Dead Mall, 2007
oil on canvas
46"h x 72"w
by Edwin Stirman
Virginia Yount's recent work hones in on some of the social implications surrounding technology, entertainment, and surveillance. In Midnight Sun [driving from Silicon Valley] (2007), security cameras perched in tree branches overlook a graveyard of stand-up, coin-operated arcade machines. The landscape consists of a geometric abstraction of outdated and abandoned machines piled up. With this night-time scene, an air of mystery looms over this suspicious landfill, while the background dips into a valley of city lights. This slightly sinister depiction of a landscape combines the hard and soft of inorganic and organic materials. By presenting discarded arcade games within a scenic painting, she has created an unusual set of symbols that both remember the past and contemplate the future.
In Midnight Sun, the video game arcade is a relic of not just a science fiction future, but also an open question concerning controlled space and the future history of electronics. Video gaming has become, for better or worse, a rather significant form of social entertainment, and like all forms of electronics in the 20th century, it was born with humble origins. The technology has moved far beyond the initial excitement felt over the first stand-up, coin-operated PONG machines released in 1972. Video games showed that computers were not just for science but could also be retrofitted as entertainment for the general public. Electronic entertainment gaming and its fluctuating levels of prosperity over the last few decades have pushed the industry into an evolving state of transitioning interfaces. Video gaming arcade halls have sucked countless quarters out of pockets for more than thirty years.
When I first saw the cameras focused upon the crystalline-looking arcades in Yount's piece, it reminded me just how sinister video games can be. Having this 'big brother', anonymous camera system look down upon inanimate objects raises questions about the social implications of video games. The social entertainment of the video game is being retrofitted to train soldiers for the Pentagon and teach spy tactics for the CIA; this is no longer the penny arcade scenario. The popular entertainment portion of the industry has also faced many hurdles regarding ethical questions about its portrayal of violence, sex, crime, and general vice. Ethically, the industry was forced to address its social impact in 1993 in response to a congressional hearing on video games. Video games became regulated through the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit subsidiary of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), and video games, like the cameras that look down on them in Midnight Sun, have become more closely scrutinized and rated than even movies.
Yount's piece functions as a historicization of all these arguments and disgruntled, looming feelings posed by this relatively young social experiment of video gaming. In this landscape, she creates a parable for historicizing technology in a dark science fiction landscape, and she reminds us of the socio-historical context of technology. The last thirty years have given us a glimpse of how the bigger picture of the video game will play out. For Yount, history is a rather ominous, shadowy figure that can become a symbol for the past. By playing with the past, present, and future in this fabled landscape, she folds technology and history into a space that is timeless.