Findings: Digital Arts Curation

Curation of machinima sits across a number of cultural experience environments. Traditionally, machinima has been viewed as an online short film medium which has been subsequently showcased in film format in festivals. Increasingly, however, the genre is shown at galleries and through digital arts exhibitions in a video arts format. This section of the report therefore encompasses views from key informants who are curators across this spectrum of activities including festival organisers, digital arts curators and gallery directors. As in the previous section, research sought to understand the breadth of cultural values associated with machinima in the range of experience environments in which it is now exhibited and consumed, both in the UK and internationally. Themes relate to the impact of the genre on the cultural environment itself, that is its [not-for-]profit motive; the ways in which it develops audiences; the role it has in developing artists’ creative skills; and, broader impacts across creative and cultural industries through collaborations.

Interviews highlighted the drivers for showcasing machinima, in some cases demonstrating the specific interests of curators themselves and others reflecting the cultural evolution of the genre and its creative context:

“I felt it was a democratic way of making films and accessible way of making films when you don’t have, remember it was 2004, way before YouTube and smartphones, so its important in the storyline that all of these didn’t exist at that time… Its kind of a middle ground between video games, animation as a puppetry and movie making for the script writing, and editing, so I was interested in that no-man’s land and plus the fact it was some kind of grass roots way of making movies.” (CFG15, curator)
“What we were concerned with was taking people’s own material and feeding it back to them in a different form and relating it to other peoples material. So the interest, driving force, not to do with a particular content but the fact that it came from the people who were looking at it – it gave them a new insight and excitement into their own work.” (CFG13, curator)

There is also recognition of the role of machinima as a grass roots digital art form, and how it is situated in the bigger ‘picture’ of appropriation and popular culture. These curators comment:

“machinima is reusing assets from stuff other people have made, reprocessing stuff from other people’s websites, recording their own movies using assets from games engines, in a sense that was probably a faddish culture. I think that Minecraft mainstreamed it… Most people’s experience of all the things we talk about within the arts, cultural and theoretical worlds are lived largely through first person shooters and the rest of it. We need to be able to create bridges because I’m not really at all interested in talking to art audiences just for… it needs to be much broader than that.” (CFG19, curator)
“we are very much interested in that idea of organic creative communities arrayed around a new practice… For me [machinima] was a practice and a technique. What was most interesting to me was how people created tools that didn’t exist for utilising, and misuse things that did exist, to create something of their own based on material from popular culture. At the same time, we are following the world of mash-ups, cut-up media and appropriation within the moving arts…” (CFG4, curator)

and go on to discuss its historical importance:

“where it sits in digital, there are new types of vernacular curatorial which don’t need the profession of curating because these are largely self curated communities... in terms of social preferencing, selecting filters via algorithms, we’ve got a new world ahead of us and machinima fits into a pioneering form of that which is really interesting... Clearly in terms of mod culture or mash-up culture, all of these go back to the 1930s, as a form of constructivism, or the notion of montage through cinema, or glitch culture, none of this is new, but just in terms of the widespread nature of digital technologies and doing things within an online environment, and sharing online, makes that pervasive.” (CFG19, curator)
“Machinima has a very important part in the history of moving image and continues to exist albeit more commercialised and popularised. There are millions and millions of people consuming machinima and there are hundreds of thousands of people creating them. Would the [original] machinimators consider that to be the same thing or a version of their principals… from a curatorial perspective, especially a museum devoted to popular culture, it might now actually be harder to find it and that’s because there is so much of it out there and it now becomes more of a needle in a haystack situation...” (CFG4, curator)

This curator also highlights the particular challenges faced in selecting works from the vast amount of material that is now available, as a consequence of its massive growth in popularity.

