“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”1 This sentence is not uttered in Ed Fornieles’ current two-channel installation “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk”, but could nevertheless genuinely serve as the motto for it. This does not hold true, or does so in a different way, for “Der Geist: The Flesh,” the work preceding the installation. Here it is featured as one of numerous wisdoms of self-management, which from the viewpoint of this text can easily be seen as a laughable call to egomania.
That said, in “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk”, too, it takes a while for the scope of the context to widen in our understanding. At first, with their citations from the gaming and film industries, title and introduction allude to pop-cultural appropriation – something Fornieles has employed extensively in his previous works: The computer game “The Sims”, which has been on the market since 2000, is regarded to be the top-selling2 game world-wide and obviously provided the inspiration to the title. The game invites players to take part in a simulated life, which thanks to add-ons can also be played with magic powers, as a pirate or nobleman. “The Sims” is so popular (and commercially successful) that Depeche Mode, Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry have sung in Simlish, a mix of, among others, Ukrainian, a language from the Philippines and one of the Apache languages, which allows us to deduce mood and stance through intonation alone. Ed Fornieles begins the film with two minutes of upbeat, rhythmical music – James Ferraro’s “Marketphagia” from his album “Human Story 3”.3 The melodic theme is reminiscent of that of an atmosphere of departure. This doesn’t match the often stroboscopic cuts between posters of apocalyptic and alien-themed films, images of atomic clouds and viruses in the opening sequence. The gloomy mood is only matched by the following description by a role player speaking into the camera. Keeping quite still, she is filmed frontally, the video is projected to the left. The young woman relates how the [sic!] illness began to spread and the sick began to pile up (which presumably means their death) and how she saw first symptoms on her own body. Up until this point – in the right-hand projection, 3D animations are shown that illustrate the woman’s report – it is easy to think of “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk” as being made using the same parasitic strategies (“I am a thief, not a maker”4) that Fornieles has followed when realizing his works in and through collectives, their social conventions and communication media. For example “New York New York Happy Happy (NY NY HP HP)”, a performance carried out in the format of a party at the New Yorker New Museum in 2014, where participants were able to buy various characters. The more money was spent, the larger the role acquired in the open-ended plot, for which the artist had specified only one thing, namely how it should end: with an orgy. Or “Dorm Daze,” (2011), a Facebook sitcom for which Fornieles created characters using existing Facebook profiles belonging to students, which others then played for him for a quarter of a year, sometimes following a script and sometimes improvising. Adopting the logic of Facebook, the most active participants were hereby rewarded with the most attention.
Fornieles has been criticized for not formulating a more decisive critique of the mechanisms and manipulations of the economy of our communication.5 How a ‘good’ critique would have looked is not mentioned. However, it would seem that such a thing would require an outside, a distancing, something that Fornieles does not provide. On the contrary, he himself is in the midst of things, even though perhaps intentionally and just as an artistic character. The following hypothesis could be formulated: His social media profiles and website are part of his work, and in the latter, it is not the question of authenticity that is relevant but the question of how Fornieles treats the contents he finds and which shape his own participation takes. “I am not interested in personal taste, and I don’t like to judge—the more I can take myself out of the decision-making processes the better.”6
In terms of a production aesthetics and of art history, this stance can be linked to the notion of chance. For one the genre of role play (and it is one Fornieles often incorporates in his works and which explicitly comes into play in the current work) presents a convincing variation of this concept. In real terms, this affects the artist’s status as much as it does that of the role players taking part in the simulation and the following artistic reflections. A set of pre-defined predispositions, contents and various opportunities for making decisions exists for both and this begins to take on a life of its own, then passes over into a self-generating stance and finally at some point ends in pure conjecture. For this kind of unconditionality, Fornieles has now chosen the example par excellence: the inescapability of one’s own end, of death drawing near.7 This is why the narratives in “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk” revolve around threats – some that have been repelled, others that are unstoppable. Indeed, the quote from the beginning of this text proves to be true, for what is built up in such a sensational matter – the danger of dying in an epidemic, and with it, the clichéd reduction of role play to sensation and blunted affect – shifts into the experience of love and affection and in the following episodes of other players, emerges as a discourse on peace and the freedom of will and action.
This does not merely apply to retelling the course of the game – the sick person is visited and cared for by her co-players, even though the latter thereby put themselves at risk of infection. A further player clubs a playing child to death from behind because it puts the security of the community at risk – but in particular to the passages of self-reflection on playing in a simulation, which are not just part of the altogether four reports on the game. Alongside his double projection, Fornieles presents a display case containing the so-called Game Book, essentially a manual to the game. It is opened on a double page containing the subheadings “Emotional Confrontation,” “A Last Walk,” “No Escape” and “Death as Gateway” as well as an illustration titled “Multidimensional Being”. The illustration could be read as the key or culmination point of “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk”. For this is exactly what the piece is about: experiencing oneself in as many selves as possible while playing. This is why Fornieles draws on personal concrete experiences and interpersonal relationships and the world of emotions connected to these in order to add another dimension to the simulated actions. All of the players participating in the game describe such leaps. The objective, then, is not to remain in the fiction of a game – not for us, either – to use it as an escape or to live out a potential for violence and the pleasure one may derive from it (however, Fornieles does address this stereotype in his intro, which is geared towards the passive enjoyment of films and misleads us to begin with). In this respect, speaking of playing in the film does not destroy or deconstruct an illusion either. Fornieles is not concerned with the continuity of an intact game world. This is why the plot lines are presented to us in cryptic excerpts only (for example, we are not told which disease the characters are suffering from, etc.) And the 3D animations, too, created with an imaging technique used in the judicial system, are merely retrospective representations. Role plays, including the one on the Game Book of which Fornieles has been working on for a longer period of time and the preparation of which brought forth “Sim Vol. 1: Existential Risk”, are played either in verbal or written form, their basic form is the dialogue or conversation. Fornieles, as the directing game leader, and the players allow us to share this. What they communicate is neither laughable nor banal: for example, that rules and a form of authority are needed in order to maintain the security and peace in the group. Divorced from the film itself this may sound like an ironic disclosure of self-disciplining and self-surveillance. Yet in the film this sequence is very convincing as an assertion grown out of experience and pointing to nothing less than the big question of self determination. Fornieles brings in a further example, that of a player choosing to kill his character in view of the impending end of the world – and thereby reaches a point at which not only the worlds of experience merge, but at which some of the intensity of this experience of a final possibility towards making a decision is carried over.
“It is scary to think about all the potential that is lost by those who don’t have the courage to unleash it.”8
Kristin Schrader is currently working at the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung.