Oleander Garden, PAGAN: Technopolis, PAGAN: Emporium, PAGAN: Autogeny, 2018-2019.
Not once in prior life did I dare dreamPAGAN: Autogeny
That from our handsome bodies we’d be free
But now our twisted roots do boldly form
Haecceity – A gender all our own.
Il tempo impresso: I’ll be honest with you: no video game has ever been more important to my life. Your work has helped me understand that I have to continue navigating (and wandering) the world of video games with the knowledge that they may be capable of impacting the soul just as Leonardo’s paintings or Tarkovsky’s films can, and that engaging in a video game isn’t just a stress relieving pastime. I played your video games with the same approach I had when reading Doctor Faustus or watching Solaris. I would like to ask you this, aware that it is certainly not something that can be exhaustively elaborated in such a small space and context: if you believe that there are video games as works of art, how did the medium manage to do so? What is its specificity? If cinema is “a mosaic made of time” and music is “ambiguity elevated to a system” (two definitions among countless others), what is a video game – or rather, an interactive work?
Oleander Garden: Firstly, that’s incredibly kind of you, so thank you – it means a lot.
W/r/t to the essential characteristics of games, I kind of follow Cremin in thinking of it as a sort of friction. A photograph is a image, and a film is a collection of images arranged in and passing through time (a sense of movement, a movement-image, as Deleuze calls it). It is distinguished from a simple collection of photographs because the subject of expression is embedded in this sense of time and movement, which cannot be located in any photograph.
Along the same lines, a videogame is a collection of movement-images arranged systematically. It is distinguished from a film collection insofar as one is unable to freely choose between image sequences, but is rather is forced to interact with a governing system of relations which in some way restrains the otherwise total freedom of choice. This system — this friction-image, as Cremin calls it — is the subject of production/expression in videogames, and cannot be located in any one movement image. Friction can take all sorts of forms. The complex stats systems of RPGs certainly qualify, but the simple metaphor of space (i.e. needing to spend some time walking across a game world before you can see what’s on the other side) is also, on its own, a kind of friction. Even the difficulty inherent in operating some UI, or the complexity of understanding the rules of some game — these too are forms of friction.
Major games studios often try to make “cinematic” games, attempting artistic expression through cutscenes, contrived emotional moments, dialog, narrative, etc. In doing so, they are doing the equivalent of (e.g.) reducing cinema to a slideshow. Games are unique because they can express themselves through systems of friction; games function as an artistic medium, I think, when they are able to produce something meaningful with this friction.
In the beginning was the bit
Between 2018 and 2019 Oleander Garden publishes three videogames, PAGAN: Technopolis, PAGAN: Emporium and PAGAN: Autogeny (referred to as the PAGAN Trilogy). However, it would be a serious mistake to consider the trilogy as an isolated and closed system, a path from point A to point C. The author has created a dense virtual network of hypertext links around the three works to form a real digital microcosm that he moves between films, music, poetry, literature and shreds of internet memories on fictional and non-fictional events, torn from History – and from stories – to become part of his poetic vision of the world. From her website, in fact, it is possible to learn the events – invented – of a piece of digital history of the late 90s, around events such as the Albanian Civil War and the activity of the “protagonist” of this digital folklore, XENOS Softworks, a group around which the works that will be discussed in the article revolve. On that website you can also find the films that Oleander Garden has shot, her photographs, stories and – what is most interesting here – a reconstruction of fake databases and news on XENOS Softworks and what concerns them.
It is therefore necessary to try to reconstruct some stages of this pagan Genesis of the Apocalypse programmed by Garden before arriving at the Trilogy and the fundamental points of her artistic practice. ﷺ
«PROLOGUE AND INAUGURAL VISION
Blessed are those who read»
Section II of the digital library of Oleander Garden, Dead game archive – Plaza 96, is certainly the most important section of her website, for the purpose of this article. It contains remnants of disappeared sites thanks to which it is possible to trace, in broad terms, the activity of the fictional development house XENOS Softworks, an Albanian art collective (active between 1993 and 1997) creator of films, musical compositions and videogames. Among them, Plaza 96 (1996), an MMO (massively multiplayer online) whose last server seems to have been shut down in 1997, coinciding with the outbreak of the Albanian civil war – the latest chapter of the Trilogy will prove that this is not the case, however, that there is still a server and that it is the one which the gamer accesses when starting the game. It should also be noted that in the archive page on the collective activity only Your Child Looking West (1994) and Plaza 96 have a link that refers to a specific page; on the other hand, there is no information on the other works listed. The first of the two known video games appears to be a video game «set in 19th century California. The player attempts to reunite the shards of the legendary sword excalibur. Few – if any – copies survive»; of the second, which is admittedly the one proposed in Autogeny, little is known, except that the players who remember it describe «bizarre and incongruent landscapes, which mixed techno – utopianism with esoteric mysticism. Such reports are, by their nature, unverifiable».
