Art & Museums

Interview: Emergent Gamespace: Jonathan Kinkley Brings New Vision of Game History and Art with Chicago Gamespace

Photo: Jonathan Kinkley of Chicago Gamespace.

One good turn deserves another, they always say, and with any luck, one good idea can turn into another too. In the relative normalcy of January 2020, change was already in the air for Jonathan Kinkley, whose presence in the Chicago games scene was already ubiquitous. Kinkley is one of the cofounders and was the executive director of one of our favorite places on the scene, VGA Gallery. But things were changing at the time, and continued to change with the arrival of the pandemic. 

Early in the year, Kinkley and the VGA Gallery made a joint announcement  that he would be stepping down, to focus on other projects. And as Jonathan explained to us in this interview, the start of the year had brought new ideas and new focuses to his mind about where his love of games and his passion for games as art would take him next. As it turns out, it wasn’t far, and Kinkley returned to the Chicago game scene with a brand new addition: Chicago Gamespace

Chicago Gamespace is a physical space for video game history and art. It debuted on the Chicago scene on September 6 and currently features two separate but interesting exhibits reflecting the goals and passions of its progenitor, Kinkley. The first, a partnership with a leading online art gallery for video game art, brings the art of much anticipated title Cyberpunk 2077 to the Chicago gallery space. This exhibition features concept art from  Polish Cyberpunk developer CD PROJEKT RED and will run through December 20th, 2020. A second, permanent exhibition in the space deals is a look at video game history through some of the most influential games and hardware.

And though Chicago Gamespace occupies the same physical building that the VGA Gallery vacated for its current virtual home, it is something new and different, but very complimentary, to the work that Kinkley and others have done at VGA Gallery, and shares some of the same goals–to bring a greater understanding of the history and art of games to Chicago and farther flung areas. We got a chance to talk to Jonathan recently about what Chicago Gamespace is and what it aims to do, and we’re excited to let you hear more about it from its creator, then decide to explore it yourself when you’re ready. 

 

Photo: Installation @ Chicago Gamespace.

THIRD COAST REVIEW: So, we always go back to the beginning when we do these interviews. For you, this is a little more recent–but take us back to the beginnings of Chicago Gamespace and how it came to be–and how you transitioned from VGA Gallery to creating Chicago Gamespace…

JONATHAN KINKLEY: Of course! So I was the co-founder and executive director at the VGA Gallery for 7 years. The Video Game Art Gallery is a nonprofit organization, and I’m still very much involved there. But as a nonprofit–nonprofits are very heavy on administration and bureaucracy. There’s a lot of paperwork and a board and staff and bylaws, etc. And when I first started out with the VGA idea I had something much nimbler in mind where I could really just focus on the games. 

At some point I was like, I no longer have the ability to do this this year, but I still loved the idea of having a space for video games I couldn’t give it up. So that’s when I decided to step down. I let people know in January but I stepped down in May. I still love VGA Gallery and want the new phase it’s in to be successful and allow it to be the amazing, inventive experimental space that it is, but Chicago Gamespace was born out of a focus exclusively on the games and art, and having it be  a private space is much more nimble in terms of what time I’ll need to allocate to it. It was less about having different visions or going different directions and more about the model and the private space versus a 501c3. 

Installation @ Chicago Gamespace

Did Gamespace Chicago come out of the situations around COVID or was this idea particularly in your head back in January when you announced your departure?

It was planned to come out pre-COVID. It was in my head in January, and the seeds of it were there even before that. On the plus side, during the pandemic gaming has gotten even bigger. It’s even huger now. Animal Crossing shattered sales records–more people are playing games than ever before, so in the one sense a space like Chicago Gamespace can resonate with people even more right now. 

Of course it’s not ideal, because people are still rightfully nervous about leaving the house or going to places for nonessential trips, so we adapted by making it so you can see every piece in the exhibits on display right now online from our social media accounts and from the website. 

It’s good to have different options so that people can see it safely. For those that do want to come to the physical space to see the amazing exhibits  though what steps are you taking to make sure that is a safe place for them during this point in time?

