IMA turns car into giant ‘Pole Position’ video game
The Indianapolis Museum of Art is the first museum to turn a car into an Atari controller — and you’re invited to take the driver’s seat. In a project that will excite gamers and gearheads alike, the IMA invited car writer and artist Jason Torchinsky to partially gut a 1983 Lancia and rewire the car so it can play “Pole Position,” the classic arcade game that helped pioneer the driving game genre. “Basically, the whole car is a controller that plugs into the Atari,” he said on Wednesday at the IMA, sweating under the hood as he turned over a mercury sensor in his hand. Starting Friday, participants can sit inside the car and enter a real-life-meets-virtual world — one in which pixelated turf and race cars zoom past in a giant screen overhead.
In a feat of ingenuity and geekdom, Torchinsky removed the car’s engine and used the extra space to rejigger the electronic interface so motions made on the steering wheel, brake and clutch are understood as inputs for an Atari 400, which he installed into the glove compartment. Because the Atari’s digital signal is different from that of modern electronics, Torchinsky had to wire the game’s video output into a VCR, then feed the VCR’s output into a projector, using another otherwise-obsolete piece of technology as a retro-to-modern translator.
As the player sits in the Lancia and takes the wheel, a first-person view of “Pole Position” will show up on the IMA amphitheater’s giant movie screen, normally used for its “Summer Nights” film series.” Those attending “Summer Nights” this year get a chance to try the car out before the movie.
Torchinsky also gave the car the same pixel-chic treatment now popular in movies like “Pixels” and games like “Minecraft.” Its body and wheels are now “blocky,” an homage to the 8-bit computer processor look seen in arcade and home console games of the 1970s and ’80s. Modern gaming systems feature 128 bits and far more processing power. “It’s kind of a parody of virtual reality,” he said. “I’m not trying to emulate the real world in a computer. I’m putting you into a crappier world of earlier computing.”
The IMA is far from the only place with a case of 1980s gaming nostalgia. Galleries such as the Los Angeles-based iam8bit celebrate arcade-era artifacts. Bands playing “chiptune music” — a musical genre using only 8-bit sounds — sell out shows and dance parties. Game designers love old-school graphics so much, “retro” has becomean entire new genre of modern indie video games. During the classic arcade era, “nothing was clean, nothing was smooth,” Torchinsky said. “It forced a certain design sense and aesthetic that required a lot of imagination input from the viewer as well as the programmer. There was something interesting in that unspoken agreement between the consumer of the art and the producer, where they met halfway.”
The “Pole Position” Lancia is not Torchinsky’s first wacky retro creation. He once gathered a bunch of Apple II computers, turned them into instruments and invited people to participate in an 8-bit symphony. The Apple II concert took place at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he met Scott Stulen, who now works as the IMA’s curator of audience experiences and performance. Years after the 8-bit show, Stulen invited Torchinsky to show the public how to hot wire a car at the opening for the museum’s “Dream Cars” exhibit, then welcomed him back for the “Pole Position” project. The “Pole Position” car, Stulen said, is art that emphasizes experience over object, which positions it within the emerging practice of interaction-focused art — a practice and theory eschewing the traditional notion of collections-based museums. As the artist T. Allen Lawson once said, “Art is the space between the viewer and the rectangle that hangs on the wall,” referencing the importance of an artgoer’s relationship to the object he or she was seeing.
“It’s indicative of what my department does here — things that don’t fit classically as traditional art objects,” Stulen said. The car will be brought inside for the winter, Stulen said. The museum wants to showcase it inside the Tobias Theater during the cold months and bring the car out again next year.
Star reporter Wei-Huan Chen can be reached at (317) 444-6249 or on Twitter at@weihuanchen.