Natalie Bookchin

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The Intruder, 1999

Technologies: Director, Photoshop, Sound Edit 16

Keywords: Borges, game, network, narrative


Since their appearance in the 1970s, video and computer games have become not only an extremely popular form of entertainment, but also an important cultural form. Yet their often violent nature has made them a persistent subject of debate. The Intruder is an interactive Web project that, in Natalie Bookchin's words, "looks like a game but in fact is a critical commentary on computer games and patriarchy."

Bookchin's work is based on a 1966 short story by Jorge Luis Borges, also titled "The Intruder" -- a grim tale of prostitution, fraternal jealousy, and violence against women in which two brothers fall in love with the same woman, share her, and sell her to a brothel. The narrative ends with the woman's murder and the brothers' reconciliation.

Bookchin tells the story through a sequence of ten game-like vignettes, each of which is modeled after an early video game, such as Space Invaders, presenting a loose overview of the early history of the medium. In this project, the video game becomes a symbolic form in which archetypal actions such as catching falling objects, jumping, and shooting dramatize themes in Borges's short story. For example, the seventh segment of this project resembles one of the first video games, Pong, in which players control paddles to hit a ball across the screen. In Bookchin's version, the ball is replaced by a woman's skirted silhouette, photographic images of the nude female body appear on the playing surface, and a female voice reads a passage from the Borges story. The player is implicated in the narrative by the feminine "ball" back and forth, symbolically taking the role of one of the brothers and enacting the cruel exchange of the woman as if she were an object with no agency. By combining literature and games, Bookchin builds a bridge between high art and low culture, calling the distinction between the two into question. This kind of leveling is a common feature of New Media art. At the same time, Bookchin seems to suggest that, both as a woman and as a contemporary artist, she is herself an intruder in the male-dominated, entertainment-driven world of computer games. The deftness of Bookchin's critique lies in the parallels she draws between the violence of Borges's misogynist literary narrative and the violence and sexism that are ubiquitous in most games.

In this regard, The Intruder is typical of Bookchin's artistic practice, which is often explicitly political. She was a member of ®TMark, an activist art collective that engaged in "tactical media" interventions such as GWbush.com, a Web site that was critical of George W. Bush's 2000 candidacy for President of the United States. Her later, more ambitious project, Metapet (2002-2003), is an online game in which players act as corporate managers, controlling genetically modified human employees who have been bred to include a fictional obedience gene found in dogs. Much in the way The Intruder develops a critique of patriarchal violence, Metapet criticizes corporate culture.

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