Curating A Chinese Game Designer's Solo Show and Responding to GDC: What's This Antique Institution Really Up to?

Author: Rashel
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As the Year of the Dragon began, the Asian Art Museum, located just across from San Francisco City Hall, is embarking on a groundbreaking endeavor. This art institution with over fifty years of history, established RAD (Research And Development) in January 2024 - a laboratory space dedicated to collaborating with leaders in the game industry. A large-scale solo exhibition for game designer Artist J will also open in Spring 2025. In preparation for this exhibition, RAD has been curating exploratory activities since January, and will host a gathering of indie game developers and artists during this year's GDC (Game Developers Conference), aligning with the buzzing event just five blocks away. Below is an interview conducted by Indienova with Abby Chen and Cheng Xu, curators at the Asian Art Museum.

See the introduction of Artist J's solo show and RAD space in this Official news page:Asian Art Museum Gets RAD with Research And Development Playground for New Experiential Technologies


Rashel: Could you share with us the reasons behind the establishment of RAD? The Asian Art Museum (hereinafter referred to as "AAM") is an art institution known for its collection of antiques and traditional art. What prompted you to make such an innovative attempt?

Abby: The museum's HR approached me in 2018. They asked me to establish their contemporary art department and informed me the institution's various initiatives, including historical expansion. At that time, I had already proposed to introduce games to the museum, as I had been communicating with some game professionals before joining AAM. In the early stages, I had been observing the game industry, contemplating, and getting myself prepared.

When I first got on board, due to other work, I had not formally made curating games onto the agenda. However, I had been communicating this idea with the museum director. As many members of the museum's board of directors were from the game industry or tech companies supporting game companies, we received a lot of support. However, the bottleneck at that time was talent - we needed talents with in-depth knowledge of game and technology - solely relying on contemporary art methodology wouldn't be enough. Therefore, I mulled over it for a long time, gradually putting this project on the agenda in 2023, and engaging in discussions with other game curators and artists who have extensive experience in games, and so on, constantly refining this project.

RAD Past Event: Sound Art Performance by FAULTS.

Rashel: What explorations have you undertaken during the preparation phase? What is the current plan of RAD? How does it position itself? What niche does it occupy?

Abby: We studied various global institutions like the Serpentine Galleries in London, MoMA in New York, LACMA in Los Angeles, and the Computer History Museum in the Bay Area. But ultimately, we needed to find our own path, especially when merging art with new media. We're not just about games or technology; we want to integrate technology with art. We've examined many models because this is a new field where everyone is experimenting, and there's no fixed right form - which gives us space to contemplate our plan. Of course, we pay particular attention to the Asian or Asian American community, which is also one of our core missions.

Rashel: So, in the future, will RAD's support for creators resemble that of traditional art institutions, offering grants and residencies for artists, or will RAD's identity lean more towards that of a tech company or game publisher?

Abby: Well, I'd like to revisit your question about why RAD came about and its positioning. In the tech world, the key investment is not actually in the product itself, but in R&D (Research and Development). Compared to marketing or sales after a product is launched, R&D is the largest investment for high-tech or game companies, but this is precisely what museums lack. Therefore, they naturally lack the concept of a laboratory, which is quite radical for museums. Generally, traditional museum exhibitions feature completed works or existing collections, requiring a narrative framework to put up the exhibition. However, in new media such as games and technology, we don't have such an advantage. If institutions exhibit ready-made products without the process of institutional learning, I don't think the exhibition technology would be as effective. The path we're taking might be somewhat challenging, or the timeline might be lengthy, and the investment will be different. So, that's how RAD's position came about. It's a space that allows us to explore work-in-progress types of creation and have trials.

Cheng: From my technical background, I believe that in the tech field, R&D is actually the riskiest part. So, I think it's rare for museums to take such risks. Personally, I believe certain endeavors require precise timing, with the right people in the right place. If something happens at the opportune moment, it's more likely to garner support, which is especially advantageous. In essence, this isn't much different from the high-tech field, is it? However, in high-tech, there's often a significant focus on capital operations, whereas in museum experiments, considerations for return on investment may differ.