For some curators an important driver has been a passion for the form and not a profit motive for their activities per se:

“Money certainly wasn't a motivating factor in setting up our festival/showcase. Rather, we started our festival with two goals based on what we saw were needs in the wider community: one, we wanted to provide an event that would bring the disparate animation communities together to meet and learn from each other; two, we wanted to find the best possible animation work we could find and present it to the community in order to inspire and educate them.” (CFG1, curator)
“Any money generated from this event goes back into improving the event. We do not take a profit, and feel this would be counter to the nature of the event itself.” (CFG5 curator)
“… my end game in life is honoring stories worth telling, I say ok how do you collectively, well this is a global community, communicate. I think machinima being introduced has gotten very strange reactions the very first time and then we brought xxx [machinima community manager] in, who works at xxx [network firm], development and production, to give his side of things, just creative in general, to say this is another tool for you.” (CFG8, curator)

This also suggests the difficulties in contextualising machinima to an unfamiliar audience. The format is unique, embedded within gameplay and unless the audience is directly involved with the specific games used for its creation, then it can be very difficult to communicate its values, as this curator further explains:

“You get the purists who kind of poo-poo it – that’s not film, not a worthy category, what is that… its kind of like Japanese Anime if you haven’t seen it before you just kind of go ‘what’s that’?! That’s why emphasis on story is so important. Refreshingly, I’ve had a lot of people that its really cool. Again if I’m not really eloquent on defining machinima, other than its created using a games engine, I go to its bare source because I’m not equipped to speak on it so I think if people understood what machinima was or how they could apply it, I think there would be a wider audience.” (CFG8, curator)

Further, curators often describe their role as educating audiences about the scope of the work and context of digital art:

“I’m educating people, so that way [by showcasing work] people will be forced to learn about it.” (CFG8, curator)
“Its [machinima] shown strategically to various audiences when introducing Second Life to new groups [of students] for the first time. 3 or 4 selected machinima are shown at various points of a 1 hour talk to show the breadth of possibilities within virtual worlds.” (CFG22, curator)
“it has to do with the visual aesthetics and the graphics quality… if people are used to seeing it on their computers, you could purposely show it on the big screen as a way of encouraging people to think differently about what it is they are seeing, even if a lot of them are seeing it every day in a [small screen] context.” (CFG4, curator)
“Now machinima, as before video games, could be seen as a medium that we could use in art installations, interactive installations and cinema. I tried some machinima workshops inside art schools, digital media schools, and what is interesting to me is to see how a musician, an architect, an engineer can deal with machinima and do something else. That’s why for me it is important to curate machinina exhibitions.” (CFG16, curator)

Nonetheless, there is a cost to be borne in showcasing the work and in some cases this is covered indirectly through related activities:

“We are constantly seeking ways in which we can improve the quality and scope of the event, and money is naturally an important part of this, so we sell tickets and merchandise helps fund our activities.” (CFG5, curator)
“I was asked to make a conference about machinima, so maybe about 2 hours long I was paid to prepare and expose the story of machinima, legal aspects, etc. that was linked to some kind of course I had about machinima. When I curated machinimas for a festival we had some kind of forum to help the selection process, so either I was being paid to select machinima so the festival could have a good selection…” (CFG15, curator)

Such comments allude to the challenges faced in profiting directly and indirectly from showcasing derivative works, where IP is a recognised issue in remix, appropriation and machinima cultures. These curators describe the nature of the challenges faced:

“As the industry stands, I believe profiting from an event of this nature is a minefield, as copyright issues are present in all aspects of machinima. There are so many hands involved in the creation of a machinima video, from the game developers to the publishers, machinima writers, voice actors, modellers / animators / programmers etc. depending on how the video is produced. These copyright issues need to be addressed, explicitly approaching the idea of monetisation, before machinima producers can profit from their creation, let alone event organisers such as myself.” (CFG5 curator)
“… the projections were entrance free. No one made any money, especially the players or organization and when I worked with festivals or larger organisations, they took care of this part by asking the French representative of the game producer if it was OK to show 3 or 4 machinimas made from the games they were distributing in France. Since the festivals were already sponsored by the distributors or publishers, we never encountered a problem, especially the festival about gaming… interaction with publishers and games developers was a formalization to project machinimas, then for the music industry I don’t think we really got into [legals] because, as you know the music industry doesn’t really like what is going on with MP3 exchanges and not paying for music… so we ask if it is possible to project a movie that does not use that segment of music… the festival states that it then has the rights to show the content. But we have to ask publishers…” (CFG15 curator)
“We can show anything – we are not for profit, we are educational and it falls very clearly under fair use and if someone chooses to ask us to stop showing something we’ll say OK!… it would be silly for us to censor work.” (CFG4, curator)

