First Museum Shooters


Mathias Jansson


In the Beginning was Doom

When the small company id Software in Texas, USA, 1993 released the videogame Doom few would have guessed that this game would change the entire game industry, and even fewer would have guessed which impact Doom would have on the art world. Until 1990 most videogames were played in a 2D environment in which you controlled a character or vehicle through a landscape, as in videogames as Super Mario Bros, Pac Man or Space Invaders. In the early 90's the First-Person Shooter genre (FPS) got its breakthrough with titles such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) both published by id Software. The big difference with these games was that they took place in a 3D world that was generated in real time and they were played in first person (First Person Shooter). The player didn’t control a character on the screen, he was the main character in the game and saw the whole game from first person view which mostly consisted of looking straight down at a loaded gun.

Already at the launch of Wolfenstein 3D, id Software had noticed that the players tried to build their own levels to the game and when they released Doom the following year, they did what they could to make it easier for the player to modify the game. They separated audio, video and music from the game and put them in WAD files (Where's All the Data?)(1) Both founder of id Software, John Romero and John Carmack, had begun there career by hacking and altering others' games and now they wanted to give something back to the gaming community and create something that gave extra value to the new game. In retrospect it is clear that this was a wise decision. Doom sold over four million copies and was long in the charts of the world's best selling computer games. The videogame Doom did not only created a whole new way to experience a videogame but also the conditions for a whole new art form.

The FPS genre evolved rapidly over the next few years with titles such as Doom II (1994), Quake (1996), Unreal (1998) and Half-Life (1998). Powerful new graphics engine made it possible to render even more detailed and sophisticated 3D environments. Among the new games were also new special tools that made it possible for players, to modify and extend the game by building their own levels, characters, weapons, etc. Through the Internet, which at this time began to connect players around the world, there were easy ways to spread the new modifications to other gamers. Suddenly there were a lot of new mods (modifications) to well-known game titles as Doom, Quake and Half-Life, which both extended the life of the games and created a growing subculture and community around them. It was in this environment a whole new generation of artists grew up with videogames and they soon began experimenting with the game tools to se how they could be used in artistic contexts.


The Artist-as-Gamer


The breakthrough for artistic modifications of videogames can be dated to 1995 when the Austrian artist Orhan Kipcak created Arsdoom to the media festival Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.(2) Arsdoom consisted of an entirely new level for the game Doom II (1994). The level was a virtual copy of the exhibition hall in Brucknerhaus. In the virtual exhibition hall the player could found artworks of artists as Peter Weibel, Seiichi Guruya, Manfred Wolff-Plottegg, Sabine Bitter and others. The exhibiting artists were also the enemies in the game and could be killed by the player by using weapons as his fists, brushes, wooden cross and the traditional chain saw from the original Doom game. Except beating and killing the artists the player could also destroy the exhibited art and create his own art. In the game the player could pick up objects from different artists as Herman Nitsch blood, with which he could spray the walls, or use Arnulf Rainer pens to draw on the artworks. There was also a feature that made it possible to turn all the artwork upside down in a style reminiscent of George Baselitz's art. (3)


Arsdoom represents a milestone in the videogame-inspired art and marks in many ways a new approach between art and audience. The audience is no longer passive consumers, but active arts producers who have control over the exhibition with full rights to destroy the works of art and shoot the artists. The concept of Arsdoom has many of the characteristic features that define artistic computer game modification. First, this type of art requires a certain habit of playing videogames from the visitors, second, it is expected that the visitor is active and interactive in order to experience the artwork. If the visitors do not play or get involved there will be no work of art. In Arsdoom there are also a fusion between popular culture (video games) and high culture (the established art world). Often this fusion is a bloody clash when the violent aesthetics from videogames are confronted with the rules of "not to touch the art" in the exhibition space. In art works as Arsdoom the visitors/players has every opportunity to experience the art exhibition without the normal conventions and limitations.



