‘Reality will soon cease to be the standard by which to judge the imperfect image. Instead, the virtual image will become the standard by which to measure the imperfections of reality.’ So says video artist and film essayist Harun Farocki. In the artist’s fourth solo exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, he explores the implications of his theory, focusing on the virtual reality application with which the public is most familiar: gaming.
Projected on four different screens under the title Parallele I–IV (2012–14), Farocki’s compelling four-part video cycle opens with Parallele I, a historical survey of the genre. While images from early games such as Pitfall (1982) and King’s Quest (1984) flash across the screen, narrator Cynthia Beatt’s distinctive deep voice points out that, in 1980, only vertical and horizontal lines could be employed and that, by 1986, every shape still had to be made up of squares. Contemporary animation techniques, on the other hand, can make branches bend as if in the wind and dress up trees in four or even six-week foliage. These ‘ideal-typical’ images, as Farocki calls them, eschew the constraints of reality and make it seem frustratingly incomplete.
Computer animation may also become a yardstick for other image-producing artforms, as Parallele I suggests. An image of clouds created by a computer is juxtaposed with a photograph of clouds taken by a camera, from which it is virtually indistinguishable. Not only has the computer image caught up with photography however, it also has the capacity to surpass it outright. Digital animation has undergone developments comparable to painting – except that the transition from symbolic and abstract forms to realism in computer games has occurred over a far shorter time span. Only 30 years have passed since the early stick drawings, but already animation is putting the established art forms in the shade.
Over and above these resoundingly impressive achievements, however, computer animation has its shortcomings and limitations, as Farocki goes on to demonstrate in Parallele II–IV. Parallele III exposes the void beneath a massive rock and reveals the emptiness below a life-like watery expanse, suggesting that animation eschews substance in favour of surface effects. Likewise, Parallele II reveals the invisible borders that circumscribe these seemingly infinite game worlds: as the narrator points out, a jet fighter can only fly so far before being obliterated by the boundary of its world. In one game, these normally unseen barriers are visible in the form of red and white hatching superimposed on the image, while in another, a character can break through the safety barriers and fall out into space. Yet, even in this supposedly unaccounted-for void, the character does not fall freely: on the contrary, his every twist and turn has been predicted and pre-planned. Games may claim to fulfil the player’s wildest fantasies but, in reality, the freedom they offer is stringently controlled.
While Parallele II and III explore the spatial constraints of game worlds, Parallele IV points to the characters’ shortcomings, whether their clichéd one-liners, their robotic movements or their static facial expressions. Most flagrant of all, however, is their limited capacity to interact with their surroundings or with one another. As the narrator points out, they have been thrown into their world and have to find out for themselves which rules are valid – hence the character who walks down the street and does not know better than to knock down everyone who crosses his path. Meanwhile, the hero of another game pulls a gun on a saleswoman in a shop, who runs out of the door but immediately forgets what has happened and goes back inside – only to run out again as soon as she sees the gun. Game characters are hapless creatures without morals, a memory or a past, and identifiying with them too closely or spending too much time in their world may well have an adverse effect on the players’ behaviour in real life. Revealingly, the saleslady’s compulsion to keep coming back is not an act of bravery or resistance, but is only due to a bug.
With Parallele I–IV, the artist identifies a tipping point in 21st-century society and culture, a moment when too many people are ceasing to question the capacity of machines to shape everyday reality. Not so Farocki.