Artist defies critics with edgy exhibit
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
Oy vey, what's a good Israeli-born, video-game playing, socially conscious multimedia artist to do when one of his most compelling projects gets the thumbs down from Israelis (even his relatives) and Arabs alike? Not to mention the video-game industry. And PBS.
If you're Eddo (pronounced "ay-do") Stern, whose work blending the look and techniques of video games and other new media with traditional art forms is causing a stir in the art world, you shrug, smile and keep on going.
Stern, 34, who gives a free talk today at the University of Hawai'i, opens a show of his electronic-media installation "Dark Machinima," tomorrow at Kapi'olani Community College's Koa Gallery.
Among the four video projects in the installation is "Sheik Attack," a video with video-game graphics that Stern describes on his Web site as "a contemporary non/fiction horror film woven from pop nostalgia, computer war games, the sweat of virtual commandos, the blood of Sheiks and a mis-remembrance of a long lost Zionist Utopia."
" 'Sheik Attack' is a very specific critique of the gaming industry's use of war narratives that detract from actual, real-world wars," Stern explains, "the use of the idea of war without the real engagement."
Stern says his three years of required service in the Israeli army pushed him to develop a critical perspective on virtual entertainment and real-life violence. It's a disconnect he sees between "our modern playful world and the harsher side."
Stern anticipated Arab objections to "Sheik Attack," but he was also criticized from within Israel. Even members of his own family accused him of essentially airing dirty laundry. However, the aim was to confront the nation's idealized image of itself and the bloody reality of its current conflicts.
"Sheik Attack" was to have aired on PBS in Los Angeles earlier this year, but it was scrapped when the latest Israel-Lebanon conflict flared. "They didn't really offer an explanation except that the situation (in the region) was too serious," Stern said. "That's one of the ideas I'm trying to change — the idea that video games belittle serious subjects."
Stern moved from Israel's Negev Desert to California 13 years ago. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in philosophy, computer sciences and visual arts in 1997, then earned a master's in art and integrated media from California Institute of Arts in 2000.
As an artist, Stern says he has spent much of his energy exploring fantasy and its relation to the "real" world.
"Most of my work centers around that dynamic," he says. "There are fantasies of technology, history — particularly medieval history — and sci-fi that operate as entertainment. Video games join up with Hollywood movies in this space.
"I'm boggled by how narrow the range of content is," he says. "It's such a small set of narratives — sci-fi, sword and sorcery, war revisitation, Asian martial arts — that get repeated over and over. ..."
"We know so much about medieval history through these forms of entertainment, but at the expense of engaging with the real world."
Stern's fusions of new and traditional media have been diverse and, usually, finely pointed.
"Vietnam Romance," compiled from everyday game, graphic and music elements, is a "remix" of the Vietnam War experience that ironically exhorts viewer-players to "Feel the Nam."
"Waco Resurrection" draws on the rhetoric of conspiracy theory, cults and apocalypticism. It's a video game that allows players to assume the identity of a resurrected David Koresh, the central figure in the 1993 standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian cult.
"It makes you think about character identification," Stern says. "Koresh is not a wholesome character, but why does it always have to be so clear cut? You can watch a documentary about a war criminal and not feel implicated in it."
INDIE: THE GAME
The use of video games and video game imagery as a route for artistic expression has been anticipated for more than a decade, yet Stern remains one of only a handful of artists who has done significant work in the area.
"Video gaming and video game technology are changing the way we take art in," says Wendy Kawabata, an assistant professor of art at UH-Manoa, who helped bring Stern to Hawai'i as part of the university's Intersections visiting artist program.
As a pioneer in the field, Stern says it has been one of his missions to foster an independent game-development culture, similar in nature to the indie revolution in film.
"Borrowing from the film model again, we've only had the Hollywood equivalent of games, or Flash stuff, which would be equivalent to home movies," he said. "The next step is allowing more authors (of video games). It shouldn't just be what the industry has been giving us. There could also be documentaries, romance, history."
Part of the problem, Stern says, is that gaming technology changes so quickly and so often that potential "authors" don't have a set of stable, standard tools with which to work yet.
"We have to get to a point where authors aren't worrying about the latest gadgetry," he says. "You don't want to be bound to an anachronistic aesthetic."
The popularity of home consoles like the Xbox 360 might be a step in the right direction, Stern says. "I'm not a fan of the distribution model, but they do provide some stability. You want to be able to design a game that you can still play seven years from now."
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.