Thanks to Amnon Buchbinder and the Biology of Story team for conducting and smartly editing this interview with me. Check out Amnon’s description of the project and start exploring other thinkers on the topic of story here.
First, could you tell us a little bit about XMPLAR, both from a storyworld point of view, and from your perspective as an artist?
XMPLAR is about a collective of nascent artificial intelligences created to learn and evolve with stimulus from crowd-sourced photography/surveillance. The gist of the experience is one where the player is put into an initially uneasy partnership with an AI, which gradually matures over time into a more whole-hearted commitment to its concerns and desires. It’s a world only half a shade off from the reality we are living already, with a soupçon of magical realism thrown in to spice things up.
As an artist, this piece is trying to concretize some ideas I’ve had for awhile now about the use of technology to create persistently reactive work. The intention is to make something that evolves over time, but never requires people to start from scratch. I’m looking to build a long-term relationship with my audience, over multiple experiences in different media. It’s also an exorcism/indictment of the always-hungry corporate façades doing their best to monetize, control, or package a product from the world around us.
How did you get into this kind of practice? What’s your background, and why are you interested in this strange hybrid of narrative, interaction design, and performance?
I was into computer science and robotics when I was younger, but had a change of heart while in undergrad, and ran headlong into Humanities. I’ve also always considered myself a writer in practice, if not so much in product at times. So there’s a thread of narrative to all my concerns.
After graduating, I started making my peace with the science/art, hard/soft disciplines through works of hyperfiction, which got me interested in the use of anonymized tracking in order to make readers’ experiences persistent. I was working as a web and graphic designer at the time in Kentucky.
I entered the UC Santa Cruz Digital Arts New Media program two years ago, and everything has exploded from there. I’ve gotten really interested in using web technology to make reactive projection installations, as well as bringing back my work with physical materials through electronics.
To me, working with all these different media is a way to push myself, and to also break through the barrier of normalcy we’ve built up around technology. I want to make it magical again. I love to make things composed of ordinary parts that, when added up, become extraordinary.
Who or what are some touchstone inspirations for you?
I’m inspired materially by the growing normalization of surveillance–both on a person-to-person level, and the organizational level–through mobile apps and GPS. Businesses like Internet Eyes, where we’re given the ability to spy on each other with sanction from the government through their own CCTV cameras, and given “prizes” for catching criminals, is a source of constant amusement and horror to me. There are so many corporate entities out there that eclipse any fiction I can create, the best I can hope is to pull faces at it and hope to expose that to my audience.
On a lighter note, I find a lot of inspiration in the work of other ARGs like the Jejune Institute and your own Reality Ends Here! I think these works are ultimately a real labor of love, and those sorts of experiences where creators take an intensely individual focus on the recipients is really ballsy and laudable.
I’m fascinated by the role of chaos in this project, particularly with respect to narrative. At first, the prompts I receive from my XMPLAR seem totally random. But as things move on, various structures — story figures, characters, etc — start to emerge. How did you do this — and, perhaps more importantly, why?
There are a couple intentions at work in the code. On one level there is an element of randomness, within the bounds of a selected set. I’m drawing from a database of millions of concepts, so things can naturally diverge quite quickly. But I try to build in checks such that the player is drawn into certain directions as they move through the experience. It sort of builds a bank as you go, and that informs its selection process. But it’s important to me to allow space for the player to map their own ideas onto the XMPLAR’s workings. There is nothing more interesting to me than hearing people offer theories on what they think the XMPLAR are doing when they take that picture!
There is also a particular story I am hoping to tell with this first chapter. But as with all good ARGs, it’s important to me to see what the players are thinking, and to let that shape the story moving forward. I’m hoping it will be a highly-mediated, but highly-responsive, dialogue!
I know you’re collecting a lot of data in real-time about usage of the app, and that this data is going to appear in a variety of ways at the exhibition. Are you seeing anything surprising in the ways that people are using the app? Are there any common trends in the way that people engage with their XMPLARs?
