by Harry Delorme, Senior Curator of Education
Videogames were hard to find in major museums, particularly art museums, prior to 2012. That year the Museum of Modern Art made its first acquisition of 14 videogames for its permanent collection, and the Smithsonian organized a traveling exhibition of games. At the same time, Telfair Museums also organized its first videogame exhibition, entitled Game Change: Videogames as Art Medium and Inspiration, for the museum’s annual PULSE Art + Technology Festival. PULSE has presented innovative work by artists working in digital media since 2007. Flash forward to 2019, and Telfair presents Keita Takahashi: Zooming Out, the first museum survey of a longtime innovator and creator of off-kilter, award-winning games, who started his creative career in sculpture.
Takahashi’s path was an unlikely one. At Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Takahashi was dismayed to see other students tossing their art projects into the trash after assignments. He determined to make works that were not destined for the garbage by incorporating functionality into his sculpture, as well as a “humor to make people smile.” After graduating, Takahashi was hired by game company Namco as a visual artist, not as a game designer. Against the odds, he was able to design a game, Katamari Damacy, that became a sleeper hit, spawned numerous sequels (only the first was directed by Takahashi), and was one of the original 14 videogames collected by MoMA.
Takahashi retains a singular vision that has remained from his early days making sculpture and was in full force as I worked on the 2019 PULSE exhibition with him. The process of developing the exhibition was like Takahashi’s games: unusual, full of surprises and challenges. Takahashi played a very direct role, approaching the exhibition as an installation. I interviewed him at his home in San Francisco, where we worked out the scope and layout of the show. He flew to Japan to his parents’ house, unearthing his early sculptures, plush figures from his games, drawing studies for playgrounds, and rare design and promotional documents, which were shipped to Savannah. He designed all of the graphics for the exhibition from the title logo to introductory signage, graphics for custom game controller tables and an extensive number of vinyl stickers for the gallery walls. Most of his games are shown as projection installations, and the games Alphabet and Tenya Wanya Teens required the building of new custom controller tables. Takahashi designed the concept and graphics for the tables, and the museum’s preparators built the physical form. Local new media artist and SCAD professor Josephine Leong and Telfair outreach coordinator Rachel Stayer helped assemble the electronic components. When Takahashi’s seminal game for Namco, Noby Noby Boy, became unavailable for download in April 2018, Takahashi and the museum requested the loan of a console with the game pre-loaded from Bandai Namco to exhibit the work. Controllers of various generations were sourced from the web, local store Planet Fun, and a local game developer. Immersive projection company The Elumenati loaned a projector for a monthlong installation of 3D PAC-MAN, an immersive version of the classic game reimagined by Takahashi and adapted as a room-scale projection by Dr. Clement Shimizu. The Elumenati provided an OmniFocus 30500 projection system to fill a gallery with Pac-Dots and ghosts, with geometry correction via Omnity software, and custom-made analog controllers. Los Angeles gallery Iam8Bit provided sponsorship for exhibition and sent large, colorful stacking stools based on Takahashi’s forthcoming game Wattam.
Self-depreciating and soft-spoken in his onstage conversation for the opening, Takahashi balks at the notion of being labeled an artist. Despite the lighthearted nature of his games, he is genuinely concerned about the state of the world and is not sure that art or games are all that important in the scheme of things. Presenting a talk at the museum for nearly 200 students from grades 3-8, Takahashi listed out a ranking of jobs by importance, with doctors, farmers, and sanitation workers at the top end, while the making of videogames and sculpture were at the bottom. He indicated that these are not things that we need to survive as humans, but he has acknowledged elsewhere that videogames might be of help in our unstable times. He ended his onstage interview for the exhibition’s opening program by saying that he felt “optimistic about videogames, also ourselves.” His games, drawings and other productions – imaginative and silly, but often carrying deeper messages and unusual perspectives – are likely to make others feel optimistic as well.