Into the Sandbox: Benjamin Nuel with Vladimir Nadein and Liza Dorrer

Vladimir Nadein and Liza Dorrer, co-curators of Open, discussed Benjamin Noël’s HOTEL with the author. The film is the next installment of Into the Sandbox, the film programme of the Russian Pavilion at the 2021 Architecture Biennale.

Into the Sandbox: HOTEL (2021). Benjamin Noël
Benjamin Noël
Vladimir Nadein
Your work kind of falls into a certain category of cinematic exploration around video games. Of course it’s a very specific and authentic approach that you have, but still. Do you think you were ahead of time?
Benjamin Noël
No, the links between games and cinema are as old as the medium. There were already films made in video games when I started HOTEL in 2008, although they were of little interest and it was a marginal practice at the time, especially in the contemporary art world. Few artists fully embraced the taste for this medium and claimed to be gamers themselves. We were the first generation to grow up with video games and incorporate it into our work.

I was making movies but I really wanted to make a video game someday, especially a real-time 3D game. This opportunity arose at Le Fresnoy (Studio National des Arts Contemporains). The return to a cinematographic form was made in a second step and before being a film, HOTEL was therefore a video game of which we can see a play through here. However, game design didn’t interest me too much. Above all, I was looking for something that I couldn’t find in the cinema: to explore a time, to get lost in a moment, and to have a physical relationship with the world, something which is close to contemporary sculpture of which I am fond.

Over this first piece hovered the influences of Daniel Firman , Erwin Wurm or Urs Fisher. There was no narrative development and because I missed it, I wanted to tell a story in the second part of the project, the film you are showing this year. Basically, I hijacked Counter-Strike to make it my own video game, and then I made a movie of that video game.

Liza Dorrer
Interestingly, your film rhymes with the text by Federico Campagna, where he talks about the possibility to escape the game as its inherent feature. However, he elaborates that today video games and virtual environments increasingly refuse to provide this option thus undermining the very essence of the game.

Your work seems like a reflection on the escape both from physical reality (by setting humanist drama in a video game setting) and double escape from virtual reality (as the rules are initially broken and the ‘players’ are escaping this broken game).

Can you elaborate on this escape and the end of the ‘world’ theme that you invoke in your works? What does it mean to you?

Benjamin Noël
My way of escaping the game was through interstices created by bugs or cheat codes and there are always a lot of bugs in recents video games! Take Cyberpunk 2077 for exemple. HOTEL was born from a fantasy of escaping the world, of reality, and of returning to it like a ghost, a wall pass, but also from a fear of the abyss, from the end of the world in the literal sense, to see nothingness, the great Void.

These emotions were born in me quite young from strong artistic experiences. I think of Daggerfall, one of the first open world games, great but full of bugs. It has happened more than once to find myself out of the world, feeling dizzy. Even before, Die unendliche Geschichte (1984) — which I watched as a child — and its nothingness which inevitably progresses, sweeping away everything in its path, made a very strong impression on me.

In the making of HOTEL, there was a delicate balance to be struck between the suspension of disbelief: what allows us to believe in the world, in the story, in the characters - the immersion in short - and the unveiling of the artificial aspect of it all.

Vladimir Nadein
In the pavilion the glitch is addressed in several works from different perspectives. In Uha’s Nightmares game it’s a central theme and it accompanies an inevitable and slow apocalypse. For Yulia Kozhemyko, the game’s author, the glitch is a fascinating in-game character with its own agency out of player’s and game creator’s control, something that takes the narrative out of our hands.

You seem to be interested in the glitch too and also use it in your recent music video (Mick Strauss, Know Your Cover Legend). Could you also speak a little bit about your take on the glitch and its meaning to you?

Benjamin Noël
The glitch makes me think about fire, smoke, or water in the organic world. First, it is beautiful and fascinating. As a mystery, accidental and unpredictable. It inspires awe. The most beautiful glitches are the ones you can’t control.

In the first version of HOTEL (2008 - video game), we used Shiva 3D, a small, recent, inexpensive real-time 3D engine - a market which was then taken over by Unity which I am working with now. Shiva was not ready to accommodate such a heavy scene and the engine was literally on the verge of exploding when it loaded my game. Some bugs were staged but the most beautiful: unforeseen transparencies, glittering models or textures, were due to engine failures.

I recycled this workflow for the Mick Strauss music video. I’m glad you quote it because it’s a very personal video. A look back at my obsessions. We know that the time of remembering is not a step backwards but is to summon the past to the present. In this clip, I wanted to literally go back into memories. The character wanders with nostalgic pleasure in frozen stages set in his past. Or there is something depressing about visiting a happy but dead time.

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