I’ve been surprised by how wildly the engagement varies. I was also surprised to see a fair number of people dive into the app before I’d really planned on any way of getting the word out! Thankfully having that information available made it possible to react quickly. It’s probably also horribly American of me, but I’m surprised at how the distribution of users has been pretty even-handed inside and outside the US. And to be honest, I’ve been surprised and a little unnerved at how the XMPLAR processes have been recovering from errors and ushering people onward in the experience. The chaos I’ve introduced into the project is hopefully a wave I can continue to ride!
I like interacting with my XMPLAR in front of my TV. It’s actually a great way of watching TV, as it gets me searching through the channels for images I could use as responses to the prompts. I find myself watching stuff I wouldn’t normally watch, and looking at parts of the frame I usually tune out. In this way, my XMPLAR is detourning my TV watching experience. How is this typical (and/or atypical) of the way you expected people to engage with the project?
Oh wow, I hadn’t even thought of that! That’s amazing. Taking a picture of a picture of a picture! But that’s exactly the experience I am hoping to create. I’ve had players come up to me and tell me how they had never noticed something totally weird in their day-to-day world until their XMPLAR asked them to take a picture of “fine-grained parallelism” or something like that. And that’s what I’m shooting for with this first chapter.
Where and when is the exhibition, and what can people expect to see there?
The big opening is on May 2nd from 8-10pm…this Thursday! It’s at the Digital Arts Research Center up at UC Santa Cruz. I’m exhibiting with other members of my cohort in the Digital Arts program. In addition to getting a chance to see some of the data visualizations of what’s currently happening in the game, there are some interesting plans in motion that should hopefully result in a very punctuated, transitory, and shocking experience. There will be some recording happening I think as well (as any automated security company worth its salt would) so people physically unable to attend should keep an eye on the ISA Website.
Finally, what’s next for XMPLAR — and for you?
If you can believe it, I’m going to be starting a PhD in Expressive Intelligence at UC Santa Cruz this fall. So there may be more fact in XMPLAR than people suspect by the end of things, as far as AI goes. The idea is to fold this ongoing piece into my practice moving forward, while pushing myself in the sort of “harder” areas of artificial intelligence to substantiate the fiction more fully, while also continuing to move the experience into weird areas like telerobotics and cybernetic systems!
Hi Haley! Thanks for doing this interview. I thought we would start with the big picture first. Could you tell us a bit about “tangible storytelling,” and how you ended up working in this space?
Tangible storytelling – that’s easy, it’s telling stories through physical objects. It can be a supportive art that sets the mood for a story, like dressing a set, costuming a character, or choosing just the right presentation for your mailers. Often it’s the first thing people experience in a transmedia campaign, through an object they get in the mail or something set up in a public place. Some projects rely more on tangible, some less.
At its deepest, tangible storytelling ties in closely with the idea of story archaeology. When we’re asking the reader to dig up some fossils, I’m the person who designs the bones.
I started doing tangible work on my very first Alternate Reality Game, which was a fan ARG for the TV show Alias. Shortly after, I was recruited to build some key artifacts for Dave Szulborski’s second Chasing the Wish ARG, Catching the Wish. By then, my reputation for being a jack-of-all-trades craftsperson was settled, and my artistic development became hopelessly entangled with ARGs.
Describe the Laser Lace Letters. How do people experience the story world you have created? How does it differ from other kinds of fiction?
Every few days, I’m coming up with a new way to describe Laser Lace, and at the moment it’s this: Laser Lace Letters are short stories that you explore by pawing through other people’s stuff.
In Laser Lace Letters, you’re tasked with piecing together the evidence related to a disappearance – and by evidence, I actually mean physical artifacts. Diary pages, sketches from the journals of inventors, pages torn out of childrens books, deeds, manifestoes, photographs, love notes, suicide letters.