What is certain is that XENOS Softworks was not a particularly “integrated” (and therefore “apocalyptic”) collective: the titles of the works speak for themselves, from the films HUMANOCIDE (1993) and Elohim Wounded and Weeping (1994) – the latter labelled as “Pornographic film”; also, little informations available from the archives on the Oleander Garden website speak clearly: «They are known [XENOS Softworks] for their user hostile style of design, and for their idiosyncratic insistence on total anonymity».
Outside the fiction of the events of XENOS Softworks – but at the same time within the artistic activity of Garden – two films seem to be fundamental to have a more precise picture of the events of the Trilogy: ISOMORPHISM (May to September 1996) (2017, 7′) and POLYMORPHISM (May to September 1999) (2021, 2′). The first, specifically, provides some valuable clues about the protagonist figure of the works, Vivian.
Il tempo impresso: Have you ever seen the film Begotten (E. Elias Mehige, 1990)? It seems to me that, in that film, you can see something “alchemical” at work: an “Elohim wounded and weeping” dying and a female figure coming out of his blood/matter. More generally, what is your relationship with cinema? Does it have any relevant influence in your work?
Oleander Garden: I’ve never seen that film, though now I want to! The wiki page lists Antonin Artaud and Nietzsche as influences, though; the work of both certainly influenced my games, so perhaps that explains the apparent similar. More broadly, yes, I’m definitely cribbing from cinema for the visual and temporal elements of the games (Tarkovskij’s films probably most-so).
Neither is music the same, the music of the earth is different, as is sexuality: seed plants, even those with two sexes in the same plant, subjugate sexuality to the reproductive model; the rhizome, on the other hand, is a liberation of sexuality not only from reproduction but also from genitality. Here in the West, the tree has implanted itself in our bodies, rigidifying and stratifying even the sexes. We have lost the rhizome, or the grass.1Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus
The name Vivian comes from the Latin Vivianus (male)/Viviana(female), its literal meaning is “alive / alive”. Note that Vivian is the name given to the Lady of the Lake in some tales of the Arthurian cycle (central to all the artist’s works). Most important of all, Vivian, in English, is gender neutral.
Vivian is the protagonist of ISOMORPHISM (and is also supposed to be in POLYMORPHISM, although the latter is very short and much more hermetic) and from the film it is clear that he is going through (in 1996) a gender transition (as evidenced by the reminder on his desktop about the medicines to be taken) and more generally an extremely delicate phase of his life, bordering on the tendency to suicide. In fact, his world is enclosed in the frame of a desktop, in the microcosms of his video games and in the company of the small clip typical of Microsoft operating systems of the 90s – which, however, will begin to be rude to him over time.
Vivian is also the protagonist of PAGAN Trilogy (despite being called by name only in Autogeny) and it is possible to observe his path through the encounter with a common ideal of the feminine (Technopolis), a common ideal of the masculine (Emporium) and a third away, a new form (Autogeny). However, it is very important to emphasize that here we are not faced with a Hegelian scheme for which the last phase of Vivian’s path is to be understood as a synthesis between the first two. Rather a haecceity, in the meaning given by Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus: haecceity as the opposite of an individual; haecceity as a ganglion of a rhizomatic event, an event produced at a precise moment of encounter within the rhizome itself. Therefore, Vivian is not a multiplicity harnessed in an individual, both male and female, but a specific moment in which various points of the rhizomatic multiplicity meet. Vivian is an event, not an individual. And so, this follows the Deleuzian philosophy of the relationship and not the Hegelian one of the opposition. On a more scientific level, then, polymorphism is the presence of different “morphs” within the same species (different hair/eye colour in a human being; male and female, perhaps) while Isomorphism is, in modern algebra,« a one-to-one correspondence (mapping) between two sets that preserves binary relationships between elements of the sets2», therefore two elements formally different but with the same systemic function: Big Ben and a wristwatch are formally different but both are systems for keeping track of the passage of time – a man and a woman are formally different but both are ___________ (complete as you wish).
