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Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 24 News List

The war creeps into the minds of artists

THE ART OF WAR Taking a page from the video games of his youth and the 3D `shooters' of today, artist John Klima has begun an online exhibit that tracks the progression of the war in Afghanistan


A view of The Great Game, a 3-D Internet project by John Klima that is updated daily to show the latest military maneuvers in Afghanistan.


As a teenager John Klima spent his allowance at the video arcade, plunking quarters into Donkey Kong in a relentless quest to defeat the evil ape. Now Klima, a New York artist, is playing a different sort of game, using the visual language of computer amusements to depict the not at all amusing war in Afghanistan.

Although Klima's online artwork, The Great Game, is based on news events, it is among the first Internet projects to address Sept. 11 and its global impact in an aesthetically creative manner rather than in a strictly documentary one.

As digital artists finally start to produce works inspired by the terrorist attacks and their political aftermath, the documentary efforts may be becoming more provocative, too: an Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor has a plan, which may or may not be realized, to send a robot into Afghanistan to do the on-ground reporting he says the Pentagon is not allowing the press to do.

In Klima's Great Game (http://www.cityarts.com/greatgame), he has built a digital relief map of Afghanistan. Its mountainous terrain has been rendered with the cartoonish verisimilitude of a standard computer "shooter" game, realistic but not real.

Reflecting the actual state of the war

Yet the map is merely a blank canvas or an empty game board. Since Oct. 7 Klima has been monitoring daily Defense Department briefings.

Each morning, as he learns the most recent locations of armed camps, bombing runs and Taliban-held cities, he updates the map, marking it with brightly colored game pieces, like a military version of Monopoly.

Visitors to the site initially see the map as it was on Oct. 7. Every minute or so, though, it automatically advances a day, eventually arriving at the present. Over time the digital skies fill with blue bombers, and the green Taliban strongholds within the country's red-limned borders vanish.

More significantly, the map is in 3D, which means that viewers, as they witness this history unfold, can actively change their perspective. What they cannot do is control the action; all they can do is watch it as it occurs. As Klima said, "You can't actually play the game."

War is no trivial pursuit, and Klima risks reducing a flesh-and-blood conflict to a danger-free diversion. But, he said, The Great Game is intended to dramatize how the limited amount of information flowing from the region restricts the ability to visualize, and thus understand, what is happening there. It appears realistic but remains unreal.

The slick graphics and interactive 3D environments of computer games come easily to Klima after his video-game adolescence. At 36 he is part of the first generation of artists to grow up immersed in an entertainment medium that with US$8 billion in annual sales is as large as the film industry. Although game makers clamor to have their products recognized as art, digital artists are turning the tables by incorporating the look and feel of games into their work.

For Klima this is a natural development. From movies based on the Lara Croft character to simulated military exercises that resemble a round of Doom, computer gaming's influence is increasingly pervasive.

"On the news last night," Klima said, "I heard somebody referring to the state we're in now as the endgame. The language of gaming has become part of culture."

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