“You’re not prone to seizures, are you?” the artist Peter Burr asked me before firing up Pattern Language, a new “immersive multi-channel video environment” that he has made with the programmer and video artist Mark Fingerhut, the artist Brenna Murphy, the game designer Porpentine, and the composer John Also Bennett. We were standing inside the 3-Legged Dog art space and performance venue in the Financial District in Manhattan, where the piece will go on view Sunday evening.
Pattern Language is named after a term coined by the architect Christopher Alexander. It describes an abstract “aliveness” that exists within human behavior as expressed through a series of interconnected structural patterns. Proponents of the theory claim that it can be used by a wide cross section of people to solve complex design problems. For Burr’s installation, the language of Alexander’s system is deployed in an immersive black-and-white video environment that a press release refers to as an “endlessly mutating death labyrinth” that goes in and out of figuration and abstraction. Aesthetically, it feels tethered to everything from early Op, video, and computer art to, more recently, Cory Arcangel’s “infinite fill” experiments and the glitch-inflected work of Providence psychedelic collective Forcefield if they had worked solely in black and white. It looks at once hi-res and bitcrushed.
The piece comes out of a video game called Aria End that Burr is currently working on with Porpentine, who is best known in the gaming world for her hypertext games and interactive fiction. Two years ago, while building out the game, they created their first public project, the 4-channel video installation Cave Exits, which served as an introduction to the Aria End world. Recently, the duo got a $50,000 grant from Creative Capital to work on the game.
Burr told me that Pattern Language is largely structured as a fugue, both in the musical and psychological senses of the word. Five main phases are repeated in two variations, followed by a quiet interlude. Everything then loops back onto itself. One section deploys an algorithm based on the “cellular automation” of Cambridge mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life to create something that looks a bit like a star field. Elsewhere, a crowd-simulation algorithm is utilized and Mac Paint swatches are run through heavy dithering. There is a part called STROBE that does just what its name suggests. The artist Brenna Murphy was brought on to help with “digital architecture,” or building 3-D CGI assets for one of the five scenes. At one point, I got flashbacks to playing the game Lemmings on my grandmother’s PC. The piece has isolated and modified DNA of the video game that it is based on.
“As it relates to the video game, this is really explicitly about the architecture and the philosophy behind the architecture,” Burr said, describing the idea of an underground mega-structure and the population that resides in it. “We’re sort of thinking about how an architect might think about utopia and then actually how utopia is applied and people living in it. Which is where you get these crowd-simulation scenes…Mark [Fingerhut] was working on making the crowd-sim stuff, and then the Game of Life stuff, which was really minimal—obviously we’re breaking stuff down.” Breaking it down, sure, but a mush-brained reporter had to ask more than a few follow-up questions.
The sound design for the piece came about, in part, from Burr and composer John Also Bennett thinking about Minimalist composer Le Monte Young’s Dream House space, which is located nearby 3-Legged Dog, in TriBeCa. Burr explained their thinking: “What would it be like to actually make a social space for video games, an environment where you can come in and experience a video game, or a multi-channel work of video art in space with bodies and all of these tools?” To that end, the music alternates between a sort of rhythmic minimalism and a heavy digital drone. The end goal, Burr said, was to really “sink those rule sets into your body” with sound.
Before moving to New York in 2010, Burr lived in Portland and was a member of the performance duo Hooliganship. He also curated the DVD label and touring video show Cartune Xprez. Burr described both projects as “every color all the time,” trading in the kind of noisy, pop-culture-splattered aesthetics popular throughout American warehouses and alternative art spaces in the oughts. Around the time he moved to New York, though, Burr said that he “flipped that pretty heavily and got into an oppositional mode.” He started making work in black and white. “In a way I feel like from a visual standpoint it kind of does the same thing, there’s the density that happens, but it’s about stripping that,” he said.
Although the Creative Capital grant has allowed the artists a budget to work with, the money is still a drop in the bucket in the world of video games, where development can cost millions of dollars. As the bigger game develops, projects like Pattern Language can function as both an abstracted proof of process and its own standalone work. “At the end of the day, what got me to being interested in making a video game is making stuff like [Pattern Language],” Burr said.