Janne Schimmel on Gaming Devices

Investigating the inner workings of old computers and modular gaming-computer building. Janne talks about gaming as a participatory culture, the planned obsolescence of computers, animating and bringing soft qualities to devices.

The materials list accompanying your work often reads as a list of processes such as 'liquid cooled computer sculpture' - where does your interest and knowledge of these processes come from?

From a young age I had an interest in taking apart different electronic household items and studying them. I was too young to actually understand what was happening inside of these machines but I remember being struck by the contrast that existed between the inside and outside of the electronic products that I found. Still today this contrast fascinates me.

Years later when I was a teenager my hobby became building and repairing old mopeds. My uncle taught me the basics of engine maintenance, which led me to discover online scooter and moped forums where people got together to answer questions they had about their vehicles. I spent a lot of time on the Spartamet forum (a very small forum that focused on tuning the Spartamet: a normal city bicycle with a small engine strapped to the back wheel, mostly used by elderly people. A kind of precursor to the e-bike of today). Besides all the knowledge that was available through these online communities I also became fascinated with the sense of belonging that they offered.

Years later, after graduating from my BA and having owned laptops for several years, I was growing tired of discarding them every time they got slow (because there was no upgrade path available for them). I became interested in the world of modular gaming-computer building. After doing a lot of research into all the different available components and their manufactures I was able to build my first computer.

The connection between a physical tool and its use, whether it concerns a moped or a table saw, is very immediate. You pull the throttle –> you accelerate; you turn on the table saw –> it starts to spin and you can cut wood. But the connection between an electronic tool, such as a computer, and its use was something I could never make much sense of prior to building this computer.

This realisation led me to build my first interactive computer sculpture titled ‘Phantasmic Crystal Interface’ in which I combined the ornate and fantastical realities present in the world of video games with the physical hardware that allows you to connect to these realms.

Where are you finding the electronic objects that you deconstruct?

Within my practice, I focus on the history of technology as well as on contemporary trends in computer hardware development. For sculptures that feature games requiring advanced graphic capabilities, I use contemporary components newly purchased from a variety of suppliers. For sculptures in which I use old and vintage hardware I source the components from all over. The first Gameboy sculpture that I made was produced from the Gameboy advance that I still had from my childhood. For other components, I scour online second-hand marketplaces, physical second-hand shops, and occasionally scrapyards.

What are your thoughts on society's relationship with technology?

The role of human-machine interaction is an important subject within my work. The interface through which you interact with a computer significantly influences the capacity to express yourself within the digital space. Over the last few years I have noticed that efforts of game preservation have become more and more recognized by official archival institutions. Since many games are tied to a specific piece of hardware the act of game preservation raises interesting questions about the authenticity of a gaming experience. Is it enough to preserve the source code of a video game so it can later be emulated on a contemporary computer? Or is the authenticity of the experience exclusively tied to its original hardware. This problem proves extra difficult with game experiences that are specifically designed to fit outside the norm of a normal player-system interface (think about arcade cabinets such as ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ or games and consoles that employ non-standard peripherals such as a microphone on the game ‘SingStar’ or motion controls on the popular Nintendo Wii console). In my work I examine different interfaces from different era’s, use them and rebuild them to try and figure out what the available technology at a certain point in time can say about society’s relationship with technology.

The interface plays an important role in the way we connect to and experience the digital space, but just as important are the realities that are present inside these spaces. Especially in the world of video games, where you make a connection between yourself and a digital avatar. Whilst working on a game I was making for a sculpture I played around with a character model titled ‘Demon Screamer’ and experimented with the kind of movement I would apply to it. I found a set of character movements titled ‘sad walk’ and when I applied this movement-set to the Demon and started to move it around with the controller I noticed that the slow pace that the Demon moved with was something that I was very unfamiliar with. The vast majority of video games that were available to play when I was young were very fast paced, conditioning me to expect game characters to move quickly and aggressively devoid of any emotion but anger. Seeing this Demon character walk slowly, contemplative, with its shoulders hunched and its head bowed down I began to feel a certain sympathy for this scary and gruesome character. This made me realize that empathy is not considered to be an interesting concept within the programming language of most video games. These avatars are digital mirrors and whilst growing up they influenced the way I perceive digital reality’s as well as physical ones. I am definitely not against violent video games (I play them myself still) but it’s the lack of variation that I find problematic. In my work I try to experiment with the roles and behaviours of different virtual characters. For some more familiar archetypes (monsters, soldiers, etc...) I try to build an emotional redemption arc, and for new characters I make myself, I try to build them with attributes and emotions that are plentiful in the real world but rare in the world of video games.

Some of your works are available online for anyone to 3D print, why is this?

I am very interested in user-produced games and game modifications (becoming popular in the mid 1990’s by a game called ‘Doom’) and how they negotiate the meaning around gaming as a participatory culture. What I find fascinating about this subject is that despite the dominant gaming industry's efforts to make previous gaming console versions seem obsolete (designed to stimulate consumers to buy new hardware) there are still many active communities that produce games and game modifications for consoles that came out more than 30 years ago. These home-brew communities operate within a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations; I am very interested in the strategies that these communities deploy to regain agency over popular media by constructing their own narratives. A lot of these communities have an open-source sharing system where ideas of authorship are questioned. Other communities in which I operate (3D printing and freeware communities) share this ideology. I source a lot of virtual material and knowledge from these communities and in turn also upload parts of my own work that can be reproduced by others.

Some of your sculptures consist of ‘aluminium stitching’ and ‘tin hugs’, which feel in contradiction to typical associations around these materials. These works seem to be animating metal, or perhaps giving it a gentleness?

‘’Stitching’’ and ‘’hugs’’ both convey movement, emotion, or process. Metal is usually seen as static, cold, and unchanging. I have a fascination with melting metals. There's something about the transformative process of a solid becoming a liquid that interests me. In their solid state metals are rigid but in their liquid state they are warm and pliable, seamlessly conforming to the contours of their surroundings. I have an ongoing series of works titled ‘Many Little Hugs’. These works originated from a gift I made for my grandma when she moved away from her farm in the north of the Netherlands. To commemorate the farm I took some small stones from the pebble path in front of her door, then using a sand-mold I casted tin around the stones in such a way that it looks like every stone is being hugged by multiple small arms of tin.

Just as metals are often seen as cold and impersonal, computer hardware is usually perceived in a similar light. Their design and marketing often lack emotional resonance, focusing instead on technical prowess. Especially gaming hardware operates within a framework dominated by attributes like speed, efficiency, and power and is typically seen through the lens of performance, devoid of emotional or softer attributes. In my work I try to question this notion. By combining the world of technology with elements inspired by the ornate realities present in video games, I try to animate and bring soft qualities to the material state of the devices that surround us on a daily basis.