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Lowbrow Indie Gaming Meets Highbrow Art With Jim Munroe

The artist is taking over the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 4th and will throw a Fancy Video Game Party.

by Nadja Sayej
20 February 2014, 4:15pm

If you thought art and gaming is so 2006, think again. Toronto-based artist, zine publisher, and video game master Jim Munroe is Toronto’s latest star artist in residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 4. As part of his temporary takeover, catch an internationally-renowned institution dipping into unfamiliar territory when they host their first sold-out Fancy Video Game Party on February 21.

Aside from sidestepping nerds and awkward dance moves, catch an all-star list of indie games to play in a party atmosphere, like JS Joust where Playstation Move controllers allows players to battle with the beat of Bach. There will be Nidhogg, a two-player fencing game set to a retro, pixilated backdrop and even the brilliant, walking UCLA arcade backpack.

Munroe, among other titles, is a snappy writer of self-published graphic novels (check out How to Get A Book Deal Without an Agent). He is a low-fi sci-fi filmmaker (see Ghosts With Shit Jobs) and a maker–not to mention curator–of videogames. One exciting bit in Munroe’s exhibition is the old arcade cabinets called the Torontrons, which have been retrofitted with indie games. Munroe has helped spark a movement of indie game arcade network called the Winnitron, where arcades are set up in Chicagothe Netherlands and New Zealand, and more. If that wasn’t enough, we spoke with this gaming mastermind about rescuing cabinets, urban exploring loading docks, and the art of changing people’s minds.

The Creators Project: You’re exploring the cultural barriers that surround lowbrow art. How are you fusing high and low culture?

Jim Munroe: By bringing videogames--something considered junk food by the mainstream status quo--into the biggest art gallery in Canada.

Where are the classic arcade cabinets rescued from?

We found them at a place called Pinball Exchange on the outskirts of Toronto. They sold us the shells, we gutted them and filled them with games from local game makers.

Why do you feel it is important to support indie gaming?

I don't know if it's something that needs to be supported, like a charity. Indie game making is just a different model from corporate, AAA game development, and it has different strengths. A smaller game making team can be more agile and also more experimental. They can create stuff for a niche audience and it can still support them financially. As a result the notion of what can/should be done in the game medium expands.

What’s happening at the Fancy Videogame Party? Is this the first one?

There'll be multi-player games, DJs, bad dancing, and good times. I run a videogame arts organization called the The Hand Eye Societyand we figured for our 5th birthday we wanted to do something special, in an unexpected place, and partnered with the AGO and Wild Rumpus to do it. It is the first one called Fancy Videogame Party but some of the inspiration comes from another videogame event called the Midsummer Rockshowcase at the TIFF Bell Lightbox a few years back. It was a Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery event and featured a live performance of that game's soundtrack by Jim Guthrie and his band. It wasn't explicitly fancy but because of the fancy venue, people dressed up. 

How do you feel about how far the idea of Torontron has come along since 2009?

It's pretty amazing. We've seen it inspire local communities from San Francisco to Shanghai to make their own indie arcade cabinets.

Gaming has cultural value, but where does it lie for you?

As an artist, it has unique affordances (systems modeling and player complicity are my favorites), other mediums don't do as well. In my role as a pop culture provocateur, I enjoy introducing things to people they previously dismissed, and seeing their minds change.  

What else will you be doing? 

During my residency, I'll be creating a game that incorporates branching full motion video. It starts as a tour of the AGO, but quickly becomes an exploration of the institution’s backstage the public doesn’t get to see--loading docks and staff rooms.

Artsy Game Organizing by Jim Munroe runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until March 21, 2014.