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Sisyphus, and the point of video games

Aubrey Anable explains the most-important art form of the 21st century.

So, you’ve stopped the final zombie with a perfect kill shot to the head. Congratulations. You’ve won the battle. But your high score doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the war.

Aubrey Anable was at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library on Thursday to, as she puts it, “defend video games from cultural commentators.” In other words, those who dare to call “Angry Birds” a vapid waste of your time.

Video games, she insists, are the most-important new art form of the 21st century.

An assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Anable’s contribution to what she calls “an emerging scholarship in the field of game studies” is her book, Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect.

Affect. In this case, the word means the experiences of feeling and emotion. For Anable, a guest speaker of UR’s Neilly Series Lectures, video games serve the same purpose as the poet Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: They lead us through today’s complex digital landscape.

Anable, who received her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester, reaches back to the 1930s, and the impact the relative new art form, cinema, had on the public. How those on-screen images spoke to audiences about the radical, new social emotions being generated by their rapidly evolving world. Affects. And how today, video games are now in that same role, a “ubiquitous part of our digital environment.”

“Video games,” she says, “have inherited and significantly revised the role of cinema.”

Anable recalls the early computer scientist Alan Turing’s question: “Can machines think?” And the follow-up question from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins: “Can machines feel?” Questions that cannot be answered, Anable says, from the perspective of “the simplistic idea that computers work like human brains.”

Human brains indulge in risk taking. They revel in achievement. Affects are biologically-based categories arranged by Tomkins, such as interest-excitement. And even shame-humiliation. Useful concepts. Shame, Anable says, helps to uphold social norms.

She traces the origin of video games to Cold War computer labs, where 1958’s “Tennis For Two” and 1962’s “Spacewar!” taught us how to feel about thermonuclear war. The mechanics of the computers of that day were beyond the reach of the average person – the hardware on these gadgets filled a room. So these games were intended to be ambassadors, created to make this intimidating technology “friendly and accessible,” Anable says.

The circuits we’ve traveled since “Tennis For Two” does have contemporary applications. For Anable, video games help make “techno-cultural conditions accessible.” They are “giving expression to how our lives are lived in the digital age.” They are extensions of email, social media and creating a word document, “ordinary activities imbued with the possibility of play.”

“Those interactions,” she says, “are necessary to how we live our lives already.”

Interactions that are less destructive than our often mean-spirited social media because, “The stakes are lower.”

Aubrey admits she’s less interested in big-budget, super-realistic, immersive games such as “Call of Duty.” She finds “casual mobile games” as a more-useful gateway into our digital era. Those include the various solitaire games, Suduko, Extreme Road Trip. Games played in short bursts.

“Video games are not an escape,” she argues, “but pull us into the world.”

Useful applications can be found at some level in even the most seemingly lightweight of escapist video entertainments. Anable cites “Plants vs. Zombies” as your gardening skills pitted against The Undead. And the zaniness of “Frogger” reflecting today’s age of “too many things coming at once.” More to her point, video games are also portals into pornography, art or learning skills such as math. “The video game,” Anable says, “is not just about one thing.”

But most importantly, Anable argues, just as cinema in the 1930s was a societal-teaching tool, video games are as well today. They are teaching us the rhythm of digital labor.

She talks of ergonomic shifts, people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, creating an easy flow, a rhythm between work and play. With phone in hand, we are now constantly connected to work. We are now in an age where our minds are slipping from one activity to the next. In this digital age, it is putting to work our short attention spans.

At this point, cultural commentators will step in and ask: Is this an improvement over a sustained focus?

Going to her laptop computer, Anable summons a video game and projects it on a screen for her audience in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. The game is “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment,” with amusingly primitive graphics by today’s standards. By manipulating a couple of keys, the player becomes Sisyphus of Greek legend pushing a boulder up a hill. Inevitably, the boulder rolls back downhill, and the player must start over. “There is no way to successfully complete the task,” Anable says. Your only choice is to give up and close the browser.

This is where the high score does not win the war. We have reached a key affect of video games, she says. An affect we must tolerate and dwell in. An affect that is a necessary step to success. An affect that even our system of capitalism can accommodate in tremendous amounts, she says, so long as the possibility of success exists.

That affect?

“All video games,” Anable says, “are about failure.”

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The yardsticks of fame

In Ken Colombo’s impressionistic photo, an eager crowd awaits at Brue Coffee.

About 40 people came out to hear me talk about the Rochester music scene Monday evening at Brue Coffee, as a part of the University of Rochester’s “Breaking the Bubble” series of outreach talks. Because the induction ceremony for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame is coming up, it became the lens for many of the points I was making. Here’s the text:

Thank you for taking a break from your April Fools’ Day Festivities.

This isn’t a lecture, it’s a talk. Feel free to shout out questions and comments. Or rush the stage and seize the microphone. This country was built on civil disobedience.