The way it works for visitors is that we’ve reduced attendance. People will need to wear masks if they visit the space, and if they want to play the games, they have to wear gloves. We have plastic gloves that we hand out when people come to visit. We also encourage people to make a timed online reservation so they can come in a socially distanced fashion. 

Maelstrom by Josan ‘Deathburger’ Gonzalez. Cyberpunk 2077. CD PROJEKT RED.

Let’s talk more about the exhibits–specifically Cyberpunk 2077. This is a highly anticipated game that people have been excited about for years–can you tell me more about how this exhibit came to be at Chicago Gamespace for its grand opening?

So, Chicago Gamespace has a partnership with a Netherlands based gallery called Cook and Becker. They’ve been around since slightly before VGA Gallery and they primarily focus on video game art prints, largely from AAA games. I thought that some of the concept art from Cyberpunk 2077 looked incredible and would make a nice pairing/juxtaposition with the history collection that was going to be on display, so that there’s the old classics and then the cutting edge. 

Then, Cook and Becker had partnered with CD PROJEKT RED to make the official art print series for the game, which comes out in November, and they had also invited an incredibly talented artist named Josan ‘Deathburger’ Gonzalez who’s based in Barcelona to make a few official concept prints in connection with an official print series. So I reached out to our partner Cook and Becker and asked them if we could put in an exhibition of that work, so we’re co-representing this series up to the game’s launch which will happen later this fall while the exhibition is still up.  

It was supposed to come out in April but the new date is November 19th. 

Trauma Team in Action, Cyberpunk 2077. CD PROJEKT RED

This seems like such a cool project to open out a new space with!

Yeah, it’s one of the most interesting games this year, and there’s so much hype and so much excitement for it. I mean it got delayed and things played out the way they did and I feel like the stars aligned for this project to happen, so I’m super pumped for the game to come out and people to see the show. 

Good art is here to stay, and it’s something I’m committed to. It’s not going anywhere and so during this time there’s a great opportunity to build up our online social following and whatnot. We just launched a few weeks ago and we’re already getting a lot of people following us online. We’re essentially growing an organization from scratch and there’s lots of enthusiasm and excitement for it. 

Chicago Gamespace

It’s great to see the video game art space expanding. 

Yeah I view it as a part of a healthy ecosystem. You know, I fully intend to support VGA’s work every way I can and at the same time, offer a distinct and unique experience at Gamespace. 

So let’s talk about that experience more. What is your vision for Gamespace, beyond CD PROJEKT RED. Also, what is the distinct thing that makes it Gamespace?

Well, in terms of community and next steps, in the spring there’s an exhibition coming up called “Nom Nom: The 40th Anniversary of Pac-Man” and it’s an exhibition I’m co-curating with Tim Lapetino, who wrote the book Art of Atari. He is a Pac-Man scholar, and he has a great collection of Pac-Man artifacts and ephemera and games, so that will be the next temporary exhibition. I don’t have dates for that yet but I’m trying to figure out when the timing will be best. 

There’s also going to be a book published as a part of Gamespace’s ongoing partnership with Cook and Becker for that exhibition, and that will be available for sale and for people to check out as part of the exhibition. 

As far as the permanent collection, I’m going to continue growing it. It’s basically my collection of games from Magnavox Odyssey all the way through to Zelda: Ocarina of Time, essentially spanning from the late ’60s to the end of the ’90s.

So I’m getting a little bit of a museum vibe to what you’re saying about what you’re doing at Gamespace. There aren’t very many places where people can go to explore video game history and art, so that’s exciting to me, and a unique identity for you here in Chicago.

Thank you–and yeah, there’s no place like it. You can go to Emporium or Logan Arcade and play some great old arcade games, but this is curated. There’s a wall plaque and it’ll say, ‘Here is a Magnavox Odyssey in this case. It was created by Ralph Baer in partnership with Magnavox and it was the first video game console.’ People can see it and read about it and watch the original footage of people playing it, and then next to it they can pick up an Atari 2600 and play Pong with people, which is fun and different. Pong was the first breakout commercially successful game at that scale. Then you can play a couple arcade games–there’s Taito’s Space Invaders from the golden age of arcade game cabinets, and in addition to that there’s also the birth of home computer gaming, so you’ll be able to see a line about Will Crowther and Colossal Cave Adventure or Oregon Trail

So it’s kind of a history exhibition. Each one of these games tells a unique story. Oregon Trail was a very early game, but it helped usher in e-learning and an entire genre of video games that still exists today. There’s a lot of places you can play these games for a while but this is the only place you can play a thoughtful curated exhibition with the history.

