Babycastles is all grown up

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Tucked between an upscale salon and one of West 14th Street’s indistinguishable, Time Out-approved bars, a plain staircase is framed by an unlabeled glass door. Without knowing what to look for, it’s easy to assume it leads to a few pricy studio apartments, or to simply walk right by it. A month ago, the door was propped open, and plopped atop a chair near the landing was an old stuffed animal with a handwritten sign on its stomach. To those in the know, it was as familiar as a watermark. Babycastles had arrived in Manhattan.

Regular Impose readers will know Babycastles through the Silent Barn, the Bushwick-based DIY venue that is home to stuff like this. (And this. This, too.) Indie game fans will know Babycastles as benefactors for the little guys in video games, the starting point for people like Zach Gage and an all-around playground for the hopeful. NYU professors and students alike know it as one of the main draws of their game design program; Babycastles’ founding members, Kunal Gupta and Syed Salahuddin, make a point of getting game design students involved in the community of creatives they’ve cultivated. And after a number of exhibitions at the National History Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and La Gaîté Lyrique gallery in Paris, among others, countless people outside those circles have come to know Babycastles through very particular memories—memories which Kunal and Syed hope are pivotal ones.

“When we had an installation on 42nd Street,” Kunal explained to me on a Skype call, “one of the main reasons we were there was to get the general public excited about independent video games. This 80-year-old man came in and he had never played a video game before in his entire life. The way we had set up the gallery, he finally wanted to try and see what video games were about.” The call was sound-only, but I could sense Kunal's giddiness. “It was this person’s first experience with a video game, and that video game being an independent work was really exciting.”

The goal for the new space was basically to replicate that experience as much as possible. “When we were picking our new location, we kept in mind that we wanted to get the most amount of people excited about playing independent games, so we wanted an accessible space. That crossed off Bushwick because it’s not an accessible space. Downtown Brooklyn was more expensive than Manhattan, ironically–and we found this building [on 14th Street], which is trying to be an insulator for arts organizations.”

I met Kunal briefly at the 14th Street gallery’s unofficial opening, which was partly an after-party for NYU’s Different Games Conference and partly an album release party for Ratking. The rap duo had transformed the gallery to match So It Goes’ gritty tone—graffiti creeped along the walls under dim lights while NYC-centric games glowed forth from handmade arcade cabinets. Kunal, in full Silent Barn mode, had his hands full handling sound for the event, and I was lucky to catch him on his way back from a bathroom break.

For the time I’ve known Babycastles, I’ve mostly known it from a distance, from what I saw online. Brooklyn was a bit out of the way for me during my college years. I now live in south Brooklyn, but the borough's north and south sides are only nominally related, both culturally and insofar as unintuitive train lines can make two neighborhoods feel as far away as two different planets. My first time at the Silent Barn during Exploding in Sound’s unofficial CMJ showcase, I was unaware of its affiliation with Babycastles. I made my way out of the venue to meet a friend and glimpsed Babycastles’ signature neon sign through an innocuous sliding glass door. It stopped me dead in my tracks. By that point, Babycastles had come to hold that same wonder for me that CBGB’s might hold for someone who's never been to New York. (And who doesn’t know that it’s a men’s fashion boutique now. Yes, I was that kid once.)

“It’s actually more like ABC No Rio,” Syed corrected me. I couldn’t help gushing a little bit during our call and bringing up the comparison. He elaborated a bit more when I met him at the gallery last week. We spoke on the second floor, accompanied by the cabinets from Ratking’s residency. As a teenager living in New Jersey, Syed would make frequent trips to ABC No Rio. “That space was super influential for me, personally, because if you look at their mission, they were formed in the early '80s during the heyday of New York City’s punk scene. And they were formed in response to stuff that was being booked in CBGB’s and at various other punk venues; some of the bands were racist, homophobic, sexist, Nazis. They started that venue saying, ‘None of that is acceptable here. This is a safe space, and it’s all-inclusive.’” Syed wore cargo shorts and a pair of flip-up sunglasses. His lenses intermittently obscured his eyes as he bounced between the conceptual and the frank. “To me, just having a space like that is social justice.”

