This Artist Is Playing ‘Civilization’ Outside of the Whitney Every Day

April 3, 2014 | Rhett Jones

“Art is easy,” says Diego Leclery. That’s the biggest thing he’s learned in the last three weeks as a participating artist in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Sitting outside of the Whitney Museum, just under the bridge that leads to the entrance, Leclery plays the video game Civilization seven hours a day, five days a week. The piece is bluntly titled Me Playing Civilization. It’s a performance, it’s a ready-made, and he’ll be doing this until the Biennial wraps up on May 25th.

Civilization is one of the most addictive and longest-running video game franchises of all time. In it, the player rules a civilization, building an empire that competes with other civilizations. In 1996, Computer Gaming World named it the best video game of all time and compared it to crack.

For Leclery, Me Playing Civilization is about “a long standing attempt to subvert overly structured and predictable ways of making things.”

As far as “my kid could do that” art goes, this could rank high on the scale. Leclery says that even the kids who pass through don’t get it. “The parents are like, ‘See honey, he’s doing this for fun and for art.’ They say, ‘So, you’re just playing video games?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”

For the artist, it was the most truthful way he could present his life at the time when he was asked to participate in one of the most high-profile events in the art world. “Since I moved to New York, I haven’t really made any art. I play a lot of Civilization. I got asked to be in the Biennial, and what am I gonna do? Make some shit? No. I’m going to transform the activity of the last year and a half.”

“It’s never brought me anything,” he says. “For me, it’s been about running away from things. Running away from life, relationships, productivity. I wanted to put this in my art and turn it into a practice. It had to be this game. It’s a huge monolith in my life.”

In order for a civilization (the idea) to exist, it needs three basic institutions — a gathering place for cultural activities, a system of writing, and a city. Leclery wanted to use Civilization (the game) as a metaphor within the Whitney’s “ceremonial cultural centre.”

Despite the idea’s simplicity, Leclery is thoroughly engaged with the metaphor. “I have a few rules that, I guess, are kind of arbitrary,” he says. But these arbitrary rules affect the meaning. For instance, he is not playing the game online. “I prefer the idea of playing against the machine, or playing against the system… as opposed to playing against the world… There’s an art pyramid. I help generate money and material for a system that peaks at Jeff Koons, Gagosian, and collectors who are mainlining art. I do a lot of military moves in this game. It’s like, maybe I’m storming this castle… the Whitney… the art world. It’s like, I’m in the moat just before the entrance and I’m trying to break in.”

He feels that his piece is resonating with this rare opportunity. “There’s a palpable sense that people are paying more attention to you,” Leclery explains. He’s also happy to be out of an unproductive period. “It’s been really enjoyable. I can tell how I’m being instrumental-ized for the sake of an idea. There’s definitely an aspect of punishment though. Like sitting outside… in the cold and the rain… It’s like, ‘sit in this corner and smoke this whole pack of cigarettes!’”

More than anything, it’s an opportunity to talk about civilization, the idea. Leclery and I did, for hours. Any visitor to the Whitney is welcome to. The more we talked, I was struck by how little has changed in the art world in so many years. Rene Ricard wrote his seminal essay “The Radiant Child” 30 years ago, announcing the arrival of Basquiat and graffiti and talking about the artist’s dilemma in civilization.

Pretty much everything Ricard mentions in 1981 remains true today. In addition to laying out the struggles of artists, he wrote: “What’s with art anyway that we give it such precedence?.. Most basic is the common respect… the artist is a person much respected by the poor because they have circumvented the need to exert the body… to live off what appears to be the simplest bodily act.” Ricard then hammers it home: “Making something out of nothing is the prime artistic act.” This fundament is exactly what Leclery is enacting. He’s not proud of his time wasted playing the game in his personal life, but he wants to make something out of it.

“I just hope someone will be excited enough by my work,” he states his ambitions modestly. “That all my life can be artistic creation.”

The fact that Ricard’s essay seems like it could have been written yesterday may or may not reflect poorly on the art world, but art does seem to be in stagnation. In Civilization (the game), if your society doesn’t change and innovate it is inevitably destroyed.

Since Leclery named Larry Gagosian as a king of the castle that he is attempting to siege, after leaving the Whitney, I stopped by the Gagosian Gallery two blocks away. Gagosian runs a global empire. This particular branch is a mini-gallery and a gift shop. After walking by some books, doodads, and Jeff Koons-branded plate-ware, you reach a small show of Diane Arbus and Cady Noland called “Portraits of America.” Both of these artists were true radicals in their time and their work still seems radical, despite the boutique atmosphere. Then I saw this piece:

(Image: Contemporary Art Daily)

It’s a sculpture Cady Noland made in 1993 and it depicts a real man who made it to the top and really didn’t like what he found. Getting through the gate was only half the battle. Cady Noland disappeared many years ago, into willful obscurity. And in “The Radiant Child,” Ricard spoke of a whole generation of artists he saw around him getting too rich, too fast: “When we reach the peak and look down at what we’ve come from, we see mists and clouds under mist, not the base of the mountain.”

Imagining Leclery sitting out in the cold, at the base of the mountain, just wanting to get through those gates, reminds one of how many people are trying and how many people will fail, which may not be so bad considering the sleaze at the top. You could always go play video games and chill.

“I like that it’s very simple,” Leclery says. He has a few parameters. “I randomize everything. I don’t answer my phone. And I only play at the highest difficulty.” Art is easy. Civilization is difficult.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork; lead image: Rhett Jones/ANIMALNewYork)