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Thumb Wars

Wilson and Tien’s relationship was the inspiration for their performance piece/video game “Thumb War,” featured at the Betty Rymer Gallery as part of the “Simulationists” exhibition.

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

An SAIC couple’s combative collaborations

By Ziyuan Wang, Staff Writer
Images courtesy of Wesley Wilson.


Wilson and Tien

Ever since they met at a pottery class at the University of Florida, artists Wesley Wilson (MFA 2011) and Nancy Tien (MFA 2011) have been inseparable. In spite of their differences in background, area of expertise and ethnicity, their bond has only grown stronger since they came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue graduate study. This relationship is at the core of their collaborative practice, and was the inspiration for their performance piece/video game “Thumb War,” featured at the Betty Rymer Gallery on March 17 as part of the “Simulationists” exhibition.

Wilson, a student in the Art and Technology department, specializes in making artist video games, while Tien works in the Performance department. Past collaborations have included the 2010 “Eating Contest” performed at SUGS, which featured Tien taking bites of food, chewing them, and spitting them back onto a plate for Wilson to eat. In their latest work, the combative impulse continues in an artist video game version of the thumb war, in which the two partners can duke out their problems in the virtual arena.

F Newsmagazine recently sat down with the artists in their shared studio at SAIC, where they regularly muse, debate and dine, to discuss the challenges and rewards inherent in artistic collaboration.

Ziyuan Wang: Let’s talk about “Thumb War” first. What is the concept behind this piece?

Wesley Wilson: It kind of started as an argument. We both work very conceptually. While Nancy said that it’s very difficult to start a concept, I was arguing the opposite, which is that it’s very easy to start with any idea, but what’s hard is how you actually create the idea into a work of art with attention to the very small details.
One of the ideas we were bouncing around was that she wanted to arm-wrestle me for a performance, but it would be too one-sided because she’s smaller than me, so I would always win. Then she came up with the idea of thumb war, which she thinks is stupid. But I disagreed, and thought since I work with art games, it can turn out to be an interesting idea. It’s just a matter of how to do it exactly.

Nancy Tien: At that time we were dealing with how to make our collaboration more truthful to both of us. Wesley works with art games and I’m a performance artist, and in the past our collaborations didn’t quite bring our practices together. So while Wesley was trying to rescue the idea of thumb war, it occurred to me that it would be way too boring for a performance; but as a video game, that would work. And I was interested in the mirroring of the live performance, where playing the one-button game controller mimics the same emotion of playing the thumb war for real. We were happy to find something that can mesh.

WW: I really like the idea of thumb war, because it’s a game two people can play without any equipment. But if you play it in the video game, you are still using a thumb to press the button. So there is no amplification of input, it’s just echoed on the screen. In the digital world, the characters move their thumbs too. It’s just the small thumb movements.

NT: The way we came up with the idea of “Thumb War” also fit into the nature of thumb war, which is about conflict, competition and argument within a relationship. This is how we began to think about using this children’s game as a metaphor of day-to-day conflict.

ZW: It sounds like the actual game-playing part is very realistic in your project.

WW: Yes, at least it’s as tiring as playing thumb war for real, because of the repetitive motion. In real thumb war, you can move fingers around in all directions. While in this art game, it’s even further paring down what is already a very simple game.

NT: And the viewing experience starts from figuring out the mechanics of the game, like the point system. It you win a round, you don’t get a point; the partner gets a point. And there are six different ways for a round of the game to complete, so it will be a puzzle to figure out the all six endings. Visually the endings look the same, but what we are doing toward the end each round is different.

WW: There actually is no “win”. There are in fact a lot of strategies, even though it’s just a button mashing game. And it’s questionable whether or not you want to win or what you want as a successful outcome.

ZW: How was the idea of the score system conceptualized?

WW: We were thinking about the way one subliminally keeps track of everything in a relationship. When one does something annoying or positive, it’s probably easier to keep track of the annoying things. Even if the bad things you do are forgotten or forgiven, the other person still remembers.

NT: It’s an attempt to reflect the history of the relationship between two people through the rounds and bottom score. There is a buffer at the bottom of about 60 zeros, and every time you click it adds up a one. Then the round system keeps track of wins and losses.

ZW: What is to be revealed through this performance? What can viewers expect to get out of it?

NT: For the live piece, we will be performing an endurance piece, and the length of it will be about an hour and a half. So the viewers will see that our bodies begin to tire out, since we can only click our thumb as a result of assuming a performance stance. As time goes by it will be hard for us to press the button, or we will have to move or hold up our arms. It will end up having to do with life-time conflict.

