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Playback: Simulierte Wirklichkeiten / Playback: Simulated Realities

Editor: Sabine Himmelsbach
Publisher: Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2007
Review Published: December 2008

 REVIEW 1: Claudia Costa Pederson

Playback: Simulierte Wirklichkeiten / Playback: Simulated Realities is the exhibition catalogue accompanying the show by the same title at the Edith-Russ-Haus fur Medienkunst, Oldenburg, Germany (September 3 - November 5, 2006). The catalogue is comprised of five essays, and visual and textual documentation of the ten works in the show.

The essays frame the theme of simulation as a representational, tactical, and epistemological model, and as a particular historical moment in digital culture characterized by the convergence of older forms of expression and media within the digital medium. Concurrently, the works in the show are hybrid pieces combining movies, TV, music and sound, videogames, print media, theater, performance, and video. Each piece is a meditation about the self-referentiality of the digital image and its linkage to a globalized media economy that, as the works seem to suggest, thrives on dystopia.

Curator Sabine Himmelsbach's essay relates the aim of the exhibit to an investigation of "the significance of simulation and reenactments with regard to the construction of reality" (112). New media curators Timothy Druckrey, Robert Blackson, and Sarah Cook contribute essays on the relationship between sensorial effects and technological and performative simulations.

Druckrey situates his interpretation of representation in reference to the concept of the "image" central to 20th century philosophical though (e.g., Panofsky, Bergson, Deleuze, Heidegger, and Rorty). The image as sensation, perception, and information, notwithstanding, Druckey follows Guy Debord's concept of the image as spectacle, in order to suggest that artists' engagement of digital simulations, rather than as a break with the "cinematization of contemporary experience" (124), represent an assertion of autonomy of interpretation akin to artistic explorations of, "the delicate links between cause and effect, memory and actuality, history, and its subjectivities" (124), via the cinematic medium.

Blackson argues that the current emphasis on repetition and reenactment as formal techniques is essentially interventionist. These techniques are thus the means and ends for re-creating "a past as history" (127), and questioning the relationships between history and authenticity.

Cook's essay revolves around the epistemological groundings of three reenactment models: the experiment, the ritual, and the documentary. Her argument about the differences between (computer) simulations and reenactments hinges on remediation (i.e., the formal means and "experiential effects thereof," p. 135). Cook disputes Lev Manovich's framing of "remediation" as the sensorial immersion of the body by technological means (i.e., digital technologies), instead relating the concept to its Brechtian connotation with the physicality involved in the performance of the "situation or event." Scripting, transition (translation), repetition (inscription), and re-speaking, as Cook sees it, are the principal performative techniques for inducing alienating states aimed at reinserting participants' awareness in "the physically-experienced world" (139).

Artist Eddo Stern contributes the fifth essay in which the themes of reenactment and simulation are considered via the links between magic and technology. Citing the nostalgic undercurrents of current reenactments (of past wars) and the prominence of the fantasy genres in computer games, Stern sees the complexity and contradictory connections between magic and technology as emblematic of the present technological imaginary. The centrality of "strange hybrid" images conflating the magical and the technological in popular media belies the validity of the assumed division between the irrational and the rational in western culture.

Theatricality, surreality, alienation, and nostalgia are repeatedly invoked in the works shown at the exhibit, which engage in various degrees with the themes of simulation and reality via hybridized formal approaches to visual media.

Stern's contribution to the show, for instance, consists of a machinima piece entitled Vietnam Romance (Israel/U.S., 2003). Machinima is a term conflating machine, animation, and cinema that references the influences and production method. The piece combines visuals from commercial computer games about the Vietnam war with scenes of Hollywood movies, such as Full Metal Jacket and Deer Hunter, and the television series Mash, accompanied of music scores from 1960s hits. The work references the cultural re-coding of a traumatic historical event through its spectacular framing within pop media.

Felix Stephan Huber's Ops Room (I Like Instant Nirvana) (Swiss, 2005) is a videogame simulation of the control room designed by cyberneticians Stafford Beer and Fernando Flores for Salvador Allende's government in the 1970s. The room is iconic of Allende's cybernetic approach to the remodeling of Chile's economy. The work combines computer generated visuals with documentary images of Allende's term of office and the coup d'état in 1973 by general Augusto Pinochet. The player can explore the space by means of seven identical male bots. Huber's room includes a screen showing a parallel space in which the clones enact absurd scenes involving quotes from famous 1970s science fiction movies, such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Clockwork Orange (1971), as well as from Beer's book, The Brain of the Firm (1972), in which he outlines managerial cybernetics.

Susanne Weirich's Silent Playground (Germany, 2005) consists of six film sequences pointing to tropes shared by cinema and computer games. Weirich hired a professional actress to re-enact a series of visual tropes germane to action, survival, and horror genres. Silent Playground's scenes imitate visuals from computer games such as Project Zero (2001) and Silent Hill 3 (2003) and popular movies like the Matrix series (1999-2001), Lost Highway (1997), and Blade Runner (1982).

Return to Veste Rosenberg (Germany, 2005) by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann documents a reenactment that recalls the videogame Return to the Castle: Wolfenstein (2001), itself a sequel to Wolfenstein (1992), a game remembered in Germany for its official censorship (due to the use of Nazi symbols like the swastika and the anthem of the Nazi Party, "Horst-Wessel-Lied," as theme music, the PC version of the game was confiscated in Germany in 1994). Return to Veste Rosenberg took place in the largest fortified castle in Europe, in Bavaria, dating from the 12th century. The game references the fantasy genre computer games via its absurdist conflation of past and present archetypes, including monks, fairies, swat team members, and business men, performing the game.

