“I really hate this world and so when I make something I’m making something I can bear to live in.”
Porpentine Charity Heartscape
Although she has designed highly regarded games for years, the first Porpentine Charity Heartscape piece I really spent time with was her novella Psycho Nymph Exile (2016), which the artist has described as “a post-anime sapphic gurowave trauma-romance.”
The book chronicles the love affair between a disgraced biomech pilot and an ex-“magical girl” robbed of her former powers, and focuses on their shared struggle with a fictional illness called DTSP, reminiscent of PTSD. While the plot is familiar – two outcasts abandoned by society make their own world in exile – Psycho Nymph Exile’s morphology is anything but. Its only stable, expressive component is unrelenting intensity, where pleasure, melancholy, and horror are all haphazardly grafted together. The text’s built-in features hybridize with its bugs, so that fate looks like an accident and vice versa – guiding axioms and world structures dematerialize as quickly as they spore in unpredictable new directions.
Because my connection to the book was so personal – it resonated with some of my most sensitive pleasure and horror zones – I wasn’t sure how Porpentine’s work would translate in the context of the Whitney Biennial, where she has installed a net cafe-style space featuring seven of her interactive hypertext games. But playing her choose-your-own-adventure game With Those We Love Alive (2014) for a standing audience – it’s the only piece in her exhibit projected onto a wall – facilitated a complex process of emotional excavation.
The plot guides players to appease an evil empress and reconnect with what might be only the mere spectre of a friend by slowly clicking through simple arrangements of text against a luminescent background. Coupled with Neotenomie’s gorgeous, somnolent score, the text-based game creates an intimate space for players to explore their vulnerabilities in relation to desire and power by engaging with themes such as shame, “the chasm,” and burial.
The audience’s presence in the installation led me to approach it as communal role-playing therapy, performing my relationship with myself for the onlookers through the decisions I made in the game – it defamiliarized the feelings that constitute my everyday practice of living, throwing into relief their underlying structure in a process that was unsettling, moving, and altogether strange.
The process intensified when I played Cyberqueen, another choose-your-own-adventure game in the adjacent cubicle, in which players navigate the experience of being abducted and tortured by a violent artificial intelligence on a spaceship. With its arrangement of green and white text against a black background, and plot perpetuated by the player’s in-game decisions, Cyberqueen bears a strong resemblance to WTWLA. In the beginning, you find yourself in Stasis Cell 10093 where the AI’s cruel, unembodied voice dictates the parameters of the game over a loudspeaker. Players must try to escape the cell and, to that end, are initially presented with three options: flail, scream, or breathe. Although the situation is maniacally doomed in every respect, players are given some agency over exactly how it transpires. Yes, I would like the drill to burrow deeper into my skull, and, yes, I would like to start masturbating, I decided, even though I’d just pissed all over myself and had affected an attitude of steadfast defiance against the inhuman abuser in the game only a minute ago.
As I was playing Cyberqueen, I overheard a nearby patron lightheartedly ask their friends, “Why would I want to die?” Nobody answered, of course, but the question still palpably shifted the mood of the space, illustrating how Porpentine’s work is in conversation with troubling feelings and subjects players may not normally talk about. Her pieces regularly deal with trauma, harassment, abuse, and precarity – all of which Porpentine has described personally experiencing as a “trash” woman – but for all the real-life heaviness of their themes, they operate in something like an extra-linguistic realm. Instead of offering direct, accessible commentary on the state of the world, as much science fiction does, her work elaborates hyper-specific slivers of speculative ecosystems with singular rules and behaviors.
A lone dancer becomes part of an ever-growing swarm in Pain Transmuted to Happiness, while Pink Zone finds estranged Angel Mutants encountering new lifeforms and cultures upon returning to their homeland after a time period of “100 chronopuffs.” Consider Porpentine’s description of another game, Bellular Hexatosis: “Fly to the eyeball city, locate rare tears, explore your guts, get the antidote for your dying sister.” Although her works are frankly startling in their vibrant use of language, they’re most powerful for their ability to generate modes of thinking and feeling not usually accessible through everyday life. She refers to the process as “terraforming” – the creation of new worlds more hospitable to people like her.
I spoke with Porpentine over the phone at the end of April, following London gallery Arcadia Missa’s reprinting of her terrific book Psycho Nymph Exile and the opening of her current exhibition marshmallowfungusbugponygirlswampwar at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries.
Your work covers a huge breadth of themes and modes. How would you describe what you do to someone who isn’t familiar with your work?
Oh I wouldn’t do that. Um, is it describable? Is that possible?
Can you talk about your installation in the Biennial?
It’s a dark room and it has words in it. It’s, like, hypertext stories, and you can visit different places that make you feel bad.
When you’re making work, do you find yourself thinking about your decisions a lot or do you kind of just make stuff?
Well, you know, Alex, first off I don’t think thought has any place in the artistic process or indeed our democracy. The exhibit I’m doing right now in San Francisco, it’s called marshmallowfungusbugponygirlswampwar and it’s this swampy ecosystem of just, like, permeable boundaries. Just everything kind of flowing together, which, you know, is so beautiful, they’re these beautiful life-death sludge zones. There’s this substance in this world, which may be realer than our own, and it’s called Marshmallow Fungus. You can use it for protein or sugar or building materials or sentience. It’s, like, alive, and usable, and tons of things are made out of it. So I think that answers your question.
When you’re making a piece, do you go into it trying to achieve something?
I think what we need to achieve is, like, a purely reflexive auto-firing neuro-flesh carpet that covers every inch of, indeed, reality, and eliminates the need for thought and instead is just a purely memetic, warm kind of process. And I’m sure a lot of people would agree with me.
