Playing the Picturesque (You+Pea, RIBA)
1. Visiting the Show
So you walk up a wide street, arches and big white houses all around. LOOK AT THIS, the road says. LONDON. LONDON, 2019. History book London, olden-days London, extremely-rich-people London.
You go past a big steepled grey-white church and dozens and dozens of almost-identical white houses until you come to the public-facing headquarters of RIBA, an architectural organisation so fancy that its URL is literally just “architecture.com”.
Inside there are huge staircases; there are columns. The ceiling has these kinda bevelled recesses that must have an official design name. The windows are wide, but so tall that they look narrow. There is just a whole lot of architecture going on. I mean, you know what museums look like, but in this very particular case all the details are important, the road outside, the vista, the variety of columns. There’s a desk with a guy behind it, too, and you can go past the desk and into a dimly lit gallery space. It’s free.
The gallery space is small, and bright three-dimensional structures — abstracted polyhedrons, an archway, columns — jut out towards the centre. These jutting shapes surround neat spaces on the irregular walls, and in those spaces there are gently moving images of different landscapes: buildings among trees, archways, pastel videogame countryside. In one of the spaces, a purple deer runs by.
The three-dimensional structures aren’t just frames for the digital games, and the digital games aren’t just a setting for the structures; the two are complementary parts, each of the five or six locations within the gallery acting as a single thing (object, space, place, design, folly) that manifests in both physical and digital form.
Each physical/digital space has a carpet in front of it, grey with a pink rectangle and a blue rectangle inlaid. When visitors stand on the patches, the viewpoint of the landscape changes as the camera swings along a defined pathway, or zooms in on a particular building, or slides past columns, or even transforms the digital architecture from one state into another.
2. I am not a neutral observer of this installation
I came to Playing the Picturesque predisposed to like it.
For a start, I like You+Pea. I like the two members (Luke Pearson and Sandra Youkhana) as people, though I don’t know them well; I like their work (the festival I direct, Now Play This, has commissioned them in the past); I like the fact of them working within architecture, but experimenting with videogames as a core part of their practice; I like that they’ve been commissioned by RIBA to make this big and interesting piece.
And I love follies.
A folly is a building that looks like it’s meant to exist for some sort of practical reason, but actually it’s just there as decoration: to set off the landscape, to provide a moment of reflection, to look good from an upper window of a stately home. Generally speaking you can’t wait for a bus in a folly; you can’t order a cup of tea there; you can’t rent a folly to sleep in. A castle-themed folly might well have a turret but that turret will have no defensive capabilities beyond those invested in it as an inevitable side effect of its being quite high off the ground.
Follies are obviously ridiculous but if we have to have weirdly rich people, then I reckon we might as well have the sort of weirdly rich people who build spires in the shape of their grandmother or fountains designed to look charming from their bathtub or big fake Roman temples that you can have a barbecue in when it rains. Last time I got drunk enough to make ill-advised decisions with lasting consequences, I woke up the next morning with a year’s subscription to Follies Magazine (yes, this exists).
So, I was predisposed to enjoy the installation.
3. Back to the show
Playing the Picturesque isn’t just about follies: it looks more broadly at the work of the architect John Nash, who worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; it guides visitors through landscapes and villages and ruins and parks that he worked on, culminating in the columns of Park Crescent, a design that stands just a couple of minutes’ walk from RIBA.
Now that I’m back at home, I see from online documentation that one of the things Playing the Picturesque is looking at is the distinction between virtual and real space, the role of the virtual world as a place to situate architecture. This isn’t a reading that particularly occurred to me while I was there: I guess my assumption is very strongly that digital spaces are perfectly fine spaces for any art to take place, even if their affordances and constraints and possibilities are very different.
Here is, instead, the first reading that occurred to me, looking at these reimagined vistas set among the tall columns of RIBA headquarters: the idea that videogame architecture is essentially a folly, something that takes the form of a building that has a physical function, but which cannot meaningfully fulfil that function and which instead uses its simulated practicality to fulfil, say, an emotional or aesthetic or wayfinding purpose. I read Playing the Picturesque as suggesting that we might use the existing centuries of design and discussion around follies, and the long related history of arguments about the “picturesque”, to usefully inform the ways that we look at videogame architecture.
And here’s the second reading that occurred to me while I was there, making the videogame camera move through charming archways. The interactions that steer you through the landscapes of Playing the Picturesque are so minimal, based on where you stand or sit, and whether you’re alone or with someone else. Are you on the pink square? Is someone else on the other square beside you? Then perhaps the columns will expand, or you will rush forward through the arches, or deer will run past you, or the walls of a building will unfold to reveal something new. So as my exhibition buddy and I moved through the different spaces, and then walked outside into a wide arch-filled street that led up to some of Nash’s real-world buildings, I thought about the way that our experience of a place is mediated by tiny differences in attitude or context, by the company we’re in, by someone stopping to unbolt their bicycle or tie their shoelace in a way that gives you time to notice a particular vista or tree or advertisement or piece of graffiti, by one little step that makes the difference between “we see this magnificent view as intended” and “we see some bins and a dead squirrel”.
4. The projectors
I have one gripe about Playing the Picturesque: the projectors weren’t bright enough.
The digital landscapes were back-projected into the spaces between the physical world, and they were pretty clearly designed with the same hypersaturated, bright, implausible colours as the shapes around them. But the room wasn’t dark enough, or the projectors weren’t bright enough, and instead — as I think you can see in the pictures — the worlds don’t quite match; the physical space is bright and bold and the digital world is a lighter, gentler, subtler, less intense set of pastels.
Does this really matter? I dunno. When I go into a room I tend to notice colour first. If you’re someone who notices shape or movement or texture, say, then I don’t think this mismatch of brightness would affect how you respond to the piece as much, but for me it wasn’t “just” an aesthetic thing (though of course part of the point of the piece is to explore the way that “because it looks nice” can be a good enough reason to do something).
Instead, it meant that my automatic tendency was to read all the physical juttings and shapes as different instances of the same category of thing, and the digital spaces as a separate cluster of things. It meant I had to put in some effort to read each landscape (with its separate physical and digital components) as a cohesive whole.
This feels like a ridiculous quibble, and I don’t mean to imply by writing about it at this length that it’s a major issue. I’m aware that it struck me partly because I recently showed someone else’s work in a room that was too bright for its projectors; so I have a bit of residual guilt floating around that maybe makes me hypersensitive to minor projection issues. But also: Playing the Picturesque is definitely a piece where these technical details matter. The fact that everything was back-projected rather than front-projected (for example) is important; you can imagine a version of the installation where the digital worlds were front-projected instead, and walking in front of the projectors would cast a shadow that blocks out the digital parts of the world but not the physical, and then You+Pea would be saying something quite different about the relationship between the two spaces for architecture.
Go see it! It’s on till early September! It’s good, it’s interesting! I enjoyed the installation itself, but also thinking about it straight afterwards and then occasionally since, walking around London and along streets, looking at the parallax of columns or at buildings in the distance elegantly outlined by trees, at the way the view transforms when I step a little bit too close to pigeons and they all flap suddenly into the air.