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Art

Wicked games with a ‘Flick of the Wrist’

Even non-players should find Baker’s Flick of the Wrist artful and fresh

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Spare but effective, Michael Baker’s “Flick of the Wrist,” on display at Winchester.

So, here’s the thing: i do not play video games. I love Centipede with all my heart ... and that’s about it. Having fielded years of gaming onslaught, participated in the occasional Nintendo hockey tournament and sampled everything from Pong to Grand Theft Auto, for me it’s pretty much Centipede or nothing. Call me old-fashioned.

Artwork, however, that samples video-game culture? Much harder to resist. The logistics of contemporary gaming might escape me, but the depth of its impact is fascinating and undeniable. This bona fide Fine Art Genre far exceeds quoting iconic shapes and colors from Q*Bert; it uses familiar colors, spaces and sounds (as well as forms of interactivity) to access hard-to-reach recesses of Americana, feminism, minimalism—you name it.

The thing is, a little tedium has set in. This kind of aesthetic reached its heyday some years ago, crescendoing with the likes of Nintendocore, the hyper, ’80s-infused video art of Ryan Trecartin and funky-fresh street art referencing The Legend of Zelda. Video-game culture as a shorthand for all that is young and hip is a permanent part of the lexicon. Unfortunately, this all too often results in efforts that either seem really dated or are tediously overshadowed by a cultural signifier that the artist just isn’t skilled or savvy enough to handle. When it works, bingo. When it doesn’t? Blech.

One of seven posters displaying seven video game cases at "Flick."

Calendar

Michael Baker’s Flick of the Wrist
Four stars
Through February 5; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Winchester Cultural Center Gallery, 455-8239.

That’s precisely why Michael Baker’s Flick of the Wrist at the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery is so interesting—it’s something else entirely. Here is an exhibition that uses video games to speak about gaming without abusing the codified aesthetics of the video game (CMYK colors, etc.) as a genre or generational tool. Straightforward without being bland, it celebrates the video game as an art form—a potential site for the kind of expanded mental activity that spills over into a richer life experience.

As an installation Flick is spare, consisting of seven podiums that solemnly display seven video game keep cases. The packaging is indistinguishable from a game you would buy at Fry’s, with eye-catching images, descriptions and content ratings.

That’s about where the similarities end. Defying the ultra-violent or fantasy-driven standard of most popular games, Baker offers titles like “Pro Yolk: Create the Perfect Egg” and “The Implosionist: Every Building Is a Puzzle.” They look like regular games but promise to exceed the usual shoot-’em-up experience without sacrificing the thrills. To wit: Each game includes the disclaimer that the “Gaming experience may change during online play.” And content ratings vary from biofeedback and cartography to tissue regeneration.

“Smart Storm” allows for doing battle ... with weather patterns, engaging a subtext of destruction that almost fits more seamlessly with conventional trends. More overtly geared toward developing creative skills and decision-making are titles like “Track Tracer: Draw & Drive,” in which the player must build a racetrack while the race is happening. “Pro Yolk” and “Concentra” promise to be experiments in Zen-like focus, completely defying the norm.

Painted on the wall directly behind each pedestal is an icon symbolizing the game with swift precision. Part branding concept, part wall painting, they work to hilarious effect, bridging the necessary design dimension into the fine-art context. Even better, they pull you in for a thorough investigation of the game itself, which, thankfully, seldom disappoints. That giant pigeon on the wall with an antenna in its head? Yeah, that’s for “Wings of Deceit: The World’s First Pigeon Simulator.”

Films like the classic WarGames have long framed the skills learned from playing video games as valuable to society, albeit a war-driven, violent one. Good at Resident Evil? Translate that excellent hand-eye coordination into military service or vigilante justice!

The difference is that Baker openly embraces the full potential of the gaming space, unfettered by the demands of a buying public. This allows for attention to enhancing social skills, creative thinking and society in general. While not action-packed in a zombie-invasion-preparedness kind of way, these games promise to be good for you without being boring.

The problem is that the exhibition is really a showcase for gaming concepts, as Baker’s design skill only operates in service of packaging these ideas. Throughout the exhibition, it feels like something is missing. That something is the gaming experience itself, which I suspect is where the real art happens.

Luckily, Baker is on it, promising to “develop some of the concepts into playable games” for future exhibitions. Can’t wait for Flick of the Wrist II. Goodbye Centipede, hello Wings of Deceit.

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Danielle Kelly

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