If you don’t know much about video games and don’t much care, it is important to stop by Callanwolde and have a look at Temme Barkin-Leeds’ exhibit, Interference: Reactions to Shooter Video Games. These visually powerful works reveal a troubling connection between innocent oblivion and a culture of violence. The artist’s strategy is intriguing: she intends to defuse the allure of “shooter games” by subverting the imagery and sensibility of virtual violence. Shooter games call for the player to shoot as many antagonists as possible with a variety of weapons. A recent New Yorker blog, which explores the psychology of shooter games, explains that the player “becomes the weapon.” According to blogger Maria Konnikova, these games are better than crack and just as addictive. They’ve also been implicated in the lives of troubled kids who run amok and shoot people.
Barkin-Leeds’ paintings and her video installation capture the extent to which innocence and violence are bound in American culture, and demonstrate how they feed off one another. The jaunty emblems of the corporate world, the comforting jetsam of popular culture, the security of the kindergarten setting — all are implicated in making violence part of the fabric of American life.
Battlefield with Mickey D’s portrays the golden-arch logo and the merry red and white stripes at the center of a military maneuver. Lightning strikes the establishment, and the spotlight of an ominous war machine shines down into the awkwardly rendered commercial food box. Or, do the lightning strikes and spotlight emanate from the box? The “M’s” of the logo seem almost like the claws of a creature escaping to wreak havoc. How many have been comforted in combat by the thought of a Big Mac and fries? How many wars have we fought for a Happy Meal?
In Battlefield 4 with Kitty, a string of sausages threads through the picture, extruded from a machine illustrated in the style of a children’s book. Kitty (the “Hello Kitty” figure that adorns so many children’s accessories), shown here with angel wings, seems remarkably out of place on this battlefield. In the background, a host of Kitty-like angels are exploding out of a cannon. Our darling innocents are being groomed for slaughter The “Kitty” phenomenon is inane fodder for the sausage machine of violence.
Barkin-Leeds uses composition and color to compelling effect. She is masterful in invoking a Futurist aesthetic of dynamic, clashing geometries that would nonetheless be at home on the bulletin board of a kindergarten classroom. Battlefield 4 with Dough Boy shows a dynamic interaction of angles, lines and circles that seems to represent Dough Boy’s amusing virtual reality as he gazes into what is almost certainly an electronic device.
Like our children, Dough Boy seems blissfully oblivious to any connection between virtual explosions and the reality of violence. We sanitize the physical and psychic environments of the young, determined to protect them from harsh realities. Is it any surprise they are fascinated with realms of violence that seem as make-believe to them as Mt. Olympus, leprechauns and Hogwarts?
Barkin-Leeds aims at disruption. In paintings, she impedes the flow of the shooter game in the image and perhaps the psyche (total immersion in seamless action is one source of viewers’ attraction to shooter games) by flattening the realistic imagery into two-dimensional components.
In her video, the show’s centerpiece, she accomplishes this with a crudely painted line that weaves through footage from the game Battlefield 3, which captures the Afghanistan war with convincing realism. The line sometimes encircles and thwarts action and sometimes creates images of American icons such as turkeys and apple pies.
Disrupting the flow of virtual reality through the interference of marks made by the human hand is agreeably jarring. The lines are raw compared to the slickness of the photographic imagery, but this rawness is precisely the source of their power to disrupt the illusion. At the end of the video, the entire screen is covered by the artist’s paint.
The larger paintings become somewhat repetitive, an effect Barkin-Leeds may have intended to demonstrate the monotony of the “shooter” trope. The smaller mixed-media works on paper — looser, more surrealistic and more visually nuanced — explore the subject with more emotion and complexity.
A small, colored-pencil drawing, Battlefield 4: Chest Pack, No Help, has an organic quality quite different from the other works in the show. In this image, the war vest with all its magical compartments has become fused with a human body that may be living or dead. This apparatus of war, which has been so deftly interwoven with the institutional values of American society, has become a part of our figurative or literal bodies–something we may not be able to get rid of easily.