no pain no game Play Makes Humans Human

Dr Bernd Fabritius (right), the chairman of the Subcommittee for Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy, and Johannes Ebert, the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, tour the exhibition at the opening on 15 March 2016 at the Museum for Communication in Berlin.
Dr Bernd Fabritius (right), the chairman of the Subcommittee for Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy, and Johannes Ebert, the secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, tour the exhibition at the opening on 15 March 2016 at the Museum for Communication in Berlin. | © Martin Christopher Welker

No pain no game: The exhibition by the artist duo //////////fur//// breaks through the screen-bound isolation of gamers. It invites visitors to play together in borderline experiences of pain and song and is part of the Europe-wide Goethe-Institut initiative SPIELTRIEB.

By Patrick Wildermann

The classic is waiting in the very first room of the exhibition at the Berlin Museum for Communication. The metal box with a built-in screen designed by the artist duo //////////fur////, Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff, in 2001 is called the PainStation. Since then, museum guests from Scandinavia to Asia have been able to test their physical resilience at the device. Its name says it all: at the “PainStation” two players test their skills at the popular 1972 console game Pong, a graphically rather primitive looking table tennis match with the catch that mistakes are penalized with real pain to the hands. Depending on the level, players are punished with heat, electric shocks or lashings with a small rubber tube. Is this supposed to be fun?

Bringing the body into play
 
The President of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and the Facebox The President of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and the Facebox | © Martin Christopher Welker Morawe and Reiff, both in their mid-forties, met in the early 2000s at the Cologne Academy of Media Arts and joined forces as the artist duo //////////fur////. From the beginning, their trademarks were artefacts that ironically, critically and playfully explore interactions between humans and machines. “Back then, ego shooter games were under debate,” Morawe remembers, those violent computer games that still have the reputation of fostering the social isolation of their users. “Our approach was to break through the isolation of digital devices and bring people together.” The artist duo thus followed Schiller’s dictum: a man is only completely a man when he plays. “We are homo ludens,” Morawe says with a smile.
 
The exhibition no pain no game, which is part of the Europe-wide SPIELTRIEB! initiative of the Goethe-Institut and has already successfully toured seven eastern European countries, will now be in Berlin from 16 March until 26 June offering visitors the chance to experience ten interactive artefacts by //////////fur//// with all their senses and their whole bodies. It is the artist duo’s first solo exhibition worldwide.
 
Take part in social criticism
 
Behind their game-like user interface, almost all of the works also open up a socio-political dimension but in a humorous way without any didactical allures. For example, the Facebox, the “world’s smallest social network,” requires that two people stick their heads into metal boxes and meet with only a pane of glass between them: an ironic commentary on alienated online friend requests. The video game Golden Calf turns users into stockbrokers who need to be willing to even invest in weapons for success. It’s a superficially cheery gamble over “the lust for money, power and wealth,” explains Volker Morawe.
 
His Master’s Voice His Master’s Voice | © Martin Christopher Welker Then there’s the artefact called the ////furer////, a loudspeaker box with a “universal speech reciter” with which users can test their corruptibility with more or less demagogical politicians. The repertoire of this jukebox that puts the power of speech up for negotiation includes original speeches by George W. Bush in the ruins of the World Trade Center and by the head of the AfD party, Frauke Petry, at a Pegida demonstration.
 
Embarrass yourself!
 
Other works, by contrast, aim less at the mind and more at the voice. His Master’s Voice, for example, which the artists call a “meditative parlour game,” invites you to set little ball robots in motion by singing. The Amazing artefact, a ball maze that can be controlled using different registers, also relies on volume. In both of these cases, the game demands that users not be afraid to embarrass themselves. In many parts of the world spontaneous singing in public spaces is quite shocking. In Tokyo, Morawe and Reiff noticed that visitors attempted to generate sounds on their smartphones to avoid making themselves self-conscious.
 
The works by Morawe, a former aerospace electrician and music producer, and Reiff, a computer scientist trained in interface design, have long since won numerous awards and been featured in renowned museums such as the MoMa in New York and the MOCA in Shanghai. The artists favourite aspect of the tour around the world has been comparing different user reactions. The Norwegian museum visitors proved to be particularly tough in dealing with the PainStation. Some says Morawe, “actually got bloody hands.”
  A challenge for hungry visitors: Buffet-fishing on the exhibition opening A challenge for hungry visitors: Buffet-fishing on the exhibition opening | © Martin Christopher Welker
Typically male pastimes for women, too
 
Ironically subversive play with archaic rituals and supposed male pastimes has always been part of //////////fur////’s agenda. These include the pinball machine (the ////furminator) with which players move on the same level as the ball and the boxing bag with which users can produce sound fragments from the Rocky soundtrack hit “Eye of the Tiger” with a prescribed colour combination. The artist duo has learned that these artefacts are just as popular with the women in the many countries they have travelled. “Our works are,” as Morawe says, “not least a social field experiment.”