Five years after Jean Baudrillard published his polemic on hyperreality, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the first motion-simulator theme-park ride, Star Tours, was unveiled at Disneyland California, following the overwhelming success of George Lucas’s Star Wars movie franchise (1977–ongoing). It’s almost too good a story: Disney, cited by Baudrillard as a major offender with regards to blending reality and representation under the sign of capital, goes on to successfully spearhead the technology to actually do so.
Almost 40 years on, Simon Fujiwara’s monumental new work, Empathy I (2018), contends that the politics of hyperrealism are more relevant than ever. After extensive research into the proliferation of first-person-perspective footage in the social media sphere, the artist collaborated with a theme-park ride fabricator to create a ‘5D simulator’. Occupying a large area of the pristine gallery space at Esther Schipper is a grey metallic box, housing the simulator: a room within a room. Upon arrival, I am guided by an attendant to a ticketing machine and then to a sterile waiting area furnished with airport-style seating. Stacked inside the coffee table are copies of E.L. James’s BDSM-soft novella, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011): a contemporary work of mass soft-BDSM embodiment that, famously, grew out of online fan fiction forums devoted to the vampire film saga Twilight (2008–10).
Entering the simulator, I buckle myself into one of two customized chairs set in front of a convex screen and brace myself for the virtual unknown. Following a high-pitched countdown, the opening footage is of a courtyard: the movement of the camera, which is attached to a hovering drone scrambling to find its balance, is augmented by the synchronized rocking of my chair. Just as I begin to feel acclimatized to this altered perspective, the drone smashes through a nearby window and crashes onto the floor as someone off-screen yells: ‘Holy fuck!’ The illusion of embodiment: established then ruptured.
What follows is a voyage – at times haunting, at others exhilarating – through found-footage sourced from some of YouTube’s most obscure archives of first-person-perspective camerawork. Jumping into a pool with friends in Mykonos; blasting music from the back of a car in the Middle East; parasailing over the Gulf of Mexico; video-blogging from a luxury hotel in Miami: Fujiwara takes us from the post-produced ecstasy of music videos to the banality of amateur vacation footage. There are moments of fleeting bliss (a bride being kissed post-marriage ceremony), tedium (a wheelchair user exiting a train via a disability lift), violence (physical man-handling in a parking lot) and fear (escaping drowning in the open sea). Moving from drone footage to headset imagery – bridged by digital simulation and various hard-to-decipher filming techniques – the perspective of Empathy I defies the laws of gravity, time and bodily capability. Its images are projected with such speed that, having simulating flying, swimming, driving and running, one ends up feeling weirdly disassociated from an illusion of corporeality altogether. The whole experience is over in about four minutes, leaving viewers euphoric yet dissatisfied – but hugely entertained.
Fujiwara’s film – manically accelerated and fundamentally unprocessable – analyses both the technical limits of simulation and the ethical ramifications of this trend towards a global image culture of embodiment. Or, rather, in opting temporarily to substitute our own bodily experience for that of a represented other, is this more so a culture of dis-embodiment? Empathy I raises a significant question as to which autogenetic fantasies have informed this phenomenon. Following this, Fujiwara’s choice of title offers not only a sardonic critique of the crass mundanity of these embodied social-media experiences but of the widely held notion, accentuated by his siting of the work within a gallery environment, that art has the ability to retain its critical independence from such populist image cultures.
Simon Fujiwara, 'Empathy I' runs at Esther Schipper, Berlin, until 30 September 2018.
Main image: Simon Fujiwara, 'Empathy I', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin; photograph: Andrea Rossetti