The latest AVEK Award laureate, Reija Meriläinen (b.1987), works with moving image, sculpture and installation. She is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts, and her work often explores social dynamics and power. We discuss her work Survivor, and how ready-made algorithms can make the world seem easier to understand, although something is always lost in the process.
Peace of mind from algorithms
In Reija Meriläinen’s work, a sense of playfulness comes in contact with a feeling of threat, danger, or violent intervention, the body becoming a substance to be manipulated, the mind programmed.
In Crush, a foot made of ballistics gel is subjected to a hydraulic press. In En Garde, two fencers get ready to attack, and in I think she’s dead, a block of jelly is being shot at while Meriläinen smokes a cigarette to metal music. In Survivor, your in-game character loses if they aren’t willing to play to eliminate the other players and navigate the nebulous group dynamics. Her work on pickup artists, in collaboration with artist Megan Snowe, explored a world where mastering human interaction also becomes an explicit game, an exercise in memorising dialogue.
“We thought of pickup and its teachings as being a bit like a social prosthesis that people seek out. But then again, it’s problematic because those teachings often come packaged with a whole world-view,” Meriläinen says. “There’s a need to know how things work in the world, to isolate things into simple, easily-digestible blocks, even though the world itself isn’t easy to understand or predictable. There are too many variables.”
“In the world of pickup, there’s this idea that at first you are unconsciously incompetent, and then after becoming aware of your incompetence and moving to conscious competence, the final stage is unconsciously competent – being a natural. There’s this dream that there’s a simple solution, and that at some point things are crystal clear and you don’t have to think about them anymore,” Meriläinen concludes.
You can’t go any farther
In many games, there is a moment when you see a world beyond, though you do not immediately recognise it as such. It looks just like a continuation of the world your character is already inhabiting, except they can never reach it. “I’ve been playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” Meriläinen says. “You can climb and paraglide, and there’s this sense of being able to move freely, more than with most so-called open-world games. But even still, there are invisible walls at the borders of the world map, and if you try and venture beyond them, a text appears onscreen, ‘You can’t go any farther’.
“When it comes to game worlds, you hear a lot of discussion about how much you are able to do in those worlds, all the possibilities. But I’m very aware of the fact that all the structures and preconditions present in our world and minds have to be replicated and built into the game world, which means then that simultaneously some things become impossible. While you make world-building decisions and create certain game mechanics, you necessarily restrict and disqualify others.”
For Meriläinen, the interesting thing is not what you can do in-game, but what you cannot. “I wonder why the boundaries are where they are, why I can’t do certain things, and what it means. In some way Survivor and my other works replicate a type of social or political structure present in our society, and the moments when you encounter their limits.”
Perhaps her most well-known work for the time being, Survivor was displayed as part of the ARS17 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Survivor is a game within a game, consisting of you playing an in-game character participating in a game where a finite group of characters eliminate each other through a voting ceremony, creating alliances in-between each vote to try and ensure their own survival. It is based on the concept present in the reality tv-show Survivor, except this happens in a 3d version of Kiasma.
“During the process of making Survivor, it became clear that I wanted it to take place in Kiasma. Just that when you play it in Kiasma, it’s this parallel reality of the game world. But you can also read it as an analogy of the art world, like ‘which one of these artists will make it?’”
In Meriläinen’s Survivor, you are forced to play the game. As one of the characters declares at the final elimination round,”It’s never over! It just keeps on going, one game after the other. There is no outside.”
Although Meriläinen is interested in the constraints created by game-mechanics, there is a game mechanical structure present in Survivor that is actually just an aesthetic solution, creating the illusion of a game world bigger and more participatory than it actually is: the voting mechanism does not have an effect on the game’s outcome. “It’s this ritual practice, but it doesn’t make a difference in your game. It kind of mimics our representative democracy – after you vote you might feel like you’ve done your part and made a difference, but I don’t think that’s enough.
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing some people enjoy Survivor as a game, and not primarily as an artwork. I put it up on Steam (a game-distribution platform with reviews), and people began reviewing it there, saying how weird the game was, and also posting playthrough videos of it on YouTube. Through those avenues, I’ve found interesting comments for and against the game, outside the field of art.”
Showing Survivor as a non-interactive, straightforward recording requires some consideration. However, as games are a participatory interactive medium, game review videos uploaded on YouTube by random players offer yet another dimension to the gaming experience, and are also something Meriläinen considers while presenting Survivor. “I recorded a gameplay video with no narration by myself, but I’ve also shown a YouTube video that’s narrated by someone playing the game for the first time. In this gameplay video, someone’s reading out loud the in-game dialogue of Survivor, which is without audio and just comes up as text on screen when you play.” In this way, the reviewers are discovering the limits of the game and making their own work out of playing through and interpreting it.
“I actually considered applying to the reality tv-show Survivor,” Meriläinen says. “I think I would be bad at it, but I’d be very curious to try.”
Credit for Reija Meriläinen’s photo: Helen Korpak