Il tempo impresso: I was immediately caught by the presence of some early Italian Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings in your works, and obviously by the presence of the Venus of Milo and David’s head as a relic in HEXCRAFT: Eventide Sigil3. I also noticed the presence of the Albanian flag in HEXCRAFT and in general the importance of the Albanian people in the folklore of PAGAN. Where are you from? Are you culturally linked to Italian/Greek art or is yours a more intellectual approach to those works? It seems to me that PAGAN Trilogy revolves around – among other things – the concept of “beauty”, in particular focusing on the opposition between an ideal of female beauty and an ideal of male beauty.
Oleander Garden: I’m Canadian, but my mother’s family is Italian. The Albanian stuff is because the timing of the civil war worked well for the story.
I use lots of pre-Raphaelite and quattrocento art mostly because of the way it (I think, at least) gestures towards the irrational sublime, as opposed to like, well ordered rational Kantian beauty. The female beauty stuff is I think tied into that — like, the way female beauty and women’s bodies are culturally coded as a kind of temptation that overwhelms reason.
Il tempo impresso: I agree, it seems to me that there is this curious paradox in Renaissance paintings, which are so highly rational and geometric. They manage to be, I would say, somehow occult and mysterious (I am thinking, for example, of The Mocked Christ by Beato Angelico – I don’t know if it is called like this in English!). I believe that many works by painters such as Piero della Francesca, Beato Angelico or Paolo Uccello possess this sort of strange dichotomy (so do Thomas Mann’s books or Bach’s music).
You have put in PAGAN Trilogy a large number of elements and suggestions from the most disparate fields. Yours is a highly intellectual work that you have channelled into this specific medium by creating something that is difficult to define “game”. Of course, this may simply be a linguistic question, yet I struggle to call these works “games”. Personally, I don’t believe in a direct relationship between art and game (although a work of art may involve interactions from users). A game is – in short, and borrowing a definition from Bernard Suits – the attempt to achieve a goal using only means allowed by the rules; rules that prohibit the use of more efficient means in favour of less efficient means; rules that are accepted only because they make such an activity possible. In PAGAN it seems to me that the “player” (I use the quotation marks not by chance) does not play for the sake of playing, there is nothing “funny” in all of this, nothing pleasant (entertaining). It’s more like you’re looking at a huge, bleak painting or movie, with the freedom to move around in space and interact with non-playable characters and objects. I didn’t feel like I was playing, rather like reading a “rhizomatic” book with out-of-order chapters or lines. My relationship with the work was purely intellectual and emotional, no act of playing was put on the pitch. Is there any particular reason why you decided to develop a video game and not, for example, make a film or paint a picture or write music? What is the peculiarity of creating a work in this particular medium and not in another?
Oleander Garden: I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea for something and then only afterwords picked the medium — I tend to go the other way around, I think? Which is to say, I made the first Pagan game because I had been playing a few newer games I really liked (the kittyhorrowshow games, we know the devil, etc.) and wanted to try doing something with that sort of mood. I didn’t really set out to make ‘Pagan’, more that I just kept fiddling around with this 3D space & mechanics ideas & technopolis is what came out of that. And then emporium, autogeny, eventide sigil, etc., all feel like natural extensions of that.
You brought up D&G so I guess at the risk of being pretentious, I think that the way I work on these things is closer to what they say in Anti-Oedipus about authors ‘causing flows to circulate’ which already pre-exist in the like, raw material they are working with. I think there are certain ‘flows’ (that you’ve pointed out) already at work in in the medium almost intrinsically, and all I’m doing is tracing things out and making them operate. So it’s not that I choose to make these ideas games, it’s that games (as interactive explorable spaces) naturally lend themselves, I think, to these sorts of ‘works’.
I have no idea if this makes any sense but it’s the most truthful answer! Aha
Genealogy of an event – Body I do not want this body
If our life lacks a constant magic it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form and meaning, instead of being impelled by their force.4Antonin Artaud, The theater and its double
Painticus suggests an order of the events of the Trilogy different from that of the order of release of the titles5. If the fundamental aesthetic element of the works is decay, there is no doubt that Autogeny is the last part of the journey; on this assumption is based his idea that Emporium narrates events preceding those of the first title, Technopolis, judging by the state of entropy of the elements of the respective cyberspaces. If in Emporium there are armed figures, the knights of Arthur to be gathered to forge Excalibur, in Technopolis the non-playable characters are reduced to rocky forms (of the same material as the knights just mentioned) on the edge of abstraction. They are identified as humanoid figures only by virtue of the fact that some of them have a human attitude – albeit very distantly. Furthermore, the presence of a particular ship provides another clue: in Technopolis it is moored but in Emporium it is seen setting sail in one of the endings. In Autogeny, it is finally seen partially sunk.
