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A Conversation with Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag,
Charles Baudelaire, Leni Reifenstahl, and Brian Patrick Franklin
(Scene opens with Benjamain, Sontag, Reifenstahl, and Franklin sitting in chairs and on a couch in a living room. Benjamin is playing the original Super Mario Bros videogame.)
Benjamin: I’ll bet you that cookie (points to the cookie that Franklin is about to eat) that I can finish this level in less than 15 seconds.
Frankllin: What?
Benjamin: Come on, I bet you I can do it.
Franklin: I told you, there’s no gambling in Super Mario Bros. And why don’t you just take one from the plate? (points to a plate of cookies on the table)
Benjamin: (sighs) You're no fun anymore.
Sontag: (interrupting to change the subject)So, Brian, I went to your show yesterday.
Franklin: Oh?
Sontag: Yeah, it was an interesting play between high and low art, particularly in the music created by the piano videogame controller in The Essential Super Mario World.
Reifenstahl: Really? I couldn’t stand that piece. It’s as if a harmony was trying to break through all the mess, but never quite made it.
Franklin: That’s actually what fascinates me about that work. When the individual melodies are heard simultaneously like that, the human idiosyncrasies stand out.
Reifenstahl: No, it needs harmony. It needs form. Without these elements there’s just no beauty or strength to entice me.
Franklin: Well, the echoing repetition points toward the notion of an ideal form, or harmony as you call it, but the dissonance from the failure to conform prevents it from being realized. These little failures generate a push and pull between dominance and obedience. I think there is a beauty in that relationship.
Reifenstahl: No. You’re wrong. So is Baudelaire coming this week?
Benjamin: I called him about an hour ago and he said that he would walk over with his turtle. So….who knows. But what most interests me in your work is the way pieces like Plex deal with the notion of the translator. When the original document, Super Mario Bros, is translated into the respective languages that each game system uses, the strengths and limitations of each are elucidated.
Franklin: You can see the hand of the translator as the games begin to slowly separate and misalign. The slight variations in each reprogramming are really only visible when placed side-by-side.
Benjamin: And in Game Day the mutation of the original is even more apparent. In translations of literature, deformations of the original text are always produced. However, in the deformed text, hidden aspects of the original are revealed while formerly obvious aspects become completely unreadable.
Franklin: I think this is clearest in Game Day’s tracings of soccer games. When we see all movements simultaneously we lose track of the star players, the spectacular moments, and even the final score, yet the systems at work become apparent. Just from looking at the handful of soccer tracings that I’ve done, you can see how Brazil moves in a completely different manner than other teams, much more fluidly.
(Baudelaire enters with his turtle on a leash)
Baudelaire: Hi.
(Benjamin, Franklin, Sontag, Reifenstahl greet him)
(Baudelaire looks at the TV screen with the game already underway)
Baudelaire: You guys never wait for me.
(Franklin hands the controller to Baudelaire)
Franklin: Here, why don't you give it a try.
(Baudelaire begins to play and focuses on breaking every block that he can reach on the screen rather than moving forward. Everyone pauses for a moment to watch.)
Franklin: You’d better hurry up or you’re going to run out of time.
Baudelaire: What? I’m being timed? … (Baudelaire hands the controller to Franklin.) I don’t like this game anymore.
Benjamin: What? But this is the newest incarnation of the flaneur. You, the player, have the privilege of being both yourself and someone else whenever you like. At any time you can switch the game you are playing and be an entirely different person in yet another world.
Franklin: Like Adorno’s metaphor that the station-switching behavior of the radio listener was a kind of aural flanerie. Television can be looked at as a visual and non-ambulatory flanerie and videogames now create a simulation of ambulatory flanerie.
Benjamin: Yeah, the games on this screen are entire worlds contained inside that rectangle. It’s an exterior contained by an interior. It was the same with the Parisian Arcades. They were little cities. Worlds in miniature. A cross between interior and exterior.
Sontag: The whole concept of the videogame parallels the fascination with the portable camera perfectly. Taking photographs appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that’s like a friendly imitation of work: they take pictures. Likewise, while we’re relaxing here we’ve been drawn to a friendly goal-oriented version of work. As modern day flaneurs we’ve found another way to quantify our leisure.
Baudelaire: Both the flaneur and the gamer sitting on the couch are the icons of conspicuous leisure. We stroll because we can afford to stroll. We sit on this couch and play videogames because we can afford to sit on this couch and play videogames.
Benjamin: But now the flaneur has evolved. The homeless and the prostitutes are the modern day flaneur. The idlers and the ragpickers.
Baudelaire: That’s not flanerie, that’s wandering out of necessity. A flaneur is a gentleman stroller of the streets. There’s status and dignity to it.
Franklin: When Adorno looked at the flaneurs in Paris, he came to the conclusion that the strolls through the street that you were taking really amounted to strolls through your own room. So considering that the street literally is the room of homeless, don’t they have a more thorough understanding of the street due to the sheer amount of time they spend living in it.
Baudelaire: The ragpicker is too focused on survival to notice the minute details and secrets that the street holds. The true significance of these “trivial” details goes unnoticed. (angrily) That’s the difference.
Sontag: Cookie anyone?
Benjamin: (immediately) Yes please.
Baudelaire: So I suppose that you think Mario himself is a flaneur then? You know, just a working class plumber hanging out in Mushroom Land?
Reifenstahl: No, he couldn’t possibly be a flaneur. He’s racing through these landscapes as fast as possible with a well-defined and time-dependent objective. He can’t afford to absorb his surroundings along the way.
Benjamin: If anything he’s trying to avoid his surroundings.
Sontag: But you can't even make that division between Mario and the player.
Reifenstahl: Wait, wait. This videogame exists as an independent object. It can’t be tied down by the baggage that the viewer or the player brings to it. So…if we distinguish Mario as independent from the player…
Sontag: Mario on his own doesn’t exist. Mario is the player and the player is Mario. Mario is sitting on this couch right now and, as Charles put it earlier, is the icon of conspicuous leisure.
Franklin: Well then, same time next week?
(Everyone agrees)
Baudelaire: We should play Grand Theft Auto next time.
(Everyone exits)

Illinois State University, 5620 School of Art, 214A Center for the Visual Arts, Normal, IL 61761