Interview with David Theobald

David speaks about Worker's Playtime, his Animate OPEN film.


Workers’ Playtime is distinctive from your other digital collage animations – with its 3D modelling and perhaps a more conceptual approach. How did the film come about – is it a one-off shift, or a change in direction?

The decision to use full 3D modelling was conceptual in that I wanted to evoke the idea of a computer simulation. It seemed to make sense to create a ‘virtual’ robot, when the robot itself would have been programmed and was being used as ‘virtual’ labour. Further, I wanted to achieve a precise choreography with the robot and balloons that might, in some way, suggest the level of labour involved in producing the animation. I don’t think that using 3D modelling is such a big shift as many of my other works still involved manipulating flat images in a virtual 3D environment – in those works, the resulting flat, almost failed, 3D seemed appropriate for the often mundane and frustrating subject matter. Going forward, I think I’ll use both techniques, perhaps using 3D modelling for ideas where I want to simulate a specific event that has already happened or a scenario that did not turn out the way it was anticipated.

You pose the question..what do we mean by ‘labour’ in the digital age? What are those shifts in understanding that you’re exploring?

When I made the piece I was thinking about a lot of different ideas that inform the work. There was the idea of the alienated labour of industrial mass production that Debord articulates in The Society of the Spectacle - how the decomposition of manufacture into thousands of sub-tasks distances workers from any sense of investment in the final product.

The replacement of humans in these sub tasks through the use of automation further alienates us from the physical task of making things and leaves us solely as a consumer. However, even then, the automated tracking of our consumption patterns by vendors implicates us in the production process through improving the supply chain. There seems to be a big disparity between the purported benefits of automation in terms of greater leisure time - ‘play’ - and the resulting reality of rising unemployment and the demise of manufacturing in the UK.

We seem to use a lot of this ‘spare’ time looking at screens. There is also the idea of labour in the newer ‘digital industries’, such as computer software, video games, mobile phones, internet banking etc, where we seem to be replicating the same ‘Fordist’ work structures that we had in industrial manufacturing with a decomposition of tasks again resulting in an alienation of labour. Finally, on a more flippant side, there’s the idea of the robot as a ‘worker’ with rights – perhaps as artificial intelligence develops we will need to think about how we can give robots more interesting jobs or ‘play’ time so they don’t get bored?

Which came first – the visual metaphor, or the soundtrack/radio reference?

The visual metaphor of an industrial robot came first as I was thinking about a piece that might relate to some of the ideas that I described above. However, I started to model it up before I had finalised what I would have the robot do. Once I had decided that the robot should undertake a playful activity, such as juggling balloons, the title and radio reference came immediately from that.

You use wit, or ‘gags’ even, as a device, and then pursue things - pushing the joke to/beyond the limit where it’s funny - so it’s a sort of conceptual approach - do you think of ‘humour’ as a material to work with, or is it a subject?

I think of humour more as ‘material' rather than as a subject in its own right. Humour seems an effective way to make art accessible – it lowers barriers and encourages people to think laterally and make connections, which is what I think art is about. For example, when used properly, I think satire can be a powerful strategy for social critique. Also, humour provides a potential way to sustain interest in a subject beyond when someone might otherwise get bored, perhaps allowing other more subtle sensory aspects of a work to become apparent. However, when a joke is endlessly repeated something different happens which I find interesting – it’s no longer funny and starts to take on a more sinister dimension.

You trained as a chemical engineer and worked in finance - how difficult, or strange, was the change in profession?

A lot of people I meet think it must have been really weird, but to me it felt a very natural thing to do, to the point that I found it almost impossible to consider anything else. Crucially, I think my previous roles gave me a specific perspective on contemporary existence and culture that now informs and very much drives my practice. Pursuing a career in art was about acquiring the skills to explore some of these ideas in a way that I hoped would also make them accessible to others.

Who are your influences or heroes/heroines – films, art, people?

In terms of ‘heroes’, I’d look to philosopher/writers like Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour and Brian Massumi. I’m quite a fan of the documentary work of Adam Curtis and the novels of Nicolson Baker. In terms of art, I find a whole bunch of stuff interesting such as the work of (in no particular order) Mark Wallinger, Christian Marclay, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Julian Rosenfeldt, Omer Fast, Guy Ben-Ner, Lindsay Seers, Tacita Dean, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Demand, Susan Hiller and Francis Alys. Looking at the list, I guess a lot of these artists also use humour in their work.