[Meta Gaming] Dark Communion: the Return of Termite Art

This is where it started, you know. Bill King. John Blanche. Three pages, tucked away at the back of the second edition Wargear book. Four columns and a massive illustration in which Chaos is not explained but exemplified. I want you to hold on to that idea – not explained, but exemplified. I think we fall into bad habits, as nerd-folk: habits of codifying and classifying and explicitly stating I-think-you’ll-find-that-it-said-on-page-62-of-that-novel-that… and I can’t even be assed thinking of an example, because I’m pretty sure you’ve thought of one already. What we have here is an impression of what it’s like to be a Chaos Space Marine, to be something old and spiteful and powerful and yet lost in its own body and its own memories. It doesn’t baldly tell you things; it shows them to you, obliquely and elegantly articulating by example.

I can’t articulate some things without people articulating in songs for me. People can’t articulate what Shakespeare said without quoting Shakespeare chapter and verse. Not that I’m setting myself up against Shakespeare; I’m just saying that some things can only be articulated in Art. That’s what Art is for.
— Andrew Eldritch (again)

And is what we’re doing here Art? That’s one for the ages – what is Art, and what is Worth, and does what we’re doing have the signifiers of either? I’m not at liberty to say. It sounds to me, though, like what we can do with this is have some sort of vision, or impression, or concept in mind and communicate that vision through a medium, and it just so happens that our medium happens to be little toy soldiers and funny voices. I’m suggesting that if something can be articulated in a story or in a painting or in a sculpture then it can be articulated in something that has about it elements of them all and is, more to the point, something not consumed – look, don’t touch! – but created actively by a small group of people here and now, in the moment: something tactile and tangible and yet ephemeral, something gone in the morning. Art that renders you complicit in the act of making Art.

This of course brings us back to the art of making, and to Termite Art. Now do you see why I reposted the old Frugal post? Everything I said three years ago still stands – while purporting to encourage conversions and creativity the contemporary Games Workshop (and, increasingly, other manufacturers, including those who pal up with Army Painter and Battlefoam to shill their expensive gamer-brand hardware) doesn’t encourage you to make stuff out of crap you found in your house but instead out of the official brand-name conversion kits (and don’t think getting yours from Kromlech or Chapterhouse or wherever places you beyond the reach of my grand and arrogant swinge; it does not, it simply shows that you’re a smart consumer with aesthetic taste). However, there are a couple of things doing the rounds which have extended my worldview a little.

The first is this alternate usage of ‘Termite Art’ as a term by Manny Farber, meaning not art-as-scavenging but art-as-digestion-and-excretion:

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.

We’re not operating under any pretence that what we do is High Culture or Great Art; the officer of my WoW-RP guild reacts with polite horror to the very suggestion that it has any artistic merit whatsoever. We are, I hope, acknowledging that what we do is in Farber’s sense an artistic practice. It’s not for anything other than the fun of doing it, and – if we discount the witless pursuit of Official Best Nerd status at events – we become better at it through a rather haphazard process of continually doing stuff.

The other thing that’s gnawing at my soul, post-Gamer-Gate, is the idea of the gamer as defined by what they consume. It’s about video games, of course, but I feel that much of it applies to the likes of us as well.

Gamer identity is tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life. If gamers suddenly became completely inclusive, if all of the threats and stamping of feet went away and the doors were flung open, conspicuous consumption would still be the essential core of their identity. The mythical gamer who does not exist to consume is not a gamer. A raisin is not a grape, and no amount of rehydration will turn it into one.

And let’s be honest here; primary or secondary markets, bought or traded, we’re all consumers here. The question is, are we smart consumers? Do we buy the shit that’s shovelled at us or do we say “this is shit, let’s make something better out of stuff I found in the kitchen cupboard or bought in the hardware store or have had in the loft forever”? Embracing Termite Art means, I think, that we take some degree of ownership; we don’t buy ugly models because they’re official or because they have good rules, we don’t spend a hundred and fifty quid on injection-moulded plastic when a perfectly decent 6’x4′ table with basic scenery can be hand-made for half that sum, and we don’t play Borehammer or Stallroller-type Warmachordes, obediently lining up to fit into the out-of-the-box experience that the siege mentality provides.

