Olaf Rauh: Playgrounds

Within the chaos of a city, filled with walls that appear bleak and gray because they block the sun, we have set aside certain spaces, glittering under slants of canyon light, where the solitude of urban life breaks for communal play. In the fall of 2001, a time when the entire city seemed suspended, the German photographer Olaf Rauh crossed the playgrounds of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with an early digital camcorder and captured these sites at moments of disuse. Their barren quietude is not the only anomaly: the footage he shot, encoded as low-res mpeg-1 files, appears full of chromatic distortions.

See, the footage has been manipulated. Not in any common sense that we think of when it comes to digital imaging, wherein data is rearranged, copied, or spliced. Rather, Rauh paused his videos on a single frame, in which the low-res digital file dissolved into fractal renderings of light, and then photographed his monitor with a film camera. The final products, on view for the first time in New York City at Galerie Richard, are chromogenic prints — large-format pictures of computer screens.

There are no people in Rauh’s Playgrounds. Steadfast swings and empty fountains, a slide that curls around itself lonesomely, swing sets that appear like abandoned castles — all of this jolts in and out of clarity as you move around the pictures, creating an effect much like that of a Gerhard Richter painting, or Nudes and Jpegs, two projects by Rauh’s contemporary Thomas Ruff. However, unlike Ruff’s works, which give way to grids mimicking the actual shape of pixels, Rauh’s images are composed of tiny colored orbs set against a black background, formed by the prismatic light that shines through the glass. This subtle difference is relevant, as Rauh’s work draws no break between digital and analog processes. JPEGs are containers for partitioned data; pixels are merely vessels of light.

There’s a vague sense of profundity in the work of artists like Lucas Blalock, who believe to be revealing some original manipulability inherent in digital images — as if such subtle disruptions of the continuity of an image were enough to bring us fully into contact with our new digital perceptions. But photographic processes, despite their roots in chemistry, have always functioned along the same lines as algorithms. The phenomenologist Vilém Flusser writes that the camera, like all apparatuses, operates as a “calculating machine,” which create images by following established, rules-based procedures. “Photographers do not play with their plaything but against it,” he writes. “They creep into the camera in order to bring to light the tricks concealed within.” In the act of photography, the agency of humans and machines becomes intertwined, resulting in some third thing, a representation that’s neither fully hominal nor entirely analog.

The exhibition catalogue for Rauh’s Playgrounds cites the writings of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who “emphasizes that culture only arises in play and by playing” because it manifests through a open-ended exploration of social norms, at times reaching and rearranging established boundaries. But Huizinga on occasion mistakes play, which is free, for games, which are based on rules — a specific form of play that operates within a set paradigm. Rauh’s photos are printed on a material that cannot be touched, or else the surface will be irreparably damaged. And so, the Playgrounds are a digital mirage. If we try to reach them they will rupture; instead we stand back and observe our play spaces for what they are: allowances for childlike wonder, illusions of infinite potentiality. Beneath them, there is a structure that dictates possibilities.

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Ernst Fischer