Sunday, September 18, 2011

Abramovic Video Game + Gamers Solve Difficult Chemistry Puzzle

In the spring of 2010, while I was teaching that wonderful Conceptual Art/Writing class, one of my most favorite of all the courses I've taught over the last 15 or so years, I had the good fortune to be in New York and go to the Museum of Modern Art to see Marina Abramovic perform "The Artist Is Present" live, and subsequently blogged about it. I even stood in line to participate in the face-off, but after waiting for a long while I bagged and instead caught some of the other exhibits, including the enthralling retrospective of her work. I did draw her on my iPhone, though, because the guard forbade me to take photos while in line (though as countless other blogs and sites demonstrated others present did not hesitate to keep photographing away, and, in any case, I did snap some pictures once out of his sightline). As I say, I was lucky; many New Yorkers and everyone who could not get to New York were unable to catch the performance, and have viewed it online, in still photos and via MoMa's servers, as well as via countless blogs. That was the way most of my students saw the performance.

Pippin Barr, a New Zealander now resident in Denmark who creates art and games, writes commentary about technological topics, blogs and teaches at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark, however, has come up with a video game, entitled "The Artist Is Present," that allows participants the virtual experience of facing off with (or against) Abramovic.  But, it has a few catches: as I and others experienced in real time, if you play the video game you must wait in line for a period of time, and it restricts the hours when you can play (to MoMa's). There are no guards preventing photos or screen captures for that matter, though.  The Village Voice's Rosie Gray, who tried to play the game, interviewed Barr last Friday for the Voice's "Running Scared" column, and he had some interesting things to say about it, his long interest in comics and how this translated into "The Artist Is Present," and what games he's planning for the future. Next year his book, How To Play a Video Game, will be published by Awa Press.  When I have a free moment I'm going to try out his game.  On a related note, I also take it that Abramovic (nor MoMa) is not hassling him for use of the name/concept/etc. "The Artist Is Present," which is great to hear.  But then doing so would not be in the spirit of conceptual art or Conceptual Art, wouldn't it?


Speaking of games, a remarkable story: a brilliant group of gamers using Foldit, an online collaborative game, solved a puzzle that had bedeviled researchers for years, and did so in astonishing time. Three weeks. As Alan Boyle relates it in this MSNBC article, what they did was to figure out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme, retroviral protease, from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. Doing so would aid researchers in designing drugs to neutralize HIV. Neither sheer mindwork nor computers programs geared towards protein folding, like Rosetta, sufficed in mapping out the right configuration, but Foldit, which has over 236,000 registered participants, allows players to tinker with virtual molecular structures--much as in chemistry classes with physical models, but with far greater complexity--and rewards those who devise the most "elegant structure[s]," according to chemical laws, with points, while subtracting points for designs tending toward the opposite direction.

A screen shot shows how the Foldit program posed the monkey-virus molecular puzzle. (University of Washington)

A small subgroup, the Foldit Contenders Team, comprising 12-15 regular participants living in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, other European countries, and New Zealand, solved the problem.  These players "worked as a tag team to come up with an incredibly elegant, low-energy model for the monkey-virus enzyme," astounding lead researcher, University of Washington biochemist Firas Khatib and his colleagues. notes that "The exploit [will be] published on Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, where--exceptionally in scientific publishing--both gamers and researchers are honoured as co-authors." Collaboration as a form of play, with incentives, apparently does pay off, and video games can be a serious epistemological tool. Foldit, which was developed and  by UW computer scientist Seth Cooper, and according to Boyle's article, it and similar games, forms of what he calls "citizen science," may prove vital in solving and resolving other scientific quandaries, whether they be pharmacological puzzles or bioengeering.  Boyle ends his article with an email from "mimi," one of the participants in solving the Pfizer-Mason enzyme problem, who notes that rather than receiving individual recognition within the article the gamers asked to be accredited as Foldit Contenders Team and tops off the missive by requesting that instead of a real name, Boyle use the gaming tag: mimi. Indeed.


  1. Hi John, just wanted to stop by briefly to say thanks for the thoughtful write-up! Also just to mention that no, MoMA's been entirely cool with the game - they even tweeted the link from their official account, so they seem to be down. No word on what Abramovic thinks - I'm going to go with "probably doesn't care" :)

  2. Dear Pippin, thanks so much for dropping by and commenting, and thank you for the update on MoMa and Marina Abramovic!