Excalibur itself is called by its name in Emporium and then re-proposed in subsequent titles as a generic “Mystic Sword”. Also, Oleander Garden on Technopolis main page writes: «This is a game about a city at dawn where nothing made sense for at least six hours, or maybe six thousand years». Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years have passed since the events of Emporium, then. It must also be said, however, that the main objective of the first title is to carve a statue, the Venus of Milo, which then in the second title is immediately present as a semi-buried forgotten wreck – the objective of this last game, in fact, is no longer “feminine” (sculpting Venus) but “masculine” (gathering Arthur’s knights to forge Excalibur). All of this would therefore bring back Technopolis to be considered as the first chapter of the trilogy.
On Emporium main page the author writes: «It is a semi-sequel [the bold is mine ed.] of PAGAN: Technopolis». In fact, in the first 2 cyberspaces created by Oleander Garden there is no constraint that defines them chronologically except for a different degree of disintegration (note, however, that the “worlds” of the two works are not the same), they are lines of a network that does not foresee any hierarchy, any development. Certainly, Autogeny is to be understood as the limit reached by the entropy of Garden universe in the context of these three works, yet it is possible to begin the journey within the world of the artist also from this latter one. This could lead to believe that there is really no system of weights in the Trilogy: in reality it is clear that Autogeny presents itself as a moment of rebirth, a “Human Instrumentality Project”.
«There is no Excalibur, no Venus6».
Neon Genesis Autogeny Evangelion
PAGAN Trilogy seems to look a lot at Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-97) in its approach to the multiple materials used for creation and the way in which they are modelled. If PAGAN is the physical story of a gender transition and, even more so, of the construction/creation of a new body, the colossal work of Anno that develops – at least in its first cycle of life – in the same years of the fictitious XENOS Softworks activity (1995-1997) is the psychological side of the coin, the one most linked to the alienation and incommunicability of/between rejected and isolated figures, who are also tenants in bodies that do not belong to them (according to society, at least). Shinji and Asuka, the two protagonists of Neon Genesis Evangelion, are two stereotypical characters locked up in two equally stereotyped but inverted bodies: Shinji is a fearful girl and unable to take her fate in hand, Asuka is a hero who faces everything head on, strong and determined. The idea of femininity and masculinity imposed by society (not just Japanese) is forcibly instilled by Anno in the physical form that diametrically opposes it, creating an essential gap between the characters and which motivates most of their actions/decisions.
Not only that, figures like Rei Ayanami are fundamental for a gender issue-oriented approach to Evangelion7. Being almost divine, Rei is poised between the masculine and the feminine and above all she is the spokesperson for the feeling of extraneousness of the ego within her own body (isn’t that what the Evangelion pilots do? And are not these the only moments in which they manage to have contact with each other?). It is Rei herself who says: «I am myself. This object is me. This is the me that can be seen, yet I feel as though I am not myself. Very strange. I feel as if my body is melting. I can no longer see myself. My shape is fading. I feel the presence of someone who is not me. Is someone there, beyond this? »
Body I do not want this Body was the title of one of XENOS Softworks video games, and in Evangelion no one wants her/his body. If, as Painticus says in his video quoted above (with a convenient but immediate formula), the ultimate meaning of PAGAN Trilogy is “be yourself”, Evangelion turns out to be among the closest works of art to that of Oleander Garden, to this extent. If the Trilogy is the consequence of the weight borne by a boy or girl struggling with a phase of their life that is physically and psychologically destructive (that of the gender transition), Evangelion is the eye that observes how the mechanisms of a repressive society act on these people. As a pure suggestion, it should be noted that access to Plaza 96 server in Autogeny is accompanied by a reworking of Komm, süßer Tod (lit. “Come, sweet death”) by Johann Sebastian Bach; Komm, süßer Tod is also one of the closing tracks of the film The End of Evangelion (1997, 96’) and the writing Komm, süßer Tod appears numerous times on one of the text files on Vivian’s PC in ISOMORPHISM.
Il tempo impresso: Is there anything in particular that strikes you about the Arthurian cycle, of primary importance in both PAGAN Trilogy and HEXCRAFT: Eventide Sigil?