Curators talked about the ways in which they showcased the work, often reflecting the significant challenges in presenting the form in a different way to its usual home view, small-screen (computer) environment to a collectively consumed social and large-scale experience. This includes cinema and gallery environments:

“For the first festivals I was interested in the machinimas as a new way of telling stories or telling different stories… I was really looking at all the stories if they were stories, how it was written, the voice acting, the camera work, editing, the work on the sound and music, so for me I would consider showing a machinima it was a movie if it had all the aspects of a movie, so I could watch it as I watch any kind of movie with real life actors or 2D drawings or whatever… I think actually YouTube is the natural environment for machinima, it is the first place to post your machinima… it is not fitted to be shown, projected, except maybe in your own house with a video projector, but the right place for the filmmaker to share that machinima, and for the people who like it to see it, is on the web.” (CFG15, curator)
“I hire a section of a cinema which allows us to showcase machinima in a format that it is rarely ever seen – on the big screen!... [but] machinima is currently a ‘bedroom art form’… When it comes to showcasing machinima on the big screen, you have to consider the fact that machinima is by nature intended for relatively small screens. This means that older / lower resolution content is often not an option, as quality issues become very apparent when it is blown up for the big screen.” (CFG5, curator)

Other challenges relate to the material and its substantive content or message, as a creative medium:

“There are quite a few challenges – one is the editorial control which in a sense you are completing giving over but certainly in a public context you cannot afford to give over because of the ethical and legal constraints on what can be shown and so there is this conflict between providing the opportunity for people to show their own content, whatever they want and constraining what they might provide.” (CFG13, curator)

whereas other challenges relate to the audiences access to the work and creative form being showcased, particularly so in the early days of showcasing machinima, say 2005-2010:

“For our particular community, we believe showcasing a season of one show, and a selection of shorter content at the beginning, middle, and end worked best, as they can easily drop in and out, but also have the opportunity to discover some new content…” (CFG5, curator)
“For our particular community, we believe showcasing a season of one show, and a selection of shorter content at the beginning, middle, and end worked best, as they can easily drop in and out, but also have the opportunity to discover some new content…” (CFG5, curator)
“For the people who were already inside the gaming culture and maybe had already seen machinima online, it was some kind of enchanting experience. So they enjoyed the machinima and maybe more because it was on the big screen. But for the people who discovered machinima for the first time, I think they had a hard time to enter the movie, to connect with the movie because of the crude aspect of the picture. For a person when you go to see a movie and there is a strong aesthetic choice like when you translate a comic into a movie it should grab you and resonate with the story. In machinima it was really hard for the people because they had no clue about the world that was used to make the movie but for the gamers they already recognized the world of the game, eg., Halo©, Sims©, etc., but for people who weren’t playing those games they couldn’t understand why it looked like this. So, it acted as a filter. Sometimes when people weren’t interested in artistic movies or experiences, they thought it wasn’t really for them. So there was kind of a double barrier.” (CFG15, curator)
“we’ve not gone back to machinima festivals… we’ll still be part of that history - maybe once its in a museum maybe it is over! That of course is not true, but its kind of the idea that museums can legitimate something out of existence. We will by exhibiting it in some way we kind of kill it as a grass roots activity but we’re not the Metropolitan Museum of Arts so we do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen, that we are part of, contribute to the blossoming of the community rather than the cultural appropriation of the work.” (CFG4, curator)

The latter comment also alludes to the subversive values associated with the work and the role of the cultural environment in promoting community rather than aesthetic.

