Interview: VGA Gallery’s Brice Puls and Eleanor Schichtel on Going Virtual, Future Plans and VGA Zine

System Link: Video Game as Memoir. Photo: Marielle Bokor The last time we saw the gang from VGA Gallery, things were a lot different. It was January 2020 and we were crowding the VGA Gallery’s small space on Bloomingdale Ave excited to see System Link: Video Games as Memoir on its opening night. Of course no one knew it then, but this thoughtful and provocative exhibit on the connections that artists have to their games, and how developers find their voice would be the last one in the space. With March came COVID-19 and a progressive march of calamities that has changed people’s lives globally, and has forced everyone in the Chicago art scene to have to reconsider how to do the things they do.  We originally got in touch with VGA Gallery shortly after the impact of coronavirus was becoming clear, but, due to local and national events, both Third Coast and VGA Gallery had to take a break to try to regroup and become intentional about the voices that were being amplified during that time and where it was important to focus our energy. VGA Gallery's Chaz Evans, left, and Brice Puls, right. Photo: Marielle Bokor There was already a big transition afoot at VGA Gallery before the pandemic, with the gallery’s previous Executive Director and Co-Founder Jonathan Kinkley stepping down to focus on his work at the Art Institute and other personal projects, and VGA’s future is now shared responsibility on the part of its board: Jen Rhodes, Director of Development, Mick Reed, Treasurer, Eleanor Schichtel as Director of Communications and Brice Puls, previously the Manager of Exhibitions, stepping into the role of Director of Operations. Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games at VGA Gallery Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor In addition to staff changes, due to the ongoing pandemic, VGA Gallery transitioned from its former physical space in Bucktown to, at least for now, an entirely online presence that will continue to support the gallery’s mission. To that end, they will be taking steps to create an online presence for past exhibitions like Polymorphism, Studio Oleomingus or System Link, making VGA Reader open access through their website, and, perhaps most excitingly, have launched a new zine, appropriately titled the VGA Zine, which launched in June of 2020 and hopes to provide interesting, thoughtful but more lighthearted content regarding art, indie and AAA video games. So far, the VGA Gallery has put out 3 issues of the Zine, with the most recent having come out this past Friday, September 16th. We got a chance to talk to Director of Operations Brice Puls and Director of Communications, Eleanor Schichtel recently just ahead of the zine’s most recent issue and thought we’d catch you up with the latest on VGA Gallery’s transition, what’s planned for their future, and what you might find in their zine now and in the future.      Thanks for sitting down with us again! ELEANOR SCHICHTEL: Thanks for having us and continuing on this quest! So, let’s go back a little. When we talked before, it was right around the time VGA Gallery formally announced the decision to go virtual, the staff changes were happening and VGA Zine was in the works but the first issue hadn’t been published yet. So let’s go back in time a little and talk about the switch to virtual.  ELEANOR: So, the zine has sort of been this nebulous thing we’re calling our platform for being online now. When we last talked, I wanted to do the zine and make it the thing we could all contribute to, but we still didn’t really know what that was going to look like. Now that we’ve had these issues out, we have this prototype that we’re ready to play with. We’ve already had people submit work, submit articles--and it’s slow going but it’s picking up pace and becoming this thing that we can all visualize growing in the future. So, it sounds like VGA Zine is the framework you’re building the new experience at VGA Gallery around. Is that accurate? Yeah. It’s this online space that is supposed to be online. Everything else we’ve done in the past that has had an online presence has been side by side with something going on in our gallery or the VGA Reader, which is this physical book you can pick up, but VGA Zine is meant to be online, so it’s its own beast in that sense.  Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games at VGA Gallery Chicago. Photo: Marielle Bokor So, a question for you Brice--obviously there’s been a lot of transitioning happening, for you in particular stepping up to Director of Operations and with the pandemic. So what’s this transition been like for you, especially given that you’re also part of the team working on Bugsnax? BRICE PULS: I mean, it’s been a relatively wild year as far as things we were anticipating to happen or not. We had a full year of programs that we were going to do in our physical space, and then with the pandemic and everything it’s just been harder to find those spaces to work with. And honestly, it’s nothing we really feel safe with in terms of us getting together to install things or people coming to visit them. So there’s definitely plans for physical stuff in the future but it’s been a lot to learn with just how we’re going to operate as an organization going forward.  