Robin Bell is escaping the politics of Washington for an hour or two. Bathed in a vermilion neon glow, the DC-based artist is transfixed to the screen in front of him, fervently mashing the X button in an effort to salvage his pride. Just a mile and a half away, members of the executive branch are making deals and generating palace intrigue, but, for the moment, all that matters to Bell is that he thoroughly and completely trounces me in the video game we’re playing.
I met up with Bell on Friday while he was conducting the final tests of his newest art installation: Arcade. Part of the Capital Fringe Festival, the interactive piece transforms a bare-bones space at the Wharf into a classic 1980s arcade straight out of Stranger Things. It’s one of the many shows and attractions at the annual theater and arts festival that stretches across Southwest DC from St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church to the Wharf.
The temporary installment is a fresh change of pace for Bell, who’s more widely known for his political work, like projecting “pay Trump bribes here” on the facade of the Trump Hotel, or his recent #DontMuteDC projection on the Shay apartment building. Lately, though, Bell says he’s been worn out by the relentless cascade of political scandals and has used video games “to detach just a little bit to not freak out.”
Bell wanted to create a space where everyone could find some zen from the political climate. “Out there you can see the Washington Monument, but when you come in here I want to create this time-warp,” he says. “For an hour, [you can] put your phone away and play some games and interact with people.”
There are dozens of games, from “Mario Kart” to “Dig Dug,” and each was hand picked by Bell, who describes himself as a “video game DJ.” In some games, Bell has become a regular sommelier—he arduously tested 20 different versions of “Pac-Man” before settling on “Ms. Pac-Man” to make the final cut.
The arcade’s prizes are far more enticing than stale Tootsie Rolls and plastic tchotchkes. Attendees are put into teams when they arrive and have an hour to play the games and earn points in the hopes of winning tickets to Fringe shows or the grand prize of a Southwest DC entertainment and dining package.
All of the games in “Arcade” were released before 2000, but Bell has tried to create a “multigenerational space” where even those who don’t remember a time before Snapchat can enjoy themselves and play the games. To demonstrate, he challenges me to a round of “Centipede,” a game released well before I was born. He destroys me in the first round; I can’t figure out which button to press and I’m not totally sure where my icon is on the screen. But the next round, I figure out how to move and, upon learning I can use my character to block him from scoring points, emit a loud and satisfied “ohhhhh” of clarity.
“That moment you had just now when you figured something out, that’s what this experience is about,” Bell says. “There are positive aspects [of gaming] that get overlooked, like the idea of learning together. I’m trying to create a space where people can work together and figure things out.”
Arcade has showtimes at varying times through July 28; 998 Maine Ave. SW; $20