Embracing Termite Art means playing in a way that gnaws at the edges of the table, that spills over into other kinds of expression, that are bigger than just another pick-up game. I have so much that I want to do, so much that I want to write and draw and model and paint and play and, yes, all right, collect. Without, it must be said, automatically buying only models for parts, or even only buying things for parts. It’s still gaming as conspicuous consumption; but what’s consumed demands excretion, and that’s the principle of Termite Art. It’s not what we buy that counts, it’s what we do with it.

[Meta Gaming] Frugal Gaming, Termite Art

Every so often, my blogging worlds (all this nonsense and Doctor Who fandom, in case you’re keeping score) collide. This piece is one such incident, dating back to 2011 when I was undertaking a Year of Frugal Gaming.

Who pundit and novelist Lawrence Miles, before he effectively shut down in despair at the state of the current series, pontificated about about brands, making things, and TV spinoffs. Specifically, the rather cool Deadly Art:

But Deadly 60 has its own pilot-fish programme, Deadly Art. This is the latest and most carnivorous offshoot of the Take Hart format (or Art Attack, if you’re dead common), and you can probably see how it all fits together. We get a precis of the accompaying Deadly 60, and then two artists in the studio – usually young women, y’know, like with Tony Hart – make A GIGANTIC SODDING PRAYING MANTIS WITH GLOWING EYES OUT OF SCRAP METAL. Only pausing to run off a smaller version out of the sort of thing you might find, ooh, in your bins.

I mention this less to rattle on about children’s TV and more to pad the entry while explaining the term ‘Termite Art’. Y’see, Miles goes on to make an Interesting Remark:

If the Termite Art version of television provokes the viewer into going outside and poking around to see what’s there (and I still hold that this is what most good telly does, especially children’s telly), then this is more like siege conditions. Branding always closes the gates. This is your product, you don’t need anything else.

Now, you can probably sense where I’m going with this. Back when I was a lad, there was a lot of the miniature wargaming hobby that was a bit DIY. Actually, quite a lot DIY. Sure, Citadel made trees (they weren’t very good) and produced their own paintbrushes and paints and clippers and stuff, but there was never a particular drive for everything to be Official. White Dwarf ran frequent articles on how to make modular chipboard battlefields, with terrain crafted from of bits of toilet and the ridiculous amount of white packing material that their larger kits came in, and they showed this stuff in battle reports; it was part of the Right Way to do the Hobby, and it was mostly pretty damn cheap. Names were dropped in painting articles – Humbrol, Tamiya, Airfix – and there was a culture of crossover and usage between manufacturers. Furthermore, it meant there were relations, however tenuous, between my hobby and the sort of shops my grandfather loved to visit and random bits of crud picked up from skips or beaches or the moorlands that spread out to the north of our house at the top edge of Plymouth (I’m still sulking that I didn’t bring home that sheep skull I found, but the ants hadn’t quite finished it and there was no. fucking. way. my mother would have had that in her car or the house). The hobby sent me off into the big wide world looking for stuff to do things with.

Nowadays, of course, there’s a Citadel-branded everything, and a definition of the Games Workshop Hobby that actively avoids mention of any other kind of Hobby. The terrain you see in White Dwarf these days is exclusively the stuff you can buy in kit form in your local GW. Mention of other manufacturers’ paints and tools and miniatures and goodness knows what else is strictly off-limits. Privateer Press have entrenched behind the same thing, although their terrain line was an expensive series of disasters (I quite liked the Cryx piece though, and if anyone has one that they don’t want, I’d be happy to take it off their hands). Things are a bit woolier once you move further away from the Evil Empire and the Imperial Remnant, but I still see a lot of people talking about Army Painter as though they’re the only people who make primer or big tins of dark glossy stuff to dip your figures in. When I were a lad we did that with woodstain.