ZW: What is the intended interaction like, as viewers are invited to play the game themselves?

NT: When you come to the installation and experience it with your friend, partner or loved ones together, the feeling of competing with another person already starts to generate. When two graduate students from Art and Technology department played the game, it’s intriguing to see [their interaction].

WW: They are hardcore gamers, and the game is inviting because I chose controllers with very nice arcade buttons. Also when you start to press the buttons from the beginning of each round, the sound will increase more rapidly. So the two gamers immediately figured that out, then in the fastest way possible they started to roll on the floor and press the button as much as they could. These competitive audiences are the most interesting ones. In this case, they are performing as well.

ZW: How was this piece different from other things you’ve worked on collaboratively?


Preparation for “Thumb Wars.”

NT: This is the first time we ever produced work together, both conceptually and in the making of the artwork.

WW: Even though I’ve studied and done performance art before, it doesn’t feel very natural for me to perform as an art piece. But some people told me that my video games become performance themselves, either through the scene with the avatars on the screen, or more explicitly when I force the players to endure repetitive action.

ZW: In this video game, where your images are turned into avatars, you are standing still, emotionless and aloof to each other. What is that about?

NT: Things I’m interested in always involve distance and alienation, even with people you are supposedly close to, like my mom, or Wesley.

WW: She’s more interested in the relationship between people, while I’m more interested in the interaction between people, and the mundane nature of laborious tasks. I find the rhythm in mesmerizing slow motions very interesting. But relationship itself is more her concept. We are very even in this way.

ZW: The way you two think things through is very much alike. But maybe you don’t realize that.

WW: No, we know that. Living as an art couple, our home lives and work become so enmeshed that we are constantly critiquing each other.

NT: To begin with, there are always a few things we both are interested in. For instance, the work of window cleaners is both about the mundane and about completing a task, which is what most of my work is about. So we can always find a middle ground.

ZW: In this video game the female avatar, which embodies Nancy, has much darker skin than the male avatar. Is it an intentional gesture to compel the audience to think about interracial relationships?

NT: In our other works, the racial element is more challenging, like viewing Wesley as normative and then questioning that. For this piece, we are trying to highlight it so that it’s not forgotten. That’s why you see my avatar’s skin color is two shades darker than Wesley’s.

WW: From where we come from in Florida, our difference in skin color is always talked about.

NT: I almost feel that in the Midwest, race is not talked about, or when it’s brought up as a topic, the discussion quickly goes into another direction. In this piece we want the inter-racial relationship to stand out so that it’s not completely receded into the background.

Race is not the main subject of this piece, but our relationship has a lot to do with who we are and where we come from. My work primarily deals with the internalization of racism, about how racial ideology become part of your own identity. For me, performances like this are a recovery from that, or an effort to take racial ideology away from my own identity. In my hopes, my work would raise awareness of racism even for people who are not experiencing it in a post-racial society. In the U.S., the racial problem is more of a black-and-white dichotomy.

Recently Latinos have been discussed more, but Asian-Americans are somehow neglected because of the detrimental “model minority” concept.

ZW: Is it easier to collaborate with each other, than with artists you don’t have a close or romantic relationship with?

WW: Not really. When you collaborate with other people you can discuss a problem and hopefully come to a conclusion. But to collaborate with someone you live with, there’s never an end. It’s easier to collaborate with each other since we think alike, but I wouldn’t say that it’s pleasurable.

ZW: Is there any kind of competition between you two, professionally?

NT: I don’t think there’s any competition between us, ever. We are in two very different areas: Wesley is in art games and I’m in performance art.

WW: We are interested in drastically different things. However, conceptually they are similar, and there are ideas we want to explore or create together. Otherwise there are no overlapping areas of what we do. And we are really proud of each other too, because we have both seen a lot of development and growth in our collaborative works.

ZW: Where do you see your collaborations going in the future? Will you keep going this way?

NT: Wesley doesn’t want to collaborate again soon, because when we collaborate we tend to argue more. I’m actually really excited about future collaborations, because Wesley is interested in the idea of the connect, and I’m interested in the performance possibility of the connect, and how to mesh performance with technologies. I definitely see a future in the combination.

WW: I’ve started building methodologies where we can collaborate on a technological level. With 3-D scanning for motion capture, we can put our performance into a game or whatever we want. I’m excited about that because this can bridge the gap between performance art and technology. It’s the next thing on our list.

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