Few notes on games, fiction, and ecological awareness

This text was written in response to Paradise is Here, a solo show by Aleksandr Tishkov at Tension Fine Art (London) open from November 7th to November 30th, 2019.

 

I started this text while on a trip back to my parents’ place in Tuscany. Since I left my house in London, I kept having this thought inside my brain of wanting to play my Nintendo. So, when I got home, I went into my room and grabbed my Nintendo 2DS from a drawer in the bedside table. The cartridge it had inside was Pokémon Ruby, one of my favourite video games ever. 

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Pokémon Ruby, title screen (source: Youtube)

The Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald saga was released in 2003. As a legit Pokémon fanatic, I was profoundly satisfied with Pokémon Ruby. This was the first generation of Pokémon video games after the Game Boy Color and it presented a great plot, a bigger explorable map, new battling features, awesome new animals. Back then, I used to enact the adventures I had in the game, in my room. My Pokémon party was my team, and I was passionate about training each of them. But I was never the kind of geek that revolves around EV and IV statistics, strategic breeding¹ and stuff like that. 

In Pokémon Ruby, gamers face Team Magma, an organisation whose aim is to awaken the legendary Pokémon Groudon, a creature that causes the Sun to shine with great intensity. They want to do so to expand the land, making more room for life on Earth. Their rivals, Team Aqua, want to awaken legendary Kyogre instead, so to cause incessant rain and make the sea level rise to create a perfect environment for both Pokémon and humans.

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Two screenshots from Pokémon Ruby (Source: Youtube)

Playing this game all over again made me notice certain statements from side characters that revealed an incredible awareness towards nature, Pokémon and the human’s impact on their habitat: «There’s a guy who’s digging a tunnel to reach Mentania.» a miner tells me «He’s all alone and desperate. He says he’s going to dig little by little, without machines, so he won’t disturb the Pokémon nor damage the environment.»

The title eventually strives to interrogate what is at stake when the environment is threatened by human activity, and it does so through a gaming platform (that exists outside of academia) accessible to youngsters through play. Some criticism was raised upon the idea of human-trained animals that fight against each other, which echoes instances of abuse and exploitation of our natural peers². However, recent developments in the game responded to such criticism with the addition of Pokémon living outside of their balls. Besides, the movie Detective Pikachu, released this year, presents an almost utopian society where people roam with their Pokémon and no battles are allowed. 

The two stills on this page come from Princess Mononoke (1997), another favourite of mine. It’s one of Studio Ghibli’s most successful animated movies and revolves around an epic battle between the gods of a forest and the humans who exploit its resources to produce iron and weapons. 

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Two screenshots from Princess Mononoke (Source: iamshelliambone.wordpress.com)

Apart from the legendary animation style, the magic of this work is manifested through the relationships operated within and around the two protagonists: Prince Ashitaka and San, a girl who grew up with the wolves in the woods. Ashitaka seems to be on the humans’ side at the beginning, but his position soon oscillates between factions. He warns the humans of imminent danger but also fights against them when they are killing the animal gods. This is because he doesn’t want one to overcome the other: his only interest is for the two factions to thrive together. 

The movie leaves us knowing that the people of Irontown will build a better village and be aware of the forest’s life. Moreover, even though Ashitaka and San fall in love, they split and return to the worlds they individually belong to, promising that they will visit each other. The underlying truth of this vow is representative of an inevitable fate for ‘the other’ after a conflict is resolved. San would probably be hated or neglected in Ashitaka’s society, and vice versa. Nothing far from reality as we experience it nowadays. Regardless of their upbringing, class and cultural backgrounds, both San and Ashitaka are individuals who feel. They share values that overcome their differences: they are both loyal, positive souls, which is what made them fall in love with each other. 

The tension between otherness and the familiar, and the question “When does one start to become something other than myself?” is also heavily present in Ursula Le Guin’s Sci-fi novels and essays. Le Guin wrote about a wide range of topics, creating fine fiction that gets to your bones for how frank and lawfully neutral it gets. Most of her novels tend to get very difficult to read, emotionally speaking, because the reader will eventually take a side, which Le Guin will challenge, prove wrong, or kill. This is because Le Guin is always on the side of a whole that surpasses the individual, and her writing constantly reminds us of the most upsetting aspects of being human. 

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The word for world is forest, book cover. (Source: Amazon.com)

The word for world is forest (1967) is yet another story of war between the Athsheans, who are the indigenous people of an unnamed world, and their colonizers, the Yumens. These have come to occupy a world full of wood and other natural resources they are lacking on Terra while turning its primordial population into slave-force. The Athsheans suddenly revolt and the book ends as you would imagine, with the pursuit of a people’s freedom over the coloniser, but with a horrible plot-twist: the once pacific Athsheans have now learned how to kill, and there is no coming back from that.

