Peter Burr and Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s 4-channel video installation Cave Exits (recalling both Hans Blumenberg’s ‘Höhlenausgänge’ and a history of cave exploration videogames) explores biology and architecture through a trans lens in a game-like zone with mutable parameters. Informed by both game and cinematic conventions, the project illuminates the challenges of both the world-building and self-building drives of game design and transness, and suggests an alternative to the ideas of completeness and stasis in both constructed world and constructed self.
The piece consists of four projection screens that surround viewers, filled with animations by Burr. An experimental animator who deals with digitally-sourced imagery, Burr frequently situates his work as being the product of a simulation, videogame, or even, in one case, a piece of malware. Porpentine is already a presence in games as a writer and designer, recognized as one of the innovators of the interactive fiction platform Twine. In introducing the work at various talks, both artists have incanted, “In this zone the opposite of survival is not death, it’s change.” This sets the stakes for the protagonist of the piece– Cave Exits operates with game-logic and game-perspectives even if it is not directly interactive– The artists have since announced plans to create a videogame inspired by the installation. The stated intention of making a four channel “cube” was to render full attention to all of the videos at once impossible by any individual viewer. This means that without any actual mechanically interactive elements, the piece is in a way interactive, as the viewer chooses which limb of the video projections to watch at any given time. The nature of this sort of interactivity differs from that of much of the “dungeon crawler” genre of games that Cave Exits references, as here the viewer is always pushed forward by time as they pick which “path” (video screen) to follow– There’s no doubling back to explore other screens as they are railroaded through the narrative.
Cave Exits asks questions about sick bodies and sick buildings, how they heal and adapt, and how we struggle to master the connections between our biology and emotional selves as we are pushed through the linear experience of growth, life and death. The environment that the protagonist explores is an “infinite dungeon” that reconfigures itself like an organism, attempting to kill or find stasis with the invader that it has lured into its depths, mutating its visitor instead. As with many of Burr’s other works, black and white moiré dither patterns define surfaces and structures, vibrating to a dizzying effect that makes the environments seem to breathe and writhe as if they are alive. The life-processes of the “dungeon” mirror those of the animated protagonist (named Aria End, a reconfiguration of Ariadne). Cave Exits centers Porpentine’s experience as a transwoman through themes of the malleability of biology and self, as well as her preoccupation with the unexpected interconnectedness of emotional state and intestinal flora. On the projection screens, non-diegetic meters give information about the serotonin levels of the protagonist’s body, originating from her “smart gut” cybernetic implant. The gut here serves as its own labyrinth-inside-a-labyrinth that must be mastered to adapt to a hostile environment. These “health meters”, familiar in videogames, map neatly to ideas of futuristic medicalized transparency into the body, and the struggle to hack biology and self.
A question that I find myself asking when examining time-based work that inherits from a game-eye as much as it does from a conventional cinema eye, is how best to negotiate the urge, as an artist, towards total world-building. Games have a visual language that are both informed by cinema and yet radically more malleable. In the visual language of games, a tension exists between the will towards a powerful, architectural, exposed-data, “god mode” view (the view, presumably, of the game developer), and a fully immersed, occluded and “unspoiled” players’ view. What I find interesting about Burr is how he incorporates both perspective extremes, scaling across multiple formats. His work gives a sense of a game-like world with a sort of nimbleness often denied actual games– which can take years to create and face an often-hostile audience that demands all their expectations be met. It’s telling that the game version of Cave Exits (called Aria End after its protagonist) has been in production for the last three years and much of the actual media documenting Cave Exits comes from promotional pitches for funding and exhibition opportunities for Aria End. As a game maker fascinated with all the non-playable elements that form the diffuse larger part of a game experience, I wonder sometimes if the drive to reify a game as a mechanically complete and playable world is an impulse that should be resisted. Beyond different production concerns and expectations placed on games, there’s also the treatment of games in the wider culture as ephemeral and discrete entertainment content, separated from context via various game distribution platforms. By keeping one foot in the realm of installation art and the other in that of videogames, Cave Exits negotiates the co-creation of meaning by both artist and viewer, never letting power skew too far into either set of hands. We end up with an organic merging and interchange of both perspectives, just as Aria End dances through her infinite dungeon, neither succumbing to it nor mastering it, but always changing within it.
In video games, there is the concept of a dungeon that generates itself: an endlessly mutating death labyrinth. Cave Exits sets this living structure inside a 4-channel video cube. Recalling the way we interact with online media – clicking, zooming, scrolling – it turns the visual archetype of the labyrinth into a circuit board for lost, anxious feelings. From a simple shift in perspective (moving from within the constricted maze-paths to a vantage high above the spatial coil) the claustrophobic corridors become a dazzling pattern of complex artistry. Viewers are unable to process all incoming information in a single sitting, having to choose between screens if they want to sate their curiosity and learn more about the shifting structure. Unlike choosing between branches in an interactive narrative where the peripheral is an explicit set of controls, here the peripheral will be the human neck and eyes, allowing for expression beyond mere hardware.