The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 2

It’s been an unusual year, and this is an unusual version of my annual blog post about the best artworks I saw. Most are not really artworks at all, and I spent some time explaining my thinking around that in Part 1. Here’s Part 2:

6. Factorio

My base in Factorio

A few months ago a friend told me about a Czech computer game where you build endlessly complex factories. I was intrigued, so I downloaded the demo version and got hooked immediately. I’ve put nearly 80 hours into it at this point, and I don’t think I’ll stop any time soon. The premise of the game is that your spaceship crash lands on an alien planet and you need to find raw materials and craft them into tools, logistics systems, and eventually into a spaceship to escape the planet. There are big alien bugs that attack you and your base, so you need to build walls and gun turrets for defense. It’s a little like Starcraft and similar real-time strategy games, except that in Factorio, you (the “Engineer”) are always alone. You can’t train soldiers or work toward a better-equipped army to fight the alien bugs, because you’re on your own. The primary challenge is not combat strategy, it’s automation. How do you gather enormous amounts of resources and automate the production of more tools for more efficient automation?

The player gradually advances through a technology tree that provides a steady stream of upgrades and improvements. Conveyor belts, automatic part assembly machines, trains, nuclear power, drone-powered logistics networks, and on and on. I’ve enjoyed learning about the game and just nerding out in the online communities that have formed around it on Facebook and Reddit. People swap designs for advanced oil processing facilities with efficient throughput, troubleshoot faulty rail networks, and even share real world photos and videos of Factorio-like automated systems. One common refrain in these groups is “The factory must grow.” No matter how big and how efficient your factory is, it can always be bigger and more efficient. Even though the complexity is so vast, it’s also incremental. Each step along the way is a small, achievable step toward something much larger. It’s been my refuge from the chaos of 2020.

7. The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian

Everybody watched The Mandalorian, right? Spoilers ahead. I really love this show, I giggle with glee while watching it. Here I want to make two observations, one general and the other specific.

First, I love how it’s so episodic, and at times even low stakes. Yes, of course a series is going to be episodic, it has episodes. The Mandalorian is so refreshing because it shows the micro-dramas of the Star Wars universe that often have nothing to do with the epic, galaxy-altering struggles of Jedis and the Empire and all of that. Those elements are there, of course, but some of my favorite moments of the show are when we only get one, maybe two episodes with a given character or setting, then it moves on. It reminds me of Star Trek TV series. An episode consists of a new planet, a new side character or two, a new problem, and it’s all wrapped up by the end. I love it.

My second observation differs from the first in that it is about the epic, central story arch of Star Wars. In the final episode of the second season, the Mandalorian and his friends, including Boba Fett(!), are about to save Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) from the clutches of evil Moth Gideon. But powerful dark trooper droids are advancing on them and their weapons are powerless to stop them. Then, over the space station’s closed circuit television system they see a mysterious cloaked figure disembark from an X-Wing fighter and begin effortlessly slicing through the dark troopers with a green lightsaber. I knew it was Luke Skywalker the moment the X-Wing flashed by the spaceship’s window. This scene was a giant shot of nostalgic dopamine, it felt like I was physically, mentally, and spiritually transformed into an eight year-old for three whole minutes. But nostalgia is easy and art is hard. There is something about this scene that transcends nostalgia, however, and it has to do with the confluence of the way we (as the audience), and the characters (especially Grogu) witness Luke’s slaughter of the dark troopers. The security camera monitors on which they watch the Jedi’s advance are old cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, with hazy, analogue horizontal scan lines. CRT monitors are rare these days, replaced by sophisticated LCD screens. I think this choice of prop was very deliberate, Grogu and the others see Luke approaching through the grainy bands of a tube TV, not the warmth of celluloid film nor the crispness of today’s remastered digital streams. Grogu even reaches out his little hand and touches the screen, which was the moment it hit me: I also fell in love with Luke Skywalker through the flickering portal of a tube TV, watching a bootleg copy of Return of the Jedi over and over again.

8. John Conway’s Game of Life

I first heard about the mathematician John Conway in April when he died of COVID-19. In 1970 he came up with a thought experiment / zero-player game called the Game of Life. It’s a simple set of rules that govern what happens to points on a grid over the course of generations, or cycles. It’s so simple, in fact, that I’ll list all the rules here. 

  1. Birth Rule: An empty cell with exactly three filled neighbors becomes filled, it’s alive.
  2. Death Rule: A full cell with zero or one full neighbors dies of isolation, while a full cell with four or more full neighbors dies of overcrowding.
  3. Survival Rule: A full cell with two or three full neighbors remains full.

It’s a zero-player game, because once the initial conditions are set, the rules determine what happens next. The cycles can be worked out manually, but it’s also easy to get a computer to do it. This year I spent more time than I’d like to admit on, clicking out different starting designs block by block and watching them pulse, move, grow, or disappear. 

