Essays by Brit Salvesen and Mirjam Kooiman All the images in this work are taken in Grand Theft Auto V —a video game set in Los Santos, an “open world” scenario that closely resembles Los Angeles and its surroundings. Turned into a virtual replica, the city looks familiar and recognizable, but at the same time, pieces are missing, distances are altered, dimensions changed.
While exploring the possibilities and the meanings of photographing a virtual place, the work addresses further issues, such as the truthfulness of photography and our belief in this medium as a trace of reality. Cropped and turned to black and white by the author, all the images are originally taken by different players around the world. When it comes to showing how realistic this video game is, how much it “seems real”, it’s striking how all these users unknowingly adopt a visual language as descriptive and objective as possible, somehow close to the documentary style.
Thus, their pictures end up resembling those of many great photographers who worked in L.A. widely throughout the second half of the past century. With their own perspective, these artists all contributed to the creation of an image of the city that is still vivid and lasting.
SITUATION #129: Alan Butler, Sturtevant/a_m_f_skidrow_01 Finite Infinite, 2018
part of Fotomuseum Winterthur SITUATIONS programme.
In Sturtevant/a_m_f_skidrow_01 Finite Infinite, a short video loop portraying a non-player character (NPC) from a computer game is projected on a rotating beamer in the installation space. The installation builds on Butler’s previous work, Down and Out in Los Santos. There, the artist embarked on a journey through the social landscape of the video game Grand Theft Auto V to document the lives of homeless NPCs in the virtual city of Los Santos. One of the characters he encountered is at the centrepiece of his new work: a homeless NPC that bears a striking resemblance to conceptual artist Sturtevant. The character is transformed into a hybrid, computational entity, half human-looking, yet resembling a dog running endlessly in circles. By directing our gaze to the characters that inhabit the uncanny borders of non/human, the artist challenges the viewer to rethink anthropomorphic representation and consider these digital entities and bots as autonomous creatures that do not subjugate to a human hierarchy.
Sturtevant/a_m_f_skidrow_01 Finite Infinite is accompanied by the online video essay Mondo Cane.
Rückenfigur, literally “back-figure” in German, is a compositional device that was often used by Caspar David Friedrich. In Friedrich’s painting Wanderer in the Sea of Fog, the viewer is invited into the composition through a figure in the painting’s foreground that serves as surrogate for the scene. We see the back of the man’s black coat as he stands atop a rocky terrain before the grandness of the sea, horizon, and sky before him. The man gazes into sublime nature, and through him—this Rückenfigur—we, the viewers of the painting, become immersed in the setting and can witness his grand view of the landscape with our own eyes, as if through the back of his head. Grand Theft Auto V presents a similar opportunity for immersion into a landscape by way of an avatar with its back turned—a digital Rückenfigur of sorts.
Owning and playing Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is not the only way to experience the majesty of a digital world that has been created to encapsulate the narrative of the game. Many individuals participate in the YouTube economy of posting and watching videos of gameplay. Such documentation videos are frequently recorded in third-person mode, characterized by the back of an avatar at the center of the screen through which the player navigates the world. With this perspective, the landscape shifts while the avatar remains relatively fixed in the foreground of the scene. Unlike in Friedrich’s world, the Rückenfigur through which we experience the GTA landscape is not necessarily human. There are third-person videos to be found featuring any or all the following protagonists: bikes, cars, trucks, trains, motorcycles, blimps, helicopters, boats, and even all-powerful and immortal deer. (The latter the result of a fantastic artwork by Brent Watanabe.)
The desire to capture the sublime potential of nature through an idealized scene may have begun with Friedrich, but it transcends the ages, as evidenced in the names of uploaded gameplay videos. Excerpts entitled GTA 5 Sunset, GTA V: Beautiful sunset flight, Grand Theft Auto V—The Drive Through The Sunset, GTA 5—Beat The Sunset: A Drifting Montage, only begin to scratch the surface of the vast amount of video recorded by one player’s avatar’s experience of the same algorithmic sunset. These videos consistently feature comments by viewers expressing their gratitude for the video and their shared appreciation of the beauty of the landscape. For example, viewer GTAgreat says, “Good job. Sunset is breathtaking :OOO.”
In this series of works, I want to investigate Grand Theft Auto as a subject of art that transposes Friedrich’s subjective Romanticism to the digital age. I am particularly interested in working with videos that other players have already deemed important enough to share. This collection provides a sampling of GTA’s digital world that incorporates both the gaze of an avatar and the eyes of a living viewer encoded into the experience of the scene. The view and the location presented around the avatar is a representation of what a single player decided to record and share.
