Scrape Scraperteeth: Surrealist Gaming As Modern Art


Jason Nelson’s latest Flash game is a commission piece for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Open Space” program. It’s also exactly as crazy as you’d expect.

Though you may not be familiar with Nelson’s name, you’ve likely seen his past works somewhere on the ‘net. Nelson’s signature style is equal parts jagged surrealism and the sort of schizophrenic sense of humor you only find in members of the Internet generation and sober Lewis Carroll characters. As a result, everything he creates instantly polarizes those who see it into two groups: those who find it hilariously fascinating, and those who think it’s just a bunch of stupid squiggly lines.

Apparently someone at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art falls into the former category, as Nelson’s Scrape Scraperteeth was created for inclusion in an ongoing series on interactive art.

“Hopefully this is a sign that, as the recent Supreme Court ruling stated, that games (even simple/odd ones like mine) should be seen/created as artworks first and galleries are recognizing the artistic potential of the game engine and playscapes,” Nelson told us via email.

As for why SFMoMA chose to feature Nelson’s work, author Brian Stefans explains:

Nelson’s is a decidedly “messy” aesthetic; nothing of the economy in classically “good” graphic or interface design is present in his work. His visual arts heritage might be in the work of Rauschenberg or Basquiat, or the Assemblage artists such as George Herms, Bruce Conner, and Edward Kienholz. There is always a tension between the act of creation – or programming, making something clean and operational – and defacing – throwing a lot of junk at the interface to keep it lively, not to mention pump it full of content. The works always seem on the verge of breaking, and were these pieces not to have been created in Flash, which has remained stable since its introduction over a decade ago, they might very well have become casualties of the changing conventions of the web, which have made some of the earliest Java and Javascript works unplayable now.

Creative elitism aside, the message SFMoMA seems to be sending is that Nelson’s interactive art is simply unlike anything else in the whole of the videogame medium. The closest analogues Stefans could find were artists like Basquiat and Kienholz, which is simultaneously accurate, really pretentious, and high praise for Nelson.

Of course, the key aspect of Nelson’s work is the “interactive” bit, and you don’t get the full effect of Scrape Scraperteeth without actually playing it. Again, this is not Super Mario Bros., this is not Peggle; many of you will be instantly turned off by the game’s aesthetics and tone.

That said, I utterly love Nelson’s stuff. It’s so intensely contrarian to the traditional tenets of game design that the novelty of the experience serves as something of a salve for the cynicism and jaded low-key rage generated by a career critiquing mainstream videogames.

This is the gaming equivalent of Dadaist punk rock, only without the hypocritical self-importance, or repurposed urinals.

You don’t have to like it, but even Roger Ebert would be hard pressed to deny the artistic creativity in place here.

It’s like my dear old mum used to say, “It’s art stupid, you aren’t supposed to get it!”

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