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Arnolfini, Bristol   22/11/08 - 18/1/09


'Supertoys' at the Arnolfini is an exhibition - and related events - exploring toys, emotional machines and play. Artists, technologists, children and adults examine how toys operate as transitional objects in allowing feelings to be carried between the human subject and the external world.

There’s an enclosed area on the floor where little round robot vehicles, each with coloured lights attached, are whizzing around. In SWARM SYSTEMS (Bristol Robotics Lab) these little robots are running on an algorithm programmed by Jan Dyre Bjerknes that produces both collision avoidance and swarming behavior. Chaotic patterns emerge as the robots interact with each other and the confines of the real world pen, a complex behavior similar to a very primitive life-form.

Next to this is a rectangular pond, in which you are invited to pilot some radio-controlled decoy ducks. New York artist Natalie Jermijenko has been taking parties of schoolchildren out and about with her ROBOTIC GEESE AND DUCKS (picture below) to see how real ducks and geese interact with her radio-controlled ones. Jermijenko’s  ROBOTIC FERAL DOGS are fixed to the wall and lie on a table in various states of repair. These are toy robot dogs which look like they’ve been modified and customized with additional circuitry. A video monitor shows New York kids playing with these robots in a patch of wasteland; captions inform us that they are using these to investigate new uses for chemically polluted waste ground. The artist is using the play element of the robot dogs and ducks to get children interested in science subjects like nature study.

In another pen next to this are a number of soft toy-like objects. Dunne and Raby's HUGGABLE ATOMIC MUSHROOMS (picture above). And this is where the show gets slightly confusing. The workshops here are clearly hands-on events for kids, but these pieces use the conventions of gallery art sculpture. They are objects that look like soft toys, but which take the shapes of an atomic mushroom clouds. In this context you would expect them to be something children could handle and play with, but it turns out they are huggable by name only. They are displayed as representational sculptures of cuddly fallout clouds that you're supposed to look at but not touch. It says in the catalogue: the design is intended to help control individual anxiety about such a threat through rationality, rather than common responses of paranoia or denial. So, while many artists elsewhere have produced art with anxiety-producing imagery to encourage agitation, education, and organization against the arms trade, it seems Dunne and Raby are suggesting a more infantile response of “Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.  Perhaps this cuddly toy approach may be an appropriate therapeutic response when dealing with children and adults traumatized by the realities of (state-) terrorism. But it poses a couple of questions: should fear or avoidance responses based on a fact of modern history be medicalised as symptoms of “paranoia” or “denial”? And if children and adults are programmed with false ideas which override their natural fears of death and mass extinction, is that a good idea?

A small sign at the entrance to the next room warns you of naked dolls. In a side room with subdued lighting are more soft toys - ones you are allowed to handle - by UNMASK GROUP (picture left). These are the size and shape of adult humans. They have detachable features such as genitalia, so you can change their gender if you want. There is also CODE MANIPULATOR'S TOOLBOX a load of plastic letters spread out on the carpet, a set of cut-out Ones and Zeroes, to play with on the carpet.

There's some overtly commercial art in here. A screen downstairs shows Chris Cunningham's four minute promotional video for Bjork's 'All is Full of Love' with CGI robots displaying human emotion (picture below right). But if you want to watch this video properly the wall of this exhibition isn’t really the place: the sound is turned off, the video is here to is attract attention to the upstairs galleries.

Up at the top of the building in a little gallery room to itself, showing on a hand-size DVD screen is 'The Writer' by Philippe Parreno (picture below). This is a loop showing a close up of a 1700s automaton hand writing out a quote from a Marx Brother's film. There are clanks, scrapes and whirrs on its soundtrack. But somehow I don't think it is really a programmed robot or an autonomous machine we are watching. It reminds me of The Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century by Wolfgang von Kempelen (picture below right). The Turk was a humanoid machine which appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent. Although this was publicly promoted as an automaton and given its common name based on this appearance, the Turk was in fact an illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. On this video, I suspect that the Writer’s hand is likewise being worked like a puppet.  

The best part of this show is the activity in a workshop room on the first floor. Children and adults are breaking apart and using glue guns to reassemble lots of old plastic toys, making them into MUTANT TOYS (picture bottom left). Each remixed toy is added to shelves full of the little monsters, each with labels with titles and funny little stories about the toys composed by their makers. Though these are all small scale pieces that take a few minutes to make, the sum total is often more bizarre and amusing than what some highly skilled adult artists manage to achieve with this kind of material. That’s the beauty of surrealist techniques like 3D cut-ups, they are such great levelers. I see they are running a workshop where kids are encouraged to “pitch” their own toy designs to a panel of young experts. Hmm - so much for utopian ideals of leveling - the kids are being encouraged to mimic the competitive behavior of the entrepreneurs you see on Dragon’s Den. In Mutant Toys the use of recycled, salvaged materials means the use-value of obsolete toys is extended. But then these are only toys. It's something for kids. It’s all very trivial stuff. The re-assembled toys will all go into the skip when it's finished, and then on to land-fill or dumped on some third-world doorstep.

Yes, it’s nearly Christmas and all around there’s talk of a world recession. Among its complex causes is the massive over-production of consumer items, including toys for children. The multi-million dollar toy industry is based around the manufacture of desire, implanting friendly looking characters, logos and must-have gadgets into children’s fantasy lives to make them ready for an adult world centered on the acquisition of emotionally-charged objects.  These items become worthless once their novelty has expired, and so they pass into car boot sales, charity shops and end up dumped in toxic heaps for third world children to pick their way through. I wonder to what degree this programming can be questioned or disrupted in exhibitions such as Supertoys. Surely what constitutes a toy is an object designed to be played with, whereas the videos, mushroom clouds and swarm system are all art objects (ie consumer objects) which impose a passive response. I also wonder if there is a clear difference between toys acting as “transitional objects” for children and art objects acting as “transitional objects” for adults.

With all of this happening in the Arnolfini, it isn’t at all obvious what is supposed to be touched and what is not to be touched. You have to quickly learn very complex protocols to understand how to view, or use, or join in with, the art. One of the points of Fluxus (which features heavily in the parallel artists books exhibition at the Arnolfini) was a utopian attempt to demystify art and to make it something to be played with. It was against serious culture, emphasizing the value of non-competitive play in a light-hearted attack on the division of experts and non-experts, artists and non-artists within a class- based society.  As a serious cultural institution, the Arnolfini has to put the concept of play secondary to the re-imprinting of codes of status within the dominant culture.

An Arnolfini steward says to his friend: "Of course it's not really art, it's a crowd pleaser. You have to do these. The next show's more like it - it's an Angus Fairhurst retrospective, the first one since he killed himself."

Nigel Ayers 22/12/08