Oleander Garden: I think the Arthurian interest is just insofar as those stories (and other chivalric romances) are this decentralized body of mythic material that all modern western fantasy (and so also, most RPGs) is/are building off of. It’s like this strange unsteady foundation filled with contradictory stories and recurring motifs — like, there’s a reason Barthes uses ‘the death of Arthur’ to make his point about ‘the death of the author’, right? No one can even tell how many authors there are, much less decide on one single meaning of the text to regard as ‘intended’ or authoritative or canonical. I find that really compelling.
More generally, PAGAN Trilogy is based on a compositional and structural idea similar to that of Evangelion and thus the way in which Garden and Anno have modulated their raw material: both work with what Carl Gustav Jung calls “collective unconscious”, they extrapolate and they confuse, mix and mince Christian, Kabbalistic and esoteric elements, crosses, tarot cards, potions, myths, legends, History and stories. Perhaps boths works suffer from a excessive tension towards the symbol and it will never be repeated enough how much the symbol harms the work of art and makes it expire in the context of a mere puzzle; like Anno, however, Oleander Garden never goes so far as to be cloying, certainly aided by the abstraction in which its archetypal (to return to Jung) elements are kept; they almost always manage to remain atmospheric suggestions and only in some cases force the user to read the Trilogy with the ambiguous rigidity with which tarot cards are read. It is by virtue of the very assumption on which these three video games are based that one manages to overcome the feeling that – at times – one finds oneself in front of the exercise of an acrobat of esotericism, especially in the last of the three chapters: these cyberspaces are collapsing.
Abandoned plazas and piles of digital garbage
MMOs are really weird. At their best, they transcend the normal boundaries of ‘games’, and become spaces that we dwell in; places where we interact with each other. They’re like little digital plazas. So, what happens when you take that social dimension away? What sorts of things get exposed when only the scaffolding is left? And, crucially, what do we leave behind once we’re gone?From an interview with Oleander Garden
Everyone has memories that are bound up in the places that we used to live, and likewise, I suspect everyone who grew up online has memories bound up in the digital landscape we used to inhabit. And it’s always a strange feeling, right? To come back to those sections of cyberspace and to find them completely abandoned — or at the very least, completely transfigured. PAGAN: Autogeny reflects my interest in that sort of experience: the strange melancholy of seeing your old ‘home’ in ruins.8
If in Dark Souls 3 (From Software, 2016) the collapse is an accumulation of “garbage” from worlds that have exhausted their cycle and therefore the catastrophe is purely spatial/environmental9, the degree of entropy of Autogeny manifests itself with the disintegration of the software/game code itself. First of all, Plaza 96 exists regardless of the presence of the player/Vivian (we will return to this dichotomy later) as MMOs are, in the words of the author, «small digital plazas» in which players interact and build social relationship; not only that, these plazas are at an intangible and higher level of videogame interaction: they are not, that is, at the mercy of the player who modifies their structure with his actions (building/undoing, triggering plot/time events) but they exist as large containers of potential events and allow themselves to be inhabited simultaneously by an extremely variable number of avatars. Regarding Shadow of the Comet (1993) and Ultima: Martian Dreams (1991) Garden says: «These sorts of games created a world that seemed to exist for its own sake, with its own internal logic. You—the player—were an unwelcome interlocutor, rather than the center of attention. In a sense, they embody the opposite of contemporary power fantasy design, which centers agency and player choice. These old games said: No, there’s a world which precedes you, and you’re going to have to figure out how to work with it10»; so Autogeny projects the player into a world of this type which is, however, uninhabited (or almost), practically dead. Something remained, some NPC aware of the situation in which Plaza 96 finds itself and who recognizes Vivian despite the fact that its body is now on the verge of cancellation. Remember, as regards the supposed chronological order of the three chapters of the series, the differences between the non-playable characters that inhabit Technopolis, Emporium and Autogeny: in the last chapter they are literally system errors, graphic glitches that are losing their bodies (an even more acute version of this decay may be encountered in an advanced area of the game). Plaza 96 has now been a maintenance-free digital facility for about 20 years (in MMOs the presence of a proper maintenance service is essential) and when Vivian returns, evidently in the final part of her transition process, she experiences a common experience to many other users: «Our encounter with these kinds of spaces also makes us acutely aware of what we have gained: of what these places did for us, how they shaped who we were, and how they made us who we are today11».
