Larry Achiampong & David Bland

Larry Achiampong & David Bland

Text by Lala Nurlala

Games have become a medium for players to step back from the realities of life and explore their feelings. Open world games, in particular, emphasise this aspect of gameplay, letting the player roam around in a digital realm. Players can also enhance their experience by modifying the game with digital adjustments called “mods”.

One such game is Grand Theft Auto V, a game released by Rockstar Games in 2015. It is a game that mostly ventures around the criminal world in a Southern California-inspired city, but with mods, it can become anything the player wants it to be. Despite its relatively old age, GTA V remains to be one of the most popular Grand Theft Auto installments because of its liberating gameplay.

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy have used the exploratory gameplay of GTA V for their artistic endeavours. In “FF Gaiden”, the artists use the game as a way for various marginalised communities to tell their stories about their identities and their relationships with them, sometimes talking about how their identities are expressed through digital spaces. A recurring theme in the videos consists of a digital avatar dressed up according to the storyteller’s desires. Sometimes it’s a man wearing a suit, at other times a woman with a tank top and trousers. The digital avatar goes through various spots throughout the digital realm, such as the fields, the ocean, and the city. The weather varies. It can be clear as day, or stormy with lots of rain. The environment has been enhanced with mods so it resembles photographic images.

The “FF” in the series’ title stands for “Finding Fanon”. The artworks are intended to explore the ideas of Frantz Fanon, a philosopher from the French West Indies (parts of what is today known as the Caribbean) who had a big role in Africana philosophy and critical studies. His work questions the established schools of thought regarding the humanities and dissected them based on their colonialist background. He then came up with an epistemological method involving transcending disciplines from the African tradition, which intersects with other marginalised groups, offering solutions in pursuit of a liberated Africa. “Gaiden” is a word in Japanese that is associated with the word “side-story”. Interestingly enough, “FF Gaiden” is an existing video game known in English as “Final Fantasy Adventure”. It is a fantasy role-playing game akin to Legend of Zelda. Writer, artist, and director Koichi Ishii said that the point of the game was not to be a game in a traditional sense, but as a medium to explore the world. This approach to game-making is similar to many open-world games such as GTA V. Whether this was intentional or not, the double meaning is an easter egg to people emersed into gaming culture.

The series of videos involve a journey, a literal journey. As the storyteller’s avatar goes through the digital world provided by GTA V and as time passes by, we go through the life experiences of the storyteller as they experience the intersectional issues they go through as part of a marginalised group. By providing them with a virtual world, they are temporarily liberated from their marginalisation by becoming whatever they want and going to wherever they want. A form of escapism, if you will. By taking a break from marginalisation, it is in the virtual world where one can perform the abilities of a fully-fledged human, such as relaxation and contemplation of one’s state in the world. Perhaps this is why gamer culture (excluding competitive gaming) is very open about diversity, inclusion, and mental health. It is where everyone celebrates this form of escapism to become their true selves.

Larry Achiampong & David Blandy collaboration, FF Gaiden (2016-17) video, 19:52. Commissioned by New Art Exchange, Nottingham for “Untitled: Art on the Conditions of our time”
 
FF Gaiden: Escape was created from a process of collaboration with members of a support group for women refugees, asylum seekers and those with a migration background. Together they used the virtual space of Grand Theft Auto 5 to explore ideas around the writings of Frantz Fanon, whilst also asking what it means to be human in this supposed moment of globalisation.

Larry Achiampong

 

Which cultures influenced your work?

My own Ghanaian, Akan heritage (taught via my parents and also other members of family), in a sense aspects of Western culture in that I was born and raised here, so naturally, that makes its way into my DNA, aspects of Japanese culture including Karate, but also gaming, film and comics.

How did popular culture affect your growing up?

It was my gateway to art and self-expression. As a person who came from a family that experienced poverty, I never had the privilege of frequenting galleries and museums as a child – my first experience of going to a contemporary art gallery was when I was 18. Growing up in East London            I was surrounded by a plethora of cultures – where people were producing Jungle/Drum and Bass, through to Garage and also Grime at the time. My Uncle was one of the first DJs to be mixing Highlife music with R&B in their sets. My parents also performed in the Ghanaian church band/s and choir/s, so I saw these people perform every weekend. Add to that my love of Videogames such as Mario, Sonic, Zelda and Street Fighter 2 to name but a few and sprinkle some X-Men and Spiderman (and more) comics, plus a load of VHS recorded tapes of the likes of Enter The Dragon, Seeta Aur Geeta, Terminator 2 and more and these are the elements that not only affected me, but contained me.

What’s your favourite piece of pop culture? Be it a TV show, comic, or music.

There are too many to mention – you could take one from the above answers and that only gives you a grain of my love. I wouldn’t choose one!

David Blandy

 

Which cultures influenced your work?

Growing up in London, London life with its mix of cultures really influenced my understanding of the world. My classmates were from all over the world, and the realisation that there were many ways to exist was important. Japanese culture as seen in videogames, anime and manga became very important to me, alongside the English legacies of counter-culture, Punk and Jungle music, the African-American culture of Hip-hop and Soul, the comic culture of satire in publications like 2000AD.

How did popular culture affect your growing up?

I found all my lessons in life in pop culture. I was in a band for years from when I was 14 until 23, gigging around London, discovering sampling as a form of artistic expression. I always hated the distinction between “high” and “low” art, just seeing creativity in thousands of forms, all art “folk art” of different kinds for certain social groups. Pop culture like KRS-ONE, Sonic Youth and Final Fantasy VII confirmed my belief in living an unconventional life, a life lived for communication, to give voice to those less heard, to press for the radical changes in society that are sorely necessary.

What’s your favourite piece of pop culture? Be it a TV show, comic, or music.

Like Larry, I think to name one piece is like choosing your favourite child. It’s impossible. That said, Streetfighter 2, and my obsession with it, has probably changed my life in more profound ways than any other single piece of pop culture, introducing me to a whole unique community through the arcades and video game shops of London.