The phrase “Virtual Environments” can call to mind many different ideas, ranging from web spaces and projected worlds to video games across all platforms like virtual reality and consoles. It is also the name of a class offered at MCAD, where students are taught the ins and outs of a video game engine, and encouraged to explore all of the possibilities, and go beyond the boundaries, of “video game art.”
Hunter Jonakin, multimedia artist and educator
I recently got to sit down with Virtual Environments instructor Hunter Jonakin, who makes virtual environments in his own practice, to talk about his history as an artist and how video games have played a role in art and the importance of approaching video game art with an open mind.
Hey Hunter! So, I’m really curious where you come from, what your story is, and how you got into making video games as fine art?
Well just to give you a little background, I did my undergrad at the University of Minnesota where I earned a BFA in painting and drawing, but I always played video games since I was a little bitty kid. I loved them, and I got into making them by playing a game called Unreal Tournament that came bundled with an engine editor that allowed you to make your own levels for the game. I started doing that because I wanted to recreate GoldenEye levels from GoldenEye 64 on the Nintendo 64. Then, while earning my BFA I started thinking about doing that as fine art.
Now as you probably know, if you have a real thing that you wanna hang on a wall outside of school, space is hard to come by. It costs money, or you have to be nice to the people who have money so they’ll put you in the space, so that’s a concern. Also, scale—if you wanna do something huge, you have to have a space to make it, you have to have a space to display it, you have to have a vehicle to haul, all of those concerns play into it, and you realize when you’re making things, “How am I gonna do this?” So I started thinking “Hey, I’ve got this video game engine with endless amounts of space and scale isn’t an issue.” And I thought that was really exciting, and nobody else was doing it. I’m sure people were at the time, I just wasn’t aware. I did a couple projects at the U of M that were installations; they were enormous things that you could move through, almost like museums unto themselves. They were more conceptually layered, I was interested in Lacan and the mirror phase concept and all of these things I was reading about at the time. So, it was a little convoluted but it was the start of it.
What did you do after you finished your undergrad?
I applied to grad school at Florida State for drawing and painting because that was the bulk of my existing work, and because I knew once I got in I could do whatever I wanted to do and was interested in. Once I got there, I quickly shifted into only digital stuff. I’d always been interested in digital things—I was into Maya before I took it at school. I was learning about modeling and all that beforehand. So yeah, that’s all I did in grad school. I also did, and still do, a lot of installations, usually there’s some kind of technological aspect I put in there.
Does your drawing and painting background influence the digital work you’re doing now?
So here’s what I think about influence: to me, everything is your influence. Everything you experience in this world, from the most negative to the most positive, has an influence on you. I love that I did all that drawing and painting, I’m a pretty good drafting person. I’m good at it and I like it, but my interests changed and I went on to other things. So, yes, it absolutely influences what I’m doing now, everything I've experienced has.
I played music for many years before I ever went to art school, so that influenced me too. And that’s what I tell people in classes—“Go out, be in the world and experience things because it’s only going to make your work better.” Your work is focused through the lens of your mind, so everything you put in there is gonna help you make more interesting things. It’s a good thing to push outside of your comfort zone, and it goes for everything like food, art, anything. Different cultures, if you can travel, do it. I know it’s expensive but even just in the United States there are so many different things you can see and do.
Sometimes as an undergrad, I think you see students and you see their final project and you’re like, “That’s great, but it looks exactly like this other artist.” And it’s because they’re probably obsessed with that artist and that’s all they look at, and that ultimately will be a stumbling block for people. So, the more that you can take in, the different processes that you can learn, it’s only going to make everything better in the end.
“To me, everything is your influence. Everything you experience in this world, from the most negative to the most positive, has an influence on you.”
You mentioned you played music, do you want to talk more about that?