Avatar as an abstract form of the self
« SlavojZˇ izˇek’s (1997) argument that in the virtual world we are not inhibited by social norms and therefore, in a certain sense, we are closer to our “true” selves should be qualified in view of this point. Following his logic for the moment; in the real world, our behaviors can be ridiculed and punished; in the virtual space, a male can take on the identity of a woman without fear of social opprobrium or, in many video games, kill civilians without fear of imprisonment. In virtual space, it seems, we are closer to a Real kernel because there is no superego authority to punish us, nobody to fear, nothing to feel guilty about.12Colin Cremin, The Formal Qualities of the Video Game
Digital spaces can be fundamental environments for the social formation of a boy/girl, they are shelters and places in which to weave social relationships with a freedom that physical relating does not allow or that in any case does not allow to manage with serenity. In this sense it also seems “physiological” that a delicate issue such as gender transition and the psychological condition of a person struggling with such a difficult path (and absolutely not accompanied by society) has its complete expression in an interactive and digital work like the PAGAN Trilogy. To date, the video game is a medium that tends to target young people and speaks the language of its time in an exclusive way. Internet is made up of a myriad of nooks and crannies for any type of niche. On the internet – albeit to the extent of a surrogate – queer community can find a serene and shared space, arrive at an awareness freed from the filthy conventions of the “outside” world. The effectiveness of Oleander Garden’s work lies (now) precisely in the exclusivity of the relationship between the object and its user in a specific historical context. Beyond that, the trilogy tends to infinity to the extent that the search for a «“true” self» is proper to any generation. There is no Venus, no Excalibur, there are only events in the infinite relations of a rhizome. The “role play” mechanics and the use of a first-person view in these works are fundamental in this regard.
Role play is in itself an invitation to build an identity based on one’s choices. However, if in the canonical video games the characteristics of one’s character are unbalanced due to a variety of races/clans/classes, in Autogeny these are more psychological than functional categories (Vivian can increase her level of “poetry”, for example).
On the first-person view: it is clear that the structure of the Trilogy is linked to the fictional events that the author creates around XENOS Softworks, active in the mid-90s, and that therefore Plaza 96 stylistically reflects the idea of a video game of those years, yet in “passing flows” of his medium Garden arrives at a conceptual application of the first-person view. It tends to be associated with a high immersion potential of the player who, by not externally controlling an avatar (third person view, isometric, etc.), ends up “being” the character and feeling his point of view as his own. This is often defused in the event that a video game is of a narrative and/or cinematic nature. The immersion in that case is castrated, limited, it is enclosed in the mere roughness of the game action, of physical sensations such as tension, adrenaline, relaxation, etc. There is not really the formation of an “I” of the avatar that matches the “I” of the gamer. If it is clear that the author of Autogeny gives a precise direction to the transition (from male to female and not vice versa), it is however evident that in the neutral “Vivian” each player can virtually face the inverse transition and read the work from one direction or on the other without any problem. In Technopolis the act of sculpting the Venus of Milo by feeding cassettes to a television, thus feeding a commonly accepted vulgar ideal of feminine beauty13, invites a clearer reading on the level of gender, as well as the phrase that, in one of the endings, reads: «I want to make it clear, a girl died here» (Ada Rook, Sardonica, 2018). In Emporium, on the other hand, who can gather Arthur’s knights if not Arthur himself? The Autogeny avatar, on the other hand, is much more abstract, neither male nor female, it is an event generated by the set of lines that find a meeting point in Vivian. It would have been possible to easily build a male and not a female body (as it happens) and free that constrained entity called the “Martyr” (central figure in Autogeny) in the form of Michelangelo’s David rather than in the form of the Venus of Milo. All this to say that if there is a binary opposition between Technopolis and Emporium – with all due respect to Deleuze – necessary to get rid of both forms of the human being, there is an opening towards a free entity in Autogeny.
It is no coincidence that to free the Martyr it is necessary to obtain the XXI tarot, the World, and that an alternative ending is obtainable only after having found the tarot 0, the Fool. Without the need to go into the various readings that can be given of the cards, the World is the card of success, satisfaction, the complete expression of the self, it is the unification of duality; the Fool, on the other hand, is a state that precedes duality, more unstable, purer, in a sense: «The Fool being some sort of perfect state before duality, and the World giving us a glimpse of the exhilarating sense of freedom possible if only we can reconcile the opposites buried in our psyches14»; «The Fool represents true innocence, a kind of perfect state of joy and freedom, a feeling of being one with the spirit of life at all times; in other words, the ‘immortal’ self we feel became entrapped in the confusions and compromises of the ordinary world15»; «The Fool and the Dancer are psychic hermaphrodites, expressing their complete humanity at all times, by their very natures16».