Down on the first floor, Nanu Al-Hamad and his intern sat hunched, gluing white tiles to a tall cube of particle board. This would eventually become a piece influenced by the Kaaba, a sacred cuboid structure around which practicing Muslims walk and pray as part of their pilgrimage to Mecca. Babycastles’ first official exhibition, “Assalamaikulum Babycastles,” is a curation of video games that portray the lived Muslim experience. Each wall of the cube will display one game, meaning that when a viewer tries out all four games, they will have unconsciously emulated the same rite of prayer that millions of Muslims have taken part in, over six thousand miles away.

It seems at first like a departure from Babycastles happenings past, many of which were somewhat more abstract. Even whimsical. (See: Meowton.) But the inaugural exhibition coincides with Kunal and Syed’s original mission, which echoes that of ABC No Rio: inclusivity. But it’s still Babycastles; after school special-grade messages aren’t a part of the equation. (“With this show, I wanted to avoid being exploitative.”) Syed grew up watching shows like In Living Color and A Different World, which were inclusive without, in a sense, being about inclusivity. “This Palestinian game developer who moved here recently was telling me about the idea of the ‘noble savage,’ he said. “Like, ‘See–Muslims can make art, too!’ That’s the type of thing I wanted to avoid. But Babycastles is the only place you’ll see Muslim games. No one else in games…cares, basically.”

That should be easy for them. In that past, Babycastles have been a significant proponent of the growing LGBTQ community within game and game development circles. The aforementioned Different Games Conference annually showcases games born from the lived genderqueer experience. But this can mean anything; from games that literally show a day in the life of a non-cisgender, to games that simply operate by less concrete rules. “I could make a game about being stopped at an airport,” Syed told me, “and it’d be funny, but that wouldn’t really get us anywhere.”

“We had to ask ourselves, Babycastles, is that the right platform for this?” he continued. “We’re not a religious organization, but does being a Muslim have to be religious? It’s more about these narratives of how these people made this work. It’s Nanu’s story, Ramsey’s story, Amarli’s story—all these stories of what they did. And a lot of their struggles were the same, but it doesn’t necessarily have to equate to the art they create all the time. Their struggles shape their work, even if it doesn’t address them.”

“Assalamualaikum Babycastles” features a mod of “Grand Theft Auto” where you play as a Muslim on his way to pray. On the other end, it features a simple variation on “Pong” that was written in an Arabic programming language. And in between: “A Dark Room”, a top-selling text-based adventure game whose designer was brought up a Muslim; a puzzle game featuring geometric shapes; a game about rolling a prayer rug; and “Special Force 2”, a Lebanese propaganda game in which players take the role of a Hezbollah soldier on the West Bank of Israel. The last of them is being displayed only on an unplayable loop, given its controversial background.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that most people in the U.S. can only associate Muslims with the conflicts they hear about on the news. This is to paint over the vast spectrum of experience of a 1.6 billion person population, let alone the nearly two million living in the country. One side of that spectrum is another world, while the other is strikingly familiar. “One thing with Muslim families, and with Jewish families as well, they have some dietary restrictions, which forces you to not socialize on that level,” Syed told me. “And not drinking, too; if you think of all the times you’ve ever hung out with people, and all the times alcohol is involved, just think of all the times a practicing Muslim can’t participate. Growing up with religiously devout parents, even if you’re non-practicing, you know that you’re different.” Anyone with Sunday school hangups (me) should relate.

This new exhibition is a space where Terror Pigeon share the bill with an industrial designer whose work has appeared in Kuwait and Bahrain. Iasmin Omar Ata, an artist with a considerable Tumblr following, will be presenting a mural that draws influence from her epilepsy and Muslim upbringing. Most of the art in her portfolio draws influence from Bryan Lee O’Malley, the author and illustrator of Scott Pilgrim. And visitors will understand them by playing video games.

Babycastles installations have always been doorways into new worlds, but they don’t have to be fictional. Their new gallery is a more visible doorway, as opposed to something hidden away like a secret level in “Super Mario World”. Now all people have to do is knock.