After the postponement of the Venice Biennale, artist, filmmaker and game designer Mikhail Maximov has adapted his work to be shown on the Russian Pavilion’s digital platform. His game, Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat, guides its audience through a non-linear narrative whilst weaving through the architecture of a post-apocalyptic Russian Pavilion. Through discussions of the current climate, curatorial practices, media and other artistic stimuli, Maximov sheds some light on how such relevant ‘digital archaeology’ comes to fruition. You can experience Maximov’s intertextual game through the Steam platform now.
Mikhail, before we get to deepen into your work, we could say your practice is at a crossroads between fine art, filmmaking and game design. Could you tell us more about your beginnings in the art world, and how have you expanded your practice to all these different mediums?
I graduated from the Department of Architecture of Construction University. After working for some time in an architectural position, I worked in the industry of animation and cinematography. After that, I realised that it’s not the best time in Russia for projects that involve a lot of money and resources. This is how I came into contemporary art, video art and game development.
Now, when classical exhibition technologies (white cubes, etc.) are being transformed, my passion for meta narrative mediums and performative practices in art can be useful and interesting. Hakim Bey has a concept of temporary autonomous zones (TAZ), where the practice of the artist is linked to the search for these zones, working within these zones and leaving them when the atmosphere is no longer free. I think I’m moving in this direction.
Tell us a little bit about your experience with the digital Venice Biennale and doing artwork for the Russian Pavilion. As a filmmaker and game designer, was it easy for you to adapt to this new format?
I would like to say that the original idea of my work for the Russian Pavilion implied a performative way of interacting with the architectural group and translating the process of architectural design, social connections, and random situations into a video game format. But the pandemic has changed the format: now it is a digital release on the Steam platform.
The genre has also changed: from an everyday slice of life to a post-apocalyptic philosophical thriller. Now, a few months after the release, we can say that this game has reflected all the fears of the infodemic and loneliness of humanity. In general, as an artist, I believe that games, film, video and performance are close genres because they all work with the transformation of time.
Have you been interested in gaming and game design from a young age? What were the initial factors that drew you to such an artistic mode/media?
I first played video games at the age of 12 – it was Saboteur on a ZX Spectrum by Sinclair computer. Later, my friend’s father had an IBM-PC, which was used for patient records – he was a dentist. One night, my friend and I secretly climbed into the dentist’s office and tried to play Doom 2 until next morning. At night. In a dental room. Doom 2. It was beautiful (smiles).
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Your artwork is interactive by nature. Like many contemporary artists, this interactive element of art blurs the boundary between art and audience, making the art more accessible. Was this accessibility part of your intentions when choosing a medium?
Oh, yes, of course! The distribution of video games, as opposed to cinema and contemporary art, does not depend on curatorial arbitrariness and isn’t linked to the cinema industry, which imposes restrictions on the artist. In my latest project, for example, I distributed my film as a courier delivery service. Now, the delivery is at the Riga Biennale of Contemporary Art. And if you are in Riga, you can order a video session at home.
Generally, there are other restrictions: the difficulty of interacting with the game, a high threshold for entering the game mechanics, and a tendency to perceive games exclusively as a vacation.
Do you believe that game design as an art form will gain further popularity given the current climate and requirement for remote/virtual experiences? Furthermore, what other unique ways have you seen artists adapt their work to fit with the online world?
The concept of game design, its tendency to create worlds with their own laws and conventions, pushes us to mix our reality and this game world. It’s funny that now, as the main element of our reality, attention and money are included in games. Maybe artists will change this.
Have you personally found the current global situation surrounding the pandemic to fuel your artwork and motivations? Or has it made it more difficult for you to produce work?
The changes happening in the world have raised questions about the crisis of exhibition projects. These changes have forced institutions, artists and the audience to temporarily shake their faith in passive art consumption. But most importantly, the infodemic and digital optimism have weakened the grip of reality and opened up opportunities for the artist to weave complex, seamless patterns from the carpet of reality, online, IT, mobile apps, etc.
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The themes of Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat very much echo the concerns of the world right now. How mimetic do you believe the relationship between art and the social world is?
Art as a phenomenon of culture is part of social institutions, but art can also be a certain goal of human existence, a timeless symbolic capital preserved in museums, libraries and digital repositories. Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat tries to play with game mechanics in order to play with philosophical ideas about the current world, and in this sense, it is more necessary for today's generation, especially since the game world is changing rapidly, platforms are becoming obsolete, and digital archaeology is still a fairly young discipline.
Speaking about the social role of the Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat, after passing the main storyline, the player is rewarded with a series of levels for ritual liberation from the art of Moscow museums. Anyway, now it is a virtual opportunity to visit the main museum sites of Russia.
Is it important for you to create art that draws upon the state of the world at the present moment, almost as an alternative form of written history?
There is an opinion that today is a hard time for the concept of linear historiography. Video games, as a part of our world, will certainly be included in the list of artefacts of culture, but I think in my case, I rather hope that the player will be interested in the sources and positions of the authors to which the game refers: Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Ben Woodard, etc.
You worked with composer Vladimir Rannev on the soundtrack for the game. Is music always an important factor in your game design?
This work with Vladimir was our first online collaboration. The main idea was: the whole space of the game is a musical instrument, and the player operates as the fingers of the musician. So, moving from location to location, the player himself selects the music of his game. We created a diagram of this musical instrument and allowed the player to move through the keys of this musical landscape himself.
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It has also been said that you drew upon texts when designing Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat, do you believe this affects the depth and meaning of your art? Are music and literature of equal importance in your other games as well?
Above, I have already pointed out the authors, and I use this question to point to the problem of the text, or rather the problem of linear text, which gravitates to the dramatic, theatrical development, tends to the beginning, culmination and completion. This mimetization is harmful and does not need the text, especially when we already have the Internet with its linked information system. At Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat, the ‘V’ form of the narrative is nevertheless a form of a magical fairy tale, where the hero moves from character to character, increasing his knowledge about the world.
Are there any trends in contemporary game design which have inspired you, alongside music and texts?
I love indie games, but I am not an expert. Also, I don’t appreciate commercial games very much. They are always too careful, too expensive in production, and too simple. It is a big industry that frustrates me.
If you woke up in a post-apocalyptic world such as the one in Sanatorium, what games and films would you wish to have with you?
The Sanatorium Anthropocene Retreat is a kind of dying experience, a small and terrible dream before awakening that ends with the actual ascent of the soul into unknown blackness. To travel to the post-apocalyptic world, you will not need anything but personal life experience and several philosophical books. And an audio cassette with Vladimir Rannev`s music. And a cassette player with infinite batteries.
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