Visual Art

At Locust Projects, Jen Clay explores mental health with video game artistry

Written By Douglas Markowitz
September 28, 2023 at 8:55 PM

Miami-based artist Jen Clay invites viewers to explore a forest of quilted tree-monsters through both a sensory inclusive, immersive installation and video game animation in “Eyes of the Skin” at Locust Projects through Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

Are video games art? The question has obsessed the public for years, and in 2023 it’s leaning toward “yes.” Gamers and designers have continuously advocated for interactive media as artistically valid, and recent years have seen even more diversity and expansive ideas within the game design community. Innovative recent games include narrative-driven indie RPGs like “Disco Elysium” and tragic adventures like “The Last of Us Part 2,” one could say the latter game even beat its Hollywood remake in ambition.

Critics like Roger Ebert once scorned the form, declaring “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” But soon after he said that the Smithsonian held its exhibition “The Art of Video Games,” featuring everything from “Space Invaders” and “Super Mario Brothers” to “Metal Gear Solid” and “Myst.” Major newspapers employ video game critics, such as Gene Park at the Washington Post. One has to wonder if Ebert had been able to experience the breathtaking open worlds of “Elden Ring” or “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kindgom,” would he have changed his tune?

All of these arguments don’t seem to matter to Jen Clay, a South Florida artist using video games as a medium for her art. Her previous work was in fabric, which she used to make sculptures and wearable art. But trying out game design gave her a new vehicle for her ideas.

Jen Clay works in a wide range of media, from quilted wall hangings to interactive and multimedia performances. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“I’m definitely not a video game player,” Clay, who grew up in North Carolina and earned an MFA from the University of Florida, says. “(But) I want that intimate experience, where it’s almost like in ‘The Neverending Story’ where the book starts to talk to Sebastian. It’s kind of spooky, when I was little I was like ‘Whoa!’ But that’s what I want, where it feels like it’s talking directly to you. I love that, and a video game can do that.”

Clay decided a game would be a perfect way to explore mental illness, using the interactive medium as a way to let neurotypical people experience what it feels like to deal with depression. The resulting work, which is on view at Locust Projects through Nov. 4, is introspective and dark.

Jen Clay, “Eyes Of The Skin,” screenshot of game play. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

In “Eyes of the Skin,” players are placed in a deep, gloomy forest made up of Clay’s soft-sculptures, encountering monstrous characters along the path. Text-based prompts give them a series of choices as they navigate the forest; depending on what they choose, they could escape the forest or stay within it. Some endings even have the player turn into one of the monsters. The text messages are careful to avoid shaming the player – instead of “Game Over,” players stuck in the forest are told it’s okay and to try again.

The virtual monsters and settings, made from scrap fabric sourced from donations and thrift stores among other sources and digitally scanned into the game, draw inspiration from “creature” movies such as “Sweetheart,” “The Blob,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Clay finds supernatural or cosmic horror films where humans are faced with confronting or changing into an alien form of life to be a potent metaphor for the depersonalization experienced by the mentally unwell.

Jen Clay’s video game at Locust Projects is the first video game made entirely of animated quilts. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

“I want it to be the nicest reprieve for people that experience it, you know? And it’s almost like role-playing to be like, ‘Oh, that’s just a thought,’ like when you have even suicidal thoughts, a therapist may tell you ‘Oh, it’s just a thought,’ and it takes away that shame of it. But I also want to create something that’s inviting, yet disorienting for people that haven’t experienced it so they can kind of feel that ambiguity. Like, how do I show that estrangement from yourself when you have mental health issues, where you yourself are also an alien?”

In terms of genre, “Eyes of the Skin” could be considered a visual novel (VN), a genre that originated in Japan and favors narrative and player choices over action and points systems. Investigative VNs like the “Ace Attorney” series and horror stories like “Doki Doki Literature Club” populate the genre, but it’s best known for dating sims, some quirkier than others. Clay cites one in particular: “Hato Boyfriend,” an absurdist take on the genre where potential romantic suitors are all pigeons.

Clay, who had no previous experience developing video games, says her husband, New World School of the Arts professor of digital art Samuel Lopez de Victoria, was especially encouraging in getting her to try making a game. “He’s obsessed with video games. He really wants everyone to make a video game.”

Jen Clay’s “Eyes of the Skin” is an installation and video game in which viewers navigate a forest. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

She used digital tools such as TyranoBuilder, a game development engine specifically designed for visual novels, as well as animation software like Final Cut, to build the game, learning how to use them with YouTube tutorials. As part of the programming around “Eyes of the Skin,” Locust Projects will host a game development workshop on Tuesday, Oct.24 from 7 to 10 p.m., in Locust Project’s Digital Innovation Lounge where Lopez De Victoria, will teach participants how to make their own games with TyranoBuilder. She’s hoping her husband’s workshop will help to demystify the medium as a creative tool for others in the same way it did for her.

“I see it now, that everybody can make a video game, can kind of create a more curated narrative for the players.”

WHAT: “Jen Clay: Eyes of the Skin”

 WHEN:  Exhibition open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Through Nov. 4. The public is also invited to visit the artist during open studio hours at Locust Projects every Wednesday and Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m. through Nov. 2. A performance entitled “The Chase,” inspired by Scooby doo monster chase scenes, will feature a live soundscape by Elise Anderson from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21. 

 WHERE: Locust Projects, 297 NE 67th St., Miami

COST: Free

 INFORMATION: 305-576-8570 or locustprojects.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

latest posts

In ‘Multitudes’ at Frost Museum-FIU, Kacey ...

Written By Douglas Markowitz,

New York City-based photographer Kacey Jeffers gets his debut museum exhibition at The Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University.

MOCA North Miami Outdoor Art Series Returns with Focus ...

Written By Jonel Juste,

Art on the Plaza at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, began during the pandemic. Now it's become a must at the museum.

Miami MoCAAD museum sees the future as it unveils virtu...

Written By Sergy Odiduro,

At Miami MoCAAD’s, a project finds a link between two local communities not often paired.