Mass Market Border Experience Artefacts
//////////fur//// brings physical reality into virtual games and thereby provides a counter-project to the spectator culture of the digital age. An Interview with Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff.
Your works could be described as the Pop Art of Media Art because of their suitability for the mass market. Yet when you brought out Painstation, your first joint work, some time had to pass before it was taken seriously in the art world. Even if seriousness isn’t your primary goal …
Tilman Reiff: Basically, it’s still the case that many people wouldn’t necessarily call our works “art”. They are sneered at, seem adolescent, playful and not sufficiently cerebral.
All the same, Painstation has now long been a permanent fixture at the Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. Can this be seen as a sign that the understanding of media art has changed?
Volker Morawe: The form of development that we’ve pursued since 2001 has in fact now established itself a bit. In a certain way we’re the pioneers of this branch of Media Art. Game Art has now emerged as a distinct subcategory of Media Art.
PainStation: computer game with risk of injury
In Painstation the virtual world of the computer game, in which the player is normally only a spectator of other people’s suffering, overlaps all too palpably with the real world. Savage torture Mau Mau meets a perfectly designed computer game.
Reiff: I would put it this way: the consequences of the virtual game can be actually experienced. This is exactly what is otherwise lacking in computer games. At one of our exhibitions in Japan, a panel judge described Painstation as “hormonal art”, because its threat scenario can cause your body to secrete stress hormones such as adrenalin and dopamine.
In its own way the game seems to trigger primal instincts.
Morawe: Yes, because ultimately it’s about survival. Playing Painstation is existential. It lets you search for, sense and feel your limits – a border experience artefact.
Not all your installations drive the player to the extreme. The wounded hands that are depicted next to Painstation aren’t a fake. They’re trophies, in the form of their own bodies, of those who have endured the pain longest to the cheers of the spectators.
Reiff: That was also an experience for us. We never thought that some players would go so far. In Norway a group of young people came to the museum every day to play Painstation. Blood actually flowed. They still have scars on their hands.
Morawe: In the visitors’ book at our website they later commented that experience of playing Painstation was one of the best moments of their lives.
Interactive contributions to overcome inhibitions
Is it only young people who are so willing to deliver over, to surrender their bodies? What were your experiences in other countries?
Reiff: In Italy many older people also played. In Germany the older generation only shook their heads over Painstation. The cultural differences in the use of the installation are very clear: when His Master’s Voice was exhibited in Dresden, the museum visitors initially just stood about. None of them dared to sing so as to set the robot ball into motion. Until eventually the guard suggested singing together. Together then, and later singly, they screwed up the courage to sing. Japanese people, on the other hand, never sang, but only pulled out their telephones and used them to produce sounds.
So your installations aren’t at all artworks for which mere viewing suffices, even if the public plays a big role in them.
Reiff: Among other reasons, that’s one why Painstation is still so interesting after ten years – because what happens in it is excitingly new every time, because other people are always playing it and you can observe how differently each reacts to the whole situation, to pain or to joy when his opponent is punished because he misses the ball.
Morawe: It’s the goal of our works that various people come into communication through them, a communication that is initiated by the desire for the exchange of experience. When someone leaves the game, he’s asked: What happened? Was it bad? And you can be sure he tells his friends about it. It’s a safe bet that this report will in turn be disseminated and make others curious about experiencing the game.
Amusing comments on the digitalization of life
The amusement caused by your installations has a profound side. The laughing effect indicates that something has been unmasked.
Reiff: Our work is a critique of the prevailing form of digitalization – where you just stare at a screen. A large part of our inspiration consists in always trying new man-machine interfaces, in trying various ways to entertain yourself with a computer.
It’s about the game behind the game and, what is more, not always about locking horns: in Facebox, two people can befriend one another very physically.
Morawe: Yes, we don’t move in only one direction. Our general aim is to cause intense sensations in the users. Whether these are unpleasant or pleasant feelings is really secondary. Pain is simply a very direct and immediate experience, but other experiences shouldn’t go by the board.
Reiff: That our devices caricature many things should make plain that digitalization brings about a kind of disembodiment. Many people don’t even notice this, this disappearance of the physical. Until that instant when they are face to face with someone in the Facebox, the living visage of the other only thirty centimetres from their own; then everyone realizes that this is something completely other, that he himself feels very different …
Morawe: ... that the other has bad breath.
Reiff: If you’re focussed on the face of someone opposite you, his facial expressions come much more to the fore.
Morawe: You have to look one another in the eyes.
Reiff: Ineluctably, the difference becomes evident. When you communicate with your friends on Facebook, all this is completely lacking; you see only their photos.
Morawe: Although Facebook leads you to believe it’s about closeness, it’s really about distance. The Facebox is real, intimate closeness.
What do you feel in the Facebox?
Morawe: At first you feel discomfort or uneasiness, because it creates an unusual closeness and intimate togetherness. Since the public is left outside in the Facebox, you’re really once again all alone with your Other.
In the Golden Calf, a sort of stock market game, there’s no such close contact among the participants. And here the player has the least to fear.
Morawe: He can ruin himself financially.
Is the game played with real money?
Morawe: In some rounds, yes, it is. But no one knows that yet.
The interview was conducted by Isabelle Reiff, who has been familiar with her brother’s vagaries from an early age.
After a degree in political science, the author works freelance as journalist and publicist. She writes mostly for anthologies, city magazines, company newsletters and websites.
Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland