Diane Ludin interviews Eddo Stern
11/08/2002 THE THING [interviews]
[Showing "Sheik Attack" and Afghan War Rugs at Postmasters through
November 16: http://www.postmastersart.com]
Q: C-Level (http://www.c-level.cc/) looks like an interesting gang, how
long have you been involved with them?
A: C-level has been going on for almost two years. Right after grad
school I started getting together with a bunch of friends to do the kind
of stuff we were all interested in doing -- hacking, gaming, reverse-
engineering, agit-prop, and community-building. Getting a space with a
hardware/software/video lab, our own public screening area, our own
server and a bunch of shared equipment was the solution. Gaining
independence from other institutions was essential; the c-level model
for an artist studio / research lab / public-private space seems to work.
Q: How is it that you arrived at working within the realm of computer
A: These days I spend about 20-30 hours a week playing computer games. At an
early point when I just started making things I decided that the way for
me to be happy was to keep the art-making rush at full speed and make
work around all the other things I was doing -- a sort of grand
unification life theory. Doing this seems obvious to me now but it felt
like a revelation at the time -- it's basically about working with your life
experience, very non Platonic. With games it's particularly great, a way
to justify and process the thousands of hours of playing and reading
game magazines. I find game culture fascinating beyond the
experiential acts of gaming. It's so rich with questions about identity,
power, and politics -- there's a lot of work to do.
Q: Do you focus on networked computer game culture or do you also
expand your gaming culture interests to include video game culture?
A: Nowadays I mostly play computer games rather than console games
or arcade games. The games I play are not solely networked games. I
play first person shooters, fighting games, real time strategy, and
multiplayer role-playing games. The types of games I find most
interesting are Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games
(MMORPGs) and multiplayer Real Time Simulation (RTS) which are both
multiplayer genres, but what drives my interest at this point more than
game type are the "thematic" genres of medieval fantasy and war
The culture around computer games is so rich with the questions I am
interested in: neo-medievalism, representations of war, gendered
identity, and geek culture. The idea of a "hard core gamer", the guy who
plays game alone in front of his PC every day after work for more than
sixty hours a week is something born out of computer games, not video
games. This kind of character is particularly fascinating and central to
Q: What was the process by which you started using game culture
motifs to create a filmic narrative in Sheik Attack?
A: (I'll cut and paste an answer from another interview )
Well, there is a very particular moment I remember where the idea of
Sheik Attack started brewing. In 1997 I was playing the popular
computer war simulation game Command & Conquer with a few friends.
Command & Conquer is one of those standard "god's eye" war simulations
where an army of soldiers, tanks, and other material are at your
disposal. I remember I was in the process of attacking an enemy base
with my commandos. Then, one of my competitors made a remark that
was quite chilling: "I heard you lost six commandos last night." He
wasn't referring to a game but to a news item regarding a botched
Israeli raid into Lebanon, where six Israeli commandos were killed.
That moment was strange, all the ironies and complexities rushed up.
His reference to the real events ruptured the fantasy of our game...and
it got me thinking. It was probably the moment when I first began
imagining a work like Sheik Attack, where the tension is played out
between a "fantasy of war" (as a game industry representative has
called it) and the "real-life" counterpart.
Q: How do the carpets relate to the video?
A: I think Afghani war rugs and computer war games are both
incarnations of a deep condition of mediated culture, the condition of
fascination with unmediated reality, the quest for real experiences and
authenticity. Both are pop representations of war, processed through
complex economic and psychological organs. For many people,
immersive, media generated fantasizations of war, like Black Hawk
Down, Saving Private Ryan, all the romantic Vietnam movie-musicals,
books like Dispatches, and computer war games are so visceral, or
viscerally nostalgic, that they begin to quench the thirst for real
experience. (I'd hate to quote Baudrillard here but...) The consumption
and production of war rugs belongs to this same economy of fantasy
but processed through a non-mainstream (or less so) channel. The
ideology around consuming these rugs interests me - who's buying
them? Why are they buying them? What are the politics here? Is the
consumption of these rugs seen by some as a form of activism? Does
it support the indigenous people of Afghanistan in their struggle? Or
is such consumption an exotic fetish for war? For a lost experience of
the real? For political agency?
