“In Phase 1 – Text/Image, an email was sent out to participants featuring an arbitrary narration and image. The participants were tasked to email back a manipulation of the story and image, or produce a new text and an image that responds to the last email — as they see fit- to continue the game. This goes on back and forth for as long as both parties are interested in continuing.”

“Find a way to produce everything everybody needs, and get it to them. Make it work.”
Jackson Mac Low, Social Project 3, April 29, 1963, the Bronx.

Browsing through, I feel I'm bearing witness to the formative stages of an aesthetic being naturalized, a proto-punk compelled to work out a debt to frenetic circumstance before it takes respite in an immediate form.

This emergent aesthetic is difficult to write about directly and can only be circumambulated via previous referents and coordinates. The project began as a series of tasks emailed among a group of Iranian artists during Covid lockdown, with a simple goal - to entertain each other while social distancing. The project breaks down to a sum of all parts that, curiously enough, surpasses the whole. Like an epistolary novel about the construction of affects, the Playcognition archive is consolidated with a completist obsessiveness that borders on self-surveillance.

After Playcognition, I am compelled to think that internet-responsive art in Iran is passing through a Fluxus moment. This is not to say that the project is a recrudescent throwback to a legacy grounded in conditions that no longer exist. Rather, like Fluxus did in its time, Playcognition demonstrates conditions of artmaking in a way that leaves it open to the shape of things to come.

Fluxus coincided with a crisis in Fordist production, when traditional industries were threatened by consumer differentiation and the internationalization of economy. Amidst this restructuring of material relations, Fluxus became committed to the notion of life over 'traditional artificialities of art'1. In a 1965 manifesto titled “Fluxus Art Amusement,” George Maciunas wrote that Fluxus art should be “concerned with insignificances, require no skill or countless rehearsals, have no commodity or institutional value.” Artists accomplished this through performance rather than aesthetics, re-imagining the artist as a facilitator of processes with open-ended or non-specific outcomes. Much like the instructions in Playcognition, Fluxus scores were essentially an exercise in playful bureaucracy, performed to generate lyricism from banality.

The Fluxus modus operandi was to ironize lip service paid to “that old art thing”, tangential to changing material relations in the 70s; George Maciunas frequently used mass production as a lever, calling Fluxkits - boxes filled with curious and readymades - “miniature Fluxus Museums.2" Half a decade later, with post-fordist relations set in stone, what was ironic recedes into a new coordinates for banality, in need of a new sincerity. Amidst these conditions, Playcognition coheres properly in a post-fluxus/ post-fordist epoch, with an earnestness that is not oppositional, but reflexive of the current cultural paradigm.

Fluxus’s commitment to destroying the art-life divide would ultimately become prophetic of eroded work-play boundaries under neoliberalism. From office playrooms to corporate retreats, industries have found endless ways to formalize and regulate play. It is telling of this paradigm shift that, compared to Yoko Ono’s event scores, Playcognition’s directives for play are less whimsical, more brusque, with an emphasis on maintaining reflexive distance:

Think that snow is falling. Think that snow is falling
everywhere all the time. When you talk with a person, think
that snow is falling between you and on the person.
Stop conversing when you think the person is covered by snow.
— Yoko Ono

"Write some of your habits down on paper. Try to break one of the habits for a week.
Do not describe to anyone whether the experience was pleasant or not.”

If possible, try not to speak for 4 hours.
Do not talk. Do not type. Do not even let your ears hear anyone's voice (as much as possible)
You will be alone with your thoughts Write down your thoughts and analyze them
Talk to everyone about this experience the next day”
- Playcognition

Fluxus and Playcognition's paths intersect in a striving for autonomy amidst decentralization. Playcognition’s blueprints for play contain echoes of a time when George Maciunas bought boxes and distributed them to artists to turn into Fluxkits, and Robert Watts solicited rocks from an international network of artists to produce Fluxatlas (1973). In Playcognition's time, however, decentralization is no longer novel. Mass culture is shaped by companies like Alibaba, thriving from decentralized production units that enable flexible specialization. What Fluxus idealized as an alternative to institutionality and commodification, instead, stabilizes regimes of capitalist accumulation. In turn, consumer difference spirals into a whirlpool of atomized niches, metabolized and regurgitated in succession.

The context of Playcognition’s emergence is the condition of hyperbanality, when the hyperreal fails to confound or disorient, even when its machinations are laid bare. Every voice sample, every gesture, every turn of phrase instantly breaks down into a polyvalence of commodifiable formats. This atomization of reality is materialized by Cosplayers, Mukbangers, ASMR vloggers, “strangely satisfying” video producers destroying soap with knives, hydraulic press machines. Unlike Fluxus scores, this play is subservient to attention economies, dictated by cascades of automated behavior chains catalyzed by meme templates and tik tok challenges.