These three examples all promote the necessity of living in harmony with the world. Not just our world, but the many worlds that we touch or live next to. The Pokémon in my Nintendo, the forest in Princess Mononoke or the Athsheans’ planet, are all indicative of a certain ‘other’ that we need to make kin with. Or, better, re-make kin with. When I say re-make, I mean shifting our perception of nature, which has been systematically domesticated by capitalism, and for centuries —since the first Industrial Revolution, I would say— has been looked at as a footnote in our world. An accessory we can ‘contemplate’ in our free time. 

Paradise is Here, Aleksandr Tishkov’s solo show at Tension Fine Art, presents a fictional backdrop that is a gateway through an altogether familiar and alien world. This is an imagined world, resulting from an astronaut’s travels and dreams throughout time. Here, the chants of extinct animals are mixed with red sand, a volcano, a staircase leading somewhere unreachable and other elements made of organic and artificial materials. The objects echo the voyager’s dreams and fantasies, memories of Earth as a remote paradise, but also as the stage for an increasing number of ecological tragedies.

The environment that visitors experience in the gallery space plays with the human perception by presenting objects, sounds, and other effects that trick the eye and our understanding of nature. Is that real moss? Is that real sand? Is that a human artifact or just a piece of rock? It is also a quite suspended zone, in the sense that it doesn’t speak of a nourished, glooming paradise, nor it deploys the language of a post-apocalyptic scenario. In this environment, you can imagine whatever you can. Just get inspired. 

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As Johan Huizinga claimed in one of my favourite books, Homo Ludens (1938), play is a serious thing. Play, he posits, is not “ordinary life”, and it creates some kind of order that must always be followed by each player. Animals and humans first learn by playing. At the beginning of the text, I was talking about myself, as a kid, playing in my room with my imaginary Pokémon. Creating a fictional world in which I had those creatures close to me and I was striving to make achievements with them, is what helped me in fostering a kind of respect and giving dignity to real-life creatures. 

Playing, dancing, practicing are ways of lingering around with other critters and learn something new. This is why Paradise is Here doesn’t stop at being a show, but counts several free public events. In a world that is facing multiple crises, and where technology alienates us into flattering forms of community-making, there is something we can learn from each other by coming together, which is to re-establish our sense of empathy towards other humans and species.

Play goes hand in glove with fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular. The reason why these two genres are so interesting to me is that they can have very little to do with reality. Fiction flips reality with rules and queer laws that the inhabitants of its worlds can only abide to. If the novels are good, they overturn our understanding of the ‘real’ world in response. 

As the curator of the show, my interest in exploring this form of story-telling relies on the fact that fiction opens up, expands and stretches ways of communicating and understanding the world. It has done so in many ways, which I partially touched in the previous pages. In the hands of a researcher, fiction and play can become tools to mess up with pre-existent forms of communication and hierarchies. This, in turn, sheds light on the relationships we nurture with one another —or, in the case of Aleksandr’s work, with nature— and makes us aware of their essence, the way they operate, and the way they could further evolve. 

If this exhibition has such a framework is because the artist and I wanted to encourage that activity of lingering together that I was referring to when mentioning Huizinga’s work. That wandering around, asking questions and making things together. Playing, telling stories, and making kin, indeed.

— Claudia Contu

 

 

Notes
¹ Strategic breeding is when you make two Pokémon mate until they have a cub that is statistically “the best” of its nature. It takes a massive amount of time and involves the females producing eggs —Pokémon are oviparous— only to be separated from the trainer’s unwanted cubs. Gross and violent. 
² Or “critters”, to borrow Donna Haraway’s vocabulary. ‘Critter/s’ is commonly used in the U.S., especially in the Southern States. This idiom comes from the French version of “creature” and its meaning goes beyond the notion of ‘animal’ to include microbes, plants, animals, humans and non-humans, and machines. The present text owes much to Haraway’s book Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (2016, Duke University Press).

 

Useful Links
— Amazon Watch: https://amazonwatch.org
— Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/
— Cultural Survivor: https://www.culturalsurvival.org/
— Cruelty-Free Kitty: https://www.crueltyfreekitty.com
— Ethical Consumer: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ 
— Playing for the planet: http://playing4theplanet.org
— Precious Plastic: https://preciousplastic.com/en/index.html
— Recycle Now: https://www.recyclenow.com