In the press release for artist Oliver Payne’s Elegant Code exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York City, he refers to the video arcade as a “third space” for teens. The first and second spaces are home and work/school—the places where teens are supposed to be, and where there is institutional supervision of their behavior. The arcade is an informal hangout spot that breeds its own social atmosphere. Teenagers aren’t the only ones who hang out at arcades (part of what can lead them to seeming a little seedy), but the spaces are catered towards their perceived interests. With the decline of video arcades from their pre-millennium heyday, there’s a sense from Payne’s work that a once prominent “third space” has been largely lost to time. In Elegant Code, Payne presents an arcade-reminiscent space, and within this alternate reality he simultaneously digs into the nostalgia barrel for teenage memories and gestures toward an arcade afterlife.
The first thing you’ll notice about Elegant Code is how dark the space is. While the default environment for art exhibitions is typically some kind of white cube, here everything is black, and individual pieces are either lit with gallery lights to look aglow, or do so with their own internal illumination. Video arcades are dark spaces out of necessity to avoid screen glare, but the low light also allows for plenty of dark corners, far away from the prying eyes of parents and teachers. Unlike the blackbox spaces of video art installations, arcade spaces aren’t so dark that you have to navigate them by feel. Arcades are just dark enough for teens to have alcoves to hide, punctuated only by neon shoelaces gleaming under blacklights.
Payne’s exhibition harkens back to this arcade environment, but stops short of simulation. There are no standing arcade cabinets and most of the pieces in the show are non-interactive and silent. The darkness of the gallery feels somewhat in memoriam of arcade spaces as much as a reenactment. There are prints of old arcade cabinet plate art (panels that would house buttons and control sticks), acting as literal relics of a bygone era, disconnected from their original installations to be evaluated on their own abstract compositions. Vibrantly colored, empty weed containers are illuminated from below, making them appear as a combination of raver glowsticks and mad scientist specimen jars. The containers recall the illicitness and adolescent daring of arcade spaces, but their imbuement of light and color betrays whatever inconspicuousness they may possess.
In the most direct analogue to video arcades in Elegant Code, Imagination Station (Procedural Rhetoric) offers a playable version of Street Fighter II (1991) projected onto a pull-down screen. The control panel is installed into a wooden school desk, forcing players to sit in the adjoined chair. The implication here is that arcades are their own kind of learning environment, where players and onlookers study the virtual fights staged on the monitor and engage with peers and competitors socially. The parenthetical “Procedural Rhetoric” in the title is a reference to Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007). In Persuasive Games, Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric” to categorize the ways that games make meaning through their playable systems. Part of understanding a game’s systems is to acknowledge the context in which they are played, which Imagination Station does by physically placing players in a school desk at the helm of a joystick. Payne’s piece merges academic and after-school spaces to draw them as tandem learning environments and social proving grounds.
dark enough for teens to have alcoves to hide, punctuated only by neon shoelaces gleaming under blacklights
In truth, the video arcade as a “third space” for teenagers is curious given the history of arcades before the advent of videogames. Originally, an arcade was just an architectural distinction for a space—basically just a series of arches, often lining a hallway. That’s it. Mosques and churches had arcades as well as shopping districts and bazaars. And while arcades as architectural structures have been around for over 1500 years, modern video arcades are derived more directly from the indoor shopping arcades of the 18th and 19th centuries. Milan’s stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (completed in 1877) consists of two massive arcade alleys, complete with glass-domed ceilings. Conceived as a shopping complex from the get-go, the Galleria is a cultural, commercial, and literal intersection lined with shops along crisscrossed indoor pathways. Video arcades are similarly laid out, with cabinets lined-up against opposing walls of a walkway, each tempting would-be players into dumping quarters by touting their own entertainment value in idling loops of game footage and high scores called “attract modes.”
When penny arcades began popping up in the United States in the early 1900s, arcade architecture was no longer a prerequisite for the title, as “arcade” had come to be much more synonymous with this bazaar-esque customer engagement experience. Penny arcades are precursors to video arcades (patrons spent pennies instead of quarters) and offer similar challenges and virtual worlds, minus the backbone of digital technology and plus a bunch of clockwork gears and moving parts. In penny arcades there were fortune telling machines, slot machines, and Viewmaster-like peepshows (not the pornographic kind, though those came later). It’s when these penny arcade games began showing up in amusement parks in the 1920s, merging with their carnival atmosphere, that the links between arcade machines and adolescent hangouts began to solidify.
If we fast-forward through the advent, height, and decline of video arcades in the late 20th century to now where the American arcade scene has all but dried up save for the rise of nostalgia-fueled, barcades (no teens allowed, of course), the lack of arcades as a “third space” for teenagers becomes more visible as a cultural loss. Elegant Code channels that absence into an exhibition that is an arcade as void space. Instead of densely packed cabinets vying for attention, there are a dozen or so artworks scattered between vast dark expanses—each piece sitting quiet and immobile, kindly or perhaps ominously awaiting visitors’ critical examination. Elegant Code does not make the case for the art gallery as the new arcade, but instead illustrates a pushing away from this near-extinct adolescent space, perhaps personally, but certainly culturally. And it does so with careful reverence for its source material.
There are two 6-foot painted steel pieces of giant robot helmet adornments from the Mobile Suit Gundam anime series in Payne’s exhibition. These pieces are titled with the name of the robot models and the parenthetical phrase “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you,” which is a quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s science fiction film, World on a Wire (1973). The film is about the study of virtual environments and the possibility that what we think is the real world may in fact be someone else’s simulation (this is pre-Matrix, mind you). While these Gundam sculptures might not themselves be commenting on arcade spaces, their installation within Elegant Code certainly does. Each artwork in the gallery is its own illusory diorama much the way an arcade provides a slate of virtual worlds that you can engage with for a mere 25 cents. But if the actual arcades are gone, recalling them in a gallery space becomes a virtualized experience in itself. Visitors wade through the darkness of memory, conjuring fragmented glimpses of adolescence, all the while knowing that they’re staring at phantoms.
Perhaps Elegant Code is what the “third space” looks like when you know you can’t go back.