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Graphic Violence

Mark Essen’s brutal, lo-fi video games are about to make him an art-world star.

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Left: the artist. Right: a screenshot from Mark Essen's Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, 2008.  

Upon graduating from Bard College last May, Mark Essen and his friends planned to buy cheap, damaged bikes on the Hudson Valley Craigslist, fix them up, then sell them in Manhattan. But they were too lazy to move them down to the city. Months later, after he was laid off from a tech job, Essen moved back in with his parents in Los Angeles, where he listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. Since returning to New York, he’s been living out of his backpack, camped on friends’ couches.

Sounds like your typical slacker’s postcollegiate year, except for one thing: At 22, Essen is about to erupt on the art scene. He is the youngest of the 50 artists in the New Museum’s “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” the international exhibition exclusively showcasing the work of artists 33 and under (it opens April 8). His medium is as slacker-appropriate as it gets: Essen creates video games that are lo-fi in the extreme, evoking not the elegance of Shadow of the Colossus but dim memories of your old Commodore 64. “We looked at hundreds of portfolios,” says New Museum curator Lauren Cornell. “The way we made the selection was partly through the themes we saw, and one of the themes was obsolete technology. Mark’s working with video games because they’re cheap, available, and outdated, and he’s original in terms of applying his knowledge of avant-garde cinema to their creation.”

Until the New Museum called, he’d been showing in art festivals and fringey spaces like Brooklyn’s Light Industry. Ed Halter, Light Industry’s founder, is thrilled the Establishment is taking note of Essen. “It’s extremely fitting that they chose someone who works in computer gaming as a medium—not just referencing gaming, as someone like Cory Arcangel has done so well, but actually designing games as art. Independent game design is absolutely one of the most interesting emergent art forms right now.”

Essen studied film and video at Bard, where many of his teachers were experimental artists, and has been making video games since high school. He has a big fan base, many of whom download his games off his site (messhof.com), but he has yet to make money from his work; his only compensation so far: seven pairs of Nike sneakers, for a hurdling game he made for a French art magazine. “Younger Than Jesus” will project one of his games, Flywrench, so that visitors can play it. Except when testing games, Essen rarely sees laymen navigate his dizzying creations. In the first level of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, for example, the hero, as the artist explains it, is “drugged up on drugs” and must steer a school bus along a convulsing, rotating highway. “I got nauseous making that, but now I’m used to it,” he says. “You can play World of Warcraft for days, and you don’t leave with anything. Play mine, and you’ll leave with horrible memories, maybe.”

A mellow and affable guy, Essen lights up when he talks about the brutality in his games. It’s hard to tell where this fascination comes from, though he is a fan of experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits, whose visually stunning “flicker” films of the sixties are filled with overwhelming, epileptic violence. Halter likens Essen’s approach to punk music: “For Mark, cunningly frustrating game-play functions the way a musician might use carefully orchestrated noise.”

Though Essen is learning to code for commercial Flash and iPhone games, his programming skills are intentionally minimal. For most projects, he uses Game Maker, free software intended mostly for teenagers, through which he imports images he either draws with Microsoft Paint or finds on the web. “I like the limitations,” he says. “It makes you think more about what you want to put in it, because you can’t [rely on] high-resolution images or a complex animation.” He shows me a new game that will debut at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art next month; it’s like Operation, only with a more complicated and horrifying premise. In the portion we watch, he lasers preternaturally glowing orange intestines, blue lungs, and a pink liver out of a body cavity. That it’s beautiful is incidental to the artist, who’s more interested in the soundtrack: “It will be brutal!”

He considers galleries the best setting for his work, even if “you can’t really sell games in a gallery”—his first reference to making, you know, a living. But who knows what will happen after “Younger Than Jesus”? “It hasn’t sunk in yet, the implications of being in the show,” says Essen, who is, however, excited about wearing one of his brand-new pairs of Nikes to the opening.


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