/Steve Gibson, Justin Love, Jim Olson
Experience the excitement, glamour, fear, violence and mayhem of a genuine Middle Eastern battle! Better yet, get your shooter-playing ass off the console and onto the revolutionary “Borgcycle”, a sensor-equipped bike that provides a heart-pounding workout while you hunt down baddies. Choose your role: insurgent, invader or onlooker. Change sides if you feel the urge!
/STEVE GIBSON — Concept, Script, Bike Concept, Sound Editing, Music, Textures
/JIM OLSEN — Model Modification, Textures, Graphic Design
/GRAND THEFT BICYCLE
Grand Theft Bicycle (GTB) is an interactive and immersive installation that uses a bicycle interface (the Borgcycle) to play a modified (modded/mod) version of the popular video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The Borgcycle is an inexpensive 1950s style bicycle with a step-through frame. It is painted drab army-green. The back wheel is attached to a stationary bike stand and the front wheel rests on a “Lazy Susan”. The bicycle is equipped with sensors, control buttons and an analog-to-digital interface that essentially transform it into a joystick.
The Borgcycle faces a large projection screen and is set up so that users can “pedal into” a 3D gaming environment, a recreation of a desert city (Baghdad). The characters of the original version of Grand Theft Auto have been modded into familiar political figures who form warring gangs. The invaders include George Bush, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The insurgents include Saddam Hussein, Yassar Arafat, Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il.
The protagonist on the virtual bike resembles Steve Gibson, who developed the concept for GTB. This is particularly apt because the conceptual underpinnings for GTB came to Gibson, an avid cyclist, when a car drove into the bike lane and almost injured him. At that moment, he mused about his bicycle being armed with a rocket launcher.1
Gibson enlisted the aid of two other artists, Justin Love and Jim Olson, and GTB became a true transdisciplinary digital art project, “where there is a direct connection across mediums … where each participant strives to better understand necessary processes and concepts at more than superficial levels.”2 Love chose to modify Grand Theft Auto because “during the time [he] spent researching games and building the bike interface, the mod community for Grand Theft Auto flourished and a number of reverse engineering tools were made available online.” It should be noted that publishers determine the mod-friendliness of games; many openly accept and even encourage mod communities. “It is empowering to leverage the graphic engine, AI, physics, assets, etc. in a game and bend them for your own purpose,” remarks Love. “Hacking code is like solving a puzzle.”
Olson approached the project as game art graffiti. He explains, “Certain parts of the models had to be left as they were because of game physics, …so I picked sweet spots – faces mostly.” Olson has also been largely responsible for the packaging of GTB: the intro movie, the website and the marketing material. His experience in advertising and design taught him that “ … anticipation of an event is a powerful tool. The marketing material leads users into looking at the experience…like they are rebelling, taking part in something exciting.”
The elements of excitement and fun are very evident in GTB. “If you are going to make a piece of game art, it [had] better be fun to play,” says Gibson. But the added subversive elements – a world populated by well-known political figures; modded signs and billboards (“Jihad Info”, “Goat Exchange”, “Seven Virgins Quickie Mart”) – turn GTB into a work of tactical media.
Another example of a bicycle interface being used as tactical media is Joshua Kinberg’s Bikes Against Bush, where a Wi-Fi-enabled dot-matrix printer was mounted on a bicycle and could spray anti-Bush messages in chalk on the streets of New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention.3 However, whereas Kinberg was arrested and his gear confiscated, the creators of GTB have managed to escape censorship. As an associate professor at the University of Victoria, Gibson was “hauled in” to face the university’s lawyers. They feared his use of Stephen Harper as a character might put funding at risk. Gibson refused to remove the figure of Harper from the game, and has yet to face any consequences.
As with most digital or new media art, it is difficult to give a critical assessment of GTB, since the terms for technology-based artworks are evolving along with the practice. GTB is a form of appropriation: not only the game itself, but also the soundtrack, which has been modded from Flock of Seagulls’ Iran and Gary Numan’s Cars. GTB also fits within contemporary art contexts of projected media, participatory art and gaming.
More specifically, GTB can be compared to other artworks that use stationary bicycles as navigational tools, including Jeffery Shaw’s The Legible City (1988-91) in which the participant can “ride” through “computer-generated three-dimensional letters…that form a simulated city”4 ; Nancy Paterson’s BICYCLE TV (1989), with which the rider can “tour” a scenic landscape5; and Rob White’s IBIS la bicyclette interactive (2001), where riders can “bike” through a journey from England to Spain.6
GTB can also be likened to several scientific studies that explore stationary bicycles as interactive fitness applications.7 But GTB is unique in its utilization of a modded video game and, simply put, it’s more fun. Not inconsequential is the value of GTB as a way to “get your fat shooter-playing ass off the console” and get “the endorphins pumping”.8 In GTB, you can immerse yourself in a gaming environment and exercise your body. In effect, you become a performer.
In response to the charge that GTB continues the tradition of video games that media theorist Janet Murray has criticized as simply perpetuating the “bloodletting”, Gibson points out that in GTB you don’t need to pull the trigger.9 In fact, some users simply ride the bike and explore the landscape. As well, the scoring system has been stripped from GTB and the user can’t be killed. Says Gibson, “This makes it different from goal-oriented shooter games and gives it an ironic detachment that is rare, if not absent, from traditional shooter games.”
The concept of the Borgcycle also grew from Gibson’s interest in “garage” digital work, “making the digital as accessible as possible and reducing the elitism of techno fetishism to a bare minimum.” The bicycle as a physical interface fulfills the aspect of Gibson’s art-making aesthetic where interactivity plays a central role. His work draws inspiration from a quote by Myron Krueger: “The only aesthetic concern [in Interactive art] is the quality of the interaction.”10
1. All quotes by Steve Gibson, Justin Love and Jim Olson are taken from live and email interviews during March 2009.
2.Adams, Randy; Gibson, Steve; Müller Arisona, Stefan (Eds.) Transdisciplinary Digital Art: Sound, Vision and the New Screen. Zurich, Switzerland: Springer Science+Business Media, 2008.
3.Kinberg, Joshua. Bikes Against Bush. http://www.bikesagainstbush.com/blog (accessed April 2009).
4. Paul, Christine. Digital Art. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
5. Paterson, Nancy. BICYCLE TV, Vacum Woman. http://www.vacuumwoman.com/MediaWorks/Bicycle/bicycle.html (accessed April 2009).
6. Ctrl-N/ journal. IBIS la bicyclette interactive. www.ctrl-n.net/journal/archives/ibis-la-bicyclette-interactive (accessed April 2009).
7. Silveira, Renato. Low-cost Interactive Bicycle System. http://vimeo.com/2312611 (accessed April 2009).
8. Gibson, Steve. Grand Theft Bicycle. http://grandtheftbicycle.com (accessed April 2009).
9.Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.
10. Krueger,Myron. Responsive Environments in Packer & Jordan, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York, NY: Norton, 2001.
/RANDY ADAMS is a Canadian media artist with a background in creative writing, journalism and the visual arts. He is author of the book Eternal Prairie (1999) and co-editor of Transdisciplinary Digital Art (2008). He has works in Alberta galleries and archive collections. For several years he wrote artist profiles for the Alberta Culture Arts Newsletter and the Edmonton Bullet. He has worked online since 1998 as artist, web designer and professional editor.