It should also be noted that in many representations of Arcanum XXI the central figure is not really a woman. The veil covering the pubis potentially hides male organs while the female breast is deliberately left uncovered. It is no coincidence that in some decks The World is even bearded. It goes without saying that there is no completion in Autogeny if the Martyr is freed (completion of physical form) without having first obtained The World (unification of the inner duality): the video game will in fact force its closure upon completion of the construction of the body alone. This mechanic is clearly not of a playful nature, but rather an imposition given by the author to force the player to face the catastrophe given by the construction of a new body without there being an acceptance of what will then have to inhabit it. Plaza 96, in short, is trying to keep a destructive entity locked up and the only way to free it is to unify the opposites, not to force the dominance of one of the two over the other.
The World and The Fool, according to Rachel Pollack, are the only two figures of the Major Arcana to be in motion, in contrast with the remaining Arcana that are represented as in photographic poses: their nature is fluid, in constant change, these cards are “free”, in a certain sense. And if Technopolis and Emporium are works of fixity, of death, of marble sculptures and swords in the rocks, Autogeny is built on mobility and change. In this regard, it is essential to consider the importance of the alternative (or “secret”) endings in the PAGAN Trilogy.
«Who’s a solemn player, and who is but a stage? With bodies forged in bytecode, what difference does it make?» On imperative endings and the «Zen of non-playing»
Speaking of a “secret” ending in this case is quite wrong. The alternative endings of the Trilogy are not goodies for particularly technically skilled players, nor are they designed to extend a user’s playing time by a few hours. It is repeated again that in the works of Oleander Garden there is nothing playful, least of all in this sense; it would also be wrong to speak of “alternative” endings. They are not options, there is no reversal of meaning (or twist, in the case of narrative works) depending on one ending or the other. They are imperative endings as they are two latent potentials of the work, so that the achievement of an alternative ending does not conflict with the canonical one but rather completes it, it is an integral part of the work.
We have just discussed the fundamental importance of the relationship between Tarot 0 and Tarot XXI in Autogeny; well, as mentioned, Tarot 0 is part of one of the “secret” or “alternative” endings of the video game. It is therefore unthinkable to approach these works by contenting yourself with “winning” the game, defeating monsters, killing enemies and getting points. The process itself through which this ending is reached, among other things, is the most metalinguistic and meaningful one can think of. Oleander Garden diverts the flows of the language of the video game, uses a range of possibilities offered by the malleability of its material that has something extraordinary in it17. She rummages through the medium by proposing a critical and conscious approach, prepares the very act of starting the software as part of the experience and thus the event of the sudden closure, the graphic glitch, the code error in which all gamers have stumbled. at least once; all this becomes a moment to reflect on the habitable and explorable spaces that video games can offer (several machinimas explore these dynamics but do so in the context of cinema, “from the outside”), on the way in which users themselves perceive and process the idea of a viable and gradually more controllable environment (i.e. that apprentice-master relationship to which Cremin refers in her text already cited).
The video game therefore creates a considerable gap in the relationship between itself and the user, it puts the latter in a position to really participate in the making of the work without deceiving him about his position. The user is a sincere “apprentice” (if he is not passed off as such but reduced to the mere role of “performer” or “spectator” by the endless array of kitsch indie “genre” video games – as if it were an aesthetic category) but never an artist and this is possible by virtue of the fact that the video games of Oleander Garden (and Autogeny in particular) are morally and spiritually significant from the point of view of the system that Shelby Moser calls “CGA” (Complete Game Algorithm) and which is for her an essential element without which cannot be thought of as an ontology of the videogame18. The algorithm therefore leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre to the player without the latter being able to leave its structures. Thus, the video game appears to be really modelled by the user while solidly existing – as virtuality – in the code.
Of course, every video game works according to this system: Moser’s approach, however, places the algorithm as the primary element for the critical evaluation of the work, it becomes the very core around which to develop an aesthetic thought towards the individual video game. Here, the Autogeny algorithm is «a “rhizomatic” book with out-of-order chapters or lines», in it there is an extreme openness towards the user who puts him in shape and gives him the possibility to develop and express its potential. Yet what the artist has infused into it is clear (read: intense), intact. The work asks the user to put it into shape but does not give him the opportunity to unmould it. In other words, the latent virtualities of the video game grant the user an almost unlimited number of different experiences, all of which are the main features of the artistic thought algorithm of its author.