Rashel: RAD is described as a salon, a gamer space, and a studio. How is its identity as a studio manifested? What sets it apart from traditional game studios?

Abby: I don't think we should rush to give a definition to RAD. I understand people's eagerness to see its framework, but we hope it's a space with a certain level of experimentation, and its definition gradually forms through continuous use. I estimate that by next year when we open the game exhibition, RAD's definition will be clearer. Also, I'd like to emphasize that this space isn't just about games and art; it also serves to innovate institutionalized structures. We're trying to update not only art itself but also the operation and communication modes of institutions. They are less tangible, yet their impact will be profound.

When embarking on something new, we're definitely filled with excitement and hope. Rashel, I'm sure you can see the changes AAM has undergone over the years, and you can imagine there's been a lot of internal friction as well. So, this mix of excitement and hope, along with optimism and pessimism, constantly intertwines, with feelings of setbacks and achievements coexisting.

RAD Past Event: LIAN: A Game About Love and Distance, a game created by artist Yi Xie.

Rashel: RAD has been open for almost two months. Could you briefly share your experiences in organizing these activities?

Cheng: Our criteria for selecting projects are that they must be related to games and technology, and they must involve interaction with the public. Besides the audience interacting with the exhibitions, people enter the same space to experience an activity together, which naturally sparks emotions and interactions among them. I believe this is the inherent mission of a museum as a public space. So, the works we've chosen are interactive, such as having two people, whether acquainted or not, play a game together, or collectively experiencing a songspace. This brings many surprises for established museums like ours. We bring in our existing audience and expose them to these relatively unconventional museum activities, which essentially resonate with them emotionally. This can help change some of the audience's opinions towards the works or bring about interesting challenges to their expectations, while also allowing them to participate in it.

Rashel: So during this time, RAD's goal has been to explore what kind of audience can be brought in for interaction.

Abby: Yes, I think it's a kind of trial run, and it's actually a trial for both us and the audience. At the same time, we're also strenthening the museum's resilience, conducting stress tests. You can clearly see that institutions find it challenging to deal with such attempts - and I wouldn't sugarcoat it. Because the era in which the creators of gaming works operate, their creative modes, the audience, and everything else are all very unfamiliar territory for a contemporary art museum, let alone AAM, which has traditionally curated antique and archaeological objects. Faced with these completely unfamiliar new forms, content, audience, and working modes, both the museum and RAD are struggling. It’s not easy for anyone, and the resistance is quite significant.

Actually, I thought about it a lot before starting this project. Game itself is a very personal activity, usually played by one or two people in front of a computer. This is very different from the collective experience of appreciating art together in a museum. Transforming game, as a language and aesthetic individual experience, into a collective experience where everyone can feel the joy of the game is a very challenging task.

Rashel: GDC is coming up soon, where game talents from around the world will gather in San Francisco. This is an important opportunity. Could you introduce RAD's recent activities that respond to GDC?

Abby: Actually, ever since I came to the museum, I've been advocating for GDC to the museum. But because its intersection with the museum is indeed very limited, it takes times for the museum to grow with such a large and new community - that's a straightforward answer. So why did we prepare such a space as RAD? Because we hope that during the recent GDC week, including when we hold such a large-scale game exhibition in 2025, the museum will have more than just two or three curatorial staff. We want the entire museum to better understand GDC, fully utilize GDC, and have more interactions with GDC. Can we learn together as an institution? Do we have the capacity to learn and participate, and eventually even interact? This capacity cannot be built in a day. Therefore, Cheng's work also includes internal communication with the museum's many departments, which is both a big challenge and worthwhile effort.

Cheng: Yeah, so we're kind of taking a roundabout approach. We hope to amaze the attendees of GDC: Wow, there's also a museum nearby doing related things! We're curious about how they will view the relationship between games and art with different lens. We really hope to spread this curiosity and attract more people to join us, so I partnered with Allison Jing Yang to organize the event "ArtPlay Connect @ GDC." In the gathering on Thursday night, March 21st, we'll invite people from the indie game circle who are also involved in art to come together and share our plans for 2024-2025. Then, we hope everyone can support our exhibitions in 2025.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will host the event "ArtPlay Connect @ GDC" during GDC 2024 in RAD space. Curated by Allison Jing Yang and Xu Cheng.