Whilst curators discuss the selection of more popular works to enthuse a local audience, as the genre became more popular (a consequence of growth in streaming and viewing services), so the role of curator has changed to reflect the greater familiarity and increasing accessibility of the work:

“I selected some machinimas that were already popular in the US and English speaking world and proposed to subtitle the machinima in French… At the time, YouTube was starting to grow and we reshaped [our website and then] we stopped subtitling…” (CFG15, curator)
“… we have an in-built community of machinima fans. Seeing as we grew out of the xxx forums, we naturally have a love of machinima, and the gravity around this is allowing us to slowly build connections with other machinima communities, further expanding the scope of our event as a whole. Our event is annual, and as such we need ways to keep our event fresh in peoples’ minds throughout the year. The regular release of content from a number of machinima producers allows us to do just that. Typically the showcase of material at our event isn’t to show off new content, but a celebration of our mutual love of a particular producer, and seeing the fans in a room together reinforces the connection between community members.” (CFG5, curator)
“We are interested in the commercial exploitation of machinima that has occurred because when Google buys Twitch TV for as many dollars as it has then there’s a business there, but a lot of [machinima] has evolved into something a little bit different… I don’t see it as an artistic medium or practice, in terms of what people are doing now [vis Twitch] although my kids do… its like a communal experience, as people are going along with someone who knows what they are doing, its like a tour guide of people taking you through different spaces and these people become celebrities.” (CFG4, curator)

A popular theme is, however, the role of the curated experience in inspiring visitors, whether that be to become directly involved in creating machinima or developing their understanding of the creative and cultural context in which the work sits:

“We work hard to choose films and programming that we believe are inspiring and useful to our community… [there is an] audience of people who either know about machinima and are intrigued or who want to make animated movies but don't have 2 years to learn. Machinima allows you to be a filmmaker in a few weeks. Perhaps not a great filmmaker, but you can make a film that quickly.” (CFG1, curator)
“we said to the artist that it may be too much because its playing in an open gallery, we didn’t plan to put it in a special environment… so xxx, luxury products manufacturer, commissioned a piece without that scene and we elected to show it, with [artist’s] consent, we showed that version.” (CFG4, curator)

Although this is problematic when acknowledging that machinima is primarily an internet based genre, apparently dominated by streaming services:

“Since has become essentially the brand for ALL machinima, many filmmakers and potential machinima filmmakers are turning either to isolation within their community (Second Life© for example) or to other forms of animation that don't have the black hole sucking at them. Since serves primarily young men from 15-24, other genders and age groups often are alienated by the machinima produced by and are turned off by the massive amount of hype and promotion in the online community.” (CFG1, curator)

In order to overcome game-related legal issues such as those associated with commercial gain from copyright (encompassed by games’ EULAs) or music aspects, curators have taken an active role in promoting good practice. The curators discuss a focus on those games that actively support machinimating, and also highlight a perception of increasing exploitation by games developers:

“Machinima is/was the sole focus of our festival until this year. We focused on the machinima communities that were clustered around games that supported machinima, virtual worlds that gave the machinima filmmmaker tools to make films and the wider real-time/3D animation communities.” (CFG1, curator)
“… when people ask me about the legal problems surrounding machinima its now that the game companies are using the creation of the community to make money instead of speaking about the problems of using the game assets to create a movie. I would rather say that my concern is that people who are making machinima should get IP for their works.” (CFG16, curator)

Positioning the work culturally is clearly a particularly important aspect in providing a space for an audience to consume the work in the public realm. Whereas some curators do this as a consequence in recognition of the force of an emergent new creative theme, others position the work in a broader artistic context:

“since the MOMA took some games into its design collection, all the French cultural structures said we have to interest ourselves in games – we have to find a way to make games interesting and machinima is one of the ways because machinima is also, for example, the workshops, it’s a way to consider games as something else because you can make something different.” (CFG16, curator)
“… it was interesting to see what people were making or took advantage of the mobile phone as a medium, and as a specific way to tell stories. So, I felt machinima was something like this so we could tell different stories using different pictures, it was something that I had in mind that motivated me, I was certain that it would become an acceptable technique like 2D or 3D animation or puppet, volume animation, or film, acceptable technique from the audience to see a movie we would not talk about machinima as a kind of film but we could talk machinima as a kind of technique.” (CFG15, curator)
“… in engaging them in actually providing material by making them more engaged in the material. If you like the whole philosophy goes back to the 1960s art world of having the audience as an active participant in the creative process. That’s what we tried to achieve.” (CFG13, curator)

This comment also highlights the relationship between the machinimator and the curator, and emphasises the interaction between the audience and the work:

“… the relationship between the audience and the work is so much stronger because they’ve actually contributed to that work… people who had some reason to be interested, experts in art and interactive design...” (CFG13, curator)

Therefore, there is a natural audience for the work in those who are most closely linked to its origins ie., games players and machinimators, yet as highlighted in the previous sections, this is a rapidly growing and evolving market context now extending well beyond its young male niche, facilitated by new types of games, social-ware and streaming services.