First Museum Shooters

It took not long before other artists started to create their own levels to popular videogames. Palle Torsson and Tobias Bernstrup were still students when they in November 1996, were invited to the Nordic biennial "The Scream: Borealis 8" at Arken, Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen.(4) Their contribution to the exhibition was a videogame which they called "Museum Meltdown". With help of the videogame Duke Nukem, Torsson and Bernstrup recreated the architecture from the Art Museum Arken and let the visitors as in Arsdoom, take control over the exhibition hall where they could shoot down enemies of various kinds and destroy the works of art.(5) "Museum Meltdown" got two successors. 1997 Torsson and Bernstrup made a version of the Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius and in 1999 a new version of Museum Meltdown was showed at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. In the press release from the Moderna Musset exhibition the artists writes:



"Museum Meltdown is a virtual reorganization of the Museum of Modern Art and is based on the video game Half-Life. The game's logic can be displaced as well as all living art become objects for the player's destructive desires. Museum with the task of conveying / preserve our cultural heritage here is a scene of violence and destruction." (6)

In 1999 RELOAD Shift eV Gallery in Berlin arranged an exhibition with the artists Florian Muser and Imre Oswald, who exhibited a reconstruction of the Hamburger Kunsthalle created with help of the videogame Quake.(7) As in the previous examples, the artists created a virtual architecture of a real exhibition hall and let the visitors take a walk in the galleries armed to the teeth so they can defend themselves against enemies sneaking up around the corner and disrupting the experience of art. Arsdoom, Museum Meltdown, and other similar works can be categorized in a special genre called "First Museum Shooters". In "First Museum Shooters" artist re-create real exhibition spaces, and in this virtual interactive arena the forces of popular culture and high culture clash together in a violent and often bloody confrontation. On one side, the established art institution with its unique irreplaceable works of art, exhibited as precious relics, and on the other side the digital artwork that can be mass produced, copied and distributed via the Internet. "First Museum Shooters" can be interpreted as a metaphor for an ongoing paradigm shift in art, it is a metaphor for the struggle between the old art vs the new art. There is also a metaphor of how different generations consume culture. The older generation is more accustomed to passively consume art in institutions, stated in the expression "go and look at art", while young people today expect to be able to participate in and create their own art experience. The older generation, are in the game metaphor, the monsters who defends and preserves the institutional 'high culture" while the younger generation, the player, create their own art experience by mixing elements from high culture and popular culture and melting them together in new impressions and experiences in an interactive Game Art. Within the framework of the virtual world, the player can break all the conventions and rules surrounding the real art exhibition. He can do everything that is normally forbidden to do as loudly destroying art objects.



A Meta-Level

The Australian artists Stephen Honegger and Anthony Hunt's contribution to the genre is a bit different. There work "Container" was showed for the first time in 2002 at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space in Melbourne, Australia.(8) "Cointainer" consists of a setup where a copy of a real container is placed inside the gallery. Of course, the visitor asks himself how did they mange to get such a large shipping container into a small gallery? It can hardly have come through the door. The answer is inside the container where you can watch a video. The video is a machinima made using the computer game Half-Life, and shows how an unknown person breaks into the gallery by climbing in through a window at the back of the gallery. The unknown person then seeks his way through the building through corridors and staircases, until he finally arrives at the gallery. In the gallery he opens a secret hatch in the wall and presses a button. The ceiling of the gallery opens and the container is slowly lowered into the room. The unknown intruder then retrieves a gun and walks up to the container and opens the door. Inside the container there are a man looking at a video. The unknown intruder simply shoots down the man and here ends the movie, and also the explanation of how the container ended up in the gallery.



The original idea to "Container" came from a need to create a dark space in the gallery to view a video. The solution was to create a container in the gallery and also making a fictional story about how it ended up in the gallery. The visitor sits inside a proper container and sees a movie that shows how the container has come into the room and how the person in the film enters the container and shoots the viewer. It’s an artwork about the creation of an artwork and therefore you could say there is a meta-level included in "Container". In other examples of "First Museum Shooters" you will also find this kind of meta-level. As visitor you participate in different narratives levels. The artwork is showed in a physical real exhibition space in which the visitor enters, but the visitor also steps in as a viewer and player of a virtual copy of the exhibition space. To draw a parallel with the theatre, the visitor is not only a person in the audience looking at the play but he also steps up on stage and start to act and became a part of the play he is viewing. The visitor is taking part both in the physical exhibition and the virtual exhibition, he moves between different narrative levels in the artwork. In that way you can see "First Museum Shooters" as a form of meta-art, which discusses and examines the experience of art in museums and galleries.


