Alain Bieber is a journalist, curator and author specialising in the field of games. As a curator he has organized several German and international exhibitions focusing on gaming and urban culture. Since 2015 he has been the artistic and executive director of the NRW Forum where he has organised several artistic events related to gaming. In November 2016, the NRW Forum hosted the Next Level Festival at which time Mr. Bieber gave us the following interview concerning his views on gaming and interactivity.
Do you like to play?
I like to play: I believe in the concept of ‘homo ludens’ and think almost everything in life is kind of play, for example, communication. There is no traditional game that I like to play, but everything can be seen as a kind of game.
When did you start to focus on artistic games in your curatorial practice?
In my curatorial practice, I’m focusing on contemporary art, especially on pop culture and amateur culture. Things that are normally not considered contemporary art comprise my research theme, for example, internet trash. For me gaming and games are part of pop culture, like Super Mario, Luigi, and Donkey Kong. These are pop cultural icons; everybody understands these as visual language, not because he or she is a gamer. I’m not a huge fan of classical white space exhibitions where you come, see, consume and forget quite quickly. I was often jealous of music, as it touches one much more, as does painting. Gaming is also like this because it is about moving images and sound. Now it’s immersive, so you can even be inside the game. If this can inspire the visitors, I find the meaning in why I curated this art exhibition. I wanted to transform the museum space into a special arcade salon, where people can just have fun in the exhibition and experience the artworks in a different way. I work for a cultural institution, and not for a gallery or art fair because I don’t want that. It is not my job to support the art market. As Artur Zmijewski, former curator of Berlin Biennale said, there is too much art pollution, useless art objects that have no sense at all, they are just collections which collectors can put up in their living room above the sofa. I don’t want to contribute to art decoration. That’s also OK, but I’m interested in art that is trying to comment, to change, influence and inspire people.
Do you think that theatre can squeeze in a place for games just as museums have?
Depends on the theatre: in some classical theatres they have a traditional approach, but then you have contemporary theatre, where it is normal for everybody to participate all the time. I think everything becomes more participatory in a way. A lot of people get bored in consuming things on TV, radio or theatre. Your body is dead. But what happened to the world? Internet culture. Now everybody has become participant, and protagonist. You can be a singer and publish your song, and your own game. You do your artwork, or authoring, and spread it on the net. It activates a lot of people and shows that participation is possible.
Is it only possible or is it a must?
In some theater spaces it is a must to participate, but that’s difficult now. It should make sense if everything is now participatory: there is a rule called the 99/1 rule: 90% of people in general love to be passive, 9% are active sometimes and just 1% are doing and creating things. A good example of this is Wikipedia: 1% are really writing actively. Before the NRW Forum I worked at Arte (a German-French Television channel) and we did many participatory projects, but a lot of people didn’t want to participate. It is also alright not to participate. We created transmedia projects and we tried to offer people choices: one can participate, upload a video, change the narration, but others can just watch and enjoy. We also created exhibitions that are always on stage, but you still have normal visitors that are not forced to participate or be on stage.
Would you give us an example of such a transmedia project?
For example Kate: it was a TV series, attached to it was a website to upload pictures. In the postproductions these pictures and videos could enter the TV-series, so that people really had the opportunity to upload their pictures into the series, created with slots, that could be filled by users, by spectators, and we also had an app that worked with sound synchronization. This means that you were in front of the TV and something happened on the screen like: the protagonist of the series was on the phone and at the same time your phone was also ringing. It really looked like she was calling you. You could push yes and then an audio track was speaking to you and you could have the impression that she was really talking to you. This way the narration became three-dimensional. We also created fake Facebook-accounts for the protagonists. It was an interesting experience, even if it looked like science fiction, a lot of people thought it was real. That was in 2013.
What do you see in your previous curating experience that is particularly important?
Here at the NRW Forum we worked with the Ben J. Riepe Kompanie during the exhibition Planet B (they come from performing arts) that took place in summer 2016. Normally they play in front of an audience, on stage, but now for the first time they were in this exhibition place for three months and they were mostly living there, doing experiments, rehearsals. There was no strict timing for them: sometimes the visitors were lucky and they could catch a concert, but you could never really know what would happen. I liked this for the surprise factor but also for the performance. It was quite difficult for them because they were not used to an audience which was coming and going. Some of the artists enjoyed it and some couldn’t really deal with the situation. Some opened up, they had a lot of liberty in their performance, because it was so long, for a whole day. The visitors could follow the process as an outsider. I really missed them after they left, because usually when I came they changed the setting, it always looked completely different. I would love to integrate performers much more often in exhibitions. It was an intense experience. It is not like hanging pictures for three month on the wall. You work with humans, they always have questions, needs. Something always changes so it is much more complicated, institution wise. Some institutions don’t want the artists to stay overnight, or to cook in the building. Planet B was an experiment, new ideas for the world, so we really tried to change little things, and this strategy helped.
Did they become certain objects?
Some of them said: “we are like monkeys in the zoo”. You can have this perspective, but I liked the atmosphere that the artists are present and you can’t plan it. Not only the artists, but the visitors remembered this because they participated in the workshops and they won’t forget that. It is important to work on creating memorable happenings and experiences.
This is your vision for the NRW Forum?
I would like to encourage people not to like this consuming attitude, and mix high culture with low or amateur culture. I believe in cultural education as it can create knowledge, and can help to change all kinds of things.
Do you think new tech can be a tool that enhances this?
When cinema appeared we were like five meters away from the screen. Then you had TV and you were one meter away from the screen. Now with mobile phones you are about thirty centimeters away. The technology is coming closer and it will eventually get in your body. Next it will be a bracelet and ego updates at cyborg fairs. This is how I see it: humans will be more connected and will incorporate more technology. Probably most people are cyborgs already, and it depends also on where you stand: are you more the pessimist, or the optimist? I’m the optimistic guy. But, it is not black and white, it is grey.