Antal Lakner’s retrospective exhibition Workstation at the Ludwig Museum, Budapest, covers the artist’s oeuvre of engaging, design-oriented conceptual artworks that challenge the passivity of the museum environment and the individual’s response to contemporary life. My favorite works, which are representative of many of Lakner’s concerns, are the INERS Passive Working Devices. It is a scientific-sounding name for these cleanly designed machines that look as if they belong in a gym or an office–in fact, exactly the haunts of our post-industrial society of office workers who must pursue physical activity as exercise, a leisure activity, rather than as a necessary part of everyday life. Absurdly, these machines mimic the actions of formerly common labor, such as sawing, walking with a wheelbarrow, and house painting, transforming them into exercises that produce no result.
A demonstration of the Passive Working Devices in action:
These devices highlight Lakner’s interest in the individual’s role in society, here in relation to physical labor. The obviously playful, interactive aspect of these devices belies their critical nature. There is a tension in the absurdity of the work which mimics usefulness but serves no purpose, between the carefully manufactured aesthetic that is in fact hand-made, and in the interactivity of machines which call for action while questioning agency. All these tensions suggest that modern life might turn us into automatons if we do not remain aware of the issues that the INERS Passive Working Devices bring up.
Lakner’s newer work, First Life Tools, is based on web communication devices and here the critique of modern life breaks down a bit. The tools allow you to practice zooming, work out your scrolling fingers on a little track wheel, or drag a heavy, magnetized mouse that strengthens your hand and arm. After a day of Photoshop, these devices might seem incredibly relevant in a non-ironic sense. Certainly the technology the devices train you for is contemporary, but I think the anxiety over technology in contemporary life (think Marshall McLuhan) that the First Life Tools suggest feels dated. More than that, I can’t help thinking that the focus on the physical isn’t nearly as relevant to web communication as, for example, dealing with the mental schizophrenia of trying to keep up with many streams of online information on multiple wired devices would be.