*Sheik Chic*

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

gaming culture?


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

that culture.


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

this way...


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.