Are you trying to model the neuro-flesh carpet in your work?
Oh, I don’t need to model it. That’s just the way things are. People have to suck it up, you know?
Do you remember when you first felt this way about the world?
I don’t have feelings of my own. I just serve as a conduit for the feelings of, really, just the average Jane on the street. Just the average person. So in a sense it’s an unassailable position.
In your work there’s a lot of permeability between objects, humans, cyborgs, and machines. Like they blend into each other in a way that’s very plural. Would you say you advocate a less hierarchical form of entanglement between humans and everything else in the world? Donna Haraway argues for that in her latest book as a way of confronting ecological crisis.
Well, I don’t know anyone named Donna but I do agree: people and animals should fuck. So, next question.
Can you say more about your upcoming exhibit?
The central piece of the marshmallowfungusbugponygirlswampwar exhibit is this scrolling battle report of the many girls in this world, Alex. They’ve got – each girl is not a mere girl. Each girl is a type of plant girl or animal girl or bug girl or mineral girl, parasite girl, I could go on. Definitely when I think of femininity, when I think of just myself, or things in general being good, they’re also a bug or also a plant or an animal; or they’re a bug and a plant and an animal and a sea creature plus a girl. And you can quote me on that.
What else are you working on right now?
I’m working on a lot of collaborations. There’s this project that’s kind of like this episodic hypertext comic, like if H.R. Giger made a Nintendo DS and then you had Porpentine programming playing through it. My collaborator is working on some really cool drawings. We’re gonna take advantage of the full power of the visible light spectrum in the sense that they’ll be visible for the most part.
I’d like to return to the With Those Who Love Alive universe and make longer, more expansive stories based on that world. I don’t know, I really love that forlorn crumbling dark fantasy world.
Your work seems to have something to do with certain kinds of science fiction or speculative fiction, where you’re envisioning new ways of being or feeling in the world.
I certainly view what I make as kind of terraforming. You know, like I’ve said before, I really hate this world and so when I make something I’m making something I can bear to live in. I don’t know, I mean, you’ve got to have something you can call your own. Women like me, we don’t have existing institutions or social safety nets we can really cleave onto. For a lot of people, even if specific things fail them, they know that they have a place in the world on at least a vague level, but we don’t even have that. And I think it can be really draining to kind of trick yourself into thinking that one will ever be accepted by the world. So yeah, I just want a place where we can live.
Looking through your list of games, I see lots of interesting portmanteaus. Eyemoon, Foldscape, SunGarden, Slimebabe… It seems like maybe this has to do with the approach you've described – terraforming, assembling new things out of existing materials.
That’s how you make words better.
Does carnality play an important role in your work?
For sure. You know, we’ll be down there at the plant and we’ll be making the art and they’ll ask me, “Porpentine, do you think there’s enough carnality in this?” And I’ll be like, “No. Heck no. Throw some more carnality in there.”
Is there anything about your work that you think is generally misunderstood or under-discussed?
People don’t really know how to talk about my work. But, I mean, if there’s anything I like about what I make it’s that people don’t know how to talk about it. That’s a good sign.
If people could talk about it more easily it would mean it wasn’t about the unspoken things that I care about, or the slimy, decomposed things. As long as people struggle with it I’ll know I’m good.
What’s interesting to you about making work where language has an uncertain, or devalued role?
Well, I mean, if people already had the answers there wouldn’t be a therapeutic value to it.
What do you think makes a therapeutic work successful?
I don’t really think about success. I think with therapy you have to make a lot of space. You can’t force people. A lot of therapy is providing stimulus and then listening to that.
There’s kind of a lot of space in my hypertext where there’s just this passage of time where you can hear your own thoughts. There’s also this looming dread on the horizon.
Do you have a bird?
No, I don’t.
You live in a place with birds? What kind of birds are they? It’s probably piped in audio. It’s probably a recording. They’ve got those recordings around where I live.
Yeah, they've just got speakers strung throughout the buildings that play various birdsongs. In a sense it’s better than real birds because you can have any kind of birds that way, even ones that are in different parts of the world or are not real. Good riddance to the birds, I say.
To me that seems like an analogy for an exciting aspect of your work, these not-real birds as generative synthetic possibilities or something.
“Generative synthetic possibilities” is my middle name.
Your stories and games tend to work with a very different internal logic than the kind of normative narratives of “progress” and “accomplishment” you find in mainstream games. I’m thinking of Pit, for example.
Yeah, I mean, if you’re not using your players as experimental subjects, what are you doing with your life? People cater to these ratfucks when they could just be popping them inside, like, a fucking dark pit and torturing them, and that’s not right.
It’s interesting that you have such a kind of virtuosic control over language while you simultaneously disavow it.
Language is for fucking idiots. I mean, what’s fucked up is that I have to respond to that with language. I mean, I think the only real art is killing people or stopping people from being killed. Everything else is just play.
I don’t really know a lot about abstract concepts. I only know about the stuff I’m interested in or the tiny hyper-specific details that I focus on.
How do you think morality figures into your work?
Morality? Well, I’ll tell ya Alex, I think we need less-ality.
There was a specific line in Psycho Nymph Exile that made me want to ask that: “She resolved to never call something good again. If something was truly good there would be no need to call it good, and it wouldn’t need to pressure her to think so. It would help or hurt her, that was all. Things were only good if they drilled to the end of time and could be accounted for on your final resting day.”
There’s just so much pressure to buy into things and, like, trust people. Trust is such a crazy-ass thing. Just the idea that you should have a circle of friends whose care is so remote and abstract that they would need to give you the promissory note of trust instead of care. I mean, when you’ve survived a lot of shit, trust is not abstract. You need people who will really have your back.