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Aug. 5, 2004


Thursday, August 5, 2004

Game boy: Yucef Merhi
Digital-art piece at new O.C. museum mixes poetry and video games

ďATARI POETRY IVĒ: Yucef Merhiís work features a TV displaying poetry that was written over an old Atari game.
Photo: Courtesy of YUCEF MERHI

The Orange County Register

COSTA MESA Ė The colorful text flying across the vintage television screen offers a glimpse into one of artist Yucef Merhi's passions in life. The wood-grain game console underneath the TV offers a clue to the other.

Merhi's piece "Atari Poetry IV," now showing at the new Orange Lounge digital-art museum at South Coast Plaza, mixes poetry and video games. Displayed in the museum's front window, the TV displays poetry that was written over an old Atari game. The piece would look right at home in an early 1980s American home, only instead of a game, Merhi's pixilated poetry glides across the screen.

"I started playing video games when I was 6 years old. But it wasn't until my seventh birthday that I got my first Atari 2600," said Merhi, now 27.

Atari changed his life. Even at that young age, Venezuelan-born Merhi became fascinated with the technology behind the games. He began experimenting and creating movies on the console system when he wasn't playing "Asteroids," "Berzerk" and "Kaboom!"

He later worked for AT&T, setting up electronic bulletin-board systems. But his love of poetry and fascination with technology led him into life as a digital artist.

"Art is the only place you can merge science and the humanities," said Merhi, who lives in New York but was in Costa Mesa last week for the Orange Lounge museum's debut.

BORN Caracas, Venezuela
LIVES New York City
AGE "The answer is relative. In terrestrial years, Iím 27. In Martian years Iím only 14."

Because of his computer-programming experience, he managed to keep software code to a minimum in order to fit it on the limited amount of space on the Atari cartridge. The game cartridge has just 4 kilobytes of space, or a fraction of a percent of a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

Merhi was able to use that to display simple text that spells out his musings:

to live

is to conspire against death

knowing that death

is our best ally

Through poetry, Merhi transforms a household object into art, extending the poetry by using video-game technology to go beyond language.

And he continues to explore other ways to intermingle art with video games.

One new piece, which debuts at a New York gallery in September, is "Mission Taliban," a computer game he designed in response to the World Trade Center tragedy.

He studied several 3-D-animated games, focusing on the game "Mission Wolfenstein," which was the first 3-D computer game released. He rejiggered Wolfenstein's software code to create a new game that lets players fight terrorists.

Players can find terrorists, destroy their weapons of mass destruction and accumulate "hope" coins. Ultimately, the aim is to capture Osama Bin Laden.

"During the game, players can read poetry placed on the walls of the Taliban base, as if it would be digital graffiti, which reflects the collective feeling that people around the world have been experiencing since the 9/11 attack. When the player stops to read these poems, he or she runs the risk of getting killed. However, 'Mission Taliban' is a safe and cathartic way to deal with the time we are living.

"Because, after all, it is just a game," Merhi said.

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