Even primitive computer games were mesmerizing. (We who grew up in the '70s spent innumerable hours watching Pong's humble electronic ball careen back and forth.) But such digital diversions have bloomed into a full-blown art form, not to mention a pastime whose reach and earning power rival television and film. The new exhibit "Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts" explores the multifarious ways in which computer games have influenced our visual culture (and the way visual culture has, in turn, influenced them) with an impressive array of fresh works.
Painstation, the alluringly fiendish console from German design collaboration FUR, skewers the violence of many computer games by demanding that competitors playing the Pong-like game keep their left hands anchored on the machine's Pain Execution Unit. Miss a shot and the PEU delivers nasty whippings, heat, and electroshocks until players pull away, ending the match. Too brutal? Take a pleasant virtual stroll instead inside a customized version of the Sims, fitted out with a re-creation of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts complex. Equally inventive are Bay Area artist Amy Franceschini's enviro-friendly handheld games (powered by lemon trees!) and Game Scenes, which allows visitors to play the U.S. military's computer game/recruitment tool America's Army.
"Bang the Machine" (which runs through April 4) opens at 8 p.m. on Friday with a party featuring demos from fleet-footed players of the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Party admission is $10-12, gallery admission is free-$6; call 978-2787 or visit www.yerbabuenaarts.org. -- Joyce Slaton
"A Fire Opera in Three Acts:Dido & Aeneas" is our kind of multimedia event: It features a classical opera (Henry Purcell's 1689 Baroque masterwork) performed with a live orchestra in front of fire arts like cascades of molten metal and glowing hot liquid glass. In case that's not exciting enough, belly dance troupe Ultra Gypsy and musician Mark Growden join the scene. Oakland's famous industrial arts mecca the Crucible provides the appropriately dramatic locale, in celebration of its fifth anniversary. The premiere on Friday is too fancy-schmancy for us: We recommend tonight's show instead, at 7:30 at the Crucible, 1260 Seventh St. (at Union), Oakland. Admission is $25; call (510) 444-0919 or visit www.thecrucible.org. -- Hiya Swanhuyser
Go Wes, Young Man
Self-taught artist Wes Hempel has been painting for 12 years, which might seem like a long time until you see the classicism of his rich, realistic work. In his pieces, Hempel poses contemporary young male figures against stunningly authentic Renaissance-style backdrops. His landscapes -- billowing clouds, Roman columns, and the occasional robed mother and child -- underscore his subjects' vulnerable expressions, creating tension between the historical and modern imagery. Hempel's "Revised Endings" is on display through Jan. 31 at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Admission is free; call 677-0770 or visit www.jenkinsjohnsongallery.com. -- Ron Nachmann
For all the glamour attached to a career in cinema, making movies is a pain. The process is pricey and arduous, and that's just the first in a long list of potential hindrances. But thanks to the new "JSCinema Club," local queer auteurs now have a leg up. Each month curators screen new works by Bay Area moviemakers, followed by a discussion on the finer points of getting projects in the can and seen by others: how to put butts in seats, as they say. The reels unspool at 6 p.m. at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th Street), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 554-0402 or visit www.jonsimsctr.org. -- Joyce Slaton