Every month on First Friday in the Bloomfield-Garfield corridor, the gallery space LIKELIKE puts on an art show that’s different from most of the other galleries on Penn Avenue. Most First Friday shows are typical to art crawls, involving stationary art hanging on the walls, but LIKELIKE's focus is on something different: video games.
Described as a "neo-arcade," LIKELIKE is a kind of revival of the communal, public game-playing spaces that existed in the earlier era of video games. But instead of reviving old games, the space features independent video game developers and traditional artists who happen to use video games as their medium.
Video games are often not included in traditional art spaces, and when they are, it can be an awkward fit. "If you put a video game into a normal, traditional art gallery, people might be turned off or might not feel like interacting," says Paolo Pedercini, executive director of LIKELIKE. "It's just a different kind of context and language."
The shows usually pull together several different artists to fit one theme, like June's Other Futures, which explored optimistic alternatives to depictions of a dystopian future, or the responsive Shoot Not Shoot from March 2018, which reacted to the Parkland shooting with first-person shooter games reimagined. The gallery often features VR or other specialized hardware most people don’t have access to.
But the July 5 show, System Error, features the work of Irvine, Calif.-based artist/game designer, Nathalie Lawhead (sometimes known by her online handle AlienMelon.) The name of the show reflects Lawhead's work, which has a purposefully glitchy, zine-like quality in its aesthetic.
Some of Lawhead's work is parody, like the Electric File Monitor app, which is billed as a "prison-industrial complex for your home or work computer," and randomly accuses files of having a virus, making them beg for their innocence. Another, Froggy, reimagines the classic game Frogger, but with a frog existing in a post-apocalyptic earth, dodging exploding cars on "Armageddon Highway." Lawhead describes her work as exploring brokenness, distortion, and “what it means to be a person in that virtual realm." It has humor and irony, but also often sadness or feelings of existential dread.
"There's something extremely fascinating to me about when we were just trying to figure out what software is … how you even interact with a machine, and it's extremely bad and colorful and clumsy," says Lawhead. "I think it's very interesting when you take something that's alluding to how computers used to be and put them on a modern machine, how different and unusual and out of place it is."
She describes this as a time before computers were confined to accommodate Big Tech.
“Gradually, things are being pushed to go through App Store only and GooglePlay only, and [Microsoft Store], so it's harder to distribute experimental work,” Lawhead says (she distributes her games through itch.io, a site that hosts indie video games). “In these stores, there are restrictions for quality or however they feel like software should be, so it restrains what you can do as an artist.”
The visitors that come through LIKELIKE each month, Pedercini says, are a mix of people who are specifically interested in independent video games and people interested in art who happened upon the gallery. “That's the kind of public that I like to intersect: a curious public that is ready to be stimulated or see some culture but they're not necessarily gamers,” he says. “It's interesting to have the works that I put out as an entry point or re-entry point to that world that people abandoned or completely ignored, mostly because they thought the games were stupid or childish, which is true. Most of them are.”
It seems to be the theme of the gallery, tapping into some sense of nostalgia for how computer programs used to work or look, without a hollow nostalgia that has the impossible goal of reliving the past. Instead, LIKELIKE works to broaden the public perception of what games can do, say, or make people feel.
“There's so much work out there by experimental [artists] that are saying games don't have to be fun, games can be painful and unique and difficult and off-putting, and jarring, and all sorts of other things that games are typically not classified as,” says Lawhead.