John Klima:  Shrinking Afghanistan

I first became aware of the work of John Klima a few years ago during the debate on "minimum system requirements".  Klima was then a staunch proponent of the concept that the hardware should follow the art in all things, that artists should not concern themselves overly with issues of access or distribution, rather that the work in question should, if necessary, make use of the most advanced technology available in the service of the concretization of concept and that if the users/viewers wanted to see it, they would find a way.  This view neatly parallels the extant situation as obtains in the modern art world with respect to its public (however that has been variously constituted), what then are the "minimum system requirements" for the viewer, for that public?  How much of the backstory is required to appreciate a work of art?  How much of the specific lineage of each work with respect to the descent of art history is necessary for the viewer to fully grasp what they're looking at or otherwise experiencing?  The debate has a related area of contest in the realm of art made in or for the public sphere with the argument often dividing those with "inclusive" politics whose work is still popularly obscure from those with "exclusive" politics whose work is more easily accessible.  The bottom line is the same in all these areas and in all formulations of the question; how much does the viewer need to know in advance to completely understand what they are seeing?

The irony of this situation as relates to Klima (assuming that irony has not indeed been numbered as the "first casualty of the new millennium"), is that while the work he completed at that time, the now-celebrated "Glasbead", indeed required powerful hardware perhaps not in possession of the average viewer of digital art then, the work itself could not be more intuitive, approachable, or open.  A multi-user musical virtual instrument cum digital sculpture, "Glasbead" eventually went on to achieve far greater exposure than seemed likely at the time of its completion, both due to the increasing sophistication of the "average configuration" of the hardware possessed by the viewer/users and by Klima's continuing to refine the structure and pursuitability of the piece to achieve greater cross-platform compatibility and ease of access.  It seemed that rhetoric aside, the issue of system requirements was finding its own level much as would a fluid poured into an irregular container.

Despite the recognition and prizes won by "Glasbead" it seems Klima grew somewhat frustrated by the requirement for easy pursuitability.  Therefore his next three major works, executed in close succession, were all "closed systems".  To access them the user/viewer had to be in close physical proximity to them; issues of remote access were purely internal to each piece, e.g. if the work needed to receive data it would go and get it, the user/viewer need only experience them as they would any installation with both sculptural and digital elements.  "Go" and "Fish", both shown at Postmasters gallery in the spring of '01, and "Ecosystm", shown at the Whitney Museum's "Bitstreams" exhibition all made use of relatively arcane technology (in some of their parts and elements at least) however only the end-product and not the means of access was delivered the viewer/user.  "Go" is a hybrid between a game and a process-methodological work entailing remote authorship (in this case, by robots), while "Fish" is a hand-made arcade-style video game which controlled an analog sculptural installation.  "Ecosystm" is a virtual environment which utilizes real-time data and allows the viewer/user to navigate, but not control, the simulation.

For his next major piece, titled "Earth", Klima is attempting to synthesize and meld both approaches, to present a work of extreme internal complexity which is both easily accessible and intuitively navigable.  So then when it comes to "shrinking" John Klima's work, the indications are relatively clear -- on the tech front, the work will be pared down to utilize what for Klima are basic digital functions and processes, almost any machine should be able to run it; on the access front, the work will be minimal in that the aesthetic vector will be "front loaded" so to speak, that is to say the "art of it" will happen with the user/viewer and within their mind... what could be more intuitive than that?

The "incredible shrinking work" in question is titled "The Great Game" and the title provides the majority of its crucial references.  The viewer/user is presented with a little square which depicts a terrain map of Afghanistan, this drawn from the more basic of the realization techniques also used in "Earth".  Superimposed on this map, which can be fully rotated as concerns approach and perspective, are icons representing the progress of the Western campaign against the Taliban regime.  These icons represent manpower, materiel, weapon systems deployed (albeit some in a transient fashion), and discrete munitions delivered to various targets within the area of operations.

The title refers to a diplomatic, political, and military "side-show" which has taken place in that region from recorded history onward and which reached its (literary) cynosure during the XIXth Century as the British Empire alternately combined or skirmished with other European powers to prevent Czarist Russia from acquiring ice-free ports (and so threatening British hegemony on a global scale) -- however all major powers of the day were involved, including China.  The "Great Game" itself more specifically refers to the intelligence and espionage component of this struggle and has been immortalized in many of the works of Rudyard Kipling and other writers of the period.  Indeed this is how the current conflict has been presented in the West, supposedly a short, sharp military action designed to topple the Taliban from power and thus allow for Western special forces to root out the Al Qa'ida terrorist network and its purported head, Osama bin Laden.

In selecting this textual figure (the war in Afghanistan), Klima returns to a trope now receiving long overdue attention, one he has long advocated and already demonstrated his mastery over:  computer games.  People are dying, millions (if not billions) of dollars worth of the Western arsenal is being expended and yet, when this data is presented to the user/viewer thru a computer, what is it... what does it become?  The signifiers which tell us that this is other than a game, other than an amusement or pastime, are things we must supply ourselves.  The partial news-blackout surrounding the campaign, so disappointing to the mass-media audience who found in the Gulf War of a decade ago a sort of amped-up remote fireworks display, leaves little information beyond the organically valueless ciphers Klima employs by way of the icons used to convey information on the progress of the war.  So it is given to the user/viewer to take those icons (the information is updated on a daily basis) and make the crucial critical determinations which separate "sign" from "symbol".

As he did in a much earlier work titled, "Serbian Skylight" (which dealt with the Yugoslav War), and as he did in "Fish", Klima again asks us to verify sureties as to what is real, what is simulated, and what is the game-designer's fancy.  We are asked to define, not perhaps for all time, but for this exact moment how clearly we comprehend the differences between the mediated evidence of the momentous events we are presented with and our own conditioned responses to the media itself and to the games and amusements which increasingly have so many vectors in parallel or actually in common with it.  That diplomats, soldiers, politicians, and historians can refer to life-and-death struggles as "games" is certainly no longer a cause for scandal, that every nation's military employ games and simulations to gauge their respective force's effectiveness is surely no longer news.  Yet in Klima's work the vector of information reverses its field, are we looking at a game representing a war, or a war representing a game?  The status of what were formerly clearly subject and object are now made to loop, the circuit is complete, so to speak.

Anyone who has played a few strategy games on a computer will have learned how such programs make use of icons and how they are employed as the signage germane to game-play.  Yet icons are also used in military briefings and there they are not signs at all but potent and perhaps fragile symbols -- of human life, of vast amounts of money, perhaps of political will itself.  This war will not be televised as all wars the US has fought since Viet Nam have been.  Though the technology now exists to allow live streaming "battle-cams" accessible by anyone with a computer, none will be employed for "reasons of security" (valid in theory, indeterminate in practice).  So it is left to us to experience Klima's "The Great Game" and see that the map is called "the game board" and understand that the icons are said to be "pieces" and muse yet again (as we are called to do whenever we see Klima's work) on the nature of mediation, on what we gain by it and what it costs us... on how "real" reality itself has become through nothing more than the various agencies of its representation.

New York City,
October, 2001.