Since we are now expected to produce difference, new sincerity on Playcognition’s part is no longer a ‘playful ordinariness’ that challenges the artistic status quo, but sincerity in an attempt to be self-reflexive about play.

“The Joke” - B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Audience as reflected cast; 35 mm x 2 cameras; variable length; black and white; silent. Parody of Hollis Frampton’s 'audience-specific events,’ two Ikegami EC-35 video cameras in the theater record the 'film’s’ audience and project the resultant raster onto screen - the theater audience watching itself watch itself get the obvious 'joke’ and become increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable and hostile supposedly comprises the film’s involuted 'anti-narrative’ flow. Incadenza'a first truly controversial project, Film & Kartridge Kultcher’s Sperber credited it with 'unwittingly sounding the death-knell of post-poststructual film in terms of sheer annoyance.’ NON-RECORDED MAGNETIC VIDEO SCREENABLE IN THEATER VENUE ONLY, NOW UNRELEASED
- David Foster Wallace, James O. Incandenza Complete Filmography, Infinite Jest

Fluxus’ use of humor seems heavy handed now, as ley lines for amusement have changed along with our relationship to the banal. Self-reflexivity in itself doesn’t guarantee an antidote to banal art - it has been used in pop culture franchises since the 90s. The trailer to the Space Jam reboot differentiates itself from its predecessor by including a line of dialogue from Lebron James: “Bet Will Smith ain’t gotta deal with this,3” belying the fact that the original was already an exercise in self-reflexivity4. This tonal irony has become a defining feature of internet humor - memetic trends come with a nod and wink that something is being done for the sake of doing it - a mock indifference.

As cynical this seems, it serves as a perfect illustration of how metatextuality becomes a lever in the production of difference. Once the aesthetic coordinates of a cultural phenomenon becomes normalized, a niche microvariation is generated by gesturing towards a meta-position within its template. The gothic sanrio e-girl is a meta-mall goth, drain gang are meta-sadboys.

Playcognition are meta-prosumers.

An interesting negotiation between the dissimulation of control and simulation of subservience plays out during phase 4 - ‘Installation in a Room’. In the documentation, Alireza Mohammadi gives form to an archetypal internet user, automating directives from the group as though his body were caught in machinations that blur the line between structure and agency. Once the construction is complete, Mohammadi places himself within it covered in marks - The group has instructed him to draw symbols by Hannaneh Heydari on himself. In documentation, selfies of these drawings alternate with third person photographs of Mohammadi wielding his phone among other ramshackle constructions as though they were weapons, prostheses, or cyborg guts. A spearhead made from perforated beams seems to indicate the existence of, while also sneering at, some kind of armature Mohammad has been ejected from, or is trying to hold together.

I am reminded by the retrograde amnesiac from Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), who has to use an intricate system of instructional tattoos and snapshots to assuage recurrent memory loss. Phase 4 depicts artistic production in a state of networked atemporality, stripping its own art punk sensibilities down to basal affect: A feedback loop that becomes amplified the closer it approaches dissolution, a modern Prometheus’s liver regenerating again and again after sequential autophagy.

One may be tempted to picture these procedural intricacies as something that, when presented online, disappears into an ocean of hyper-mediation. Instead, playcognition stands out aesthetically singular in its avoidance of irony. The artists do not hold an attitude of being above the coordinates of its production the way the Space Jam franchise deigns to self-differentiate. On the art side of things, Playcognition avoids Fluxus's mistake of claiming liberation in what registers today as empty formalisation. Theirs is a well-organized network that generates a focused aesthetic ‘vibe’ drawing from current conditions of cultural production. In short, Playcognition is not different, but also not banal.

There is an ethical dimension provoked in this stance. As aesthetics and counter-aesthetics hydroplane, accelerating without affecting structural change, we are forced into ideological relativity ad infinitum. Every internet tribe is defined by the mantra “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but mine more so than (insert negative exemplar here)”. Those that claim to create alternatives to dominant forces of cultural production are more often than not, performing relativization. This reaches its apex in Political Compass Memes and NFTs, with superstructure and infrastructure reduced to relativizable forms, untethered from any overall consensus on what dictates our values. Artists are left in an aporia - aesthetics are now serious, but need to be taken lightly. In light of this, Playcognition recognises that the question of how to play is of immense consequence.

