[40K OSR] Dark Communion: the Return of Termite Art

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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.

5 thoughts on “[40K OSR] Dark Communion: the Return of Termite Art

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  1. Dang. There’s some Alan Moore I wanted to throw in here. Something about art being something the artist picks a medium to express in, and it shouldn’t be shifted into other mediums, as it doesn’t belong there, and the essence of the art will be lost when that’s done. He was talking about making his comics into films. But, I can’t find the quote.

    Crazy old wizard man definitely (to me) approaches art the right way. He reads, studies and takes in the world, then expresses himself through words, pictures, music and anything else he can get his mitts on.

    1. Oh, now there’s a thought I missed. Uncle Alan’s definitely on to something, in that totality of expression, and in his tendency to recycle the material of others through his own worldview. I have a lot of time for Alan Moore.

  2. A lot of that is interesting. I really like what you said at the very beginning – exemplification is generally better than explanation when it comes to flavour and setting I thinkk.

    Chaos is a particularly apt choice for termiting. You can pretty easily incorporate found objects and otherwise heavily modify. Orks in 40k are good too, but with a bit of thought you could even use natural materials with Wood Elf types, etc.

    It’s very difficult to rebel against consumption when it comes to the hobby. Particularly a few years ago in the 40k scene, there was real social pressure around here to have the official models. GW’s general amputation of Australia has lessened that quite a bit, but sometimes people still get a bit weird if you have too much homemade or third party stuff. I remember on the Wargamerau forum a few years back there was a guy (who happened to be a fine art student) who carved foam into cubes of various sizes that matched the rough dimensions of Tzeentch Daemons and then sprayed them pink and blue till he had an army. The thread he showed them off in was called “Cubes of Tzeentch: enraging hobbyists everywhere.” And it did. He got 200 odd replies before the thread was locked.

    1. I’ve used tea leaves on bases before, for Lizardmen and for Circle Orboros models that were all a-wading through a swamp. Well, what else was I going to do with it – drink the ruddy stuff? It was Darjeeling!

      The ‘official’ pressure is something I’ve been faced with, from the same sneery twatbrackets who turned me into a half-assed competitive Warmachiner and ruined my last Chaos project. The insistence on ‘official’ tokens and ‘official’ scenery and ‘official’ models seems to go along nicely with the photocopy-special every-game-is-tourney-prep mindset. I know someone whose rebellion involved a bunch of twigs on square bases – a ‘Wood Elf’ army back in the days when Forest Spirits were the best thing in the book – and someone else whose Nurgle Daemons were a bunch of… I forget what he’d made them from, but they all had googly eyes. And then there’s my mate Scott, who built over forty Skeletons out of one twenty-man regiment kit. His unit champions were ‘Legs’ and ‘Leg’, if that gives you any idea of the approach he took. Really quite inventive extrapolation of the ‘rising from the dead’ concept if you ask me. Muggins here, of course, was overpurchasing to make up the parts for kitbashes, same as always.

      Perhaps that’s why I’m magnetically drawn to greenskins and chaosmen as army concepts – there’s an implicit laissez-faire attitude there that no amount of ‘official’ kits and completed ranges can ever entirely quash. I loved the old days when Orks didn’t have an ‘official’ battlewagon model but it was still a must-take; you saw some really inventive stuff in those days. Mine was a Basilisk with a couple of trailers, sort of a land train concept.

      As for exemplification and explanation… you’ll love the next post. I’m not sure if anyone else will.

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