Florian Zeyfang Interview with Eddo Stern (Tages Anzeiger) Zurich, SZ, Feb 2002
FZ: For your video Sheik Attack, you have chosen the images of different games to illustrate your thoughts on the politics of Israel towards the Palestinians. This kind of interpretation is going way beyond the assurances of the game industry, that claim that even the most violent attack fantasies are "only a game".
What is, in your eyes, the game-to-life relevance? Is it the illusionary approach? Is it a question of programming as the predetermination - and therefore, countable instead of endless - of actions that can be taken? Or is it the social and political issues many combine with it?
ES: You ask about the game to life relevance. I can start here by telling a story. In 1997 I was playing the popular computer war simulation game Command & Conquer with a few friends. C&C is one of those standard "god's eye" war simulations where an army of soldiers, tanks and other material are at your disposal.
I remember I was in the process of attacking an enemy base with a small group of commandos, (which are incidentally the rarest and most expensive units in the game.) At this time one of my competitors made a remark that was quite chilling. "I heard you lost six commandos last night". He wasn't referring to yesterdays game but to a news item regarding a botched Israeli raid into Lebanon, where six Israeli commandos were killed when munitions they were carrying mysteriously blew up. That moment was a strange one, many ironies and complexities rushed up. The reference to the real events completely ruptured the fantasy of the game and it got me thinking. It was probably the moment when I first began imagining a work like Sheik Attack, where the tension is played out between a "fantasy of war" (as a game industry representative has called it), and the "real-life" counterpart.
If you look at the game industry you will notice an obsession with several themes or genres. Sports, Fighting, War, Science fiction and Medieval Fantasy. Each one of these genres is loaded with complexities relating to questions of masculinity, violence, race, history and politics. For example when looking at the war-games, both first-person-shooters and strategy-sims, there is a strong Nationalistic/Patriotic flavor. The games most often are organized around a dichotomy of Western/Commando/Technological/Organized/Advanced/Cop/Marine/Good vs. Eastern/Southern/Primitive/Chaotic/German/Russian/Arab/Central American/Drug Dealer/Terrorist/Evil. Yet with most games any reference to specific political or national events is blurry at best. The industry doesn't want to take any responsibility for that sort of thing, their business is "pure" entertainment.
So what we are left with is an ideological functionality without any explicit specificity and accountability. It' s interesting to look at the exceptions to this rule. WW2 games are very common, and the historical specificity is there. This is testament to WW2's function in American Ideological legitimization and perhaps also to a "statute of limitations" period that also allows certain other narratives such as those of the (US) War of independence, WW1, and even the Korean war to become historically canonized and easily reproduced in popculture in a way that those "hairy" narratives of say The American Civil War, Vietnam, Panama, Kosovo, and Somalia never could be. It is interesting to compare the scope of Hollywood's war film genre which appears wide and diverse in comparison to the super conservative and narrow arena the computer war game genre occupies.
Now after 9-11 things are going to get very interesting I think. The game industry has used the unspecified "terrorist" archetype for years a la James Bond and other Hollywood movies' use of "imaginary evildoers". Now that The WTC was blown up by those who are now officially called Terrorists, with a Capital T, the industry will need to reexamine its Commando/War game genre and what we will probably (and already) see is first a sharp decline in fantasy/war narratives. For instance the super popular team strategy Half-Life mod Counter Strike which pits a team of blue "terrorists" vs. a team of red "counter terrorists" will never hold its uncanny balance, where choosing to be a terrorist was just plain "cool". There will be no doubt be a deluge of Sci-Fi and Tolkien Fantasy to go with the all the Football, Hockey and then more "greatest generation" good vs evil narratives with more Heroes and Nazi's to boot.
And here comes Fantasy again but only in it's "purest" form. The neo-mediaval fantasy genre of the Game industry and current Western culture is fascinating. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Computer Role playing games are exploding. Swords and Sorcery are dominating the media right now, just in the nick of time for our new Crusade...
FZ: Georg Sesslen recently wrote, that all wars are started with the fantasy that the own soldier/ the own side cannot be hurt. A vision perfectly supported by war games. Your video hurts, it is using tough metaphors for tough things done in the real world. Helicopters are searching, artificial fighters intrude houses and shoot hostages, behind that romantic Israeli folksongs. At the end you list all Palestinian leaders shot in Israeli attacks (till1999). Since then a lot has happened. But in terms of your artwork, you definitely say something about computer games with the real events - do you think, especially the computer game images can say something unique about the real events?--
ES: Yes, much has been remarked on this question by theorists like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillio about the virtually of modern wars, specifically acute with regards to the media representations of the US wars; the gulf war, a sterile war, a video-game war...In Sheik Attack I chose to use specific images from computer games to represent "real" political violence. I chose images that for me at least crossed a certain line where they were still able to create a sense of horror even though it seems like the medium has created a threshold of desensitization that defies any possibility for an affected response to violence. Most people who watched my film who do play video games were surprised by the fact that some of the video game images I used were horrifying or chilling, and were able to transcend their desensitization.
So to try to answer your question, I wanted to try to rupture a deeper condition of fantasy/horror where the multitudes of violent fantasies that play out in this culture leave little room for a "horror" that is "real". Now of course everything has changed as you say and this real incomprehensible "horror" has arrived on 911 and the sky is falling here (in the states) as a result. The fantasy factories of Hollywood and of the computer game industry are responding by removing the remaining elements of "the real" from their fantasies, pulling certain scenes, movies and games off the shelves. This is a market driven form of self-censorship, they're just pulling their pants back on so to speak... Much has been discussed in the US media recently about a return to "simple tales of simple times", no more action-hero terrorists explosion fantasies for a while they say. But we'll have to see how long the quarantine lasts and the urge for the mediated versions of unmediated war experience can be tempered. Hell, Black Hawk Down almost did it for me...