The fine art of technology
From August 28 to September 1, Johannesburg and South Africa in general will play host to an altogether different kind of arts festival – A Maze. Interact.
Unlike the last major fine arts festival(s) to grace the city, the Johannesburg Biennales of 1995 and 1997, this particular festival has an altogether different structure and set of objectives. For one thing, it is very technology-driven, and the not-so-serious-looking practices of gaming and game design are the principal mediums of its message.
Naturally, you may ask, "but where does art fit in?" and that would be a good question, albeit slightly (and understandably) limited by lack of acquaintance with the obscure middle ground between art and game design.
This middle ground is not easily defined or understood, but one can certainly gain an idea of what it entails when grappling with terms like "digital" or "new media" art.
Here, the artist is never what he or she seems to be, for their existence and practice is not defined by traditional media such as painting and sketching, but rather by the tools that new media and technology has afforded us.
Literature has been at the forefront of ideas around technology and its use and meaning in our everyday lives. When one thinks of science fiction classics such as Phillip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep or William Gibson's Neuromancer, and the cybercultures that they have had an influence in nurturing, it is not difficult to see why this is the case.
In light of this, however, the visual arts have certainly made strides into the arena of interacting with and interrogating the significance of new media technology. Even the legendary computer scientist and pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, who was involved in the development of virtual reality goggles and gloves long before Google existed or came up with "augmented reality" spectacles, took the route of creative expression through the visual arts.
But before I deviate too far and get lost in the territory of new media and technology theory, let me get back to A Maze. Interact. The festival finds its way to Johannesburg thanks to the efforts and partnership of the Johannesburg Goethe-Institut's New Imaginaries series with Thorsten S Wiedemann, who is also the festival's director.
Wiedemann has explained that the festival is not just about designing games, but rather about combining technology and art to create and explore new worlds.
It will bring together artists who are already involved in digital arts and game design, the majority of which will (unsurprisingly) be coming from abroad. There are, however, also a number of South African artists who will be participating in this year's inaugural festival, culminating in a series of talks, screenings, activities and an exhibition at the Wits Art Museum.
Among the participants is Pippa Tshabalala, former presenter of the gaming show The Verge on Vuzu.tv. Tshabalala had a hand in getting the festival to South Africa through her initially internet-based relationship with Wiedemann, which stemmed from her masters' studies in 3D game design.
Tshabalala believes that a festival such as A Maze. Interact. will be well placed to put the spotlight on potentially significant questions around gaming and game design. She notes that for many people, especially gaming geeks and designers, the emphasis tends to be on the creation, functionality and playing of the games, rather than their possible uses and applications.
Clearly the festival, as exciting as it sounds and probably will be, is not all about fun and games. Through the rubric of "the city at play" or "playing in the city" it will also bring the spaces of Johannesburg, mostly the Braamfontein area, into perspective, aiding the re-imagining of these spaces by their inhabitants.
Institutions such as Wits University's School of Arts have already started to respond to the educational aspects of the growing field of game design. The University now offers a formal academic programme through which students who have an interest in the relationship between art and technology can now find a space within which to explore their passions and interests.
But, perhaps, an even more important aspect of what the festival has to offer is something that Wiedemann mentioned in passing: that game design technologies and tools can be used in the advancement of areas of teaching and learning. How great this would be for South Africa, if we had the right kind of vision.
For more information, as well as a copy of the programme, visit the festival's international site at www.amaze-festival.de