The obverse to ironic difference is a sentimental identification with hazily defined 'commons'. Perhaps the real political inheritors of Fluxus’s ideal of 'non-pretentious banality' are proponents of the global phenomenon of community arts. Community organizers literally perform ‘play’ for the sake of city council bureaucracy; This is the final destination of anti-art, positivized as egalitarian PR. Whether it be a result of cynicism or simply making the best out of things, there is a logic of reverse-scarcity at work in these claims to creative autonomy. Street art is inhibited by the spectre of self-advertising, zines in the internet era become a staple of boutique markets, and ‘lack of visibility’ becomes synonymous with ‘those who have not been recruited to fulfill institutional quotas’. ‘Community’ is ultimately a misnomer - Mark Fisher calls this dissolution of the public a result of “pseudo-marketization”, where ‘public’ services simulate market mechanisms, as opposed to being the market itself5. Fluxus comes full circle when anti-establishment art becomes a node in the establishment that disinvests itself of functionality.

Contemporary visual culture is characterized by assemblages that aestheticize discontinuous material relations, normalizing the heterogeneities requisite to Post-Fordism. There is a tendency in community arts towards taking this normalization for granted, while claiming objects a conduit to ‘social sculpture'. While assemblages are naturally the outcome of the Playcognition project, they are not post-normative - you don’t ‘read’ documented results of their labor as you would register the semantic order of a community makerspace, or genres of neoliberal subsumption such as upcycling. You bear witness to how the assemblage unfolds.

Consistent in their stance of ‘not different/ not banal’, Playcognition navigates their ship of theseus through these complexities, holding neither reverence nor nihilism towards the objects of their engagement. In phase 6 of their project, Playcognition worked with the founder of an NGO focusing on sustainable transportation. In the documentation, we see parts from the installation phase transported with a bike trolley, and reassembled in a river. Imagery like a tire and a mop are stenciled on a warped aluminum piece, which looks like a tuk tuk awning when placed on the trolley. (There is a stray photo of a broken statuette included in the documentation, a female figure covered in flaking scarlet paint, approximately the size a passenger of the “tuk tuk” would be.) The aluminum ends up being tied defiantly to a pipe running across the river. This is all incomprehensibly dissonant and intriguing; the stencils exist somewhere between being a diagram or parody of heraldry, or a found scrap broken off a carnival ride - we are teased with extratextual allusions, but eventually denied semantic closure.

Against the cliche that art’s merit hinges on whether it communicates something independent of the context of its creation, it is a testament to the focus of Playcognitions’ aesthetic thrust that their baroque productions end up sufficiently enigmatic, despite the huge amount of backstory spelt out to us. Contingencies of artmaking do not become a justification for the significance of the assemblage.

This resistance to post-normalization opens up a space in which we may rehabilitate our relationship towards objects. In a botched attempt at reclaiming a lost sense of sacredness in things, we tend towards over-inflated signifiers to dictate group identity. In the realisation of Fluxus's insistence that art be "obtainable and produced by all" - we have begun to regulate who makes what type of art. This is the most apparent in popular discourse about cultural appropriation, lampooned in a tongue-in-cheek meme circulating about Monster Energy drink6:

“Anyone can drink monster however ppl should b mindful that it is part of the emo/goth culture so drinking it/ taking pics w it for 'aesthetic' if ur not alt can actually be considered offensive so just b careful!!!”

In a brand document chronicling Monster’s marketing strategy, Mclean Advertising states that its strategy was to “Intentionally create a brand that is sufficiently devoid of meaning, in order to be filled with significance for early adopters.7” We live in deeply peculiar times, where centuries of visual convention evolving around ideolo-religious forms become superseded by ahistorical, hollow signifiers. A sign that is ‘open to interpretation’ deploys aura far more efficiently in service of the organization of social order. Aura is no longer a result of historical compressions tethered onto appearances, no longer the product of sustained ritual engagement and cultivation of belief through objects. Instead they are activated by signifiers that function like an assemblage - like a fluxkit, aggregators of ‘multiples’.

It should come as no surprise that we should take step back from post-normalization, and reflect on the formal processes integral to the construction of aura through Playcognition, organized by artists from a culture whose attitude towards images ranges from suspicion of idolatry to aniconism. Playcognition deconstructs aura as non-functional conventions that accrue around form - a specific kind of graininess, a specific kind of rawness, a specific kind of texture, a specific combination of hue. This specificity is in congruence with its locality, without falling into the community arts trap of pushing for provincial representation. The project, as a whole, achieves aesthetic congruence without relying on any external terms of legibility or identification.

I don’t think of Playcognition as a perpetual work in progress so much as a defined aesthetic that is best presented in hyperlink form. When browsing through its archives I revisit a multiplicity of affective correlates, from Tetsuo the Iron man to John Zorn’s Cobra. None of these comparisons are sufficient or summative; the project is its own specific, integrated accumulation of nuance. It gives a feeling of something that shouldn’t work but does, like a magician who reveals how a trick is done before performing it, yet still manages to fool the audience.

1 The Dream of Fluxus, Kellein, p62

PLAY/COGNITION | reviewed by solo show:
not different, not banal