Apart from these four works, the majority of the pieces in the show highlight historical events. The following three works deal with past iconic media events.

Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco's The Eternal Frame (U.S., 1975) is a reenactment of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, including images of curious onlookers at the scene. The piece includes visual documentation of a live performance of the Kennedy assassination, involving Doug Hall's impersonation of Kennedy and Doug Michel's drag Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas, and a mock-up of the Zapruder footage (Abraham Zaprudrer's super 8 footage is the only known recording of the event). The work is an early example of an artistic intervention denoting the artifice of Hollywood-style documentaries and films about the assassination.

Black September by Christoph Draeger (Swiss./U.S., 2002) is a video installation that takes its name from the Palestinian terror group that kidnapped the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The kidnapping resulted in the deaths of the athletes and coaches, and a German police officer. Draeger used clips from contemporary tv broadcasts covering the events intermingled with amateurish footage by the artist that speculates about what might have happened between the captors and the hostages. The video is projected in a room reconstructed after the post-kidnapping media images of the hotel room where the hostages were held in at the Olympic village.

Omer Fast's Spielberg's List (Israel/Germany, 2003) reconstructs the filming of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) in Krakow and Karimienz, Poland. Fast's video installation juxtaposes footage taken from the sets constructed for Spielberg's film (that along with the original concentration camps are now tourist attractions), the original concentration camps, images from Spielberg's movie, and interviews with residents, who lived there during Nazi occupations, and subsequently played in Spielberg's movie as extras. The resulting piece, in which the real and the fictional are completely intermingled, comments on the banalization of horrific historical events via spectacular representations.

Similarly drawing on media iconization, the last three artists discussed are in particular concerned with employing digital media to instantiate (un)popular events as history.

Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture (U.S., 2006) is a video documenting the four-year trial brought on by the U.S. Government against Critical Art Ensemble member and art professor at the University of Buffalo, Steve Kurtz, and his collaborator, Professor Robert Ferrel, a geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh. The trial revolved around Kurtz and Ferrel's indictment on charges of bio-terrorism and mail fraud in 2004. The case began when Kurtz's wife, Hope, died in her sleep, and Kurtz called 911. The FBI was alerted by the ambulance personnel who became suspicious of lab materials at the Kurzts' residence (used in their performances that deal with an array of issues related to biotechnologies). The FBI seized Hope's body, performance materials, and detained Kurtz on suspicion of murder and terrorism. Notwithstanding early evidence that these charges were unfounded, the trial was carried out for reasons that many see as disciplinary. (Charges against Kurtz were dropped August this year.) Hershman Leeson, a well-known video and performance artist active since the 1960s, engages known indie artists, such as Tilda Swinton (who plays Hope) to speak for Kurtz, who at the time was unable to comment on the case. The piece thus combines real and fictional elements, which effectively convey the surrealness of the current American cultural moment.

Rod Dickinson's The Milgram Re-enactment (Great Britain, 2002) documents the re-inaction of Dr. Stanley Milgram's "obedience to authority" experiment at the Yale Interaction Laboratory in 1961. The Yale experiment was a reenactment of a similar experiment by Nazi scientists during the Holocaust. During these experiments, participants were requested to administer electric shocks to concealed victims, and gauged on their willingness to do so. Such scenarios involved the conflation of fact and fiction as means of psychological manipulation (fake electric shocks, actors playing scientists, pre-recorded screams of pain). Dickinson's cinematic iteration of these experiments (performed live eight times) highlights the links between scientific systems of knowledge and social control.

Milica Tomic's Container (Serbia, 2004-2006) involves the reconstruction of the massacre at Mazar-i-sharif (2001) in which 8,500 Talibani captives were executed in cold blood by western backed Northern Alliance forces (The United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan), after surrender. The piece includes objects and actors performing a faithful imitation of the original events, including the container in which the prisoners were executed, and local police men shooting at the container. The reenaction, performed in Serbia in collaboration with locals, takes on a more sinister overtone than the actual events that the piece is referencing. In an art space, the materials of the actual reenaction (the bullet ridden container, the slides, and video footage) evoke the sense of detachment and spectatorship implicated in the production and consumption of spectularized violence, as acts of violence, in and of themselves.

The artistic and conceptual contributions of Playback: Simulierte Wirklichkeiten / Playback: Simulated Realities are thus concerned with revealing the homogenizing effects of the high-definition digital image's reliance on a mimetic model of representation. This proposition is the more compelling vis-a-vis the alternative approaches to representation that take advantage of the affordances of the digital medium, as suggested by the works. For this, many of the artists draw from techniques well-explored in modernist art, such as simultaneity (the combining of different points of view or points of time) and juxtaposition (the combination of various images, sounds, etc. to create a dissonant effect). As a result, the present reality of simulation as situated by the show is located not as a necessary or logical cause of the technological medium but rather as a consequence of the praxis that shapes it, the conditions of which are ironically already suggested in the original definition of the term simulation as "the action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession" (Oxford English Dictionary, p. 1340).

Claudia Costa Pederson:
Claudia Costa Pederson is a PhD candidate at the History of Art and Visual Studies Department at Cornell University. Her interests center on exploring the intersections between play, creativity, critical theory, and social activism. She is currently working on her thesis that investigates digital games as devices for artistic and critical inquiry. She is also teaching a writing seminar this fall on contemporary art and technology.  <ccp9@cornell.edu>

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