That’s made up the bulk of my life. Before I was even twenty I was in a serious touring band that toured for eight years. I played guitar and sang, that was my focus. I didn’t go to school right away because I knew I wanted to play music. And that faded, but again I’m really glad I did that. It was amazing. It didn’t really work out from a financial standpoint; that part was very difficult. But I think that was a great thing to go through as well, I did that and I feel like I can live anywhere and live on any amount of money and I’m good. It’s not fun, and I don’t wanna do that, but I know I can.
While in the band I had my own house painting business for a long time. Before that, I worked the worst jobs ever, I was a busboy at a diner, I worked the overnight shift at a gas station, chipped ice for a landscaping company when it would ice over. And then some of the other guys in the band and I started painting for people, and we made way better money doing that and it’s not brain surgery, it was pretty easy. The guys that owned the business were not the sharpest, and so we thought we could own our own business and make twice as much money. So we did. It was a great way to have our own schedule and then if we toured and came back we could schedule jobs. I did that for a long time, and I hated it. It was a means to an end. We were pretty successful, we made okay money, but I was like, “I cannot do this anymore, if I step on another ladder, that’s it.”
How did you make the leap from being in a band to studying drawing and painting?
I was always making art. As a kid, I was always the drawing person in class. I didn’t pay attention, I would just draw. And I think a lot of art people probably start that way too. I even did paintings out of high school, I did oil paintings while I was in the band. I was interested in art and I’d go to museums, but I didn’t really know a lot of about art history aside from the basics. After the music fizzled, I wanted to go to college, I was ready. I knew that I loved art, and that was the main thing I thought I could focus on, because I was working full time as well. It was a good choice, I’m really happy I took that path. I’m super proud of what we accomplished, even if it wasn’t like a storybook ending, it was pretty cool.
What happened after you finished grad school?
I’d already lived in Minneapolis for a while, and I loved it here. After grad school, I had the choice of moving back here or moving to New York or whatever I wanted, and I had done stuff in New York already and I didn’t think it would be right for me. Especially with the digital world, is moving to New York or LA really necessary? I see people moving away from LA and New York now and going to different places because it’s not really as necessary. If you have connections you can see the work online and communicate that way, and travel if you need to.
I really loved it here, and I wanted to come back, so I started adjuncting pretty much immediately. MCAD was the first place I taught at. I had friends here so they hooked me up, and I teach at the University of Minnesota too. I teach two animation classes over there.
I’m also doing some freelance animation. Whatever works and whatever I’m interested in, that’s all I need. And that’s what I try to communicate to students, that’s an important thing to learn: art school can be tough because you wonder, “What am I gonna do when I’m done, what avenues are there?” You have so many avenues, you really do. You just have to think outside of convention. Do you want to show in galleries and have gallery representation? That’s hard, there are fewer avenues for that, and it’s very competitive. You absolutely can do that, but you’ll more than likely have to do some other work to pay bills. Even from a creative standpoint there are plenty of jobs, especially here in Minneapolis. There are so many marketing agencies and things like that where you can fit in, there’s a niche for everyone, especially if you specialize in a lot of different things. At the U, I see people less interested in 3D and more people interested in 2D. In animation, I make people do Maya. Maya on a resume is really great. It’s specialized, and not everybody can do it. And even if you’re not an expert, you can say you know how to use it.
Can you tell me about some of your projects?
There’s one that got me a lot of press, which was really weird, right out of grad school. It was actually my thesis project, and it’s an arcade where you can destroy the work of a really famous artist named Jeff Koons. He’s super polarizing, and that’s why I chose him for the game because people either like him or hate him, there’s no in-between. He seems to me, still, to be the most polarizing artist in the art world. He’s also the best-selling living artist, so he was kinda perfect for it. It was called Jeff Koons Must Die, and that’s basically it, except it’s a little subversive. What happens is, you have a rocket launcher, you start blowing his work up in a gallery, and then Jeff Koons comes out on a balcony and he’s shaming you. Like, "Why would you do this, you’re destroying my work, I guess I’m going to have to take care of you!" And then a guard comes after you. If you shoot and kill the guard, you go into a second room with one of Jeff's giant balloon dogs, and he shames you some more and sends some lawyers and curators after you. The joke of the game is that you can’t kill him. You can never even touch him. He always wins. There’s no winnable solution to the game. There is a point in the game if you survive long enough where the whole gallery just catches on fire and you die. You die either way, but if you get that far you kinda win, because the whole gallery burns with you.
