Artist of the Week

Ville Kallio

August 19, 2021

Ville Kallio is a Finnish multimedia artist and game designer. He is the author of several comics, and has exhibited work at galleries including FUTURA and SIC Helsinki. Earlier this year, Kallio released Cruelty Squad, an “immersive power fantasy simulator” set in the “hardcore gig economy of corporate liquidations.”

Could you introduce yourself? 

Hey, my name’s Ville Kallio and I’m the Sovereign of Consumer Softproducts.

What is Consumer Softproducts?

Consumer Softproducts is a software development company for the 21st century, treating consumers as material to be formed into its image.

Before Cruelty Squad, you exhibited work in several gallery shows. What was your experience in that world? 

It never really felt like more than just a weird hobby, placing objects in a space that maybe a couple hundred people would visit at best. I didn’t have a professional artist identity when it came to this, just seemed like a thing that would never end up going anywhere. I’ve enjoyed meeting new people and hanging out at openings.

What did you learn from your work as a cartoonist and illustrator? 

Well, I learned to draw. Other than that, I learned that the whole thing appears to me as a black hole with no future, especially illustration.

A picture of a combat vest in a folding chair, from Ville Kallio's 2019 show "Venmo Combat"
From Venmo Combat (2019), SIC Gallery, Helsinki

From the tactical vest to the name of the show, military technology appears throughout your show Venmo Combat. Could you talk about your relationship with weapons?  

This probably comes from being introduced to aestheticized violence very early on. For example I was probably four years old when I first saw RoboCop. For a while my experience with watching movies was that I was basically waiting for someone to die on screen in a spectacular way, as if to gain some kind of release. I’m somewhat neurotic about death. The nervous laughter when someone dies out of their own pure stupidity is therapeutic.

As for military or state violence, I feel like that’s the purest crystallization of a type of legalized murderlust. It’s so completely farcical in the way the stated purposes (defense, security, etc.) differ from the actual outcomes. It’s a libidinal death cult with a serious bureaucratic veneer. The scene that it sets for our everyday life interests me. It’s like an ever-present background radiation of evil.

You’ve created a first-person shooter, but pseudoHUDS (head-up displays) also appear in your videos, paintings, and comics like BIO-WHALE. Could you talk about first-person perspective? 

A lot of the artwork I’ve done before takes a great deal from games and their aesthetics, to the point where it started making more sense to just go ahead and make an actual game. I don’t know if the perspective is particularly important to me, maybe it was at some point. 

I can’t remember at all what I wrote in BIO-WHALE, I think I was reading some Althusser essay book for some reason at the time and didn’t really get it at all but was pretending that I did. I generally feel like different pseudoHUDs make for interesting decorative elements. 

Your work seems to make certain game design mechanics visible. Where does this come from? 

I don’t think this is a conscious decision. I’m simply trying to maximize beauty.

Installation view of VIBRANT MATURITY® 7+ ADULT SHOW (2018) at FUTURA, Ville Kallio and Bora Akinciturk
Installation view of VIBRANT MATURITY® 7+ ADULT SHOW (2018) at FUTURA, Ville Kallio and Bora Akinciturk

One visual signature of Cruelty Squad is the use of faces as walls. There are even the DNA-scrambled human ‘bouncy houses,’ where humans become environments… What effect are you looking for with these elements?

It’s a combination of gothic grotesque elements and the way almost everything has a face in Mario games. I’m generally obsessed with excessive detailing and decoration, and a face is something you can add to almost anything. The game does also have a theme of mutation and general fluidity of biology where things blend into each other and boundaries are crossed. Earth is more of a living entity capable of consumption and metabolism [in Cruelty Squad].

What role do evolution and mutation play in your work? 

I’m not personally very attached to human biology as it exists now. I was at some point very obsessed with the idea of biotech-induced change and mutation, some sort of explosion of different forms, a fluid spectrum of being. This kind of thing is often depicted as being extremely horrifying in media, but being a biological entity is already quite a raw deal to begin with, especially when you can hardly influence what shape you take. There’s only decay and death. Obviously, this is very much in the realm of fantasy and actual developments of this nature would probably just end up creating monstrosities for the military-industrial complex.

Could you talk about cannibalism as a game mechanic?

I needed a way to deal with excessive debt from dying, so you’re turned into some infinitely regenerating abomination if you die too much. I wanted to make it obvious how low you’ve fallen by making it possible to eat the corpses for one hitpoint. I actually didn’t think people would do it much because it just seems so completely depraved, but I’ve seen multiple streamers systematically killing and eating all the civilians for health.

Speaking to a NPC in "Cruelty Squad," who asks: "Can you hear that screaming?"
Screenshot from Cruelty Squad

To the best of my knowledge, Cruelty Squad is the only first-person shooter with a day trading simulator. 

I accidentally ended up fucking around with cryptocurrency a couple of years ago (can’t recommend this at all). I’m quite used to looking at different charts and know how this stuff works, so it felt natural to add a stock market element to a game with strong corporate/hypercapitalist themes.

One fascinating thing about the Bioshock games was the way being superhuman would mutilate the player character. Cruelty Squad takes this to an extreme. Could you talk about power and corruption?

In the game world, this technology is very banal and has existed for possibly hundreds of years, so it’s not really a metaphor for corruption in the same sense as in Bioshock. Power in Cruelty Squad is more about your actions, money, and influence. Sacrificing your friends to develop your CEO mindset so you can finally ascend to primordial-financial godhood. I feel like these things have sort of leaked into my own life, as I had to start a business due to the success of the game. I was reading Goethe’s Faust and it made me feel like I’ve accidentally made some sort of infernal pact at some point during development, which resulted in all of this. 

Still from Venmo Combat depicting a saluting soldier
Still from Venmo Combat (2019)

Much of the commentary on Cruelty Squad frames it as a punishing or masochistic experience. How do you feel about these interpretations? 

It’s a sadistic game born almost entirely out of spite.

Cruelty Squad depicts capital punishment and murder-for-hire, but punishment also seems to become a cosmological issue in the game. Could you go into more detail on this? 

I can’t really say it’s about punishment—the murder-for-hire part is more about power struggles and money. The victims are mostly people getting in the way of someone else’s goals. The only person being punished is the player. The game’s universe is based on a gnostic mythology. Any perceived punishment is coincidental and stems from the fundamentally flawed or corrupt nature of the world, cut off from the divine light of God.


Interview composed & edited by Christopher Good as part of LVL3’s Guest Writers Program.