Interview with Alan Butler by Seanán Kerr, ACW student

Alan Butler has been examining the implications of new media, the internet and the politics of appropriation for over a decade, he works with various media, from sculpting virtual landscapes for astronaut cats, to large scale multi-coloured paintings, and sending glitter bombs to Julian Assange, though even when venturing away from computer-based work, there is usually some call back involved to the looming spectre of this ethereal, and not so ethereal technology we find ourselves increasingly enmeshed with over the past two decades.

A recent strain has been an examination of the world of Grand Theft Auto V, a widely popular open world computer game released in 2013. The core mechanics revolve around the theft of cars (approach the side of a car on foot, press a button and in one movement (if the door is unlocked) you open the door, haul out the driver and take their place ready to drive), and running rampage with various weapons around an environment that has become increasingly intricate with the advancement of hardware and the developers’ drive to give their world as much life as possible. Butler sees this drive as attributable to nothing other than love, as GTA co-author Dan Houser said in a 2013 interview with the Guardian, “They have to bring a huge section of the world to life, get things working in the right way, make areas that look believable but work well for gameplay and give good roads for car chases and areas for shootouts. It has to be planned out but must still look organic; you have to capture the essence of what’s really there in a city, but in a far smaller area. It’s a great, great skill.” (Stuart, 2013).

The two series that deal with GTA V are the one-off ‘On Exactitude In Science’ two screen installation where a shot-for-shot remake of Koyaanisqatsi made within the GTAV world is screen next to and in sync with the original, and the ongoing ‘Down and Out in Los-Santos’, a photography series where he utilises the in-game camera function to document homeless characters in the game environment. I visited him in his studio to talk about his work in general, but with a focus on these piece in particular in light of consideration of the theme ‘mess’.

His studio was a bit cluttered and with a lot of exhibition and projects in the pipeline, I wondered if captured in time-lapse would the space seem to pulsate with chaos as deadline approached, did one kind of form necessitate a sympathetic deform…

Seanán Kerr: “…like the way a tidy house is a sign of a wasted life, is this some kind of manifestation of your inner mind?”

Alan Butler: “No, because it’s totally temporal, it’s like this now because there was an intersection of ten different deadlines in the last few months which resulted in disarray, after the deadlines it gets tidies up. I don’t really get back to work until it is tidied up. There’s other factors where knowing that I’m going to have to move out of here, I’m not dedicating a huge amount of time to manicuring the whole place, I’d sooner dedicate time to throwing stuff out. But I don’t think there’s any over-arching pattern to it, like this particular mess is because of a number of things, sometimes when I’m making work I’m tidying as I’m going along, when installing if everything is going well I do a tidy up every day, but that’s just me then, everyone is different I’ve friends who’d never have a clean studio, it’s a mess, because they’re pigs.” And he laughs. He shows me his computer desktop.

AB: “You’ll notice, there’s no fucking files on it.”

Which is true the desktop is entirely bare, though it takes me a moment to realise it, a desktop without any files on being indistinguishable from an image, we move on to discuss his works made within the GTA world…

AB: “What those series were really about were structural issues to do with language. Some people get that out of it, there’s a segment of the audience who enjoys deconstructing it to look at the episteme and the paradigms within the language of simulation, there’s still a few echoes of Foucault and Baudrillard lingering around in how people are reading them, but what’s interesting for me if we talking about mess in virtual terms: the mess is simulated to add realism, because reality isn’t clean and neat and laid out the way architects and city planners want it. Once people start living in things, the shine comes off, the corners get smoothed over, but what’s interesting about the inclusion of poverty in a simulation of our reality is in the video game they don’t take part in the narrative either. It highlights the actual tragedy of reality, in order for the simulation to be realistic, we have to include this shit. So therefore we should look at simulations to look at what reality is like, and how things exist in reality, it’s only when things are simulated we begin to see what things are important, with things like the mess, or class issues, or any of that, like the mess simulated, we should look and see what kind of agency do these people have.”

SK: “So this is like the head in the fridge trope, which comes from a green lantern comic, where the hero finds his girlfriend’s head in the fridge and that her character and her character’s death exists purely to give the main male character a motivation?” (Wikipedia, 2019)

AB: “Yeah, but it’s structural stuff as well, when I make work inside a simulation, it’s not to say, “oh look this equals that”, didactic, it’s more if I operate and produce my work as if that is reality, that we are in a simulation, then it affords and audience a bit of critical distance form the world and we have to rethink paradigm and episteme of how we live, where power is, what is it we value? Because I think there’s a real material consequence to that, I’m doing a research residency in Glasgow in December, which is a month for me to sit down and calculate the real world environmental impact of street litter in video games, because it needs to be downloaded, processed, put out a HDMI cable into a TV screen. Litter is there to create realism, but if you think that every street in GTA has a hundred pieces of litter in it, so how many microprocessors does it take to render them in each instance. And a hundred million people bought this video game, so to think about how this stuff is having real world devastating effects on the environment via power consumption. It’s a nice thing to do for a month, a way to ask “what is happening with the virtual?”. Even just isolating a single piece of trash, narrowing it down to the file, how much energy is being burned between the Playstation, the server, the network nodes, the home router? I don’t know what I’m going to do with that, but I’m thinking about how the mess in the simulated world is also the mess in our world.”

I mention the recent fire in Notre-Dame and how the scanning of the inside for video game series Assassins Creed is now the most accurate image of it (Rea, 2019)

AB: “It’s great isn’t it? It shows they’re doing their jobs properly.”

It’s the broader implications for how we define reality when copies become originals.

