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Remember 'Duke Nukem'? Turns Out It's a Metaphor for Cyberspace

"Hurt me plenty" walks you down nostalgia lane, fists up.

I never could have imagined the day would come when I'd visit a museum to seriously contemplate Duke Nukem 3D.

And yet, for better or worse, that day has arrived.

In front of me at Berlin's DAM Gallery loom Mister Nukem's massive pixelated meat hooks, looking exactly like they did in the absurd first-person-shooter from '96. This time, though, instead of being perpetually clenched or gripping a gun in between me and a dystopian virtual world, they're writ large on massive wooden boards under even white light. Near the image of Duke's metaphorical guns are literal ones: four silkscreens prints of a pistol's muzzle flash hanging like weaponized Warhols.

It's all part of Aram Bartholl's most recent exhibition, Hurt Me Plenty. Using the First Person Shooter genre of the 90s as a jumping off point—representing, rather literally, our first steps into cyberspace—it's an invitation to consider more broadly the ways we've come to interact within computerized space. The name of the exhibition is also an invitation of sorts, referencing the medium skill setting from another seminal FPS.

"I remember very well when a friend of mine put me in front of this computer in '95 and then closed the curtains and put up the volume on the stereo," Bartholl says. "'Now you have to play Doom.'"

In 1992, my parents brought home an IBM 486. Ostensibly it was for filing and word processing, but my dad and I soon learned it had just enough horsepower to run Wolfenstein 3D. It was scary, gritty, violent, and unlike anything I'd seen before—I was hooked.

Here was a strange, interactive environment to explore (seen entirely from behind the barrel of a gun) that was brand new to pretty much everybody in the world all at once. As the hardware and software improved, many of us would meet and interact directly through these games. Along with many others at the leading edge of the millennial cohort, I entered the internet age through halls of Video Graphics Array violence.

"That moment you enter 3D gaming space, and you are holding that weapon," says Bartholl. "I like to see that as the symbolic moment, the classic cliche, or the dream of what cyberspace is going to bring us."

The formation of those dreams really starting gaining steam in the 90s. The Silicon Valley ideals and promise, of a new digital dimension of free information and endless self expression, were gaining currency. Web browsers had just been introduced, and we'd only begun to chew on what the internet was, while films, books, and television tried to make sense of the approaching paradigm in what were often equal parts thought experiment and ominous moralizing.

All this happened in parallel with the rise of FPS games, and in referencing them Bartholl is also calling to mind our 90s naievete about cyberspace, and how complicated the relationship between cyberspace and meatspace would become.

Next to the arms and armaments hang thousands of passwords busted out of Yahoo in a 2012 leak, rendered with a pen plotter in a rare example of physical evidence that a massive data leak had occurred. A pair of massive video cards, mounted on electrified aluminum frames, are like totems to the hardware nerds, for whom they are the vehicle into more immersive virtual worlds. Next door, an ad for a "high tech" device that renders hard drives useless by puncturing them with a huge metal spike sits nexts next to a loop of the footage of Guardian employees being forced to takepower grinders to their hard drives after the Snowden leaks.


Image: Vinciane Verguethen/Courtesy DAM gallery

All together, it hints at our collective misunderstanding of data, its persistence and our relationship to it. Of course the Ferrarri-like graphics card will be invisible and the user will be engrossed instead in the screen, of course destroying hard drives is not enough to eliminate data, which we've learned is quite persistent—but we do it anyway, and we can't explain why.

A quartet of cell phones display videos of random travelers engrossed in their phones, unaware enough of their physical surroundings to have any idea they're being filmed. Like everything in this exhibit, it can be interpreted a number of ways—whether about the new physical posture we've adopted, or our vulnerability to whatever digital eyes might be trying to collect data about us.

"I think it's really astonishing how we people, or humans maybe, are not able to see the things that are happening around us," Bartholl says. "We're kind of slow in getting a grasp on what all this means… we're not even able to get an idea what in the future humans be able to do with the data that is collected already now. There's something totally else coming."

Bartholl's work has always poked at the boundary between our world and the one on the other side of the monitor. He's perhaps best known for his dead-drop project, whereby hundreds of USB drives were sealed into the seams of public walls across the globe, enhancing their physical structures with a digital wing. Another of his projects aims to physically realize, in full scale, a well-known game map from the popular Counterstrike series.

These might seem superfluous, mere statements or exercises. But Bartholl sees part of the purpose of his artwork as that of getting people to consider our time and our place in it, something that's getting harder to wrap our heads around.

Instead of the clean and logically organized world we fantasized about, cyberspace has proven to be a confusing, unpredictable, and messy intersection of forces, cultures and interests that bleed into the real world. We've cyborg-ed ourselves with so many networked devices that we have achieved some degree of the gleaming omniscience we were promised in the 90s, but all the new efficiencies have come with new distractions from a real world fraught with problems that demand more of our attention than ever.

Our reality and the digital one we've created are becoming ever less distinct, with each representing and influencing the other in ways we never could have predicted, and with consequences that could be wonderful or terrifying. Whatever its effects, it's clear we've committed to entering the virtual world and need to pay attention where we step—unfortunately for us, we don't know what difficulty setting was chosen before pressing 'start'. In any case, maybe we were wise to be holding that pixelated pistol in front of us as we entered.

"'Hurt me plenty', it's a way to say 'come here'," Bartholl says. "It's not a sign of weakness in that moment, when you say it like this, but you still know that you're going to get hurt."

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Duke Nuke Em was released in 1996, not 1993.