Art is not lived, it is observed, and therefore you can have a video game as a work of art only to the extent that the deception of the author against its user is such as to make the latter believe that he has the opportunity to experience his own work, to be an artist, just as the author of the early cinema deceived his viewers by making them believe that they were in front of fragments of reality (not surprisingly the close-ups in those films – out-of-scale images – they were compared to monstrosities). And so PAGAN Trilogy presents itself as an art video game because it is able to hold its own virtualities firmly by offering them to a gamer who is called to exercise the «Zen of non-playing»: this is how Miltos Manetas concluded, in 1997, his manifesto19.
May art makes us alert.
Thus questioning, we bear witness to the crisis that in our sheer preoccupation with technology we do not yet experience the coming to presence of technology, that in our sheer aesthetic mindedness we no longer guard and preserve the coming to presence of art. Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes.Martin Heidegger, The question concerning Technology
The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought.20
Il tempo impresso: The last question requires a very simple answer: would you recommend me (and so to readers) works of art you like? A video game, a movie, a book, an album/musical composition, a painting (one for each, if that’s okay with you). I believe of all the questions that I could ask you (and that I have asked you), this is one of the most important. Not to “reveal” some secret hidden in PAGAN or HEXCRAFT or whatever; simply to get closer, in some way, to those who, thousands of kilometers away and at the same time so close, have said something about us with her work. A novel? An essay? A documentary, short film, photography or whatever you want, if you feel like it. Thanks to your work, I bought new books, took note of some films I want to watch, listened to new music and I can safely say that I have changed a lot, with an enriched soul.
It was a great pleasure for me to have had the opportunity to talk with you. Art to build our deep and personal atlases, to map ourselves. Cartographers of lands to come.
Videogame – /We Know The Devel/
Novel – Virginia Woolf’s /The Waves/
Music – Let’s say, the Wicca Phase Springs Eternal track ‘Rest’
Painting – Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed
Short Film – /Possibly in Michigan/
Essay – Baudrillard’s ‘Photography, or the Writing of Light’
Photo: This one by Aaron Siskind (Below)
And once again, thank you – it’s touching that you’ve gotten so much from my games, and I’m always so happy to learn they’ve affected people in some way.
1 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus, London 2005, p. 18.
2 Definition from Britannica.
3 HEXCRAFT: Eventide Sigil (2020) is the latest video game from Oleander Garden (if you don’t consider HEXCRAFT: Harlequin Fair, out in 2021).
4 Antonin Artaud, The theatre and its double, New York 1958, p. 8.
5 See his two fundamental videos on these works: Adventures in a Dead MMO – PAGAN: Autogeny Review and Analysing the PAGAN Trilogy.
6 ClaymoreGwen, Haecceity – Gender through Media in PAGAN.
7 Not infrequently, readings of this type have been proposed for Neon Genesis Evangelion. See for example Genevieve Petty, Saving Humanity through Gender Reversal: A Feminist Interpretation of Shinseiki Evangelion or Trans Allegories Within Evangelion.
8 Joel Couture, Road to the IGF: Oleander Garden’s PAGAN: Autogeny.
9 See Stefano Caselli, Dentro la catastrofe: gli spazi post-apocalittici nel videogioco.
10 Joel Couture, Road to the IGF.
11 Joel Couture, Road to the IGF.
12 Colin Cremin, The Formal Qualities of the Video Game: An Exploration of Super Mario Galaxy With Gilles Deleuze, 2012, p. 75.
13 In this regard, see ClaymoreGwen’s very in-depth video on the subject, note n. 6.
14 Rachel Pollack, Seventy-eight degrees of Wisdom: A book of Tarot, London 1997, p. 14.
15 Rachel Pollack, Seventy-eight degrees of Wisdom, London 1997, p. 16.
16 Rachel Pollack, Seventy-eight degrees of Wisdom, London 1997, p. 17.
17 In addition, among other things, the possibility – and necessity – for the player to consult a PDF manual for Autogeny, given with the work itself, and which is poetically put into shape, ultimately turning out to be a piece of importance equal to the short films, songs and stories that can be accessed from the artist’s website.
18 We refer to her essay Videogame Ontology, Constitutive Rules, and Algorithms in The Aesthetic of videogames, a cura di Jon Robson, Grant Tavinor, New York 2020
19 Miltos Manetas, Manifesto of Art After Videogames, 1997
20 Martin Heidegger, The question concerning Technology and Other Essays, edited by William Lovitt, New York & London 1977, p. 35.