This saddens me, and it does so beyond the staggering expense of the stuff (I still reel at the cost of the Realm of Battle board complete with SKULLS UNDER THE TOPSOIL, even three years on). I like to keep the gates open and to have a steady flow of people outwards as well as in. I like initiative, and re-use, and re-cycling. I like putting things to strange new purposes. I don’t like having the Official Product and being told that I don’t need anything else: especially not when it’s four times the effective price of what I’ve come up with.

[Meta Gaming] Vintage Years For Grimdark

In a comment thread on the House of Paincakes, resident genius Mr. Cedric Ballbusch staked out the idea that it was a terrible, terrible mistake on the part of Games Workshop to set its space fantasy dakkafest at the end of the titular forty-first millennium. Easy enough to say with the benefit of hindsight, says I, but at the time I don’t think a) Messrs Priestly, Stillman, Halliwell et al were expecting the game to last for twenty-six years and counting, and b) they could have done things any differently.

Perhaps some context will help.

I was born in 1985; the same year that, for the first time since its launch, Doctor Who was deemed too shite for public broadcast, and the same year that The Sisters of Mercy sold out the Royal Albert Hall. It took another couple of years for the other great loves of my life to materialise – Hark was born in 1986 (obligatory mushy stuff here) and, in 1987, the aforementioned Sisters released Floodland and Games Workshop launched this funny thing called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader.

While I don’t think there’s an explicit link between these latter two concepts, you have to understand that in the third term of Thatcher’s Britain, living with the rattling madwoman-in-the-attic spasms of the Cold War’s final years and under the dusty toxic shadow of Chernobyl, a definite sense of fin de siecle seems to have hung in the air, which the two products under the microscope here illustrate beautifully. While not the literal turn of a century in the same sense that the Decadence of the 1890s was, there’s a definite sense of closure, shutting down, boarding up the old shop windows and getting ready to call it a day. How else does one explain the brief fashionable flourish of gothic rock, a prevailing cultural mindset in which the Sisters can nab three Top Ten hits in a year?

The associations between the Games Workshop of the 1980s and the seemingly-invincible Iron Lady have been well documented (here and also here). Everywhere North of Watford and west of, say, Oxfordshire, there’s a sense of hard times, watching the skies, wondering if the rising waters or the falling bombs are going to kill us first. It’s no accident that The Sisters Of Mercy emerged from Yorkshire and no accident at all that 1987 saw them metamorphose into a synth-driven brooding engine, dropping out three singles around three themes – personal revenge elevated to pompous epic, geopolitical economics reduced to a semi-plausible adventure of loss and betrayal, and a seething, sexy, fuck-it-all-let’s-have-a-dance-in-the-ruins post-industrial foot-tapper. What else are you going to do in all those empty mills? Floodland is a personal breakdown wedded to a political quagmire, the one serving as metaphor for the other; it’s unrelentingly, gloriously doom-laden and yet there’s three songs which are basically elaborate sex metaphors and one about soaring away on an amphetamine-fuelled high. Steve Sutherland said at the time:

Dying on record is a dicey business, especially when it’s world destruction that dogs your every waking minute because there’s nowhere to go artistically – the bomb doesn’t get worse, it’s just there. Facing up to that, Floodland is a triumph of sorts, neither optimistic enough to suggest there’s a Noah’s Ark nor pessimistic enough to accuse us all of navigating like a ship of fools. It simply says rust never sleeps and this is what it sounds like.

I’m of the opinion that Warhammer 40,000, with its looming fin de grande siecle feel, is tapping into that same sense that there’s nowhere left to go but that we might as well have fun while we’re waiting for the bombs to start falling. The sense that there may soon be nowhere else to go, that our leader is simply not going to go away any time soon, that everything is falling apart but we keep it together because what else is there? That’s Thatcher’s Britain writ large. That’s the vision at the heart of Floodland. That’s the essence of 40K right there.

