Questioning Binaries, Subverting Conventions
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Leo Castañeda melds game design conventions with traditional fine arts methods in an intermedial, world-building process that creates a cyclical and ongoing feedback loop. His work Levels and Bosses, for example, began in 2009 as a series of paintings and drawings, concept art for an interactive application he hoped one day to bring to fruition. The project has evolved into a multivalent creative procedure, incorporating digital and analog methods into a hybrid practice in which textures and heightmaps created using game design engines such as Unreal are melded with physical and digital images.
To arrive at this point, Castañeda has traveled a circuitous route. When we first crossed paths, he was completing his graduate studies at Hunter College in Manhattan, working primarily with oil and ink on canvas. Even then, he spoke with great clarity about his vision of merging video games with fine art. In the decade-plus since, his work has expanded exponentially, exploding from those canvases into a digitized, interactive environment represented on screen, as well as the surrounding physical gallery spaces. When Castañeda learned he was a 2023 Knight Arts + Tech Fellow, we had the chance to reconnect; our discussion traversed the major themes and influences in his work, including environmentalism, video game conventions, intermediality, and his upbringing among a family of visual artists in Cali, Colombia.
In many ways, Levels and Bosses encompasses all of Castañeda’s major themes and ways of working across media. Walking into the most recent exhibitions of this project, the viewer is instantly immersed in an all-encompassing audiovisual and spatial installation. The works on display include wall-sized digital prints of 3D environments created using the Unity game design engine, abstract environmental oil paintings and drawings, otherworldly furnishings and wearable garments featuring prints created from in-game imagery, an array of flat-screen monitors attached to game controllers and CPUs, and virtual reality headsets merged with handmade fabric garments or mounted on sculptural seats. These last elements look like something between surrealist sculptural abstractions and the massive motorcycle controllers of arcade video games.
Having taken in the expansive installation, which fills the volume of the gallery space much like the wallpapered booths of a game convention, one might turn to engage with the on-screen works. Sitting down with the game controller or strapping on the VR goggles, the spectator becomes an interactor, navigating a three-dimensional digital world dominated by fantastical yet naturalistic environmental abstractions — first and foremost, a massive and outwardly expanding explosion of gas, liquids, and solids from which emerges the player’s avatar (a dark, cloaked being with an iPad-like, glowing, two-dimensional white rectangle for a head). The on-screen environments meld influences from Amazonian abstract paintings with quest-based video games, inviting the player to contemplate an experience that is unlike other games or works of art, even as it merges elements of both.
More than thirty years after Néstor García Canclini coined the term “hybrid cultures” to account for “the presence of indigenous crafts and vanguard art catalogs on the same coffee table,” Castañeda’s art embodies a novel form of cultural hybridity produced by the fusion of his upbringing amid a family of Latin American artists with elements of global pop culture. Early overlapping influences include artwork by his grandmother (an Amazonian environmental abstractionist who immigrated to Colombia from Brazil) and her circle of abstract and surrealist artists; his mother’s work with illustration and fashion design; his father’s background in architecture and painting; and international pop culture, including games such as The Legend of Zelda and anime series such as Dragon Ball Z and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Latin American art movements from Mexican muralism to Venezuelan kineticism to Brazilian Tropicália have sought to break free from the canvas and the gallery space, interpolating the viewer as a navigator and an actor whose movement and perspective play a role in shaping the work itself. Castañeda’s art represents a new way of imagining the longstanding engagement of the active user, and at the same time it is in dialogue with contemporary Latin American and Latinx media artists pursuing related explorations; Arcángel Constantini, Yucef Merhi, micha cárdenas, Coco Fusco, and Ricardo Dominguez, for instance, have variously employed elements of game hardware and software, using emerging digital platforms for creative production while redefining the parameters of active art viewership for the digital age. In Levels and Bosses, visual allusions to Amazonian settings and indigenous culture call back to Castañeda’s artistic upbringing, while the navigable environments and digital aesthetics of video games nod to a distinct set of traditions. Game studies scholar Alenda Y. Chang refers to video game environments as “anthromes,” biomes that have been irreversibly transformed by the presence of humanity. Yet the environments of Levels and Bosses simultaneously evidence and decentralize the presence of humanity. In this space, the dominant game paradigms of exploration, discovery, and acquisition are replaced with an experience that melds the player’s avatar, the Other, and the environment into one, creating an interconnected, posthuman plurality.
