Art Gallery of Ontario: present tense

contemporary project series no. 29

Eddo Stern



The Horrors

Contested lands are never absent from warfare.  In the virtual realm of computer war games, while there is no actual territory, simulated terrain remains integral to the narratives that drive the fantasies and logic of gaming.  Eddo Stern sculpts games to reveal how land sublimates ideology.  Three recent videos :Sheik Attack (2000), Vietnam Romance (2003) and Deathstar (2004) , are positioned amidst history and nostalgia, technology and mythology, documentary and entertainment.  Each treats a different reconciliation theme, respectively, the decay of foretold ideals, everlasting redemption recouped from futility, and sadistic vengeance perpetrated on a ghost.  Their back-stories are populist accounts of the establishment of the Israeli state, American adventures in Vietnam and the current "war on terrorism."  The perspective is from California (the base for Stern, an Israeli, over the past several years), the perceived indicator of social change, the capital of the high-tech industry, corporate, and defense industries and, moreover, the intersection of these interests.  From Hollywood's canyons and hills, familiar locations for fabulist depictions of the passage of the Old World to the New, new digitally simulated battlegrounds, invented or reinvented, ensue authoritatively.


The long cooperation between the U.S. Defense Department and the computer industry is well established, famously noted in a December 1972 Rolling Stone article by Stewart Brand entitled "Spacewar."  Games produced for recruiting purposes : see America's Army (2002) and America's Army Special Forces (2003) at define industry standards for realism and playability.  Commercial games, for instance those inspired or produced by author Tom Clancy:  Rogue Spear(1999) and Ghost Recon(2001) , are widely played by military personnel, to the extent that they have become recognized training tools.   With soldiers and former soldiers demanding that games be faithful to their combat experiences, in an era when journalistic reporting from combat zones is sharply curtailed, it may be concluded that war games convey a modicum of documentary veracity.  Of course they preclude the points of view of other witnesses.  Under the modern motto of "An Army of One," the main consideration is personal conduct and behavior.


Due to his mastery of game play, the behavioral content of Stern's videos is difficult to ascertain.  Their excerpts have been highly selected and determined against built-in constraints.  Stern shows the strain between computer display (magic, desire) and its inherent technology (science, law).  Medievalist fantasy, wherein such oppositions are convoluted, forebodes contemporary political mayhem with the intellectual premises of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and so forth, once assumed settled, now openly questioned.  Sheik Attack begins with a wide-eyed vision of Zionism, grounded in the kibbutz ethic of hard work and strict principles fulfilling a covenant with God.  Amazons scurry over virgin landscape, constructing utopia with hammers and nails.  The action is dated to 1966, concurrent with the Six Day War with Egypt.  Cut forward to the complicated present, the "Relentless City" of Tel Aviv, Israeli commandos engaged in covert night raids into Lebanon, the blanketing of a nation in mystifying darkness and restorative sleep, and a culminating debacle, an assassination in which both enemy and hostage are killed.  Breaking the laws of engagement and the rules of the game, Stern reveals an event to which testimony is eliminated.  Musical accompaniment, folk-pop songs drawn from Israeli radio, alludes to the professions of innocence necessary to carry on.


In a game mission, only behavior is tested.  Everything else is fixed and presumed normal.  In Vietnam Romance, the antagonists have already been taken out by the artist-as-shooter, so the viewer confronts an empty virtual stage set.  Stern manipulates the scenery to approximate, as closely as possible, classic shots from Full Metal Jacket, M*A*S*H (quasi-Vietnam), Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.  Pop songs redolent of 1970s and 80s nostalgia for the '60s condition an emotional response, just as they did in the movies, however they are rendered from midi (computer music) files entirely, except for a brief snippet of Nancy Sinatra's voice.  They knit the temporally and spatially erratic sequencing, which itself pays homage to great disorienting narratives of the American Vietnam experience like Francis Ford Coppola's definitive 2001 cut of Apocalypse Now Redux or Stephen Wright's 1983 novel Meditations in Green.  Falling rain, psychotic rifle fire at a skull, the final floatation of a dead soul over jungle from which the earth has been digitally hacked away, are Stern's poetic evocations of a war that refuses to subside in the popular imagination.


In games, dead warriors are resurrected to fight again.  In Deathstar, pilloried caricatures of Osama Bin Laden, scavenged from folk game sites, become a disturbing cascade of mockeries and mutilations perpetrated on a villain who cannot die enough.  On these primitive sites, the figure as standing target is almost entirely divorced from setting, but in fact Bin Laden's disappearance has made him a man of the hills.  The pummeling of Afghanistan and scouring of Pakistan equate warfare to landscape yet again.  Close-ups transform the body into topography.  Traces of punishment inflict cartographic markings in the flesh.  Display cursors resemble aerial bombsights.  The epic soundtrack, sweeps the imagination upward to higher plane still, a god's-eye view on folly and catastrophe.


Ben Portis

Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art