Hunter Jonakin, Jeff Koons Must Die!!!
I was trying to pull a one-two on people who thought, “Oh yay, I’m going to blow up this guy’s work!” Well, you can, but you die too. And you don’t kill him, he always lives. And that caught on, people really liked that. That was the first thing I ever made that went viral, you know? It was a really crazy experience. It still gets some press here and there, and I get press from it, it’s really weird and awesome.
Hunter Jonakin, Jeff Koons Must Die!!!
I have another project called One Note Piece. I had this old piano in an old studio that somebody had left. It was so heavy and annoying, and impossible to move as one piece, so I beat the thing up with a sledgehammer so I could get rid of it. I had all these parts and wondered what I could do with it all. So, I made an arcade cabinet out of pieces of the piano, and there’s a piano keyboard on the cabinet. The way it works is if you hit a key on the keyboard, there’s an arcade game where a boulder falls and smashes a grand piano in the screen, and then it resets. So it’s just a one-note project. It’s mainly about the ability of the digital world to self-destruct. Like if you’re using a piece of software and it crashes you get the pinwheel of death. Because of the complexity of it, I kind of liken it to playing piano with a boulder. I’ve used game engines a lot, not for conventional things but just to simulate an environment. That’s exciting to me, kind of subverting this technology.
Hunter Jonakin, One Note Piece
What do you think about video games as fine art?
There are two things that happen now with video game art, it’s so hard to even talk about that because it’s like, “What does that even mean?” Video games are art anyway, just unto themselves even if they’re conventional. But the two things you see most often as video game art are walking simulators and virtual museums. We already have galleries. I love museums, but they already exist. The way that we interface with things and art today, it’s just different. So, why make a digital space, one that you have complete control over, exactly like museums that have been around forever?
I don’t want to put down anyone that does that, because it is interesting how you can curate your own space and that’s really cool, but why not make it completely new, whatever you want, the possibilities are endless!
“When students get excited I can see it in their eyes, and there’s this spark that happens. That is everything to me, it’s super cool.”
Have you ever thought about working on a larger, conventional, video game team, or making a video game that is conventional?
Yes, I’m making one right now! It’s a 2D side-scroller, and it’s meant to be a time trial kinda thing. I could envision speed runners wanting to do it. I’m purposefully making it an intellectual property that’s really accessible, and maybe even kids would want to play it? I thought it would be a good exercise for me to just make a conventional game, especially since I’ve made such weird games in the past.
There was another one I was making for a while that was more of a scary game that I just abandoned; I ran into too many problems with it. It was called Thonos. It’s kinda fun to walk back through it now. It’s a huge first-person game, but it just kept growing and growing and it got out of hand. I may still revisit it, I don’t know.
I would be interested in working for some game development companies, like Valve. I would move out there next week if I could work for them. But that’s kinda silly. I’m not as excited by that, I’m more happy working here. I love meeting students and sharing things that I think are helpful. That makes my day. When students get excited I can see it in their eyes, and there’s this spark that happens. That is everything to me, it’s super cool.
Do you have any suggestions for people who might be interested in making their own game but have never done it before?
The Unreal 4 Engine is free. You can download it for free from their website. They have an enormous library of tutorials that are great and really well done. Youtube is also amazing, there are so many tutorials. Unity does too, Unity is another engine that’s free and has a huge community that will support a lot of things and answer questions. There are a lot of 2D engines as well, like RPG maker, which is way easier to learn and is a good beginners step. It’s all available to you, you just have to do it!