Some complex starting designs will reduce themselves to nothing in just a few cycles, while some simple arrangements will grow into shimmering mandala-like forms that will go on forever if you let them. In the 50 years since its creation, the Game of Life has given rise to a vibrant subculture of people who are obsessed with discovering new forms, both beautiful and functional. There is an enormous lexicon of known forms, including a “glider” which is a small blob of cells that survives while moving diagonally; and various “spaceships” which are large clusters of cells that hang together while moving. The discovery of designs that can generate, catch, and turn gliders has allowed people to make virtual “circuits” and then use those to design general purpose computers within the game. This means that anything a computer can do could theoretically be accomplished within the Game of Life. The potential complexity is infinite, and it can increase in complexity on its own.

There’s a dark metaphor here, of course. Conway was killed by this horrible virus. What is a virus, really? A self-replicating bit of RNA, a scrap of protein far simpler than multicellular giants like us. And yet, such a simple thing can glide into the world and have very complex ramifications. 

(While I was working on this post, The New York Times published a really nice piece about Game of Life.)

9. Reading Moby Dick in the Bath

This is an odd addition to the list, I’ll admit. I’m not even done reading Moby Dick yet (no spoilers, please). When the shutdown started in the spring I found myself taking a lot more baths. I usually take them at night, I play music quietly, I mix myself a cocktail, and I lay there for a long time. 

I’ve enjoyed reading in the bath for a long time, but Moby Dick seems particularly well suited to the ritual. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the book, but once I was about 70 pages in and Captain Ahab hadn’t yet been introduced, I realized that this book wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, so neither should I. I’ll finish the book eventually, but that’s not really my goal. I’m trying to focus on relishing the images and language in each meandering chapter. It’s remarkable how certain sections can seem a little bloated and unnecessary and then suddenly turn a corner and offer a piercing observation. I’ve had several moments that were quite literally breathtaking.

Reading Moby Dick in the bath also has a way of tipping me into powerful trips of nostalgia, nostalgia that verges on an out-of-body experience. One time I figured that a dark and stormy was the appropriate maritime cocktail to pair with my tub reading. I don’t recall what part of the book I was on, but I got to thinking about this seafood restaurant in New Orleans called Seaworthy that I’ve visited a few times. They make a cocktail that’s not a dark and stormy, but it involves rum and a half-peel of a lime turned into a cup, filled with booze, set atop the drink and lit on fire. It’s ridiculous, but it’s amazing. I levitated out of the tub, floated a thousand miles away and several years back to re-experience long, hazy New Orleans nights. It was a good journey.

10. Bernie Sanders Rally at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids on March 8, 2020

Bernie Sanders speaking at Calder Plaza on March 8, 2020

The other day on Twitter someone posted an image that looked almost exactly like my photograph above, along with the comment that it was the last time they were in a large crowd of people. I did a double take, at first I thought it was my photo. But no, this person was just standing near me at the rally. I realized that not only had I taken nearly the exact same photo, it was also the last time I stood in a large crowd of people. Within a week Bernie lost the Michigan primary and COVID-19 shutdowns began. The rest is history, as they say.

Art and politics have a complicated relationship. I won’t attempt to fully untangle that here, except to say that a political rally is not an artwork, but art and politics are entwined in ways that make it impossible to engage one without brushing up against the other. The Bernie Sanders rally brushed up against art, quite literally. I spotted an audience member climbing Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse to get a better view. It was a striking reminder about the complicated legacy of Calder Plaza and its place in the history of Grand Rapids and public art more generally. I’ve written about this before in the catalogue essay for Project 1: Crossed Lines, a public art exhibition I curated for ArtPrize. Calder’s La Grande Vitesse is a triumph of 20th century sculpture, but it’s also situated in a plaza that was part of a 1960’s urban renewal push that razed blocks and blocks of what would now be an historic, dense, mixed-use urban neighborhood, if it had survived. The plaza fails as a public gathering space most of the time. To cross it in the summer feels like wandering the Bonneville Salt Flats. Heading across the expanse in the winter feels like battling for survival on an icy tundra. Usually when it succeeds in drawing a crowd it’s filled with tents, bandstands and bleachers, the temporary infrastructure that typically fills parking lots during traveling fairs and carnivals. 

Occasionally Calder Plaza works on its own, with very little adornment, and March 8, 2020 was one of those rare moments. What the space, and the sculpture, need is a genuinely big crowd drawn there for one purpose, with their attention focused on one thing. Although Sanders’ odds in the primary at that point were not great, he still had a path to victory. There was a real sense of possibility, but it was mixed with an uneasy foreboding about what lay ahead. There were hand sanitizer dispensers peppered throughout the crowd in a feeble attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 among the almost entirely unmasked attendees. Having been to other events that draw a progressive Grand Rapids crowd, I also noticed that the attendees were almost entirely white. Not a good sign for someone hoping to win the Michigan Democratic Primary. Despite all that, the moment was still somehow both beautiful and achingly sad. It was our last chance to turn toward a truly different political trajectory, at least for now. It was our last opportunity to stand in a crowd, for the time being. Eventually we’ll gather at the foot of the Calder again.

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