To create the images in the series, I employed a technique called “image averaging,” notably used previously by artists such as Jim Campbell and Jason Salavon. The average of a series of digital images is calculated so that the more consistent characteristics shared by the images are rendered in greater detail. In this case, I was using video frames from YouTube videos of GTA gameplay. The game’s avatar, consistently encountering the world around it, remains a constant presence on the screen and is therefore rendered in more detail than the surrounding world. As the world passes by, the avatar remains virtually unchanged, and the contrast between the more realized avatar and the blur of the shifting landscape becomes evident in the resulting images. Each image is the sum of someone’s desire to share an imaginary world through a gameplay video. And, as Sammy R—in the comments section of one of these videos assures us—“This is Art.”
26 Gasoline Stations was a book and conceptual photography series created by Ed Ruscha in 1963. In my version I take a 4X5 view camera and point it at my T.V. screen while I explore the virtual world of Los Santos in the video game Grand Theft Auto V. This world is created to mimic the real world of California and most specifically the city of Los Angeles. As I visit this world from my couch I wait for something to catch my eye as familiar or visually interesting just like we do when we photograph in the real world. By relating back to this series of travel photographs but having the entire travel log take place in a virtual world of a video game; the work speaks to an idea of another reality in which we occupy and participate in simulated experience. When looking at a photograph the viewer receives visual stimuli of the mind that in return triggers a feeling that is most likely made up of an experience they may have had in the past. This process is not unlike the video game world that is created as an expression of an idealist reality, whose purpose is to provide you with simulated occurrences. This connection between these two mediums may be why the digital age has become so fascinated with them both.
This work is a simulacrum of Ed Ruscha’s 1962 publication of the same name. The photographic panels in this version have been produced during drives around the city of Los Santos and Blaine County – the virtual world that makes up the video game Grand Theft Auto 5. Using out-of-the-box technology within the game, I have produced a version of the seminal photography artifact that accepts GTAV as an exploitable corporate reality, akin to the signs and images that make up our own world.
Down and Out in Los Santos is series of photographs that are created by exploiting a smartphone camera feature within the video game Grand Theft Auto V. Players of GTAV can put away the guns and knives, and instead take photos within the game environment. This operates in basically the same way as ‘real’ cameras do. I walk around a three-dimensional space, find a subject, point the camera, compose the shot, focus, and click the shutter. I have taken a photograph.
Adopting a photojournalistic approach, the series aims to engage in a sort of social-realism for the software-age, documenting poverty and the lives of the homeless within video game environment’s socio-economic hegemony. Through performative engagement with the uncanny simulations of society’s most vulnerable, Down and Out in Los Santos aims to unearth the viewer’s empathy and humanity through manipulative photographic tropes.
Embarking on daily photographic expeditions within this video game, I have already spent over a year capturing these homeless people, their surroundings, the infrastructure, and hopefully the symptoms and causes of their states of being. The initial result is thousands of quasi-photographic images, which depict moments of real intimacy between myself and these virtual people. There are a number of ways that this is achieved – such as waiting for eye-contact with the simulant, or using depth of field to draw focus to objects, poses, limbs and intimate moments between groups of people. These individuals do not provide the game with any functionality per se, as they never intersect with the narrative. Instead they exist as why I think of as an ‘ambient human presence’. I am not proud to say that they exist in a similar place of reality to the homeless people who sit on the doorsteps of my studio every day in Dublin’s city centre.
While the inhabitants of Los Santos possess only a superficial amount of artificial intelligence, it is possible to have real emotional experiences in their presence. This might sound sad and geeky, but it is true. The characters are aware of my presence as I photograph them, some ignore me, other times I am attacked and must defend myself. They chatter to each other, they share alcohol and cigarettes, they ask for money to buy drugs. Programmed to self-identify, they congregate with those in similar social situations to themselves.
Once I have taken the photographs, the images are then uploaded to a social network called the ‘Rockstar Social Club’. The feature called ‘Snapmatic’ is itself is a simulacra of modern photo-sharing apps, such as Instagram. A technical imposition of corporate pragmatism means the images are downsized and compressed, and their journey through these networks is scarred onto the pixelated, low-resolution corrupted surface of these digital photos.
This website is where the project will be initially rolled out, with software automatically posting images every day until some point in 2018. I have already posted hundreds of these images online on various networks. On Instagram, the project takes an interesting turn. Through the use of hashtags, I have been attempting to allow these images penetrate traditional photographic and photojournalism networks. The unexpected result here is that dozens of bots have been ‘liking’ these images. The bots in question have been installed by particular Instagram users to automatically ‘like’ every single post on particular hashtags. I have been calling these the “Sycophant Bots”, since the exist only to flatter users, with the hope that people like me will ‘follow’ their host-account. Perhaps it is poetic, but entirely appropriate that software is the first audience of these empathetic photographs of software people.
Vladimir Rizov: Virtual Photography, Immersion, and Boundaries in Grand Theft Auto V.
