MAI’s Blown Up: Gaming and War

The Montreal, Arts Interculturels is not only a center for arts, but the presenter of cross-cultural artistic expression which allows many voices to be heard and explored.

From November 17th to December 15th, the MAI is presenting an exhibition exposing today’s misinterpretations of present-day wars through the work of three artists who work with video games; this niche presentation is called Blown Up: Gaming and War.

The first interactive piece is by the New Yorker Wafaa Bilal and is called The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi (2008) and is meant to denounce hateful stereotyping of Arab culture. Al Qaeda did its own take, creating an online video game using the structure of Quest for Saddam but adding a new “skin” to turn the game into a hunt for Bush: “The Night of Bush Capturing”. Now artist Wafaa Bilal has hacked the Al Qaeda version of the game to put his own more nuanced spin on this epic conflict. In The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber in the game. After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush. This work is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians and to Bilal himself.

The center offers a keyboard with mouse to play the game, accompanied by a neat pair of wireless headphones to be able to fully experience the game, no matter how long you’re willing to play. The content is displayed via a projector on the wall and makes it a very immersive experience. After having played your part in it, you quickly feel what the artist implements in his work, and how alienated we are.

The second installment of the exhibition is the work of Berlin-based video artist, Harun Farocki, called Serious Games I-IV. It is composed of four distinct video installations that reposition video game technology within the context of the military from where it originated. The work juxtaposes real-life wartime exercises with virtual re-enactments in order to examine the fundamental links between technology, politics, and violence. It clearly shows that the notion of winning on the ground becomes secondary to upholding the stability of the system. The Marines we see in the films are like the fourth wall we don’t usually have the chance to observe and it creates a parallel with what are used of seeing is as compelling as well-stated.

The third part of the expo is a cool little arcade cabinet with a “game” called Weak by Mohammed Mohsen. Having experienced one of the few ineffectually censored access points to western media in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, Mohsen suggests ways in which video games were a troubling source of pleasure and political anxiety. It’s interpreted as a poetic exploration of a “colonized male”. Weak is a little more difficult to understand at first, given that there is neither real narrative nor a present protagonist in the settings. It explores a strongly-felt theme in particular, tragedy, leaving traces drawn from reconstructed memories of childhood, film and exile poetry. Clearly, this is a more poetic work than just a video game with a cool cabinet, so one must explore its 8-bit-like surroundings and try and interpret its meanings.

The MIA brings us a very captivating and unconventional look at our world and its stereotypes in the video game world, and will be highly appreciated by anyone with a curious and open mind.

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