Review Out of Office by Régine Debatty | We Make Money Not Art

Hardly Working: Are we the NPCs (non-playable characters) of our own system?

Last week, while visiting the (excellent) exhibition Out of Office. This isn’t working for us at IMPAKT Centre for Media Culture in Utrecht, I discovered one of those rare works of media art that reminded me how glad I should be to have fallen 19 years ago into the merry world of art and tech.

Leonhard Müller, Robin Klengel, Jona Kleinlein, Adrian Haim and Susanna Flock) who define themselves as “a pseudo-Marxist media guerilla.” That certainly got my attention. Their practice consists in appropriating mainstream video game material. They scrutinise it, look behind its sleek, realistic aesthetic and uncover its covert political apparatus.

The work the collective is showing in Utrecht (and at the Milan Machinima Festival this month if ever you’re around) is Hardly Working. Entirely shot inside the Red Dead Redemption II Western-themed shooter game, the short film focuses on four NPCs. NPCs are non-player character. They can’t be controlled by players and exist as background, as part of the landscape. Their main purpose is to add authenticity and an element of normal daily life to the game. The four characters under close observation are a street sweeper, a horse groom, a laundress and a carpenter.

Total Refusal’s film isolates their working patterns. The characters are locked into a life of repetitive gestures. For hours, they bend over their chores, barely moving away from their positions. Nothing of what they do seems to have any tangible impact on their environment. Their efforts are purely performative. They sweep, build, clean and cut for the sake of it.

At night, they don’t work but they do not really sleep either. They don’t need to. They are the ideal workers. Yet, that is when you suddenly feel sorry for them: they sit on a street corner, stare into space, loiter in a bar, waiting for their “shift” to start.

The artists call the NPCs in the game “digital Sisyphus machines”. A voice-over comments on their fate, their monotonous existence, the absence of children, the resignation on their faces. Yet, not everything runs smoothly in the digital Far West, sometimes the characters glitch, hesitate and show their flaws.

The work, Total Refusal explains, probes some of the issues posed by labour in late-stage capitalism. Are our bullshit jobs any more glorious? Are we the NPCs of our own system? How absurd does human labour have to be in order to ensure social order? Can we start glitching, individually and collectively?

– Régine Debatty on We Make Money Not Art

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