Kudsk Steensen five or six years ago, he was mostly in the world of video games. He worked on games, and he’s really trained in that world, and then he came into the art world and started making installations. And then you have cases where it’s the other way around, where they start as visual artists and then make games.
Many of these younger artists are using video games to envision worlds that look nothing like our own. What is the benefit of making those worlds for these artists?
It’s a way of making artworks participatory, since many of these works are multiplayer games. We can see more and more artists going into that. But it’s interesting, as we were researching this show, we found out that there were so many artists who had unrealized games. Just a few weeks ago, I found out that Korakrit [Arunanondchai] and Precious Okoyomon wanted to make a game together, so we hope that that can happen at some point during the show. It’s astonishing how many artists haven’t had the opportunity to make a game, but want to.
This isn’t the first time you’ve commissioned artists to make games—you’ve also done that at the Serpentine Galleries, where, as artistic director, you have asked artists like Gabriel Massan and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley to make new works.
We were very impressed by the work, in particular Danielle’s Black Trans Archive, which is a video game she’s been working on for some time. It looks at the fact that Black trans people have been erased from archives. It’s an evolving—it’s a long, durational project. Danielle was inspired by Sondra Perry and Jacolby Satterwhite, who are also in the show, so it’s a transgenerational exhibition. It goes from Rebecca Allen, who did it in the ’80s, to the generation of Ian Cheng, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Sondra Perry, who have been doing this for the last 10 years. And then it goes to the younger generation with people like Danielle.
When artists started doing this in the ’80s, was it respected as an art form, the way it is now?
No, I think at that time they were bringing it in from outside the art world. That’s what Sturtevant once told me—she wanted to bring that world into the art world.
Will viewers be able to play the works in this show?
Yeah, the idea is that more than half of the games will be playable within the exhibition. The viewer plays an active role. That’s true for Danielle’s work, and that’s true for all the works we’ve mentioned. The viewer is implicated in the way the work progresses and is experienced. Some works are videos of existing games, but an important part of the show is actually inviting viewers to play the games.
Have you been able to play the games yourself? Are you a big gamer?
I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over the past 12 months playing games. In the past few weeks, it’s been Elden Ring. Some friends of mine have spent hundreds of hours with games. I’ve maybe spent 10 hours with Elden Ring, which is not so much, but it’s a lot compared to what we spend with other things. If you think that on average, people spend 15 or 30 seconds with an artwork, it’s interesting how much time people spend with these games.
So yeah, it’s not only games in the show by artists—it’s also games in a larger sense. You asked me why I wanted to curate this show. Well, a third of the world population is playing games. During studio visits, many artists said they were interested in commencing their own games. So I think we are just at the beginning of something in the art world.
This project is in some ways also a reflection on the metaverse. How might the metaverse be different from how companies imagine it? It’s relevant that we listen to artists in this time for the future.