[March 16th, 2007]
Julian Oliver/ Game Art
Posted by Michael
We had the honor of having Julian Oliver, game artist and founder of selectparks, as a visiting artist/ teacher here at Tech for the Games as Expressive Medium course. His one month course was probably the first taught game course using the Wii-mote as input device (you can find the underlying code on Julian’s page here). But now he finished his session and went out with a bang by presenting his new work ioq3aPaint.
During his stay here, he worked on some new pieces and gave two main talks, one titled “10 years of artistic game development”, the other was his presentation of the new game art piece he did during his time here.
Both were really interesting and well worth visiting. So I thought I try a kind of mesh up of what I liked and try to combine them to get a perspective towards game art via Julian’s work. The occasion is yesterday’s presentation of ioq3aPaint:
Basically, ioq3aPaint is a drawing program powered by Quake 3. It plays with the z-buffer to generate amazing and strange pictures of bots on auto control.
This piece serves here as a reason to look at Julian’s other work and his approach to game art.
When talking about game art, Julian started with Ars Doom (1994-95). Julian himself got infected with the game bug with the release of Half Life and its editor. I found it very interesting to hear how the commercial game “totally affected” his artistic practice. It seemed like a marriage made in game heaven with all the usual pitfalls and peak moments. The relationship between game and artist seems to be a creative battleground. As Julian put it: game art needs the industry to interrogate.
This interrogation can be a very friendly conversation, see Oliver’s first released piece Quilted Thought Organ (1998) or it can be torture of the hardware like his max_miptex – a very strange kind of hardware machinima in which they basically try to run Half Life on the wrong graphic drivers. The result is the twisted visual screaming of a tortured graphic card.
Most of Julian’s work is very visual as it uses and abuses games’ rendering techniques. ‘The pixel is shy’ and in danger to completely disappear in HD gaming. In contrast, a lot of Oliver’s pieces bring the pixel and the rendering mechanics back on the screen.
At other the engine can be a difficult legal and commercial trap for art production as Oliver encountered during his work on ACMI’s Acmipark. Occasionally, he ran into curators who literally had to ask him ‘Can we distribute your art legally?’ The game can be a big show stopper. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful political platform as seen in Escape from Woomera. Oliver was part of the team that used Half Life to create an outspoken political game mod. The player is virtually locked into a game copy of a real Australian detention camp and has to escape. For everyone, who ever played Half Life, this mod not only criticizes the Woomera detention camp through its virtual representation. By using Half Life, one immediate associated Woomera with the hell of the Black Mesa complex and the critique on the camp is supported through this cultural reference.
And yes, they did get a lot of heat for that. It probably did not help that the project was funded by the same Australian government that it criticized. But it is important to see that game art evolved from a technical toy to a toy with a purpose in Julian’s case.
Today, Julian is basically a prophet of Open Source and self-coded work like their hack of Quake 3 in Q3apd, a collaboration with Steven Pickles, or the beautiful new ioq3aPaint that he presented here yesterday.
And he is good in spreading the Open Source virus, indeed. We will have a long look at Blender thanks to him.
It seemed that his career really mirrored the gradual growth of the game art scene from a user of the given tools to a master hacker to a self-made artist; from play with the given art tools and artifacts to a full mastery of them (check out packetgarden); and finally how the work comes full circle and starts to fuel back into industry, like Oliver and pix’s Fijuu 2. The project runs in Linux and uses a Playstation controller – you do the math. And it actually is fun to play. I found out.
There is no conclusion to this story. Oliver continues to do great stuff, now much further in the Open Source community. But it is inspiring to see how game art evolved in his practice. When he founded selectparks they had to invent names for the various categories to cover – today the tools are spreading all over the web and Oliver’s work was presented in countless galleries, conferences, and events.
Julian seems to turn the wheel almost back to the demoscene. The same person, who modeled a section of the RMIT campus for Half Life now has to get and read the code in order to create something new with it. Oliver really questions and modifies on the code level and this is an integral part of his artistic practice. Comparing this to the remix culture of The Movies or even Little Big Planet really opens up the question how much control does an artist need to be more than a parasite living on the game engine?