Like Eleanor said, we’re trying to find things that feel exclusively interesting to being in an online space. There’s a lot of organizations right now that are doing really cool things with virtual gatherings and virtual galleries and stuff like that, and we’re just trying to figure out, what does VGA’s space lie within? Because with Bit Bash and stuff like that, that’s a festival and has a more communal atmosphere. But with VGA our goal is engendering video game art and we’re going to push the art atmosphere. So it’s just about finding a way for us to be able to express those ideas as well as figure out how we’re going to be able to do some exhibitions in the future as well. It’s kind of nebulous and slow going but it’s been cool to do things, at the Zine and with the fundraiser, and it gets our mind off of how difficult other things have been by being able to have a thing to work on.    VGA Gallery Opening. Studio Oleomingus: Notes in the Margins of History. Photo: Marielle Shaw That’s a familiar feeling for us at Third Coast too. Making new things does help you focus on something other than the bad things that are going on. And I think, because the space you were in was so small, it’d be very hard to do something in the physical space.  Focusing on creating content FOR an online presence instead of just throwing things online really helps shape good content.  Yeah, I mean, especially--this is not VGA, but that was kind of our thought process when we were discussing what to do with Bit Bash this year. We were asking “Is there a version of Bit Bash that feels the way it does, has the goals we want it to, but that we could do in an online space--a festival’s about getting to know people and standing next to them and playing video games and having that experience together, so if there’s not a good idea then it doesn’t make sense to shove a round peg into a square hole.  I tend to agree.  One of the events that VGA Gallery did that stood out to me was Studio Oleomingus, because you had the developer talk at the opening, and I feel like those sorts of things could transition pretty well to an online space--a developer talking about the game as a host or something like that. It was a great experience to hear the developer talking about the imagery in their games and why things were the way they were. BRICE:  Yeah, and we’ve been looking at doing more of that with the zine. We have this--what are we calling it? ELEANOR: The VGA Question Zone. The VGA Zine Question Zone. For this most recent issue, we interviewed Derrick Fields, “friend of the pod” I guess (and Chicago based developer of Onsen Master), and it’s something that we want to use to connect with folks we’ve worked with in the past.  I think it’s also a spot where we can highlight the archive work we want to do in the future for our past shows. I was just thinking about how we are connecting with artists in ways that we maybe wouldn’t have gotten the chance to as a physical space. We made this connection with this organization in Rochester, NY called the Strong Museum of Play. They reached out to us to contribute work. It’s not what we would’ve been doing but it’s an opportunity to create these really awesome connections. Yeah. I think that’s super important. Always, but especially right now. At least for me, this is the first time I’m talking to people outside my house.  BRICE: I definitely understand that. It’s me and my coworkers and my partner and that’s it.    That’s how it is here too. It helps to have community, and it’s what inspired us to start this series. We were thinking about the fact that there won’t be a Playtest Party or Bit Bash right now, but maybe we could catch up with all the people we would normally see at these events. What are some highlights people can look out for in  Issue 3 of the VGA Zine? ELEANOR: Well, we have another walk into the VGA Zine Question Zone. I have a friend explaining to the world what Blaseball is, so I’m really excited to learn more about that. It’s going to be a real educational process for me. It’s fascinating, it looks hilarious, but I still don’t understand sports so that’ll be great.  We are consistently doing What VGA Played This Month so that may shift as we go. I’m kind of seeing these first three issues as an experimental stage, so in the next couple of months we may experiment with a couple of other formats for our collaborative piece. In the last three months of this year we should be able to branch out a little more and hopefully bring in more of a feature element to each issue. It’s smart to do these things a little at a time, I think. Studio Oleomingus: Notes in the Margins of History @ VGA Gallery. Photo: Marielle Bokor Another question I had for you guys was this. Chicago has a pretty active Zine scene-- have you guys yet looped into that? Have they reached out to you at all? ELEANOR: Not really. I’ve got friends from my time at SAIC who are very much into the zine community and I’ve got a lot of printmaker friends but the idea of making it tangible at this point is a what if. So far we’ve got connections at Quimby’s--we’ve got our Readers there. That’s some place I’d like to see a zine go to in the future. Eventually, we’d talked about getting the zine printed, and have it become something tangible that we can just have available when we are in a physical space again, and be able to say “Here’s this zine from this time.” That makes sense. Especially right now any kind of physical media can be a risk BRICE: Yeah, part of it too is that we want to establish a little bit of a repertoire and get a few issues out so we can figure out what our structure or lack of structure is and give it a little bit of an identity. So at the time when printing becomes a little bit, more or less, an unfeasible task we can have a good collection already going.  That would be an interesting look back historically, even. ELEANOR: I hope that the zine continues for months to come but the plan is to start looking into how VGA can become a physical thing in 2021. In the meantime, I do hope that we can take on some online exhibition projects.  