Can Serious Games be taken seriously? Is multimedia interactive art a legitimate addition to the more traditional and mainstream forms of visual expression? For me this exhibition has affirmed the viability of multimedia interactivity as a separate, self-defining medium within the general heading of installation art. The computer and video ‘game’ has been wrested with imagination and tenacity from the clutches of the technocrats who have so far enjoyed a monopoly. Predicting the emergence of interactive computer art (Studio International, June 1969), Jonathan Benthall proposed a definition of symbiotic art: 'initial inputs derive from human behaviour ... so that an interaction between the organism and the environment is established, analogous to symbiosis'. Serious Games makes manifest his prediction.

An exhibition ot interactive multimedia art works, Serious Games comprises eight installations which are, in many cases, the result of collaboration between one or more artists. The visitor’s appreciation relies on his/her active contribution to the event, thus bringing about a collaboration between visitor and artist(s). Sharing this appreciation with other visitors is almost unavoidable, as only the most insular would feel able to ignore the reactions and input of fellow participants.

Arguably, the most intensive involvement is experienced with Osmose, 1994-5, where the spectator is engulfed by visual, aural and kinetic sensations when fitted with virtual reality equipment. One has to register in order to don this hi-tech outer skin, but for those not fortunate enough to be put on the list consolation is offered in a booth where the audio-visual events experienced by the immersed participant are projected onto one screen, while their futuristically garbed silhouette is eerily cast on another. Char Davies conceived and directed this journey through a dozen worlds, a journey based on metaphorical elements ot nature as well as text and code. The abiding image from these virtual worlds is a magical construct of a crystal tree rooted in transparent ground which reflects a starry firmament.

Osmose is one of several installations exhibited in darkened spaces. The sensation ot entering a darkened gallery already occupied by other shadowy figures engenders alarm, spatial disorientation and the queasy guilt of an unwelcome intruder at some sinister ritual. This sensation is particularly poignant on entering Harwood’s Rehearsal of Memory, 1995, an interactive installation using digital displays and computers. On a huge screen, computer-scanned images of the body parts of patients at Ashworth Maximum Security Hospital are accompanied by their transcribed recollections.

Simultaneously, tape recordings ot patients rehearsing memories are played back The viewer can 'click’ on tattoos, scars and text embedded in the bodies, thus summoning video clips, stills of significant material objects and remarks or statements relevant to the patients’ lives. One is engaged in a suffocatingly intimate dialogue with serial killers, rapists and potential suicides, whose very ordinary (often sympathetic) accounts of extraordinary events freeze the soul. Most chilling of ail is the implied technological dematerialisation of these personalities – caused by official sanitisation and contrived through the system of binary numbers that is imposed on the prisoners. Harwood brilliantly evokes their everyday realities, paradoxically using the same computer wizardry which usually buffers 'normal’ people from the predicament of internees.

In Diller + Scofidio’s Indigestion, 1995, visitors are invited to the dining table of a murderer. A horizontal digital display screen 'hovers’ at table height and, by the participant's touch-screen command, a choice of 106 combinations of gender/class stereotypes can be invited to join the lunch. A meal is served, and the disembodied hands and voices of the other two guests perform a dance of death based on film noir blackmail scenarios. Diller + Scofidio have orchestrated these variations on a theme to last seven minutes each, during which the viewer confronts ‘the collapse of dualities such as masculine/feminine, high/low class, fact/fiction, freedom/ control and real/virtual'. Since each scenario is much like the others, any viewer attempting all possible permutations would most certainly suffer mental indigestion.

Being hopelessly unmusical myself, it was with some envy that I watched and listened to the collaborative efforts of up to four people using a mouse to create patterns on screens installed in the floor of Toshio Iwai’s Resonance of 4. The chequerboard patterns incorporate cells which are equivalent to notes and rhythms. These were activated by the ‘performers’, thus generating new and totally original musical sounds. The elegant, shifting light patterns resonated in harmony with electronic sound, producing a free-form musical effect. Of all the collaborative installations, this one gave the most opportunity for strangers to ‘meet’ and communicate harmoniously.

Zeromorphosis: Swans and Pigeons, 1996, by Ritsuko Taho elicited the most direct responses. In a room containing shredded banknotes, earth and grass seeds – and brightly illuminated by lighting that enhances plant growth – participants are invited to gather the three elements together into a ball, wrap them in aluminium foil, and add a written note. The space is filled with trolleys on which the germinating grasses are nursed and watered by gallery attendants. They stick the notes around the room, like office memos. Reading these anonymous messages is comparable to leafing through a gallery’s comments book. But the comments at Serious Games in Newcastle were commendably succinct. Furthermore, they responded directly to the artist’s exhortation that they should express dreams, hopes and aspirations, transforming the negative into the positive and imaginative.

Serious Games was at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, until February, and continues at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 17 August.

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Put on-line: June 2017. Last verified: Jun 17th, 2017