ArtIf Tarkovsky made video games: inside Peter Burr's surreal, "Stalker"-inspired animation cube
We talk to artist Peter Burr about his labyrinthian GIFs, videos, and his latest collaboration with Porpentine and others.
Peter Burr can be intimidating to write about. What some might mistake for glitch fetishism from a brief glance, his video game-inspired dithered-looking world is anything but trend surfing; it turns out to be a several-year exploration inspired by “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a dreamlike 1979 film about a post apocalyptic wasteland (“The Zone”), inside of which is the elusive place (“The Room"), where wishes come true. Burr's videos are so complex that they can leave you feeling totally inequipped to talk about them at all.
That's worth getting over, since there are still two more days to recommend New Yorkers to go see his new project "Cave Exits." A collaboration with cult gaming poet Porpentine (among others), it’s a four-channel video designed specifically to be viewed inside of a large cube. Surrounded on all sides by screens, we watch a blank-faced character walk through woods and hallways, in a world skinned entirely with what looks like digital static. The action periodically breaks into lines of Porpentine's desolate robotic text about dying animals, data analysis of the environment, an all-encompassing DOS screen, and flashing labyrinthian spaces. In the same way that Tarkovsky sucks viewers into his environments, stripping away all sense of time, Burr's cube weaves in and out of what feels like the mind of a computer.
If you are in New York, do not miss this. I asked Burr more about “CAVE EXITS,” video games as art, and the beginnings of what sounds like his pièce de résistance.
Peter Burr (b. 1980) is an artist from Brooklyn, NY, USA. His work has been presented in a variety of spaces including floating cinemas, cartoon schools, semi-legalized squats, libraries, national museums and more. This includes Le Centre Pompidou, Paris, FR; Reina Sofia National Museum, Madrid, ES; and MoMA PS1, New York, NY.
by Peter Burr
Burr's latest piece "CAVE EXITS" is a 4-channel video which viewers experience inside of a cube of screens. The game-inspired 3D rendered vignette follows a character walking through a forest and mazes while being monitored from her intestines. In collaboration with Porpentine (text, story), John Also Bennett (music, sound), Mike Heavers (software engineering), Brandon Blommaert (animation), Brenna Murphy (animation).
HOpes & FEARS: I'd seen Special Effect a couple years ago when you performed at MoMI. I have to admit, I was too scared to write about your work then because I felt like it was beyond my writing abilities at the time…
Which in retrospect was true, but I’m also upset that I hadn’t recorded it in some way because it made a very lasting impression on me, and it was just one fleeting performance/screening that I can never see again. I couldn't stop thinking about it. There was that red sunset sequence. Sunset?
Peter Burr: Sunrise!
H&F: Yeah—where the landscape, with a red sun, degenerates into graininess and then finally just becomes patches of black and white.
Throughout the video there were varying degrees of overlap between the landscape footage and digital skins, and then you let it all fall away...
PB: Yea... the threshold of the Zone... the pan down to the threshold of renderable units in the landscape that make a flat hypnosis.
H&F: You mean... the reduction of the possible resolution, while keeping it a recognizable landscape?
PB: Yea... Right before going into illusionistic video space—the footage taken from the real world and hijacked into the CGI realm.
H&F: Do you return to real world spaces that frequently make it into the videos? Or real world spaces that overlap into the idea of the Zone?
PB: With Special Effect, I was digging into that stuff for the first time. I came upon the ruins of abandoned resorts scattered across the Borscht Belt upstate.
And I kind of just dove in... spent the whole summer charting different locations with my friends, bringing camera equipment and having our own Zone trips, camping overnight in these feral spaces.
H&F: They're empty Jewish summer retreats? These?
I came upon the ruins of abandoned resorts scattered across the Borscht Belt upstate.
I spent the whole summer charting different locations with my friends, bringing camera equipment and having our own Zone trips, camping overnight in these feral spaces.
PB: Yea! That’s right. Most of the environmental shots that made it into Special Effect particularly came from a place called Grossinger's.
↓ Cave Exits (image), Peter Burr, courtesy of the Images Festival
H&F: How did you come across them?
PB: I guess I just found out about them on the internet—there are lots of websites that delve into that stuff, leaving pretty explicit info on how to retrace their steps.
In a lot of ways, I feel like Stalker is at the foundation of a lot of the fascination with ruin porn and the culture of urban exploration. Tarkovsky just does such a brilliant job of translating those ruins into sublime vignettes.
After Special Effect, I started looking at earlier examples of artists who had similar fascinations...
Piranesi in particular comes to mind. In fact, his series "Le Carceri" has a special place in the genesis of Cave Exits... imaginary prisons, invented mazes—but handled with a similar eye towards the derelict.
H&F: I hadn't thought about how much of Tarkovsky is environmental.
PB: He makes such nice space.
He wrote a book about sculpting in time and the power of time as a malleable material, which for him, I think, works so nicely because he creates atmospheres that are so well-loaded.
What for me was so counter-mainstream had some core values scrambled by then-current mainstream aesthetics.
H&F: You'd mentioned to me earlier that often, with performance and video projects, you'll go into an art hole for months and months and then you put something on Vimeo and it just kind of disappears into the ether.