Let’s talk about yardsticks. How we measure things.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Michael Jackson, whether or not you choose to believe the evidence, molested children.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame: O.J. Simpson, whether or not you choose to believe the evidence, appears to have murdered two people.

The Baseball Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb committed no crimes. But he was a dirty player, and an avowed racist.

“Thank you for taking a break from your April Fools’ Day festivities…”

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame: We knew Son House once killed a man. He called it self defense, and did his time in prison. Then, thanks to research by University of Rochester professor Dan Beaumont in his book “Preachin’ the Blues,” we find that Son House shot and killed a second man. He spent a few days in jail, then was released. He pleaded self defense, no charges were filed. Son House evidently had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the Rochester Music Hall of Fame also has a guy who killed two people.

It seems like we use yardsticks of convenience when it comes to evaluating some transgressions. And there is no Hall of Fame, no public honor, that does not come under criticism for the yardsticks it uses to measure accomplishment. How do we measure baseball ballplayers of the dead-ball era against players from the steroid era?

So, how about the Rochester Music Hall of Fame? I’ve heard some dissatisfaction expressed with this year’s inductees. TV theme composer Jack Allocco, music-club owner and producer Jeff Springut, Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine, WCMF. And a Special Merit Award to WCMF DJ Dave Kane, which is much, much better than a certificate of participation. Folk singer Christine Lavin keeps it from being a white-male sweep.

Our connection to some of these inductees can be fleeting; Cab Calloway was 6 years old when his family moved to Baltimore. Jardin? He lived in Irondequoit for three years, he was a kid when his dad worked for Kodak and taught some photography at RIT. Lake Ontario was his first beach.

Yardsticks change. With the Beach Boys, the yardstick was cars and surfing. And those cars were cool. The ’57 Chevy Bel Air, the 1960 Chevy Impala, the 1961 black Lincoln Continental convertible. They were automotive artwork, today’s cars are uncool. And surfing? The only time you hear about surfing on the news today is when a shark’s involved.

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame yardstick measures its yearly five or six inductees not only as on-stage artists, but for behind-the-scenes presence. The yardstick must reflect diversity in gender and race and genre.

And its inductees must be available. For those who have passed on, their schedules are clear, they’re pretty available. But you know the first phone call the Hall of Fame makes every year is to Renée Fleming’s people. And she’s a busy woman. Her schedule says no.

Fleming will quiet a lot of criticism the year she’s inducted. Unlike most cities with a music hall of fame, honoring their inductees with a chicken dinner, the Rochester Music Hall of Fame throws a big concert. This isn’t New York City, we’re Rochester, the opportunities are hit or miss. Maybe you’re not into Gary Wright singing “Dream Weaver” or the bassist from Whitesnake playing at this year’s show. But don’t tell me anyone had a problem with Paul Simon showing up last year to sing a few songs with Tony Levin and Steve Gadd.

I wonder if Al Jardine will bring any of the guys he knows?

Something else about the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. It had about $100 in its bank account when it convinced the Eastman School of Music to let it use Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre for its induction concert. I admire that kind of moxy.

Rochester’s scene has produced unquestioned stars in the music constellation. Chuck Mangione, Joe Locke, Pee Wee Ellis, Wendy O. Williams. But we need different yardsticks to truly measure our scene.

Our scene is real life. Musicians work jobs, raise families, do volunteer work. The bands they play in are skyrockets, we watch them rise and explode and disappear, until the next rocket appears.

Some light the sky longer than others. The Colorblind James Experience, The Dady Brothers. The Chesterfield Kings, among the leaders of the garage-band revival. Lydia Koch ran away from home in Greece and became a fixture on the New York City spoken-word scene, which came to know her as Lydia Lunch, because she used to steal food to feed the musicians around her. She tells a story of how one night on Cobb’s Hill she was held at gunpoint by a man who demanded that she lick his car’s tires.

Our women have certainly challenged the norms, haven’t they? Wendy O. Williams challenged materialism by chain-sawing televisions. The mystery was how this shy kid from Webster found the courage to do it. I guess I found out after writing a story about Williams for her introduction into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. One of Williams’ friends from her days here contacted me with a previously unknown piece of her history; she’d married young, and left here to escape the abusive relationship. Out of her troubled life, and her courage to change, came a civil disobedience that should be treasured.

Like a lot of bands – The Carpenters and Karen Carpenter, The Eagles and Don Henley, The Monkees and Micky Dolenz – Rochester’s Black Sheep had a drummer who could sing. Perhaps Black Sheep would have gone on to bigger things if a truck accident hadn’t destroyed all of its equipment. A group of English guys who were putting together a band called the now-unemployed Lou Grammatico, hired him to be their lead singer. Grammatico shortened his name to Lou Gramm, and Foreigner did very well.