Castañeda has had to contend with the multiple obstacles and affordances faced by nearly all creators of art games and game art. On the one hand, there are opportunities to reach new audiences and break down boundaries between art and other forms of popular culture; on the other hand, there are the challenges of learning to work with software tools, accommodating artistic practice to the restrictions of game hardware, reckoning with how to best display works that contain both digital and analog elements, and occasionally confronting skepticism from gaming and art communities alike. Indeed, Castañeda’s is an oeuvre that could only be possible in its own time and place, an epoch defined by what Henry Jenkins has termed “convergence culture,” during which media consumers have transformed into creative producers. Inseparable from its technological and historical context, Castañeda’s art is the product of artistic ingenuity fused with open-source software, user-friendly game design aids like Unreal Engine, YouTube programming tutorials, and the advent of user-generated content. It is also born of an era that places greater value on game literacy, during which the visibility and cultural impact of video games have become ubiquitous.
Castañeda’s artistic evolution has led him from individual creative production to a collective process, working with a team to create across multiple media and platforms; this trajectory raises important questions regarding authorship and collaboration, such as who can claim responsibility for a work that is produced collectively by multiple individuals, all offering creative input. Like many contemporary artists working across media, Castañeda’s output highlights the centrality of issues around preservation, collection, and display for contemporary art, including thorny concerns about how to properly store, archive, and exhibit digital works created using software and hardware that may quickly become obsolete. But Castañeda has distinguished himself from his contemporaries in a number of important ways. With Levels and Bosses, he has developed a full-blown, highly polished 3D video game providing a more immersive aesthetic experience than the experimental 2D casual games other artists have typically produced; he has expanded his digital creation into furnishings and wearables that bridge the gaps between fine art, fashion, and design; and he has invented ways of merging analog works with digitized environments in a continuous exchange that transforms all of their elements.
At its essence, Levels and Bosses is an attempt to subvert game conventions and art techniques in order to question binary thinking, creating a space for experiencing posthuman multiplicity. This is evident in the work’s transformations to video game rules and mechanics: the pause screen becomes a digital dwelling, a space for displaying digital abstractions inspired by tropical environments, and the digital touchpad and controller buttons are used in combination to create affective user experiences. Bosses are neither conquered nor killed, but become one with the player’s avatar. Game analyst and developer Clara Fernández-Vara talks about game mechanics (the elements that establish how a player can participate in the game) as “verbs,” and in Castañeda’s work, such mechanics are again turned on their heads with the use of playable “verbs” like Perceive, Move, Intensify, and Modulate. This is a ludic environment that dissolves fixed divisions, where the supple detail of oil on canvas extends across an interactive, three-dimensional atmosphere in the gallery itself.
Leo Castañeda’s art takes elements of immersion to the level of what game studies scholar Gordon Calleja calls incorporation, drawing the would-be spectator into an experience that is as much corporeal as it is conceptual. Here we experience art in a video game, along with video games in the art gallery — a flowing and expanding explosion capable of simultaneously obliterating the magic circle and the white box.
Phillip Penix-Tadsen is a specialist in contemporary Latin American cultural studies and regional game studies, focusing on the intersections between politics, economics, digital media, and visual culture throughout Latin America today. Penix-Tadsen earned a PhD from Columbia University and is Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Delaware, where he regularly teaches courses on Latin American cultural studies and game studies. He is the author of Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America (MIT Press, 2016) and editor of the anthology Video Games and the Global South (ETC Press, 2019).
Photo by Evan Krape, courtesy of University of Delaware
Leo Castañeda (b. 1988, Colombia) is a video game director and multimedia artist exploring interdependent and posthuman interaction design. Castañeda’s artwork primarily takes form in episodic games and immersive installations that meld Latin-American Surrealist painting, Virtual Reality sculpting, augmented reality, textiles, video, and furniture. He is a 2022 Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute Praxis Projects participant and a 2022 Harpo Foundation grantee, as well as a former resident of the Bronx Museum AIM Program, SOMA Mexico City, Oolite Arts, and Khoj International Artists Association in New Delhi, India. He has exhibited at Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel; Espacio ArtNexus Bogotá; Children’s Museum of Manhattan; Digital Museum of Digital Art, Indiegrits; South Florida Cultural Consortium; Locust Projects, Miami; Frost Museum of Science; and Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, Colombia. His work has been featured across Rhizome, ArtNexus, Killscreen, El Pais, El Nuevo Herald, Spike Art Magazine, and Vice. In 2022 Castañeda launched Miami’s first fine-art video game studio, Otro Inventario.
Photo by Vanessa Diaz