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Paul Atkins & Ian Campbell’s “Video Club Retrospective”
June 1 – June 16, 2012

Please join us for a special opening reception on Friday June 1st from 8-10pm

Serious Goof Offs

“‘Goofing off’ is a quality that… requires developing a fine-tuned sense of what it means to pause long enough and distance oneself enough from worldly objects and events to recognize their illusory dimension and thereby reinvest the world with wonder. In order to really goof off well, the instrumental sense of purpose deeply ingrained in Western Ego and epistemology must be abandoned.” 1

There’s no denying that Atkins and Campbell are goofing off in their videos. They’re certainly having fun, and you can even hear them stifling laughs while trying not to break character in many of their videos. Sometimes it seems like there’s also a tinge of political/social commentary thrown in, like the time when one guy freezes his foot clean off and laments the idea of the local hospital being shut down in Froze my Foot or when watching the giant and the regular-sized guy negotiate a reconciliation and reparations after the destruction of the town in Giant, but given the grave seriousness of the overarching project (not really), it makes good sense to keep their subject matter light and nonsensical.

Using the action figure – the comic-book character made physical – and the more contemporary version of the comic-book character-cum-action figure, the video game character, as the actors in their videos, Atkins and Campbell are contributing to an established mode of subverting the overdeveloped moral self-righteousness of our society.

Referring to the “gamut of nineteenth century comicry which fed the modern comic idiom: pantomime, humourous broadsheets… and paintings displaying ironic wit,” Baudelaire supposed that “as the comic is the sign of…a belief in one’s own superiority, it is natural to hold that the nations of the world will see a multiplication of comic themes in proportion as their superiority increases” 2

As these themes multiply, they signify rising tension which naturally needs an outlet. Humour that subverts the character of the comic is a release valve for that tension, while art in both its humourous and serious forms is a vent for critical feedback of that political system that has started to consider itself too seriously and its members not at all. In adopting the form of the subverted comic in their artwork, then, Atkins and Campbell skillfully manipulate the release valves of humour and critique to achieve a body of work that is at once hilarious, thoughtful, and relevant.

Atkins and Campbell’s body of work demonstrates that Baudelaire’s assertion that the proliferation of comic themes symbolizes a belief in a nation’s superiority is transferable to the contemporary individual as well. By using the video game as one of their preferred modes of animation, Atkins and Campbell also poke holes in the overinflated ego of the self that was cultured throughout the ‘me’ generation of the 80s in which the artists grew up, and that still looms large in the social applications and media platforms which that generation was instrumental in developing, which allow us to exist in self-absorbed bubbles. The investment in leisure and gaming technology from that time resulted in the development of the incredibly rich user-friendly interfaces of the very videogames that make the artists’ animations possible. “Sandbox gaming,” a term referring to games where there is no right way to play and no specific way to win, suggests creativity is paramount and that learning happens through creativity. This theory of creative learning drove our generation. The sandbox physics game used in several of Atkins and Campbell’s videos is Garry’s Mod, or Gmod (a game that was inspired by, allows for, and capitalizes on player-enabled in-game modfications; the term also refers to animations made by players within the game by turning the videogame characters into actors), and is all about wresting control of game design – and therefore play – away from game developers. The exponential proliferation of mods clearly demonstrates a belief in the superiority of the player. The artists’ quiet subversion of this form helps to problematize our assumptions of the authority of the individual player and make space for other conversations.

Video games are not the artists’ only mode of animation, however, nor their only source of inspiration, but all of their works are inspired by play. Some use handmade puppets and others use actual toys, employing a combination of live animation, stop-motion, and green screen technology. (They refer to this mode of production as new media puppetteering.) Rare live action videos, such as Work and Play, feature goofing off as a central theme. Work and Play, in fact, can be used to describe their entire collaborative project – besides the fact that Campbell (Work) is described in their bio as the ‘technical prowess’ of the team and Atkins (Play) is described as the funny man, this odd couple (I rather prefer to see them as Goofus and Gallant of Highlights for Children Magazine fame) are never actually at odds with one another, instead performing an elegant dance where one only works and one only plays, and it never causes tension between the two.

The stream-of-consciousness style of the storytelling and the found-and-cobbled-together aesthetic belies all of the careful craft that goes into the sets, animation and editing of the work. The videogame characters, like the puppets and the stop-motion animation, move jerkily and awkwardly, mimicking the social situations and the stilted conversations they’re thrust into.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that they plan their videos in advance, scripting them carefully to appear as mundane and workaday as possible, in that way where you always hear that it’s the hardest thing in the world to write conversations to make them sound like plain old real life conversations. The artists’ interest in blue collar work, slow drawls and inane leisure activities add to this warm and richly textured aesthetic. But Atkins and Campbell’s videos read more like they’re set up as goof-off challenges to each other – they set the stage, start rolling, and then one starts a conversation with a ridiculous proposition, setting the other one up to have to follow along. And as they do, we are compelled to go with them.

Cindy Baker, 2012

PAVED Arts acknowledges the support of our members, volunteers and partners, and of our principal funders: Canada Council for the Arts, Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture, SaskLotteries, the City of Saskatoon and the National Film Board of Canada.

For more information, contact: David LaRiviere, Artistic Director tel. (306) 652-5502 ext.1 artistic@pavedarts.caPAVED Arts: 424 20th Street West Saskatoon SK. S7M 0X4
Free admission to the public with barrier-free accessibility.