A key role of curation for this medium is to providing audiences with an opportunity to engage in dialogue with them – this is central to the machinima movement online and evidently an aspect that curators seek to incorporate in the creation of their offline experiences too. The challenges have already been highlighted and these curators further expand on the difficulties in communicating with audiences, and the audience reactions to machinima:

“We didn’t get back the strength of engagement that we were looking for but I think that’s because we didn’t go far enough, meaning fun because people liked it, and that was good, but whether people would become engaged in the way that people are wedded to Facebook is another matter. That’s what we wanted to achieve… the technological advances now have reduced the effort and it has become more normal now.” (CFG13, curator)
“… what I saw in public projection was that the audience was already interested in the game, they were mostly gamers, and the people who were told that we would project movies using games felt that it was about video games and therefore it was ‘not for me’. Its kind of hard, and its still hard today for all the people who are trying to make movies who cannot reach the audience because there is a stamp of a video game on machinima.” (CFG15, curator)
“… it has inspired and entertained many in the amateur and pro machinima industry. We've tried many times to interest the general animation community, but machinima has an ‘amateur’ cache that is hard to break.” (CFG1, curator)

whilst experiences gained provide the basis for developing future plans for expanding audiences:

“This year, because of a declining amount of machinima submissions, we are opening up the festival to all forms of animation, although we are keeping the styles/techniques separate in our awards.” (CFG1, curator)
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and this has encouraged me to do more… The xxx website has over 2 million members, and London is the 2nd most populous city for xxx fans. With this in mind, we are setting up a secondary London-based event in 2015, and using this as a way to springboard to a larger community. With let’s plays, live streaming, and a new generation of capture devices and consoles, machinima will only continue to grow. Having the facilities to produce machinima built directly into the consoles will only serve to reach the mainstream gaming population, and increase the reach and understanding of machinima as a whole.” (CFG5, curator)

In discussing the sustainability of audiences for machinima within a curated environment, curators also describe how the community of practitioners is perceived to have evolved from a focus on creativity to a focus on attention seeking for celebrity status:

“What happened in the last year is that some machinimakers really got an audience by making a lot of movies and a lot of good movies, really good, as a movie and as a machinima. They grew an audience then it was cool for the people who went to the festival to meet the machinimaker. It became, thinking particularly about xxx who made a lot of films in WOW©, he became some kind of a star. What was interesting is that these kind of machinimakers inspired people to get into machinima but they were less interested in the actual value of machinima they were making than the fact that they could gain attention from other people… What was strange is that if they didn’t get attention from people they stopped making machinima and they moved to another kind of expression… maybe it’s a larger question about how young people relate to their future today.” (CFG15, curator)

Thus its reach and impact through curation also has impact on other creative sectors, such as other media formats and peripheral service providers. This has, for example, been recognised by games developers and machinima tool makers who take various roles in supporting curated activities, such involvement often being orchestrated by the curators to reflect their goals in showcasing works:

“We do solicit sponsorships and occasional programming from those sponsors. They are chosen by how much they contribute to our twin goals of inspiring and informing those who attend our festival. The quid pro quo is that we provide advertising and list them as sponsors. These businesses are software companies primarily who have direct interest in the machinima community… Almost all of the industries value machinima highly as their software is directly connected to machinima and it's audience...” (CFG1, curator)
“The industries we were collaborating with were companies like xxx and imaging companies and so on, and the collaboration was very much at the senior level… there was sponsorship involved but the point of the collaborations was the discussions that we had about what to do and what directions and what would matter.” (CFG13, curator)

