Five Questions with Nick Marinelli of MAGFest, Part of SAAM's Gamer Family Festival
August 11, 2015

MAGFest, the DC area's Music and Gaming Festival, will bring free-to-play video games to the courtyard as part of the Gamer Family Day on Saturday, August 15, 2015. We interviewed MAGFest's Chief Operating Officer, Nick Marinelli, about MAGFest's history, current projects, and relationship to art.

Gamer Family Festival

Indie Arcade, a previous gaming event at SAAM. Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Eye Level: MAGFest started in 2002 as a non-profit organization run by fans for fans, originally under the name "Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival." What made you decide the Mid-Atlantic needed a gaming festival, and how were you able to put one together?

Nick Marinelli: Although we've since changed our name to the Music And Gaming Festival in order to better express the content of our event(s), we did indeed start out named the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival. When we were first organizing the event, the only gaming events of note that existed in the US were large scale expos for the video game industry to exhibit and market their latest products, and none of them were based on the east coast. Not only was there a shortage of events in the area, but all the ones that did exist elsewhere were focus on industry happenings. We wanted to create an event for gamers to get together as a community and enjoy games, instead of having industry marketing sold to them in an expo environment.

We also wanted to include the rapidly expanding video game music fan community by bringing out bands that specialized in playing live renditions of video game music. The first MAGFest happened in 2002 at a Holiday Inn in Roanake, Virginia, with a modest 300 people in attendance. The original creator cobbled together what local T.V. screens, video game consoles, tables top games, and arcade machines he could, invited some bands, and put on the best event he could muster. Fast forwarding to today, as we prep for our 14th annual event, we've grown to an expected 20,000 for our main event, and have expanded to hold other events year round all over the country.

EL: How do you think video games relate to art?

NM: Games and art are inextricably tied in every facet of their creation. The visual presentation, audio landscape, and story/character writing are all art forms, relating to similar traditional art forms. Going a step further, the technical backbone of games and gameplay mechanics also have a place in the art world. When an architect designs a building, or civil engineer plans a park, their starting points are a restrictive set of building blocks, that is, the very laws of math and physics. While one can argue that simply following those restrictions to create a syntactically and semantically correct construct doesn't make something art, the personal touches the creator chooses in arranging those blocks does. A table, in the strictest sense is a freestanding flat surface, but the carpenter who builds that table can make it into any beautifully creative fashion they choose. Likewise when building a game's code and mechanics, there's a finite set of operations a computer can execute, and a finite amount of ways a human can interact with a controller, but the specific combination that the game creator specifically chose when building their game truly makes it art.

EL: You have an amazing assortment of video game consoles and classic arcade machines. How do you find this equipment and repair or maintain it?

NM: We've amassed a large collection of gaming equipment over the years through painstaking yard sale-ing, ebaying, thrift storing, collector networking, and, in the absolute most dire of circumstances, reluctantly purchasing from large retail stores. Our gaming equipment collection continues to amass at a pace where we find ourselves repeatedly moving into larger and larger warehouse storage spaces to fit it all! The majority of the arcade machines at our events aren't fully owned by us, and are brought by a large network of very generous private collectors who we assist to bring out their collections to our events. All of our equipment is maintained by our vast community of enthusiast volunteers and collectors.

EL: Since its founding, MAGFest has grown a great deal. Could you tell us more about Bit Gen Gamer Fest, MAGStock, and your touring concert series Game Over?

NM: As our main event became more and more popular, people began to ask for more events from us throughout the year. Game Over is a MAGFest sponsored touring concert, which has brought a piece of us all over the country, including Baltimore, Raleigh, Austin, and San Jose, with many more shows in the works.

MAGStock was created to break the mold of typical MAGFest events, and to more resemble a traditional outdoor music festival. It does succeed in resembling one in the same way that a jet engine resembles a ceiling fan; the basic concept is the same, but we've injected so much off-the-wall geekery into it that it's become a genre all of its own, with active gaming and game music coursing through all the campsites.

Bit Gen is an annual summer video game music festival based out of Baltimore that grew up alongside MAGFest, and eventually joined forces with us in 2012 to make it bigger and better than ever. The most recent Bit Gen was presented in conjunction with Artscape, the nation's largest free arts festival, and featured video games and bands being displayed live and a 40 foot tall billboard in Baltimore City.

EL: What is it like to be a part of MAGFest's community?

NM: The best part about our community is that anyone with any kind of tangential or remote interest in any gaming of any type will feel right at home at our events. Our organization promotes awareness, education, and appreciation of all things gaming, including game music, PC games, console games, tabletop tables, board games, card games, arcade games, pinball games, game-themed cinema, game-themed art, game-themed crafts, and game design, Whatever your gaming interest may be, we have representation of it at MAGFest events, and an incredible community at those events ready to greet you with open arms.

Gamer Family Day is this coming Saturday, August 15.

