Problem Dada Attic

Problem Attic

Today’s Jazz Hands Fridays covered humour theory and games but also, more “importantly” (as in, it’s what we grabbed onto the most), Dada. Specifically, we’d tried to read a tiny bit of Dada history, but then mostly engaged with Tristan Tzara’s “Seven Dada Manifestos”. Which is to say, a crazy tumult of stuff that largely doesn’t feel like it makes sense and then occasionally snaps into this very lucid and powerful prose about art and other things. There is also, it has to be said, far more mention of urine in there than I had perhaps been anticipating, as well as the repeated refrain: “I consider myself very likeable.”

Anyway, we talked through this on a number of levels and it even got quite heated at times which was, I guess, a pleasant surprise. The history sketch we’d read painted Dada as supremely influential and present, essentially, in everything about contemporary art and life. Big claims, but then to the extent it’s true or partially true, I found myself wondering what it would mean to be “Dada” today, and whether it’s even possible. Rilla was pretty firmly on the “nope” for that one, but I guess I kind of want it to be possible somehow. I’d need to know a shitload more about Dada before I could puzzle anything like that out though.

One thing about Dada (and again I disclaim about how little I know about all this, and now I will stop, but don’t forget) we talked a bunch about was its kind of basic hostility (as represented by Tzara in particular) to, well, meaning, to accessibility, to the audience (at least the popular audience) in general. So you get these stirring passages like: “Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist.” And you get: “What we need are strong, straightforward, precise works which will be forever misunderstood.” And you get a lot of urine, as I said.

This made me bring up Problem Attic by Liz Ryerson as a game that was and still is of interest to me. Any connection to Dada is just something I’m inventing while being uninformed both about Dada itself and Ryerson’s (we follow each other on Twitter but I don’t think I can call her Liz) intentions with the game (see here for some of her thoughts, though, by the way).

Anyway, the game is deeply inaccessible, feels pretty hostile to the player, doesn’t generally make sense, distorts a well-known “art form” (the platformer) in disturbing and vaguely random-feeling ways, doesn’t ever apologize for being like it is, has floaty jumps, and other things. All of these are probably crimes against “good” game design. And yet, I love this game. And yet, I had a lot of trouble with it the first time I played – in fact I said “fuck this!” and gave up relatively early on. And yet, I came back and finished it (I think) and it was one of the “best” games I played last year. So.

So it does some things that fit with how I currently am thinking about (Tzara’s version of) Dada. That is, it seems to largely reject its audience. While I can play it because I can move and jump it takes a big effort to play it and work out what to do and get anywhere. Half the time the visuals make it very, very difficult to interpret even where you are. The floaty jump is a nightmare. And I’m going to guess that most people who encounter Problem Attic just give up.

But, as with Tzara’s manifestos, there are also these beautiful moments of lucidity where things work how they’re “supposed to” or suddenly look like something and the elation associated with that is really powerful. Is it just some kind of cognitive dissonance that makes it beautiful? Like you’ve been held hostage and they you’re let out of your cage (for a little while)? Dunno. But there are passages in there, such as managing to float upwards on an “enemy”, such as coming to grips with a whirling, wrapping spatial layout played upside down, where the game feels sublime. And then it plunges back into chaos of course. Of course.

What is the point? Is it a Dada game? Would Tzara play it? (How did the Dada people even relate to each other’s variously audience-hostile “things”?) I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But those moments of clarity, pulled from the chaos, are truly a wonderful thing.

7 March 2014
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