Whereas other curators see their role as one of collaboration with external partners to legitimise sponsorship, for example, seeing the artist collective as best positioned to generate commercial backing. Such a view highlights the importance of the relationship between the cultural organisation and the artists:

“we helped enable xxx to be able to get the funds by working with them on promotional materials and lending our legitimacy… we provide a very important public service that helps [artists] because, what’s the point of all this work being made if people don’t see it. So for us there is an artist service angle to what we are doing but its through a mediator, an organisation that’s focussed on the makers and artists...” (CFG4, curator)

Its impact can now also be seen in support for machinimators through a range of activities beyond merely showcasing work. For example, tutorials, workshops and director/producer led presentations; residencies for artist development and curatorial experience in digital arts; sale of works and related promotional activities:

“I was [subsequently] asked to make a conference about machinima, so maybe about 2 hours long I was paid to prepare and expose the story of machinima, legal aspects, etc. that was linked to some kind of course I had about machinima.” (CFG15, curator)
“Although we don't emphasize the commercial aspect of machinima filmmaking, we often have programming that informs and encourages filmmakers to create media that can be sold. We tend to focus more on the craft and art of filmmaking, rather than the commerce side.” (CFG1, curator)
“We are actively involved in cross-promoting creative individuals, and in doing so, facilitate the creation of collaborative projects. We offer whatever resources we have available to us, such as voice actors and puppeteers, however our focus is to provide the opportunity to showcase work to an audience. We provide the space, and it is very much up to the content creators to fill it.” (CFG5, curator)

A particularly important consideration is also noted in curators understanding of the commercial realism of their creative and cultural industries context. There is clearly a need to ensure that artists’ work becomes commercially viable, without which there is likely to be a detrimental impact on all stakeholders. Curators see their role primarily as one of legitimising the work, and through this process supporting artists’ careers by enabling them to develop their personal brands, providing a forum to gain recognition and a tangible outlet for their work:

“We’re focussing on artist exhibition, there are other organisations that fund artist based work so we want to make their work better known to people through our forms of presentation and that certainly helps their careers… Sometimes we’ll collect their work, put it into our collection obviously in collaboration with them… xxx [artist] was able to sell [his work] through a gallery for lots of money which is a great creative way for an artist making this sort of work to find a way to commodify their work and thereby make a living.” (CFG4, curator)
century and its obvious that they don’t know and are not interested in what media artists are doing right now – and artists don’t know about games and don’t know how to create games… I want to show the evolution of gamers because before you had game artists working on the idea of games but not really producing games and right now you have more and more artists who use machinima or games for only one or two works they do and then they use something else. So you now have more artists that use machinima as a medium, in between many others, but you can’t speak about them as game artists anymore – its become more of a tool and its not the only way of expression.” (CFG16, curator)

and with some evidence of their success in supporting its current status:

never been to the museum but who used it as an example of where entertainment was going. He took a screen grab of our website, and talked about it in front of 1000 people – I was really pleased, that’s us! So there you go, I sent an email to xxx [machinimator] saying zeitgeist hereby effected. To really effect culture is why we are in business so if he’s been influenced by this sort of thing and is incorporating it into his presentations then that’s a good sign, more so than any press or public conversation.” (CF4, curator)
that are coming to our festivals, for example, there was a machinima festival in France, they had to stop because they couldn’t find the audience. But for the xxx festival there is no problem, they come for the festival itself and they know they will have some machinima and so there is no problem to make them come. For the workshops, its also easy to get the audience because when you explain you can make movies with games they like it and come along.” (CFG16, curator)

This curator also goes on to highlight the future goals for machinima exhibition and showcases:

“I think that not all the relevant industries know about machinima yet so we still have to push it. There will in future be bridges between worlds of theatre and music, dance and architecture perhaps engineering, the more we will see how machinima can be used as a tool and not only as a narrative tool. I don’t think machinima is only that. For sure there is a future.” (CFG16, curator)

In summary, analysis of curators interviews highlights a range of values associated with increasing accessibility of cultural offers, expanding audiences, building the sustainability of cultural businesses and broadening their impacts on creative industries sectors:

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