Posted by Kaylin on August 11, 2015 in Five Question Interviews, Games
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The Art of the Wikipedia Editathon
August 6, 2015

Wikipedia has become a part of our daily lives. The popular online encyclopedia—written and maintained entirely by volunteers—is incredibly useful, accessible, and completely free to be used by anyone, around the globe.

However, for all of its virtues, Wikipedia also has some well-documented flaws. Important topics don't always get equal coverage. Many articles lack authoritative citations verifying the facts asserted within. Women are systemically underrepresented, both as article subjects and as participants in the community of volunteer contributors. Of particular concern to those of us at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), high-quality information about the visual arts is usually far less robust and reliable than information about other topics such as science, sports, or popular culture.


Media curator, Michael Mansfield leads tour of Watch This.

On July 25, two dozen volunteers spent their whole Saturday at SAAM working together on addressing some of these gaps. With help from the Tech Lady Mafia and Wikimedia D.C., the museum brought together a group that included a mix of experienced Wikipedians and first-time editors, most of them women. After an exclusive before-hours tour of Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, led by curator Michael Mansfield, the group got down to work improving Wikipedia around topics related to media art, technology, and women.

SAAM has hosted a number of Wikipedia editathons over the years, but I think this one was especially successful. The energy level was high, the topic and tour were engaging, and the hands-on learning was fuelled by plenty of food and caffeine (important!). At one point in the afternoon, I saw a museum studies educator high-fiving a longtime Wikipedian as she exclaimed "I did it! My first edit!" The joy and the empowerment that she and the other attendees expressed was contagious, and we all went home that evening in great mood.

So, you can see why I can't wait for our next editathon! Luckily, it is coming up, on Friday, September 4, when we team up with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center for the second annual #WikiAPA meetup series.

Posted by Sara on August 6, 2015 in Museums & Technology
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Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Fellow Creatures
July 30, 2015

Our last Luce Unplugged of the summer arrives next Thursday, August 6th at 6 p.m. Our featured band will be Fellow Creatures and will be co-sponsored with local music site D.C. Music Download. The show will be the second Luce Unplugged performance for the band's frontman Sam McCormally, formerly of Ugly Purple Sweater, and he took time talk about what has and hasn't changed for him since his last show here.

Fellow Creatures

Indie rockers Fellow Creatures will play Luce Unplugged next Thursday, August 6th.

Eye Level: Luce Unplugged regulars know each show's "opening act" is an art talk by staff on a work chosen by the band. Sam, when you played here before, you went above and beyond by writing a song about the SAAM artwork you picked, and I hear you're doing the same for this show. What can you tell us about it?

Sam McCormally: The song is inspired by The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly. The artwork is a shrine of sorts Hampton created in a rented garage out of aluminum and gold foil and a bunch of other stuff. The song is still coming together, but ultimately I think it's about the ecstatic possibilities of artistic creation.

EL: Sonically or otherwise, what did you bring with you from Ugly Purple Sweater to Fellow Creatures and what did you leave behind? How do you balance innovation with foundation?

SM: When my last band Ugly Purple Sweater ended, it seemed like an opportunity to try to head off in a new direction. And we changed a lot; I set down my acoustic guitar for a variety of keyboards and gizmos. Most importantly, in Fellow Creatures, songwriting and singing duties are shared with fastidious equality between myself and Will McKindley-Ward. But recently Will and I have been reflecting that perhaps we didn't change as much as we thought we would; I think there's a core of my songwriting and performing style that operates on intuition and that I don't really seem to have a ton of say over. It just is what it is.

EL: What can we expect from the new album? Have you prioritized recording or doing shows?

SM: The new album is completely tracked, which is very, very exciting. We enlisted the help of fellow DC musician and producer Louis Weeks (a former Luce Unplugged performer), who contributed various percussion and textures to the album and encouraged us to do the same. I think the most concrete thing I can say about the album is that it is a really carefully constructed thing; we played a lot with layer vocals and unusual guitar sounds. This year, we tried to do a lot of everything we did a couple of short tours this summer in between finishing up the album. Some people might point out that this is an inefficient way of working, and I agree.

EL: "Indie rock" has become a catchall that doesn't seem to capture the nuance of Fellow Creatures' unique sound. How would you describe the band?

SM: Well, yes, indie rock seems like a tricky term, doesn't it? What bands lumped together under the indie banner have in common seems to be about a certain musical sensibility. I think, we more or less, embody the omnivorous zeitgeist: we're a rock and roll band that traffics in electronic music, like a lot of bands these days. And we also dip into the choral thing that seems to be in vogue. As far as influences, the people who we end up talking about at rehearsal include St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Tom Waits, and TV on the Radio.

Pearler Bead Portrait of Sam McCormally

Pearler Bead Portrait of Sam McCormally by Jocelyn Mackenzie

EL: I'm a big fan of your art direction and especially love the pearler bead portraits by Jocelyn Mackenzie. Tell me more about your visual presence and how it relates to Fellow Creatures' sound and mission.