Photography is a visual practice that deals with the production of images. Images, be it digital or analogue, moving or still, are consistently framed in a particular material artefact. Furthermore, most perspectives tend to see the image as a singular, material final product that is deeply rooted in a teleological framework. However, such perspectives clearly omit the richness of the concept image, as this conference rightly raises the issues of materiality, multimodality, and mediality. In order to demonstrate the inherent multisensory aspect of an image, as well as its rootedness in a practice that is not necessarily teleological, I will explore instances of photographs taken in-game by Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) players. The element of virtuality in the game will reveal several aspects of the image. First, the disembodied element of virtuality poses an interesting relationship between image, medium, and the body (Hansen, 2004). This relates heavily to issues of embodiment and agency, where the two practices of photography and gaming meet. While gaming is widely seen to be concerned with immersion, photography can be conceptualised as a practice of seeing. Second, because images exist dependent on a medium, the contrast between the moving images of the virtual game world of GTA V and the still photographs created will provide opportunity for reflection on the concept of image in its multiple forms. As Vivian Sobchack writes ‘electronic presence has neither a point of view nor a visual situation, such as we experience, respectively, with the photograph and the cinema’ (2000: 151). However, what happens when the third person experience of GTA V coincides with a POV use of a virtual camera? As Galloway points out, shooter games already have expanded the ‘definitional bounds of the subjective shot’ (2006: 63), but the POV use of a virtual camera seems to not only be expanding the experience of the virtual world, but simultaneously questioning it; both allowing for further immersion and potential detachment from the in-game world. This is particularly interesting, since games are widely considered ‘an active medium’ (Galloway, 2006: 83) that involves a player’s physical input and multisensory experience. However, while Galloway claims that ‘the primary phenomenological reality of games is that of action (rather than looking, as it is with cinema in what Jameson described as “rapt, mindless fascination”)’ (2006: 83), the case of virtual photography in-game problematizes this by converging action and seeing into a singular experience.
A selection of videogames that attempt to incorporate photography (or better “photographing”) as game mechanics to a certain degree.
Polaroid Pete (Gekisha Boy Gekibo)
Gekibo: Gekisha Boy – screenshot of the 1992 PC game version
Gekibo: Gekisha Boy – screenshot from the 1992 PC game version
In this PC game from 1992 (ported to PS2 in 2002, and with a a sequel titled Gekisha Boy 2 released for PS2 in 2001), photography plays a big role in both story and game mechanics. This makingGekisha Boy one of the earliest examples of videogames to incorporate a camera and the act of taking pictures as core game mechanic. In each level the main character has to take snapshots of events happening around him, with points being assigned according to the player’s ability to catch the “decisive moment”.
In this series, the game takes inspiration from the Victorian born art of ‘Spirit Photography’. It lets the player capture images of spirits through a Camera Obscura, while exploring abandoned ruins and fend off hostile ghosts.
the main character of Dead Rising is a photo journalist, Frank West, who has to survive a zombie-infested environment while documenting the events with his camera. Shots taken with the in-game camera are evaluated (genre of the photos is analysed, e.g. brutality, drama, …) and rewarded through a point system.
Spiderman 3 lets you play as Peter Parker, and in some missions you are required to get pictures for the Daily Bugle. A basic camera interface allows you to zoom and frame an image before taking the shot. Pictures are given points (photo score).
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
in an easter egg within Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the player is transported to a white environment where it is possible to take pictures of the female character, posing as if in some sort of weird erotic photo shoot.
Grand Theft Auto V
in GTA V, there are a number of missions where you work with/for a paparazzi photographer and you have to take pictures with a DSLR or with your in-game smartphone camera.
Camera Sim 3D
Camera Sim 3D is a DSLR simulator, developed with the purpose of teaching the basics of photography and how to operate a DSLR camera. It is still in production at the time of writing, but a live demo is available online.
the original article included “Life Is Strange” as one of the games about photography, but it was not featured in our list because the mechanics for taking a picture in the game offer very little control or similarity with the act of photographing (no possibility of framing, zooming, focusing).
“ILLSNAPMATIX is a celebration of the people, places and things illuminated by the virtual light of Grand Theft Auto” created and curated by Karl Smith.
Modern games now are so beautiful. The lighting and staging really does lend itself to a culture of capturing, sharing and celebrating those images. It’s fun to see that become more interpretive; telling a story or conveying and emotion or sense of place, rather than just “look at this pretty screen grab” (but I’m not knocking that as it’s often an art form in its own right).
A documentary entirely shot with the in-game visuals of Grand Theft Auto V and narrated and edited in the traditional style of popular nature documentaries by YouTube user 8-Bit-Bastard. It’s interesting to note that although it appears to be intended as a parody, the video has received many comments complaining about the inaccurate details of the narration, forcing the YouTube user to comment about the issue:
Hi guys! Some people have been saying it’s not totally accurate – of course it isn’t. We’re not professional wildlife researchers, we’re idiots who play computer games. Enjoy!
The hyper realistic aspect of the in-game sea world and the detailed editing and voice-over create a totally believable documentary piece, challenging traditional notions of representation and simulation.