In Jacques Tati’s genre-defying masterpiece Playtime (1967), Mr. Hulot, Tati’s unwitting alter ego, drifts haphazardly through a stylized, ultramodern Paris, interacting with a host of inanimate objects brought to life through technology and camera work within a massive, specially constructed set known as “Tativille.” Although the film is devoid of plot, characters, and dialogue, it follows a fluid choreography of chance, as Hulot and others engage, and are engaged by, the mechanical dance of the built environment that surrounds them. In many ways, Urs Fischer’s recent exhibition, “PLAY,” with choreography by Madeline Hollander, picks up where Tati left off, but with a major upgrade in technology. Nine generic office chairs in varying colors moved freely on their own through Gagosian’s cavernous 21st Street space, gliding and spinning effortlessly across the polished concrete floor. Their seemingly random movements coalesced into synchronicity at times, appearing keenly aware of, and also ambivalent about, the viewers around them.
Fischer achieved this effect (with a large team of collaborators) through the use of multiple sensors, subtly installed on the ceiling throughout the gallery, which continuously scanned and mapped everything present in the space. The data were updated continuously to the chairs, so they could react in real time to each other and to surrounding viewers. Each chair appeared to have its own unique programming, which gave an air of distinct personality to its movements; some were cheerful and attentive, others remote and withdrawn. A brown chair retreated to the far corner of the space, while a sorbet-colored one spun elegantly in situ, pirouetting for a young visitor. Some chairs sported headrests, which compounded the anthropomorphic comparisons. Their multiple casters allowed for a surprising range of subtle movement. Most of the time, the chairs were able to avoid human contact, and only through overtly aggressive maneuvers on the part of viewers did collisions occur.
As with Playtime’s wide-angle shots, it was not possible to take in “PLAY” at a single glance or visit. Multiple viewings were necessary, and rewarding, as layers of interpretation unfolded through prolonged observation. The implicit humor of the work was not the sight gag, but the unexpected exchanges between viewers and chairs—an anthropological field trip for the 21st century. Viewers were able to observe the chairs in a large, controlled enclosure, moving freely among them with little concern of danger. The only menacing presence was a hulking supercomputer of Kubrickian dimensions, which occupied a small side gallery illuminated with occasionally flashing neon lights projecting “Do Not Enter” across the threshold—the implication being that it was the controlling force behind the machinations in the main gallery.
Implicit in “PLAY” were the snowballing encroachments of “smart” devices in daily life, as well as the increasingly dehumanizing effects of technology and surveillance on human behavior. The context, at the epicenter of Chelsea, seemed highly relevant as well; this is a neighborhood in the midst of a radical transformation from art galleries to soulless corporate condos. However, “PLAY,” like Playtime, was in no way a cynical affair. As film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Playtime, “It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comedic ballet, one that we both observe and perform…”
Like Tati’s spectacle banal, Fischer’s “PLAY” was a complex and ambitious production with an intentionally unspectacular effect. Rosenbaum has written of Tati, “As he himself pointed out in several interviews, the basic principle behind his humor is observation. But a fundamental aspect of his observed epiphanies is that they usually occur in a virtual vacuum of normality, a universe where generally ‘nothing’ happens.” This is also true of Fischer’s dadaist engagement with 21st-century cultural production, though his epiphanies occur most strikingly when he moves beyond the static object and empty signifier and into the relational aesthetics of the larger situation or environment. Like many of Fischer’s projects, “PLAY” was a crowd pleaser, but it also extended his investigation of sculpture as an active and performative medium, moving beyond his meditative, slow-motion wax candle effigies into a more complex and questioning type of relational aesthetics. What happens when the “relations” are no longer with other people, but instead with everyday objects equipped with adaptive behaviors? Is it even relational any more? What are the politics of office chairs? “PLAY” laid bare the absurdity of our dependence on technology and the meaninglessness of our relationships with our devices. It also pointed out how technology can be subverted to artistic ends, showing us something more about ourselves through our relationship with our built environment.