Chicago Gamespace

That sounds great–and it reminds me of one of my favorite museum exhibits of all time–Game On at MSI. Were you in Chicago for that? It followed a video game history timeline and you could play the games as you travelled along it. This reminds me of that. A bunch of us were crowded around Tomb Raider helping each other with the puzzles and it was just a really standout moment for me as far as exhibitions and creating that sense of community.  It feels like what you’re creating is something that will produce those moments.

I feel the same way as  you about Game On. My only complaint about it was that it wasn’t a permanent exhibition. That’s what I hope to do–continue collecting these items over the years and people can come check it out and admire it and have a positive, smart experience and even learn from it. 

I think that’s especially needed now–the preservation of art and code that could easily slip through the cracks, and people are looking for more connection to their community and want to learn more. People are going back to find out where the things they love came from and how it started.

Yeah absolutely, people want to know what influenced–what games came before, what made them mechanically possible–they want to deep dive and lift up the hood and figure out what happened and how this came together, how it got to be made, and see the concept art and see the storyboarding. And that’s fascinating stuff. I can’t get enough of it–I think other people would agree. 

I do too. It’s important to reserve a space for that. In some cases it’s still an uphill battle to legitimize games as an art form that deserves preservation and critical thought. To have a space that does that can go along way towards changing the minds of people who think that video games are things people waste their lives in their basement playing. We as a community are aware that there are these important themes and stories, but so many people don’t know about things like Studio Oleomingus and that people are discussing industrialism and the degradation of a culture’s oral history using games. 

Yeah absolutely, and just having the white walls and the track lighting and using the iconography and gallery space does help to legitimize it and help some people consider it as artwork that should be admired and appreciated in this sense. 

You raise a great point about the need to reach people, and especially if people don’t play these games themselves. Some people stopped playing games when they got to be a little complicated or weren’t as successful as they were at arcades or whatnot. Gaming lost some people here and there but they definitely know how to go inside a gallery adn you know, look at art, and that’s something anyone can do–so maybe that will kindle their curiosity and interest in the subject. 

Yeah, and I feel like, it’s silly, but sometimes people need permission. They think that games are something that they should be leaving in the past sometimes–that they can’t be successful and enjoy these things. But you can have a career and be a parent and play video games. They’re not mutually exclusive. People get shamed for their interests oftentimes, and sometimes consider games a ‘waste of time’ but are also binge watching Netflix and it’s time to stop shaming people for their interests. It’s good to have these spaces to celebrate the spirit of play and engender intelligent thought about games. 

Chicago Gamespace

I also really like that you’re bringing in AAA games. There’s a ton of amazing things happening in the indie game world right now, but there’s equally amazing stuff going on  in the AAA space, too. 

Yeah, I think it’s all worthy of appreciation and reflection, and worthy of people’s time. What I hope to do at Chicago Gamespace is to focus on influential games that resonate with a lot of people. Not to say we’re going to exclude indies by any means, of course, but you know,  you’ll probably recognize most of the game titles at Chicago Gamespace. 

Chicago Gamespace

I can’t wait to see how the video game history exhibit expands over time, too–it sounds like there’s a lot you want to do there.

For the moment the collection is focused on the bigger hardware and games that changed the course of history, but over time hopefully I’ll be able to collect enough that I’ll be able to put in more artifacts.

There’s so much to learn, but I find it endlessly fascinating

 

We do too, and it’s one of the reasons we recommend you check out Chicago Gamespace. Chicago Gamespace is free via some walk in availability or the recommended timed reservations on the website, and is open to the public on Sundays from 1 to 5. The Cyberpunk 2077 exhibit will be featured at the gallery and on Chicago Gamespace’s website through December 20th, 2020, and prints from the exhibition are available to purchase from Gamespace Chicago here.

 

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