Simulated Realities

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 titleat the Edith-Russ-Haus fur Medienkunst, Oldenburg, Germany (September 3- November 5, 2006). The catalogue is comprised of five essays, andvisual 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 historicalmoment in digital culture characterized by the convergence of olderforms of expression and media within the digital medium. Concurrently,the works in the show are hybrid pieces combining movies, TV, music andsound, videogames, print media, theater, performance, and video. Eachpiece is a meditation about the self-referentiality of the digitalimage and its linkage to a globalized media economy that, as the worksseem to suggest, thrives on dystopia.

Curator Sabine Himmelsbach's essay relates the aim of the exhibitto an investigation of "the significance of simulation and reenactmentswith regard to the construction of reality" (112). New media curatorsTimothy Druckrey, Robert Blackson, and Sarah Cook contribute essays onthe relationship between sensorial effects and technological andperformative simulations.

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

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

Cook's essay revolves around the epistemological groundings ofthree reenactment models: the experiment, the ritual, and thedocumentary. Her argument about the differences between (computer)simulations and reenactments hinges on remediation (i.e., the formalmeans and "experiential effects thereof," p. 135). Cook disputes LevManovich's framing of "remediation" as the sensorial immersion of thebody by technological means (i.e., digital technologies), insteadrelating the concept to its Brechtian connotation with the physicalityinvolved in the performance of the "situation or event." Scripting,transition (translation), repetition (inscription), and re-speaking, asCook sees it, are the principal performative techniques for inducingalienating states aimed at reinserting participants' awareness in "thephysically-experienced world" (139).

Artist Eddo Stern contributes the fifth essay in which the themesof reenactment and simulation are considered via the links betweenmagic and technology. Citing the nostalgic undercurrents of currentreenactments (of past wars) and the prominence of the fantasy genres incomputer games, Stern sees the complexity and contradictory connectionsbetween magic and technology as emblematic of the present technologicalimaginary. The centrality of "strange hybrid" images conflating themagical and the technological in popular media belies the validity ofthe assumed division between the irrational and the rational in westernculture.

Theatricality, surreality, alienation, and nostalgia are repeatedlyinvoked in the works shown at the exhibit, which engage in variousdegrees with the themes of simulation and reality via hybridized formalapproaches 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. Thepiece combines visuals from commercial computer games about the Vietnamwar 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 thecultural re-coding of a traumatic historical event through itsspectacular 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 bycyberneticians Stafford Beer and Fernando Flores for Salvador Allende'sgovernment in the 1970s. The room is iconic of Allende's cyberneticapproach to the remodeling of Chile's economy. The work combinescomputer generated visuals with documentary images of Allende's term ofoffice and the coup d'état in 1973 by general Augusto Pinochet. Theplayer can explore the space by means of seven identical male bots.Huber's room includes a screen showing a parallel space in which theclones enact absurd scenes involving quotes from famous 1970s sciencefiction 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) consistsof six film sequences pointing to tropes shared by cinema and computergames. Weirich hired a professional actress to re-enact a series ofvisual 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 (dueto the use of Nazi symbols like the swastika and the anthem of the NaziParty, "Horst-Wessel-Lied," as theme music, the PC version of the gamewas confiscated in Germany in 1994). Return to Veste Rosenbergtook place in the largest fortified castle in Europe, in Bavaria,dating from the 12th century. The game references the fantasy genrecomputer games via its absurdist conflation of past and presentarchetypes, including monks, fairies, swat team members, and businessmen, performing the game.

Apart from these four works, the majority of the pieces in the showhighlight historical events. The following three works deal with pasticonic media events.

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

Black September by Christoph Draeger (Swiss./U.S., 2002) isa video installation that takes its name from the Palestinian terrorgroup that kidnapped the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympic Games inMunich, Germany. The kidnapping resulted in the deaths of the athletesand coaches, and a German police officer. Draeger used clips fromcontemporary tv broadcasts covering the events intermingled withamateurish footage by the artist that speculates about what might havehappened between the captors and the hostages. The video is projectedin a room reconstructed after the post-kidnapping media images of thehotel 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 installationjuxtaposes footage taken from the sets constructed for Spielberg's film(that along with the original concentration camps are now touristattractions), the original concentration camps, images from Spielberg'smovie, and interviews with residents, who lived there during Nazioccupations, and subsequently played in Spielberg's movie as extras.The resulting piece, in which the real and the fictional are completelyintermingled, comments on the banalization of horrific historicalevents via spectacular representations.

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

Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture (U.S., 2006) is avideo documenting the four-year trial brought on by the U.S. Governmentagainst Critical Art Ensemble member and art professor at theUniversity of Buffalo, Steve Kurtz, and his collaborator, ProfessorRobert Ferrel, a geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh. The trialrevolved around Kurtz and Ferrel's indictment on charges ofbio-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 bythe ambulance personnel who became suspicious of lab materials at theKurzts' residence (used in their performances that deal with an arrayof issues related to biotechnologies). The FBI seized Hope's body,performance materials, and detained Kurtz on suspicion of murder andterrorism. Notwithstanding early evidence that these charges wereunfounded, the trial was carried out for reasons that many see asdisciplinary. (Charges against Kurtz were dropped August this year.)Hershman Leeson, a well-known video and performance artist active sincethe 1960s, engages known indie artists, such as Tilda Swinton (whoplays Hope) to speak for Kurtz, who at the time was unable to commenton the case. The piece thus combines real and fictional elements, whicheffectively convey the surrealness of the current American culturalmoment.

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

Milica Tomic's Container (Serbia, 2004-2006) involves thereconstruction of the massacre at Mazar-i-sharif (2001) in which 8,500Talibani captives were executed in cold blood by western backedNorthern Alliance forces (The United Islamic Front for the Salvation ofAfghanistan), after surrender. The piece includes objects and actorsperforming a faithful imitation of the original events, including thecontainer in which the prisoners were executed, and local police menshooting at the container. The reenaction, performed in Serbia incollaboration with locals, takes on a more sinister overtone than theactual events that the piece is referencing. In an art space, thematerials of the actual reenaction (the bullet ridden container, theslides, and video footage) evoke the sense of detachment andspectatorship implicated in the production and consumption ofspectularized violence, as acts of violence, in and of themselves.

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