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Video Games Star In Akron Art Museum Exhibit

Dominic Caruso plays a video game at the Akron Art Museum
Dominic Caruso plays a video game at the Akron Art Museum

Video games have been engaging players for decades, but they generally don’t cover museum walls.

“I don't think everyone really thinks that games belong in museums,” said Theresa Bembnister, curator of the “Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art” exhibit at the Akron Art Museum.

Bembnister conceived of the idea for this exhibit 15 years ago, after she heard from several young artists how video games influence their work.

“They would mention that even though they were doing maybe a traditional medium like painting, they were thinking about the way video games looked, painting a landscape that looked similar to the background of a particular video game,” she said.

The “Open World” exhibition is not an ode to Pac Man. There are sculptures and drawings appropriating symbols and characters, like Super Mario, but the show looks at the many ways games affect art and culture. Inside the gallery, video games loop on monitors mounted to the walls, some can even be played. The games pair with other media, such as quilts and prints, with ties to gaming.

View inside the "Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art" exhibition at the Akron Art Museum. [Carrie Wise/ideastream]

Tim Portlock of Phildelphia is one of the artists featured in the show. He admitted that he didn’t always consider video games as an art form, but his view on games evolved. 

“I started noticing that the stories in the way they were told were very different from how I was understanding or interacting with stories from books or movies,” he said.  

"Clone" by Tim Portlock. 2012, inkjet print [Tim Portlock and Locks Gallery]

Another artist featured in the show, Alan Butler of Ireland, photographed homeless people as depicted in Grand Theft Auto. It was an idea that sparked while playing the game.

“I remembered that every player has a virtual smartphone in their pocket in the game,” he said. “I just started photographing them, and I'd kind of stopped playing the game after that. I was turning on my PlayStation just to log in and take photographs.”

He displays large-format prints of some of his photographs next to a grid of small pictures of the many files that collectively build the imagery within the game.

"Dataset Diptych 06 " by Alan Butler.  2018, inkjet printer on Museo portfolio rag mounted on Dibond [Alan Butler and Green on Red Gallery, Dublin]

Butler said his work looks at the game's "value system and how a computer reads the game. There's no difference between these people, and, you know, the litter on the streets or the crumbling wall behind where they stand.”

While it’s not every day a museum looks at contemporary art tied to gaming, the show presents something fresh and potentially attractive to visitors who don’t typically go to museums.

“Open World: Video Games and Contemporary Art” is on view in Akron though February 2, 2020. The exhibit will travel to the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire and the San Jose Museum of Art later in the year.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.