Notes on CUBEISM: Shapes of Grey

CUBEISM is a browser-based Unity game by Pat Stefaniak (a.k.a Sutopat) consisting of, as the page describes it, one cube and multiple cameras. It loads to a low thrumming drone, like the hum of a cathode ray tube, while in fact two grey cubes of equal size appear projected on a black background. Using the arrow keys on my keyboard, the cube on the right rotates in place, up and down and side to side. Each rotation suggests a light source, as certain faces gradually appear whiter or greyer depending on how the cube has been turned. The cube on the left is fixed, apparently just a square, but modulates between light and dark when I press the WASD keys.

A quick cut, and now it’s two rotating, dark squares, barely made out but for the movement of their outlines, or a single square with a staggered, three-dimensional texture inside of it that can only be viewed by rotating it, causing light and shadow to play on the polygon and expose the hidden interior. Sometimes it’s a cube appearing to come in close from a vanishing point far away, getting smaller and then bigger, and sometimes it’s a tessellation of cubes, cubes within cubes, cubes twisting into themselves, always playing with light, shadow, line and dimension.

CUBEISM is both an homage to the father of conceptual and minimalist art, Sol LeWitt, and a repudiation of some of the formalist assumptions found in modernist “concretist” art forms and, in its own way, much of game design philosophy.  The page for the game contains an unattributed quote highlighting LeWitt’s decision to work with white cubes for his structures, having found them to be the “least emotive” of all three-dimensional forms. But the quote also contains a caveat that, of course, not only do “white” and “cube” have “powerful emotional resonances”, but that LeWitt acknowledged this. He observed that, “three-dimensional art of any kind is a physical fact” and that this physicality in itself constitutes obviously expressive content.

Stefaniak hints powerfully at something that gets quietly explored in CUBEISM, but which has not been popularly acknowledged in either modernist art or videogame culture: first, that the human experience of things like line, shade, movement and shape are actually deeply emotional, subjective and fundamental experiences, and that, second, even “pure” or subconscious experiences like the physicality of a polygon have certain ideological assumptions built into them. The insistence on there being one true experience of painting, or gaming, or any singular, inalienable Platonic form, is going to be complicated both by how that experience is framed and by whatever baggage the observer is bringing to it.

CUBEISM exists in many shades, at many angles, and in multiple dimesionsbeing a 3D projection on a 2D screenand seems to loop endlessly, suddenly and without warning showing the player a new way to experience this virtual cube. Sometimes these ways are akin to spinning a top or zooming the lens of a camera in and out, and sometimes they’re more visceral and less plausible outside the realm of the virtual. This game presents the very material, almost pre-rational experience of a cube and makes it feel unfamiliar, allowing us to look at it from all angles, within and without, and to imagine the unseen things in the negative space around it. It’s alien and dramatic, as quick and bold cuts to new scenes just as I’ve familiarized with a particular way of looking at the cube seem to come out of nowhere, and the monotone humming contextualizes the square as something unnatural, inorganic, or better yet, technological.

CUBEISM takes the “least expressive” object in Sol LeWitt’s mind and reconfigures it as something intensely emotional, surprising and joyful. It takes on all the trappings of minimalism, in painting, sculpture, and in videogames (simplified controls, limited use of ludic  devices, abstract geometric aesthetic, and so on), and makes them genuinely fun, funny and thoughtful. One can play CUBEISM and understand it as a cute exercise exploring Unity camera tools, math and minimalist game design, but one can also understand it as a piece of conceptual art which works as an intertextual, hypertextual satire of the very media to which it pays homage. The limits of our imaginations when it comes to these intersecting media are exposed, simply but boldly, and the intimation is made to us that we can, once again, burst those limits open.