How could they not set it when they did? The ol’ China (Mieville, of course) never spoke truer words than “when you sit down to write, society is in the chair with you”, and the society of the mid-to-late-Eighties was one in which, for a brief moment, Mr. Eldritch and his drum machine were right on the cultural button.

It couldn’t last, of course. 40K’s black humour and smirk in the face of oblivion would be exaggerated and distorted as we moved toward the actual end of the millennium and realised that the end of the world has still failed to arrive on time.

The process started, I think, in 1993. Doctor Who‘s thirtieth anniversary, ‘celebrated’ with the cack-awful ‘Dimensions In Time’, a special which – sweet, nourishing irony! – crossed-over with the very programme in favour of which Who was cancelled. (Incidentally, if you think goth music and 40K are depressing, watch EastEnders for a month. Especially at Christmas.) The Sisters released their last single, and have since lurched along on permanent strike, touring every couple of years, trotting out a few new songs every time, but refusing to release either Jack or Shit.

Meanwhile, 40K received its Tom Kirby Big Box Game treatment (although this is where I came in, so I can’t be too hard on it). The words on the front of the box? IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE THERE IS ONLY WAR. ‘Grim Darkness’ has become ‘grimdark’ since then, said with a sneer, in much the same way as “I still like The Sisters Of Mercy!” has become perfect shorthand for being sad, out of touch, trapped in one’s own memories. 40K wallows in its own pomposity, cranking its own release cycle like mad, subsequent Codices acting as ever-bigger giants, turning full circle back to random tables, Vortex grenades and psychic powers on cards (y’know, those things from… 1993’s second edition); forever ramping up the thread of an apocalypse it’ll never have the balls to see through.

At the time, it made perfect sense. Now? I don’t know. All the things I love have turned into zombies. I’ve spoken of my love for ‘dead’ things before, things which aren’t going to be fucked around with in order to produce a new iteration for the sake of paying the bills, and yet I can’t quite put down Doctor Who, or The Sisters Of Mercy, or indeed 40K.

I’m still selling my Necrons, though. And I still type things in Caslon Antique.

[Meta Gaming] Collecting and Playing

So the other day Hark and myself and our housemate E and her friend-guest-of-the-moment were at London’s Wellcome Collection, learning about death, because, well, why wouldn’t you? Anyway, E and I ended up in the exhibition library, as might be expected from a PhD candidate and a failed PhD candidate, and got to nosing at some of the works amassed therein, readers, for the edification of.

E asked “do you identify as a collector of anything?” and gave the example of books accumulated for work – they’re not a ‘collection’, they weren’t assembled for the purpose of assembling, possessing and displaying them, they’re just there because we need them so often that it’s more useful to have our own copies than not – but we do think of them as distinct from the other books in the house, those belonging to other people or read for pleasure or whatever. She went on to explain that the book she had her nose in was posing a definition of ‘collection’ that was somewhat broader, and just referred to a group of artefacts amassed by a person. This is the sort of question which young academics ask of each other and is to be expected. Naturally, my thoughts flew to gaming, which is also to be expected, and I explained that – to me – there is a distinction between just owning stuff and collecting it.

Allow me to elucidate (well, I’m going to whether you do or not, it’s my blog after all). What it all reminds me of is what the staffers used to say to new customers, which I heard time and again whenever I went into GW of a Saturday, or a Sunday, or indeed of a Wednesday afternoon when I should have been doing double Games (in a way, I was… right?).  In any GW branch, near or far, the hail-and-well-met salutation would always be “So, what do you collect?”

Continue reading “[Meta Gaming] Collecting and Playing”

[Meta Gaming] M. A. R. Barker, ‘Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’

Some time ago, Kent spent some time talking up this essay by the author/engineer/creator of Tékumel as being exemplary and inspiring stuff for the GM interested in establishing their own campaign world. Relevant to my interests though it assuredly is (and I’ll get around to building worlds once I’ve blown the dust off my practical at-the-table GMing skills, as it’s all for naught if one’s running a boring and directionless game), it’s taken quite a while to get around to reading it.

Continue reading “[Meta Gaming] M. A. R. Barker, ‘Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’”