Everything I Shoot is Art

In connection with the 2006 graduation show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago artist Chris Reilly made a reconstructed of the entire exhibition, 4500 square feet spread over three floors, with the help of computer game Half Life 2. Reilly works, with the long title: "Everything I Do Is Art, But Nothing I Do Makes Any Difference, Part II: Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gallery".(9) A title that alludes to Stanley Kubrick famous film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb "from 1964 with Peter Sellers in the lead role. Anyone who visited the thesis exhibition in Chicago could walk around in the real exhibition, but also make a virtual visit. In the virtual version you had to deal with some nasty monsters as in many other "First Museum Shooters". In Reilly artwork you can also shoot and destroy the artworks in the exhibition, but it is also possible to pick up paint cans around the building and shoot at them. The result is a kind of "shooting painting", where the paint can explodes and makes formation in different colours on the gallery walls. Maybe Reilly had Niki de Saint classic work of art "Shooting Paintings" in mind when he included this feature. It was between the years 1961 to 1962 as Niki de Saint Phalle did 12 performances in which she used a salon rifle to shot at paint container mounted at reliefs and sculptures. When the shot hit the container the paint spread over the object and formed a "Shooting painting". For Saint Phalle it was a statement that she as a woman could shoot her way in to the male occupied sphere of art, but it was also a new way of looking at painting. In a known quote she said:

"Ready. Aim. Fire. Red, yellow, blue – the painting is Crying, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It is reborn. War with no victims." (10)

A quote that just as well could be use to describe the genre of "First Museum Shooters". Videogames can be compared to a form of new real-time paintings and when artists uses the FPS games to create new art forms, they are literal shooting there way into the art history. Especially in works as Arsdoom and Museum Meltdown you can see that the artists are killing and destroying the old paintings and simultaneously creating a new form of digital paintings on the screen. After fifteen years we still see new examples of "First Museum Shooters". The Swedish artist Paul Steen has for example created "Art Assault" a modification of the free open source FPS game, Assault Cube.

"The computer controlled bots are named after the 100 most successful artists according to artfacts.net. In Team Deathmatch mode the bots and the player are randomly parted into two teams, Inside and Outside. The maps in the game are based on real life artist run galleries or alternative museums." (11)

You can choose between 10 different maps including Magasin3, Stockholm, PS1, New York, TATE Modern, London, Westwerk, Hamburg and Worm, Rotterdam.




One more example in the genre is Michiel Van Der Zander’s machinima "Pwned Paintings #2" from 2008. In this machinima we see a character moving around in an art historic collection. The view is not first person, rather third person, found in games as Max Payne. Armed with a rifle the character moves around in the galleries shooting at the painting so they fall of the wall. Pwned is an expression used in videogames as Counterstrike, and to say "You just got pwned!" is a way to humiliate and show domination over an opponent that got soundly defeated. In the same way van Der Zanden pwned the established artworld. The statement is clear: The traditional art and art institutions have been defeated, a new generation of artists are taking over, artists that will shoot there way into the art history and bring there own culture and expressions with them, in the same way as previous generation of artist has done before them.




(1) p.166 "Masters of Doom: How two guys created an empire and transformed pop culture" by David Kushner (Random House, 2003)

(2) "Mythos Information: Welcome to the Wired World, Ars Electronica 1995" ed. Karl Gerbel, Peter Weibel, (Springer Verlag, Wien, New York, 1995)

(3) " Interview: Orhan Kipcak (ArsDoom, ArsDoom II) (1995-2005)" by Mathias Jansson

(4) "The scream : Borealis 8 : Nordic fine arts 1995-96" by Kim Levin etc, (Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ishøj, 1996)

(5) "Interview: Tobias Bernstrup and Palle Torsson, "Museum Meltdown" (1996)" by Mathias Jansson

(6) From the press release to the exhibition Museum Meltdown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm

(7) "Interview: Martin Berghammer's RELOAD exhibition (Shift e.V Gallery in Berlin, 1999)" by Mathias Jansson

(8) "Interview: Stephen Honegger's "Container" (2002) and "Escape from Woomera" (2003)" by Mathias Jansson

(9) http://www.chris-reilly.org/art/everything-pt2/

(10) p.285. "Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings" by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, (Berkeley : Univ. of California Press, 1996)

(11) http://www.paulsteen.se/aa.html

(All images taken from the articles by Mathias Jansson in GameScenes http://www.gamescenes.org)


Mathias Jansson (b. 1972) is a Swedish art critic and Game Art researcher. He writes about New Media Art and Game Art for blogs and magazines such as www.gamescenes.org and DigiMag. During the last year Jansson has conducted a series of interviews, with the pioneers of Game Art and currently working on a sequel with artists, critics, curators, gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art. Homepage: www.janssonswebb.se