SK: “Would you think you’re holding a mirror, trying to ground the viewer in what is going on, raising consciousness?”

AB: “I don’t feel like “raising consciousness” is the right direction to describe that, I’m more re-examining things that seem familiar to us, trying to use existing worlds, like they could be video game worlds or some cultural artefact, but representing them in a different context to allow people to consider their relationship to these things that exist anyway. I am presenting something in a different context that people are able to stand back from. Existing in the world and having a routine is a kind of psychosis, trying to be normal all the time, and how the psychosis of normality clouds and conceals our relationship with what’s happening – with reality. So by accessing things that are familiar and shared with each other, that we both subjectively experience and doing something with the context of that and how it’s experienced, permits people to reexamine these shared things we have. “Oh it’s just a video game”. Well, ”oh, it’s just a song” or “oh, it’s just a painting” we’re so normalised in own consumption, most people don’t have time to critically think about these things, so I’m into art about creating space for people to meditate on their relationship with other things.”

SK: “So like that moment in a recent interview (Vincenteli, 2019) where you discussed the uncanniness of being in Los Angeles and knowing the place from Grand Theft Auto without having been there before…”

AB: “It’s so weird, to know where a carpark is before you turn the corner onto the street for the first time, it feels like a psychic ability. I know if I walk up a couple of blocks there, the scale might be off, so I won’t know if it’s two or three blocks, but I know I’m going to come to a big piece of public sculpture that is red.”

SK: “It sounds like Yuri Gellar or Derren Browne.”

AB: “It is, it totally is, but it’s because people in video games do their job very well, like the Notre Dame cathedral thing, like that guy, he could have just taken short cuts, it didn’t need to be that well done, but the people who work in these industries, it’s something to do with real love and putting love into things, people who put love into their work will do a really good job.”

I ask then if he feels phenomena like that are an indication that we’re passed through the rabbit hole?

AB: “If you read someone like Graham Harman, what’s he’s saying is if we have a philosophical theory that helps us understand what reality is nowadays, it can’t be a procedural scientific one, because mythologies and fantasies can’t be explained through maths, we could explain what’s going on in someone’s brain when a thought happens but he has a nice one where he talks about where Sherlock Holmes lives on 225 Baker Street, when the book was written there wasn’t one, but the street was extended in reality, and so the new 225 becomes a tourist trap and now American tourists who go there think that he was a real person, so it becomes a reality in someones head. Things we misinterpret as being real or true, need to be explained somehow as well, you can’t have a theory of everything with quantum physicists that doesn’t allow for fictions to exist because we know they exist in some minds. If we just rationalise or describe or quantify everything through algorithmic procedure we’re presented with a problem where the spectre of existence can’t be accounted for. There’s things we know that we will never be able to account for in the world, because science is also a lens to look at a particular things. So in video games we begin to think about processes, in terms of the material function of a character in a video game, if you spend too much time underwater you’ll drown, if you run for too long you get tired, so there are all these restrictions interlaced to simulate real life.We can quantify it all down to these reflexive components and algorithms and that’s going to align very nicely to object orientated ontology. Where if you’re looking to deanthropocentrise Seanán into these other components, these different systems at play, but what the video game algorithms can’t describe is that Seanán also has fictions and mythologies and structural relationships to culture. So the video game character looks a different way, or has a certain kind of swagger, there’s a cultural reason behind that that wouldn’t be quantifiable by some doctor with a high tech body scanner. So video games provide us with a way of expanding the thought process of ontology, and allow us to look at the reality that we’re not just blood and guts, but we also somehow ended in Alan’s studio because of what was going on in the heads of Francis, Declan and Sarah.It’s like a virus in the minds of these MA students, you end up here, and that can’t be explained algorithmically, that’s why scientists will never explain everything.”

I mention a recent Adam Curtis interview in the Economist (Future, 2019) where he concludes with saying religion is set for a come back, but that’s the wrong way of putting it, I mention how speaking of Notre-Dame the cathedral was an instrument of technology in that it told the story of God, but what was what was thought then of as reality that the illiterate would understand and that arguably the computer game could be said to have a similar function.

AB: “Well there’s a definite morality to it, it’s a form of political story-telling, like the great stories in scriptures yes totally, Curtis has the right idea in thinking beyond the scale of the individual, he talks about socialist realism and the modern equivalent isn’t the likes of a Banksky painting of monkeys in parliament., Social realism now is all of Twitter happening at once, all the energy, human thought and anxieties, the Big Other stuff that’s happening within that. It is the true expression of our time all happening at once, when everybody thinks what they have to say is important, and it’s a testament to the level of individualism and how people want to be complicit in their own packaging and marketing, like good neoliberals, Conor McGarrigle has a really interesting piece in the Green on Red where he follows the hashtag ‘riseandgrind’, and there’s people who are good little capitalists on social media all over the world, they’ll say, “I’m getting up, gonna be in the money #riseandgrind” and he has machine learning algorithms scraping them up and trying to learn the heuristics by generating new tweets with riseandgrind and hashtag hustle (1). And it’s great it’s getting better, the tweets start to feel more accurate with time, but ultimately it’s producing a kind of beat poetry for neoliberalism. But what Adam Curtis is right about is we need to think about scales larger than Tony Blair, we need to this about scales larger than Donald Trump because the only problems we have really right now, are the ones that aren’t just ideological, have to do with the survival of all life on the planet, so to think about scales ever larger than that so the process of deanthropocentrisation, is a political endeavour and a spiritual one as well, not just a cultural one.”

(1) Visible in action here on McGarrigle’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/_stunned/status/1124326555860127745