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


Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 24

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 (, 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."

Still, Klima is hardly original in applying the game metaphor to a geopolitical hot spot. The Great Game takes its title from the 19th-century struggle between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. The war in Afghanistan, Klima said, "is not the first time that an empire has tried to manage that particular corner of the world. It's never worked in the past."

At the moment the war in Afghanistan is widely considered to be a just cause, so his reminder is not likely to be well received. Of course artists often voice unpopular opinions, and the Internet's immediacy may allow digital artists to express them first. But in the weeks since Sept. 11 and the start of the bombing, the digital equivalent of Picasso's antiwar painting Guernica has yet to emerge.

Joy Garnett, a New York artist and editor of the new-media newsletter, said topical works have been slow to appear on the Internet because digital artists are still unsure what the appropriate creative and political response should be. She said a debate on this issue, taking place in a number of online discussion groups, was dividing the Internet-art community.

Pacifism takes an artistic back seat

One contingent, especially strong in Europe, advocates pacifism. On the other hand American artists, especially those in New York, have been so jolted by the attacks that they are reluctant to join such a protest.

"Suddenly," Garnett said, "the locus of geography and of cultural baggage is back after all that utopian theorizing about the Net abolishing such boundaries."

Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Computing Culture group in the Media Lab at MIT, is more concerned with crossing borders. Like Klima he is disturbed by the dearth of information from inside Afghanistan. Without detailed news reports on military action or first-person accounts from that nation's people, he said, "I have no idea what's going on there."

Unlike Klima, whose new work comments on this problem, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-HI-yee) seeks to solve it. Last week he began to build the "Afghan eXplorer," a remote-controlled robot modeled on the Mars Pathfinder that he intends to send into Afghanistan in January. The four-wheeled, solar-powered gizmo will have a video camera and a satellite-enabled Internet connection that will transmit live images and sounds from the foreign land.

"I thought, `Why not develop a technology that will allow me to get personal information from Afghanistan?'" he said. "After the Pentagon clamps down a news hold, it's as if Afghanistan is as remote as Mars."'

Artist wants to send in a robot

Csikszentmihalyi, 33, insisted this was no hoax. He is working with Middle Eastern arts groups to arrange a way to release the robot into Afghanistan. Once inside, the robot's chest-level video screen will display a human face, to make it more approachable. He has enlisted Afghan students at MIT to act as translators so that he can conduct interviews with anyone the robot meets. They will be viewable at a Web site at

"I'm expecting it to get shot fairly quickly," Csikszentmihalyi said. This is artist as social provocateur. Even if the robot does not survive, "its actual mission is with the military and public opinion about war reportage," he said. "The secondary mission is the one in Afghanistan."

Everyone, it seems, is playing games, or something like games, these days.