Liam Walsh is leaving his internship at Babycastles, where, three days a week, he fires up the gallery’s indie video games and shows visitors how they work. He’s resigning to attend summer camp in Maine.
During a recent visit to the Union Square-area gallery, we asked the 11-year-old (who also does some light administrative work, party set-up and poster design) if he’s the youngest intern he knows. “Yeah, pretty much,” he shrugged.
Liam’s bosses, Syed Salahuddin and Kunal Gupta, come from a DIY background– something which has very much informed their volunteer-run collective. Whereas Syed spent his youth helping out at ABC No Rio, Kunal was introduced to DIY culture in Bushwick. The two teamed up while attending grad school at NYU with the goal of creating a community-oriented, physical space in which to spotlight the work of independent game designers.
During a panel discussion back in February at the Museum of the Moving Image, Syed explained that Babycastles was working to realize “more cultural ownership of the medium.” He pointed to the exponential growth of the video game industry: “Everyone’s going to be touched by games.” With this in mind, the founders see community involvement in, and awareness about the variety of video games out there as an important counterbalance to the massive amounts of corporate money pumping through the industry.
Babycastles started back in 2008 as a rotating event held at the original Silent Barn in Ridgewood. Ari Spool, who declined to give herself an official title but is something of an event organizer and gallery manager, explained why Babycastles made the move out of the neighborhood, and why they decided to get a place of their own: “When you do something like locate yourself within an established art scene, you’re closing yourself off to new opportunities that come from having people from all over the city being able to come in.”
The 14th Street gallery, Babycastles’ first physical space of its own, opened its doors back in April. “Being centrally located was very important,” Ari explained. “There are definite benefits to having a community space within a neighborhood, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to introduce the world to what a space like this can be.”
Syed and Kunal also founded Babycastles with another mission in mind: bringing diversity to the video gaming community. “The collective that runs Babycastles, there’s maybe one white male,” Ari explained. “We make an effort to have a lot of women, a lot of people of other nationalities and ethnicities.”
Babycastles’ current exhibition, Assalamualaikum, which means “may peace be upon you” in Arabic, is “an exploration of the ‘lived Muslim experience,'” according to the gallery’s website. The show features the work of video game designers and artists of Muslim descent, and is certainly indicative of the organization’s eye to diversity.
The exhibition features several video games, including the classic game, Pong, re-coded using Arabic code created by Ramsey Nasser, a Lebanese computer scientist. One other fascinating game on display is Grand Theft Auto: Indonesia. “It’s not an official Grand Theft Auto, but rather a user-created mod,” Ari explained. “The main character basically just prays and summons a horse cart instead of robbing and killing.”
Most of the games are set up for guests to play, however one game, Special Force 2, created by the Islamic extremist group Hezbollah, is off-limits and relegated to a low corner. “We don’t even give it the glory of being in one of our artist cabinets because we don’t really love first-person shooters like this [that are] devoid of irony,” Ari explained.
So why was Special Force 2 invited here exactly? “What’s interesting to watch is that it looks like any other American first-person shooter,” Ari said. “You know, these games are very corporate and propagandist in a weird way. First-person shooters in general, a lot of times, are direct advertisements for the United States Army.”
Besides exhibitions, Babycastles also hosts events which are growing more frequent and varied. “We have DJs, we have bands, we have lectures, we have poetry nights,” Ari told us. “On Saturday we’re having a member’s night where one of our friends is going to come in and do nails [based on the exhibition art].” Babycastles has three events each night this week through Friday that are open to the public.
Ari said they hope to expand their events to include social-justice-oriented discussions. For example, as a part of Assalamualaikum, the gallery is hosting a panel discussion about personal experiences of surveillance. “It’s a very common problem for people of Muslim origin in America,” Ari explained. “For both of our founders– one is of South Indian descent, the other is of Pakistani descent– they both have a lot of personal issues with this.”
Babycastles seems hardly wanting for activities and ideas, but Ari Spool said the collective’s doors are always open to volunteers. “The only boundaries that exist to people coming in are in their minds,” she said.
Liam the 11-year old intern, however, is moving on to bigger and better things. He explained to us that he prefers sports to video games. “I want to be in the video games, not making them,” he said.
If you have a spare 11-year old on your hands, you might be able to get rid of him or her at Babycastles– the intern position will officially open up in about two weeks. But you can also just swing by to check out Assalamualaikum for yourself and play some of the games on display.
Babycastles has open hours Tuesday 4-8 pm, Thursday 6-9 pm, and Friday after 7pm.