How do you extend the life of a work like this?
PB: Well... to go back to "Special Effect"... When I finished touring with that piece I kind of wanted to make a video game version of it, in part because wanted to find a way to let it live on in the world. But through that, I realized it'd actually be interesting to take that desire and put it towards something new.
That’s when I started to really get into labyrinths, around when I wrote this image essay with Porpentine for Art Fag City, I was reading about video game theory and I started playing games again after a looooong hiatus.
H&F: What are some of the ideas you took away from reading about game theory?
pB: Well, I was always thinking about cinema while I was reading them, and I found it interesting to think about different ways to frame the cinematic experience... culturally.
So something like Essays on Algorithmic Culture put a strange frame on this—as, for one, it talked about the non-diegetic layers of games.
H&F: What do you mean by non-diegetic? Sorry, n00b.
PB: In a video game, a classic health meter that sits on the surface of the screen is non-diegetic.
An example of the non-diegetic in "Cave Exits" would be the STOMA (Serotonin Tracking Orifice Management Apparatus) graphics. Those are the pop-up screens that show environmental info, broken into data and viewed as user interface.
But some game designers try to make that stuff feel more seamless—might make a little meter on the costume of the player-character that relays that kind of information, for example. Or one thing I really like is in a first person shooter, if you are about to die the screen might get bloody red and blurry, to show that you are low on health.
↓ CAVE EXITS (still) Peter Burr (2014)
Courtesy of the artist
H&F: Shifting gears a little bit, what was it like to work with Porpentine? Just because she has her own pretty distinct artistic agenda, but it seems like this was a kind of perfect intersection for you.
PB: Porpentine is great!
I discovered her game With Those We Love Alive and was really impacted by it. I liked how surprising it was. You’re constantly having to sleep, and it becomes hard to tell what's a dream and what's not. I wrote to her after playing WTWLA and told her I was making this project about labyrinths, feeling lost, and choosing to be a maze treader instead of having the safety of the architect’s view, high above the disorienting coil.
And she wrote right back and was like, "Yea! Let's do it."
But she was also curious in the same way that you are... like, "How do we make this all fit?"
And so we both got more acquainted with each other’s work and expanded on the parallels. Being as nuanced as her work is, it was clear that she wouldn’t just be the writer, that we'd also share the job of game design. Cave Exits is just the entry point to something we will probably be working on for years. It touches a couple fundamental components of the full story.
I experienced a lot of loss all at once, and it snowballed really hard and taught me many dark life lessons. I was in the middle of all that when I came to NYC, and this place is kind of
a perfect place to get comfortable with the dark.
H&F: So you've already written out a grander narrative?
PB: We are writing it.
Still trying to figure out the title!
HF: That's so exciting!
PB: I've been learning Twine and we have a collaborative sketch going... For "Cave Exits," we decided to tackle just two main sections of the story: the entry into the mess, and a vignette of Aria End deep inside the arcology.
Aria End is the protagonist... a scrambled Ariadne.
The mess is the circumstance of our being there, the way that liqudiators came to Chernobyl.
And the arcology... Was our way of understanding labyrinths right now.
H&F: This is a little off topic, but your work seems to have gotten dramatically darker (literally) since you came to New York from Portland; it had been more upbeat, maximalist, filled with colorful collage and nostalgic pop cultural references. Do you think the city has impacted your personal/artmaking interests?
PB: For me, that shift has more to deal with a period of time than a place. That maximalism—that style that uses collage sensibilities and computer technology—I noticed around 2010 (the year I happened to move to NYC) that I was getting really different responses from audiences than I had before at CARTUNE XPREZ shows.
↓ CAVE EXITS (still) Peter Burr (2014)
Courtesy of the artist
H&F: How so?
PB: People who were maybe not even in high school when I started CARTUNE XPREZ and were now college-age, studying this kind of work. There was a certain aggression towards that maximalism because it reminded them of bullshit mainstream media.
That was really sad for me to see, because being part of that for many years, I realized this slow co-opting of this aesthetic had created a real negative impact. And what for me was so counter-mainstream had some core values scrambled by then-current mainstream aesthetics.
H&F: Don't you think it came to something though? I think you've incorporated a ton of different video/game/etc elements in a way that's more pointed and beautiful.
PB: Oh yea... I think it’s always coming to something new. But my personal life had also changed a lot too. I experienced a lot of loss all at once, and it snowballed really hard and taught me many dark life lessons.
I was in the middle of all that when I came to NYC, and this place is kind of a perfect place to get comfortable with the dark.
H&F: Yes and isolation. You had lost people close to you?
PB: Yea... But more importantly I lost my old self...
Like, the rules changed.
I mean, they didn’t actually change, but the feelings did. In "Cave Exits," Aria's companion is this STOMA. Her large intestine has been rubberized and a digital apparatus protrudes from it... scanning the environment and helping her with external feedback.
H&F: Ah, that's what that is.
PB: And I think about this a lot... the way we can frame our body as a system of chemistry and how that completely changes the input that is allowed in. And the way we tinker with it... or the systems we live in (and embrace) tinker.
Serotonin is really interesting. Guts! The labyrinth of innards.
↑ GIFS from Digging FiLls, Peter Burr (2014)
Part of a series