SM: Jocelyn Mackenzie is in the band Pearl and the Beard, whose last show is in November. Jocelyn has been a musician friend of mine for many years and she told me she was starting to do art direction and design for bands and other organizations. She's a graphic designer/fashion stylist/creative weirdo par excellence, and we asked her to help us do some visual art for the band. One of the things she did was create pearler bead portraits of Will and I. And if it's not too silly, I think I'd argue they represent our band kinda perfectly: they are recognizable as faces, and also are reminiscent of childhood arts and crafts. But the color palette is unusual, and looking at them up close, it's not 100% clear why it is they register as faces: they're really pretty abstract looking.

Catch Sam and Fellow Creatures play in the Luce Foundation Center next Thursday, August 6th at 6 p.m. following a staff-led art talk on a work selected by the band.

Posted by Amelia on July 30, 2015 in Five Question Interviews, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Watch This: Ghosts of New York
July 28, 2015

Jim Campbell

Jim Campbell's Grand Central Station #2

The ghosts, the commuters, the visitors, the stories...they all pass across the screen in Jim Campbell's Grand Central Station #2, a poetic meditation on movement and memory. On view in the exhibition, Watch This: Revelations in Media Art, Campbell's LED-based work features shadows that move across the floor of New York's Grand Central Station. Each dark shadow has the consistency of smoke: we never see the people, only their ghostly presence.

How many people cross the marble floors of Grand Central each day, and where are they going? Work, home, or someplace they've never been before? It's a majestic space, saved from demolition in the seventies, with painted constellations on its vaulted ceiling. And there, in the middle of a rush hour, you can always look up and see stars.

With Campbell, the action is at ground level. A discarded paper remains on the floor while countless people walk by. Poetry is not always in the stars; sometimes, as in Campbell's work, you have to look down to find it.

Posted by Howard on July 28, 2015 in American Art Here, Seeing Things
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Finding a 19th Century Shortcut: The Body Casting of Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave
July 22, 2015

Karen Lemmey, SAAM's sculpture curator, has organized an installation entitled Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave. Powers' Greek Slave was one of the most popular sculptures of the 19th century. As part of her preparation, Karen worked with Smithsonian X 3D, part of the Institution's Digitization program, to create a 3D model of the this sculpture. Karen continues to explain the process. You may also read her first post on creating a 3D model of the sculpture, as well as a piece about conserving the Greek Slave.

Sculptors have long made body casts of limbs and torsos to serve as anatomical study models. Many sculptors were also hired to make death mask impressions of the faces of deceased loved ones and public luminaries. But in the nineteenth century, the boundary between modeling in clay and body casting was strictly observed, and sculptors risked their reputations and credibility if they were suspected of "cheating" by substituting a body cast instead of modeling the figure themselves. Remarkably, despite this risk, several objects in the exhibition Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave demonstrate how the sculptor may have incorporated body casts into his finished works.

Perhaps most scandalous is a plaster body cast of a woman's forearm and hand that eerily captures the unmistakable skin texture and muscle tone of a living model. Until now, this object had been catalogued as Cast of the Forearm and Left Hand of "Greek Slave" (thumb and two fingers missing), a misleading title suggesting this cast was made from the sculpture of the Greek Slave, rather than from a living person. Research for this exhibition gives us the opportunity to more accurately present this object. This fragmentary plaster cast is the exact size and holds the same pose as the left arm and hand of the Greek Slave, inviting us to wonder who may have served as the artist's model for this famed sculpture and to what extent Powers relied on studies from life to create his idealized figures. In an attempt to quantify the differences between the Greek Slave and this body cast, SAAM teamed up with Smithsonian X 3D, the Smithsonian Digitization Program, to conduct deviation analysis on digital scans of both objects. The results are still under investigation but come see the exhibition and compare the two objects for yourself!

Powers also relied on body casting in other instances. Early in 1839, he cast the hands and forearms of his sleeping six-month-old daughter, Louisa. He then made molds from which he generated additional casts, one of which he trimmed with a strip of real fabric to suggest the cuff of the baby's sleeve, and displayed on a pillow: Louisa Powers' Hand. In time, Powers mounted a cast of the baby's left hand in the center of a sunflower bloom, creating Loulie's Hand (Luly's Hand). Although the artist made this work as a family keepsake, Loulie's Hand attracted such admiration that Powers authorized many replicas in marble and plaster. In 1851, he revisited the sunflower motif and created a similar work using a cast of the right hand of an older child. In both Loulie's Hand and Child's Hand, Powers took a shortcut in production: rather than sculpting the hands in clay, he used these body casts as pointing models, adding pins and pencil marks to guide their direct translation into marble. These incredibly lifelike casts capture the folds of the flesh, fingernails, and skin texture in detail that can never be fully replicated in marble.

Since the nineteenth century, life casting has become an accepted studio practice that is widely used by many contemporary artists, suggesting that Powers was a sculptor ahead of his time.

Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Posted by Jeff on July 22, 2015 in American Art Here, American Art Research, Behind the Scenes
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