Q: An excerpt from the Summons to Surrender site
(http://stern.aen.walkerart.org/ ) has a description of "...computer
controlled sentinels that exploit untapped narrative possibilities within
these game arenas..." What are 'computer controlled sentinels?' What
type of software (and/or hardware) are you using to manifest the
A: The computer controlled sentinels are re-purposed game characters
acting in medieval massively multiplayer games. They did several
different things. First they transmitted what they saw in the game world
to a live feed that was streamed online; a play I wanted to make on the
idea of telepresent surveillance -- take the idea of a webcam and train
it back onto a virtual world and reframe the idea of virtual telepresence.
It's something that's been around with desktop surveillance software
like Timbuktu where a boss can electronically look over an employee's
shoulder, and actually inhabit their computer. Another project of this
cinematographic device was to archive and historicize (also on video
tape) the experiences of the early days of a game like Everquest. I
have hundreds of hours of rare footage from 1998 and 1999 that I
treasure like footage of Jerusalem that was shot by the Lumiere
brothers a hundred years ago. Everquest blew my mind. At the time I
was first working on Summons to Surrender, I was playing more than
sixty hours week--sometimes over a hundred. Everquest manifested
the matrix -- the metaverse -- and caught me completely off guard, a
medieval future that sucked me in. I was never a big Fantasy buff and
I was already hugely skeptical about the transcendent promise of VR,
VRML and anything three-dimensional. I am much more of a sci-fi fan.
And I believed more in MOOs and MUDs, but they were always a bit
too boring for me. What made Everquest so intense was the combination
of real people, you didn't have to talk to, the immediacy of a live real
time game, the 3D graphics and sound to some extent (Ultima Online
didn't do it for me), the endless scale of the game world, and maybe
most importantly the extreme learning curve and high stakes that
made the game so competitive and challenging as a game... I could
go on for days, I should stop, I don't play it anymore, its too much...
back to the sentinels. They were my revenge.
The other things the sentinels did, other than broadcast game footage,
was play the game automatically when I wasn't there. There were
different characters I made, very primitive at first, watchers, crawlers,
mimics, sentinels pretending to be non-player characters, etc. ... The
engineering evolved over time, as game features were added and finally
I have a system with a simple program running in the background that
continually parses a text log file from the online game, looks for key
words and phrases, does some logic and sends a serial command to a
piece of hardware that translates the serial data into PS2 keyboard
scan-codes, that function as electronic key presses. The cool thing is
the program can issue all of the in-game commands including logoff,
logon, write a log file, talk to people, issue all game commands,
navigate and control the camera, as well as shut down the computer.
The video feed came out of a video-out card to a machine sitting right
next to it, which did the live encoding and uploading to a streaming
server. It takes a ton of hardware and bandwidth to make it all happen
Q: How do they exploit "untapped narrative possibilities?"
A: Well, I was able to do different things with the sentinels that have nothing to
do with the built in game narrative, for example create algorithmic
characters like Crawler.EQ which has a control loop which maps out a
city in Everquest using a simple search algorithm not unlike what a
mechanical mouse might use to explore a maze. Another example is
for the project RUNNERS (in its 1999 incarnation it allowed a player
to control three avatars in Everquest with a special triple mouse), I
had the same data sent to three separate "cloned" game characters
simultaneously, controlling all three in exact synchronization. The
project became about challenging the narrative hegemony of the
medieval world (that keeps Everquest so immersive) by introducing
noticeable traces of the computer technology that is kept hidden
underneath the illusion of immersive fantasy.
Q: Do you build avatars for computer games, or are you recycling
existing avatars, staying true to the role of game player?
A: If you mean visually, then no. I use the in-game character creation
parameters. In MMORPGs you can't yet create your own skins or
models, which was one element of what made it a challenge to "hack"
a social game like Everquest, I had to come up with behavioral rather
than cosmetic methods to intervene in the narrative.