It’s been a situation where I just put out whatever has come to us, whatever anyone else wants to offer up, and hopefully that’s showing what the zine is capable of holding and as people see it we can go from there and find new ways to adapt it to new kinds of content.  Artists Run Chicago 2.0 at Hyde Park Art Center. Image courtesy Hyde Park Art Center. So what else is new for VGA Gallery? ELEANOR: There’s nothing in particular for the Zine we can talk about but we do have artists from Chicago at the Hyde Park Art Center-- BRICE: Yeah, we have a physical exhibition, surprisingly enough--after we just said we can’t do physical exhibitions. We’re going to have a collection of contact free interactive art. We’ll be highlighting some machinima, some games that use personal devices, and some that use face tracking and stuff like that. So we do have that coming up. Then hopefully in the future, at least a personal goal and something this whole situation prioritized is getting some digital representations of our previous exhibitions up. So in terms of our online presentations that’s what we want to try to do first. That way we have a platform, because it’s an already curated exhibit.  That sounds great. I think people are looking for that sort of thing. There are those of us who are high risk and missing some exhibitions they really wanted to go to, so to have a chance to see exhibitions like the ones we’ve seen at VGA Gallery online and I think people are ready for it. I’d love to see Polymorphism online, for example.  Can you give us a few more details on the Hyde Park Art Center exhibition? You mentioned that it was examining contactless interactive art, and I think it’s a great time for that. I think everybody’s trying to figure out what they can do physically right now and people are trying to find their boundaries. It’s a great time to examine these different approaches and look at things that already existed that were contactless, to see what they’re doing and take it from there.  BRICE: Yeah, and the beauty of the Hyde Park Art Center, at least in the space we’re going to be in--it’s a little space called the Catwalk Gallery, which is just an upstairs hallway with a bunch of hanging projectors and these really nice big bay windows. And so the one weird side effect--this had been something we were discussing--this exhibition was planned a long time in advance on Hyde Park’s side, and then of course, with COVID-19 and everything it got pushed. But when they were reopening recently they wanted to continue with the exhibit, and we had to have that kind of location chosen because of its accessibility to digital devices and stuff like that but the nice advantage to it too is that all of the artwork is available to be seen outside as well as inside. So you can stand on the street or be outside and not have to go inside and experience it as well, which is a nice advantage over the more closed in spaces. You know, I mean, I’m like “Man, I really want to go across the street and see Tenet but I’m not going to go across the street and see Tenet!” Yeah, it’s a really hard choice and one you have to make all the time--it can be frustrating as someone who’s high risk or has family members who are to keep getting invites to things we can’t attend, so it’s wonderful to see these other opportunities arise and be able to go get a chance to go see stuff like that still.    Bit Bash and AIC Interactive Influence: Artists Connect. Photo: Marielle Bokor The Chicago video game scene has always been so inclusive and collaborative--it’s really great to see this at work in the Zine and with the exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center. In times like these it’s important to band together and promote each other’s stuff to say “Look what Chicago has to offer in this field.” and I think it’s something Chicago is good at with very few exceptions. BRICE: Chicago’s already so artistically precarious--it’s not seen as a destination scene by everybody in terms of national or global content, so in regards to the people that are trying to do things here, it feels like it would be very unlikely that anyone would be able to succeed by being like “I’m gonna beat you at this.”  Instead, it’s probably a lot easier to have everyone be working together to the common goal of saying “See, Chicago is relevant and matters.” Exactly. So what are some ways people can support the work that you’re doing at VGA Gallery and with the Zine? I know the print shop is a great place to start... ELEANOR: Yes, it is. It’s a great way to support the artists and ourselves. We have a lot of really hot games in there, if people really want to support us and get a work of art in their home that represents the game they love so much, that’s definitely the place to go.  Excellent. And if we want to know more about the exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center? BRICE:  Well, they can check out the Hyde Park Art Center’s website. Our portion of the Artist Run Chicago 2.0 event is called Personal Action, Public Display: A Balcony of Video Game Art. That’s a great name! BRICE: Thank you, it was Chaz’s. I’m terrible at stuff like that. It’ll take me another 15 minutes after I write this article to think of a headline… ELEANOR: Yeah, that’s why we just call it VGA Zine.  BRICE: Yeah, we work really hard. We’re like “VGA Store, VGA Reader...we’re gonna open up an auto dealership and it’ll be called “VGA Car” Honestly, it’s the better option! Thanks for talking to me today--it’s been great. We look forward to seeing more of what will come from the VGA Zine as well as online exhibitions, and we can’t wait to get a look at the Hyde Park exhibition, too.  For more information and to read the first three issues of VGA Zine, click here.
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Marielle Bokor