In the 2001 video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, you, the protagonist, discover the existence of a mass conspiracy. Every action you’ve taken up to this point has been pre-ordained by the AI progenitors of said conspiracy. In the moment of revelation, an AI avatar tells you that “the world is drowning in truth” and that you, like everyone else, have allowed the waves to wash over you, unimpeded. While the AI-driven proposition that lies at the heart of the MGS conspiracy is secondary to our purposes today, the conditions of the plot—that the current flow of information is so overwhelming that humans no longer can meaningfully judge data, create context, or exercise free thought—present a compelling analogy to the “bullet hell” genre of games. In a bullet hell game, you, the player, face increasingly overwhelming levels of projectiles, while you are forced to shoot your way through the hordes. You, too, have blood on your eyes as bullets spit from your hands.
“Bullet Hell,” currently up at Twelve Ten Gallery, takes the titular gaming genre as the point of departure for the work of Sam Dickey, Helmut Hammen and Trey Rozell, alongside the exhibition text created by curator David Mitchell, to consider the position of the individual in much larger systems of power and knowledge. The contours of this “I,” for which the viewer stands proxy, are captured in a state of flux; for knowledge, the very process of knowing, the center’s raw material is inextricably linked to the often overwhelming amount of information that subsumes us. The ethical consequences of this fragmentation are damning and cyclical, for we begin in Mitchell’s text as a victim of a firing squad and end, once more at the beginning, but now the gun is in our hands. The trigger always cocked, the safety always off.
While another exhibition so enmeshed within the logics of gaming could have used that lens to comment on the gamification of daily life, “Bullet Hell” sidesteps that common path to ask more about what it means to know something and how the ramifications of that knowledge possess the uneasy power to expand and echo in unexpected ways.
Take Trey Rozell’s “Propped Props” (2023); upon stretched canvases bright fields of oils illuminate a repeating figure that could be a Pop Art bloom of a flower or a bomb caught mid-explosion rendered in friendly graphic splashes. The canvases themselves, the “props,” function as a reference to stagecraft where context, space, place and location transform within a flick of a light. It is not just what you see but how you see it.
Same as Helmut Hammen’s “Untitled (THE no. 3)” (2023) where the word “the” is rendered in apocalyptic typeface, with embryonic feelers protruding from each letter like an unholy halo. Hammen’s “the” is forever in need of a subject, something definitive, something to close the loop. The end, the beginning, the forever interminable, inconstant, next step. “The” could be anything. This openness, almost alien in its immensity, is concretized in Sam Dickey’s photography.
In Dickey’s “cyberdemon no. 1-3” (2023), a spectral Chicago emerges from twilight. Cogs are stripped bare, the guts of the city’s infrastructure are left exposed, naked under dim streetlights. The outlines of the city are glimpsed from a distant stretch of highway. It’s easy to drift within this immensity, the spaces where the center is not meant to hold.
Inherent to, even necessary for, these oscillations between object and subject, the fragile connections between the two, is paranoia. To read a text, to read a piece of art, from the paranoid position, is to find something of yourself in the conspiracy, if I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reading of Leo Bersani with the necessary suspicion. You were always complicit. In Mitchell’s text there’s a reference to a mysterious sign, “an odd bit of graffiti scribbled on the wall by some punk—was it a musical instrument of some kind? A horn?” that alludes to the muted post-horn of Thurn and Taxis in Thomas Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49.” In “49,” Oedipa Maas, the protagonist, once again you, stumbles across a vast conspiracy involving the United States Postal Service while attempting to reconcile the meaning of an ex and dead lover’s final bequeathment.
Now let’s zero in on one of the title’s multiple meanings: an auction lot, a collection of stamps. These were the stamps that the ex, newly dead, occupied his time with while leaving you to ponder for too long. These stamps were not just stamps but the obtuse barrier between you and him. These stamps were not just stamps but each and every place and the innumerable pathways contained in each that presented new yous, new possibilities of you. These stamps were not just stamps but the potential, the hopes, and the hazards of love, of connection, each time your eyes met. These stamps are not just stamps, but something immense.
Stamps can also be a loaded gun, which can also be a word, or a flower, or a friendly atom bomb, or the city framed in the distance like a strange and alien system where your role always changes if you’re lucky enough to find a role at all. This process, this altogether maddening hope, gets to something that lies at the heart of “Bullet Hell”: you too are part of this changeable, reverberating mass. Because you are a part of this world, because your bullets ring out among the many, you’ll know what it means to die, to live, and hopefully, some day, extend that grace to another.
“Bullet Hell: Sam Dickey, Helmut Hammen and Trey Rozell” is on view at Twelve Ten Gallery, 1210 West Thorndale through January 12, 2024.