Knut Hybinette & Troy Richards (2007)


Knut Hybinette & Troy Richards

newmediafix.net by Natasha Chuk

Review of Game Art Installation “Ripon” by Natasha Chuk

It’s difficult to imagine a world in which people work harmoniously toward utopian socialism, an almost laughable concept in the face of our present state of dystopian capitalism. Yet communities were once formed, in America, no less, to create such a flawless way of life based on the notion of cooperation. Sharing and working together – two very “Sesame Street” sounding concepts – are explored in ‘Ripon”, a video game art installation presented by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council that was on view from June 8 – June 30 in New York City.

Through hand-drawn depictions of a dystopic society set within an original video game, artists Troy Richards and Knut Hybinette of Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, have created an imaginary life in one of said utopian socialist communities. Viewers/players of “Ripon” are surrounded by oversized digital prints of icons from the game for heightened, experiential play and observation.

The cleverness of the game is in a player’s inability to win, that is, to survive, creating a situation of equality in which game novices like me and seasoned gamers like Knut “die” within minutes of game play. The capability of outsmarting the game through repetition is omitted, eliminating the notion of player immortality, one of video game’s core and most celebrated features. Unlike most video games, “Ripon” is designed to de-center its player or players, making them slower and less powerful than their counterparts in the game, and better suited for background activity. But it goes further than this: the game provides commentary on the general breakdown of a utopian society.

“Ripon”, pronounced RIP-in, is also the name of a small town in Wisconsin that was modeled after the influence and writings of French philosopher and advocate of utopian life, Charles Fourier. In 1844, a group of followers started this small town observing Fourier’s fundamental guideline of having a complete set of personalities among its members to provide a balanced community and fulfill their mission of cooperating effectively. Theirs was an experiment in Socialism gone awry, which was quickly replaced with a new political vision. Ripon now ironically boasts the claim “Birthplace of the Republican Party!”

However, this video game installation is not a critique of Fourier’s philosophies or the failure of the Ripon community’s initial efforts to realize them. It is an experiment developed to promote critical thinking among players, and illustrate the quick dissolution of communal interactions with fellow players. Even the group at the exhibition who took this game for a spin, declaring it a cynical outlook on life, fell as victims to the tendency humans have to hold up the old adage “every man for himself”. These players abandoned the idea of sharing, working together, and surviving based on team effort for the more individual, Darwinian approach that resulted in leaving another player for dead if necessary.

Yet, “Ripon” does more than lead players down a predetermined path of demise. It combines technology and art, coming to life in a game with an embedded history lesson. Troy’s drawings give Knut’s games – available in a 2-D and 3-D version – an organic feel, setting “Ripon” apart from the cookie-cutter hyper-reality of most contemporary video games. The oversized drawings that surround players in the installation magnify the decaying society depicted in the game, and allow viewers to understand and appreciate the level of detail that went into composing them.

The feel of the game and the environment in which it is presented are also indicative of an emerging type of video game art world practice that isn’t charged by a win/lose dichotomy, and seeks to provide a more thought-provoking experience. “Ripon” is in line with the inventive social issues games that are cropping up with more and more aplomb these days, and the art installations that play host to them.

“Ripon” has taken various forms since it was initially conceived two years ago, constantly being tweaked by both artists as their ideas shift slightly in one direction or another. And Troy and Knut will continue to make changes, even throughout the course of a single exhibition, allowing “Ripon” to evolve based on feedback from viewers and players, or simply at their whim.


On view from June 8 – June 30, 2007
38 Park Row @ City Hall Park

Natasha Chuk is an independent curator, media critic, and fiction writer. Her work and interests explore experimental narratives, hybrid forms, and multidisciplinary contexts of media production. She is co-founder of Unnamed Artists, an artists’ cooperative that collaborates on film, video, and audio projects. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Natasha currently lives and works in New York City.

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