Some of our bands are built on similar chains of DNA rock. Lincoln Zephyr begat Rochester Music Hall of Famer Duke Jupiter. Or, if I have the biology in the right order, The Press Tones begat New Math, which begat The Hi-Techs, which begat Personal Effects, which evolved into our Margaret Explosion of today. And The Hoodies, a good but fairly standard rock band, made a quantum leap to Joywave, a high-energy, cutting-edge indie rock band that now tours America and Europe. Save a seat for Joywave in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.

Perhaps we should be honoring moments, rather than personalities; Elvis Costello getting thrown out of Scorgie’s, U2 getting thrown out of Red Creek, the police shutting down a Rolling Stones concert after a few songs. Should the Rochester Music Hall of Fame induct the cop who led the bust that nailed David Bowie and Iggy Pop after a 1974 show at the War Memorial?

Perhaps we should honor eras. The ’60s, and The Invictas’ song “The Hump” getting banned in Boston.

The ’70s and Bahama Mama, who became The Majestics, who spent time backing reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry.

The ’80s and Absolute Grey, our own R.E.M. Immaculate Mary, labeled by The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest rock band, tossing condoms to the audience. Club crawling to find Marshall James and the Nightstalkers playing at Living Legends. Sally Cohen of Backseat Sally emerging from a coffin for a Halloween show at Scorgie’s.

The ’90s, that was a great one. The Frantic Flattops. Exploding Boy, Nerve Circus, Dog’s Life, Big Hair, Koo Koo Boy, Officer Friendly, Shop Class Squares. Phyllis Driller, with 10 horns onstage. And one of our best bands, The Hi-Risers. We were on the forefront of electronica that decade, with the acclaimed Vapourspace album by Mark Gage.

Our scene lives on through radio, in a way I’ve heard in virtually no other city. WRUR in particular, with long-running shows hosted by Doug Curry, Scott Regan, Scott Wallace, Mark Grube. And Mike Murray’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” uncovering current gems and forgotten singles cut by Rochester bands.

Metallica, before it became the most-significant band on the metal scene, used to hang out at the House of Guitars, asking for free T-shirts because they couldn’t afford to do their laundry. That was while the band was recording its first album in Rochester. “Kill ’em All” was recorded at Music America studio, which is now Blackdog Recording Studio, a little doorway off Swan Street by Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.

Two of the four members of the Grammy-winning heavy metal band Mastodon, Brann Dailer and Bill Kelliher, are from Rochester and were in several local bands, including Lethargy, which frequently played the Bug Jar in the ’90s.

Kate Lee, a fiddler and singer from Webster, emerged as a star with the debut album by The O’Connor Family Band, which last year won a Grammy for best bluegrass album.

The Campbell Brothers are stars of the gospel-heavy sacred steel scene, and they’ve rocked onstage with The Allman Brothers Band. Watkins & the Rapiers, playing right now across town at The Little Theatre, has written more than 70 Christmas songs. Sit down, Irving Berlin.

Joe Tunis has played in a few noise-rock bands here. But for 25 years, he’s also run Carbon Records, a label that gave voice to our avant-garde bands, and even some national obscurities worthy of attention. Tunis is a detail-oriented guy. The covers of his releases are intriguing abstracts. The art of Carbon Records will be celebrated this month in an exhibit at Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Jeff Riales writes songs as excellent as than anything coming out of Nashville, tomorrow he’s starting a month-long Tuesday residency at Abilene Bar & Lounge. No one in our clubs sings better than Connie Deming. Listen to all of our marvelous women singers and songwriters: Sarah Long Hendershot, Maria Gillard. Did you hear Kirstin Piper Brown at last fall’s Fringe Festival? The soprano emerged from a second-floor doorway overlooking the audience at the Lyric Theatre, stepping into the middle of a giant flower projected on the wall. You didn’t have to be an opera enthusiast to get a thrill out of that.

Our music ranges from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to a couple of people my friend Monica reminded me of just an hour ago. Lesley Riddle, who was a big influence on The Carter Factory and then, just like Son House, moved to Rochester and disappeared for decades, only to be re-discovered here late in life. And the bluesman Spider John Koerner.

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival and the CGI Rochester Jazz Festival energize our streets with artists from around the world. But both rely on the local talent as well.

Our musicians have real depth, in all respects. Musicians such as Danielle Ponder & the Tomorrow People. Ponder left her job as a city public defender, standing up for those who have no resources to fight our justice machinery, to pursue her dream of being a soul singer. She writes songs that reflect the same ideals she fought for as a public defender. In my mind, she’s already made it. And that’s what the arts, and our scene, is about.

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What’s behind ‘The Yellow Wallpaper?’

Nikki Joshi, theatrical percussionist.

Nikki Joshi raises the knife: Oh no, we are all thinking, holding collective breath. Don’t kill it. Please don’t stab… that red balloon.

