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Total Refusal Say ‘Idleness is Theft’ While Observing NPCs in Videogames

Total Refusal Say ‘Idleness is Theft’ While Observing NPCs in Videogames

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Total Refusal
Total Refusal. “Hardly Working”, 2022. Video Installation. Photo: Nada Žgank. Courtesy of Aksioma.

Set against the picturesque mountain valleys of America’s frontier towns, the stories of several workers unfold in Hardly Working, a video work shot entirely within the action-adventure game Red Dead Redemption 2. A carpenter repeatedly hammers nails into a wooden pier, examining the same thirteen locations for eleven hours each day. One woman endlessly knits without any progress, another spends her days hunched over a bucket of washing. Miraculously, when she walks at night, her posture shows no signs of back pain or discomfort. The street sweeper moves her broom back and forth on one spot and yet her meticulousness is not rewarded. The presence of dust and dirt has a permanence. After a day’s labor, the stable hand wanders into a field and just stands, swaying. Is this sleep deprivation a further act of cruelty imposed on the NPCs or is it a moment of powerful refusal and agency, a radical stance of unproductivity and nonconformity? Sleeping in order to fulfil the demands of the next work shift would be far too compliant.

For Total Refusal’s recent exhibition BPM at Aksioma – Institute of Contemporary Art Ljubljana curated by the legendary !Mediengruppe Bitnik, they turn the camera towards the Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) in computer games. These are ‘the extras, who live their lives in the background….’, those that exist on the peripheries and are rarely paid attention to. It is this method that is so captivating in their work. The spotlighting of marginalization and the use of animated characters as a medium to explore agency garnered the artist, researcher, and filmmaker collective Total Refusal (Susanna Flock, Adrian Haim, Jona Kleinlein, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, Michael Stumpfa) a prize for Best Direction at Locarno Film Festival.

As the film Hardly Working clearly shows, they are refusing to play the game in the way that is expected and instead become eagle-eyed observers witnessing and documenting working-class hardship and alienation. “To the employer, idle laborers aren’t just lazy. They are stealing time. Idleness is theft,” the narrator observes as a stablehand does nothing. For a videogame set in 1899, it’s strikingly resonant with contemporary wage slavery.

Total Refusal. “Hardly Working”, 2022. Video Installation. Photo: N. Lackner. Courtesy of Total Refusal.

I find myself thinking, is this voyeurism not problematic? Does a lack of intervention imply complicity? The context of gaming complicates this because here, this abstinence of action becomes a way to break the rules and challenge the status quo. It also prompts incredibly pertinent questions about what freedom means today. What does freedom look and feel like, and is it truly freedom if others remain relatively unfree?

For all that the lives of these NPCs epitomize the drudgery of inane and repetitive work, they remain romanticized. At no point do we see the representation of disability or impairment. The women are either cleaners or sex workers and yet there are no children or maternal fatalities. Even dirty dishes miraculously disappear when thrown into a makeshift sink. This is the sanitisation of low-paid and un-paid labour, and the lack of apparent consequences adds to a problematic sense of nostalgia and ‘back to simpler times’.

In the show at Aksioma, the video installation Hardly Working is paired with a dance-fuelled scene of modern-day clubbing. This is where the combination of both artworks really excels in showing how the observation of NPCs can create a powerful commentary about cycles of work and leisure as designated in capitalist systems. These two video installations should be polar opposites, one showing the hopelessness engendered in gruelling, low-/unpaid work and the other showing scenes of apparent freedom and individual expression. But for leisure time and play to offer genuine respite, they have to be born out of choice and autonomy, something that NPCs don’t have. Both installations share a sense of utter loneliness and near-inescapable systems of control.

In Club Stalhard, we see four humanoid figures dance incessantly to a club’s soundtrack. It’s supposed to be a party but there’s an air of coercion, a sense that these people are not dancing to shake off the burdens of the working week or to express a part of their personality that is usually repressed through their over-identification with their job role. Of course they aren’t; again, this is expertly articulated through Total Refusal’s attention towards NPCs to make their artworks.

Total Refusal Aksioma
Total Refusal. “Club Stahlbad”, 2023. Video Installation. Photo: Nada Žgank / Aksioma.

These people are dancing because they can’t do anything else. They are stuck in the roles that have been designed for them. And yet they move in a way that is supposed to evoke fun and pleasure. Their blank expressions and glazed eyes are incongruous with the situation as their boundless energy contorts them into ever-improbable positions. As the installation progresses, if we were to replicate these moves, it would result in broken bones and dislocated limbs. One dancer wipes her brow and her hand slices through her cheekbone, she’s unfazed, indestructible. There is a total lack of enjoyment in forced play.

This is fundamental to Total Refusal’s work, to make grand philosophical points that critique Capitalist ideologies that have sunk deep into the weaves of our social fabric and govern our ways of being in the world. Structures that make it so difficult for dissidents and opponents to escape and choose alternatives without being nullified through commodification or appropriation.

Total Refusal
Total Refusal. “Club Stahlbad”, 2023. Video Installation. Photo: Nada Žgank / Aksioma.

Undeterred, Total Refusal take Critical Theory and neo-Marxist speculations out of the academy and into the world of gaming, after all only 6.7% of the global population have a college degree whereas around 20% own or have access to a videogame console. A conundrum that critical avant-gardes of the past knew well, if there are to be any major paradigm shifts that demolish the structures that support the ruling class, it helps to get people on board by using a language that the population is familiar with.

BPM by Total Refusal is open through June 14, 2024 at Aksioma | Institute of Contemporary Art Ljubljana, Komenskega 18, Ljubljana. 

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