- PlaythingOn the Work of Art in the Age of its Algorithmic Adaptability
But how can we speak of mere play, when we know that it is precisely play and play alone, which of all man’s states and conditions is the one which makes him whole and unfolds both sides of his nature at once?—Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Fifteenth Letter)
I enter the gallery and find myself seized by an odd first impression. Those office chairs look as though they’re on a break. By this I suppose I meant that they appeared to be taking a break. In the far corner of the space, I spotted four or five of them huddled together and, save for the one of them spinning listlessly in place, hardly moving. Their inaction telegraphed indifference to the handful of us there to behold and to be beheld by them. Nearer to the gallery entrance, where I was taking it all in, a single chair had peeled off from the pack. It appeared motionless, until I drew closer and discovered, astonished, that its little caster wheels were turning in unison. Graceful and comic in equal measure—comic because of its improbable grace—this pirouette, it occurred to me, wasn’t happening for anyone. On the contrary, once I was near enough to perceive this bit of footwork, the lone chair retreated, skating elegantly away from me to an unpeopled corner of the gallery where it could dance on its own. I thought of one of Michael Fried’s better-known complaints about minimalism’s theatre:
Someone has merely to enter the room in which a literalist work has been placed to become that beholder, that audience of one—almost as though the work in question had been waiting for him. And in as much as the literalist work depends on the beholder, is incomplete without him, it has been waiting for him. And once he is in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone. [End Page 82]
The funny thing about this scrap of “Art and Objecthood” surfacing in response to this moment is that, while what I witnessed (or, better yet, found myself implicated in) certainly owed a significant debt to the minimalist tradition against which Fried inveighed, my experience was in fact a precise inversion of the one he describes. The work was obstinate, no doubt, but obstinate that I leave it alone. Rebuffing my audience to spin its wheels in peace—or maybe it was just sulking; I couldn’t tell—this animate thing was not exactly performing. Was it playing? Was it perhaps just playing at absorption?
It wasn’t long before the other chairs, having wrapped up their “break,” breezed into the center of the gallery to execute a unison turn on an axis of dazzling, Rockettes-esque precision. Somehow, they radiated something remarkably close to satisfaction.
Urs Fischer’s PLAY (which originally premiered in 2018) is a work concerned above all else with collapsing boundaries. One should hear in this claim the two meanings its syntactical ambiguity engenders; one should also note that these senses are not entirely compatible with one another. In terms of a first meaning, PLAY is about those domains of human experience whose distinctness our high-neoliberal age makes increasingly susceptible to collapse and, ultimately, threatens with extinction. Foremost, what is in question here is the meaningfulness of the basic distinction between work and play in the era of what we can designate surveillance capitalism (after Shoshanna Zuboff) or posthuman capitalism (after Slavoj Žižek), though this is just one of the many endangered binaries toward which Fischer’s work gestures. Today, our lives are largely submitted to and governed by algorithmic technologies of surveillance and extraction that escape not only our understanding, but also our notice. Among the uncountable consequences of this emergent paradigm of social control is the increasingly common scenario of a subject who imagines herself to be playing, enjoying her leisure—say, scrolling down her Instagram feed—but...