And then, to the relief of the audience, about 25 of us in a darkened Todd Theater on the University of Rochester campus, Joshi spares the red balloon.

This is theater percussion, and a piece called “Scratch,” by the avant-garde Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin. Avant-garde is the operating phrase on this Friday night. You don’t wander into a local music club and find this kind of stuff: a woman in punk black plucking petals from a red rose and dropping them into water-filled bowls, which she taps with sticks, eliciting a different pitch from each different-sized bowl. No, you must seek out these curiosities. A darkened theater on a college campus, that’s a good place to start.

Joshi, a Toronto musician, plays chimes to several portions of California composer Christopher Adler’s “Zaum Box,” in which she chirps Russian Futurist poetry. She moves on to Annea Lockwood’s “Amazonia,” a work by the New Zealand-born composer, now teaching at Vassar College. A piece for snare drum, Joshi drags a mallet across the drum head to produce a disagreeable growl, taps the sides of the drum, then loosens the drum from its stand and sets a few marbles on it, tipping the drum so they roll around the edge like a ball on a roulette wheel. She adds vocals, like a purring cat.

All the time, I tell myself, it’s important to remember: Don’t over-analyze this. Just go with it. These pieces are nothing that can be danced to, but I know a lot of drummers whose world would be turned upside-down by this exhibition. Sound that challenges expectations. These are no verse-chorus-verse compositions. You only know the piece has been completed when Joshi looks up at the audience and smiles.

She moves on to the Greek composer Georges Aperghis’ “Le Corps Á Corps,” sitting cross-legged on the floor with an African djembe, reciting words inspired by a manic motorcycle race: The words pour out in a staccato speed chatter, a violent struggle of gasping poetry:

Before ten o’clock, around the body, they were already dispersed all along the track, on both sides, packed shoulder to shoulder. The only visible actions occurred at the finish line, from which from time to time a chariot emerged – seizing the shining helmet, leaping up, injuring his arm – blasting out of the cloud of dust, and staggering down from his motorcycle, which the maintenance team rushed to refuel and launch back onto the track, with a brand new rider on it. From the fresh wound on his arm the blood flows. Immense cries arise.

Joshi stands, smiles, and bows. Now we know the piece is over. Time for a break, before the main event: A performance of Eastman School of Music professor Matt Curlee’s interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s intense 1890 Gothic interior-decorating horror story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

This piece will require some explanation. And for that, up steps Jessica Lacher-Feldman, assistant dean of the UR’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. She talks about “the connection between archives and the arts,” and the importance of “connecting people with stuff.” Archives, she says, are jumping-off points, or entry points, to creativity. She points to her own archival research into the 1954 novel “The Bad Seed,” by William March. Exploring his notes, she discovered the back story of this tale of a murderous little girl: Much of March’s inspiration for “The Bad Seed” was drawn from detective magazines.

Accessing archives for a work at hand raises the interpretation to a visceral level. You can smell it, listen to it, Lacher-Feldman says. And so it is with “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

The story is told in the form of journal entries, inspired by Gilman’s own claustrophobic existence after she is confined to a room by her husband and doctors’ misogynistic solutions to what they diagnose as a woman’s “temporary nervous depression.”

Curlee calls this “a found-object piece,” built from thrift-store acquisitions. Wearing a black Victorian dress, and often with a maniacal expression on her face, Joshi rummages through a life spread out on a desk. Her percussion raises the drama of Gilman’s words, as she rattles the pills in a bottle and her strings of pearls, beats on glass bottles and vases and candlesticks, tickles them with her fingernails, and speaks into a pewter pitcher, then snuggles with it as though the pitcher were a baby – post-partum depression. She rages against the men who are imprisoning her on a medical pretext. But her words always return to the wallpaper, and her examination of its patterns. Soon, she believes she sees a woman behind the paper’s intricate patterns. “I fancy it is the paper that keeps her so still,” she says. And then, the paper moves because the women crawling behind the pattern is shaking it.

We know wallpaper is a traditionally dangerous interior-design choice in the literary world. The last words of Oscar Wilde were supposedly something along the lines of, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

The story of those being Wilde’s last words is probably fiction, as is “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Yet the imprisoned woman tearing down the wallpaper is a handy metaphor. “She’s taking charge of her own life,” Lacher-Feldman says. As Gilman did in real life. The UR recently acquired a collection of Gilman’s letters and illustrations, and they show someone who was much more than a woman marginalized by the men around her; she escaped her demons to become a writer, commercial artist, editor and lecturer.

So the story has a feminist direction. And was ahead of what was commonly produced in its time. More than a century after “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published, it’s the idea of a woman taking charge of her life – even in the face of a debilitating mental illness – that resonates today. To the point, Lacher-Feldman says, that the University of Rochester is developing a class in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” will help explore women and their reproductive rights.

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