Rashel: My friends in the game community are all very curious about Artist J's solo show!

Abby: Yes, that's exactly the effect we're aiming for, and it's fantastic!

Rashel: How much information can you disclose about this exhibition at this stage? Could you give a brief overview of the exhibition, and what role does Artist J play in it?

Abby: An exhibition of this kind centered around a game artist is quite rare in any museum. We all have high expectations and are working under considerable pressure. This is also another reason why RAD was established. In this experimental space, we can try out some of Artist J and his team's ideas on a small scale, striving to test them to a level where they can be truly showcased in our special exhibition venue. So, the audience will see a mature version that has been iterated multiple times. The team's ideas are quite imaginative, and we consider Artist J to be a highly creative artist and game designer who views games as an art medium. Our collaboration with him is not much different from other artists.

Testing the exhibition concept for Artist J's game in RAD space.

Rashel: Is this exhibition planned to endorse Artist J's artist identity from the museum's standpoint?

Abby: Definitely. We're also endorsing game as art, although we don't need to categorize art or games in a specific way. In the art world, there are many things called art that don't belong to art, and likewise, there are many outstanding works in other fields that, although not considered art, actually fall within the realm of art, and this happens a lot.

First of all, Artist J is innovating this field. He keeps expanding the forms and content that games can present. Secondly, we're also interested in game as a narrative medium. In fact, it's a form of expression with its own context and mode. So, in this regard, I don't think there's much difference between games and art. They are groundbreaking and bring us new insights. The topic of commercial games versus indie games is often discussed in the art world, similar to questions about what constitutes commercial art or experimental art. Commercial games such as "World of Warcraft" or "Animal Crossing" actually offer us many new possibilities. When I look at art, it's not much different from looking at games; I'm exploring the possibilities and interests they offer. For games already on the market, we ask, why should they be exhibited in a museum? What is the necessity and inevitability of their appearance in public spaces? Why should we prioritize them?

Furthermore, Artist J's working mode is quite similar to other established artists we have collaborated with. Many artists have their own studios and teams, and galleries and other institutions focus on the output of the artists. From this perspective, our collaboration with him can draw from the institution's past experiences.

Cheng: I think the context of this project and our relationship with the artist are somewhat different from a regular exhibition. We are exploring the narrative of the games together in a very in-depth collaboration: his team is very focused on the field of digital art production and experiential design, while we have a better understanding of the venue and the process of installation, so we can try more experiments and setups. We communicate every week, which is actually a very rare and valuable pattern.

Rashel: I know that game curator and column editor, Allison Jing Yang, is also involved in curating another exhibition with you. Could you briefly introduce that project?

Abby: The general theme of that exhibition is related to game art involving Asian Americans and the diaspora, but as for the specific content of the exhibition, we can hardly reveal it at the moment.

Rashel: Do you have any words for the game community in China?

Abby: Although games are a new medium, their high interactivity allows us to starting line as other media. I think they should be fun. I hope everyone can show their innovation and create some interesting games. We also hope that Indienova can continue to recommend some interesting games to us!

Cheng: Actually, I was thinking back to when I was in school and reading "Ultra Console Game" and "Popsoft." At a time when most things, including exercise, were done for exams and grades, I was curious about those publications that were not related to school work. It was probably a way to find an outlet for "doing things for myself." So, being able to see content like this and continue your curiosity, I think, might be the most important thing.


Abby Chen joined the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco as Senior Associate Curator and the inaugural Head of Contemporary Art in January 2019. From 2006-2018, Abby was the artistic director at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Born in China. She holds a master’s degree in visual and critical studies from the California College of Arts.

Cheng Xu joined the Asian Art Museum as Assistant Curator for Games and Technology in 2023. Born in China, Cheng is a graduate of Tsinghua University in Beijing and holds a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Yale and a master’s degree in Tangible Interaction Design from Carnegie Mellon.
She is curating RAD, a Tech+Art-based Research And Development laboratory for artists, designers, and makers of the game and high-technology, and co-curating with Abby to prototype interaction for a major new immersive exhibition from visionary game artist Artist J, coming to the Asian Art Museum in 2025.

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