The cool thing is, all this evidence comes from an alternate steampunk Victorian era, so you aren’t just looking at beautiful handwritten letters, but ones that talk about clockwork powered tiny robots and how you can use them to assassinate people, or what it’s like to be an airship captain, or the challenges of being a stage magician in a world where technology is already a bit magical. It’s like this fell out of time and into your mailbox.
At the center of each story, we have a unique central artifact. I’ve been working on these for about a year now – felt laser cut cameos that represent the central character in each of our seven stories. When you’re done with Laser Lace Letters, you come away with a wearable momento.
These things are made on a hobby laser cutter that I’ll be buying with the money raised in the Kickstarter. They’re amazingly detailed – for example, one of them features an airship fleet, complete with little windows on the sides of the cabin. We have one cameo that’s surrounded by crimson gears, daggers, and a bloody red heart.
Obviously, there are a lot of things in this approach that are different from film or a novel. There’s no third person omniscient and no proscenium. Each story has at least one character who’s a bit of a narrator, but it’s very much about reading between the lines and putting the pieces together. Voice and intertextuality are extremely important, and because we can’t see our characters, context and style become part of the narrative language. Even the color of paper each character writes on becomes significant.
What were your inspirations for the project?
Ah, Jordan Weisman, how do I love thee? I was utterly enchanted with Cathy’s Book, and I dug on Personal Effects: Dark Art. Like most people, I was also in love with the Jejune Institute, even though I never got a chance to play it in person. Those are tangible, tech-light experiences that present really deep rabbit holes to fall into.
I’ve been tossing the idea of a steampunk project around ever since I met Yomi Ayeni at Storyworld last year and found out he was interested in partnering with some other artists for Clockwork Watch. That’s exactly what ended up happening with Laser Lace, it’s the first big Clockwork Watch spinoff.
A couple of other things spurred it on. Girl Genius is a fantastic comic that influenced the way I think about steampunk. David Malki does a series called True Stuff From Old Books, which is full of very real weirdness from the same era that steampunk stories exist in. I’m a huge fan of the Phoenix Wright games, which often involve closely examining evidence. I’ve been knee deep in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and also following the work of Lea Redmond, a killer tangible artist who runs World’s Smallest Postal Service and was involved with Jejune.
The cameos came directly out of some experiments that I did at the Dallas Makerspace last December. I’d finished my annual donation to the Desert Bus for Hope Craftalong. Last year was a giant soft mosaic made from laser cut felt, and afterward I started experimenting with self-forming woven shapes using the leftover felt. The story grew out of the design process, and has a lot of close ties to the real origins of the cameos.
This kind of work seems to have so much potential, especially in the age of the ebook. It’s almost like this is where physical book publishing in general needs to head — that is, toward providing readers with more than just pages of text, but with real artifacts that can’t be duplicated digitally. In that sense, do you consider this a kind of publishing project?
It’s an ironic question, because Laser Lace straddles the border between digital and physical. Everything has a digital origin – even the cameos, which are made from parts cut out by a computer-controlled robot. And yet, so far on Kickstarter, people have shown that they want the physical version of the stories rather than the digital version. Designers have to set out to create a specific physical experience, in order to get audiences to not take the “shortcut” to digital.
Yep, it’s a publishing project. It’s most similar to a comic book series, except we have a digital book instead of a trade paperback.
I think we’re in a transitional era right now, where the safest thing is for publishers to stick with a straightforward content design that they know how to push to both print and digital efficiently. I can’t wait to see what happens once we get a good standard for introducing interactivity in a traditional reading flow on a tablet. Then, I have a feeling digital artifacts are going to become extremely common, just as they are in video games.
There’s no doubt that publishers can profit from integrating tangible in the right way – but I’ve imagined what this project would look like in the hands of a big publisher, and it involves manufacturing everything in China and leaning on economies of scale; it’s a big investment for a publisher to make.
The flipside of the internet age is that, even though it’s pulling the traditional reading experience to digital, it’s also connecting suppliers and creators. Today, a small outfit can do a project like this, which would have been impossible without a publisher ten years ago. It’s the same reason we don’t necessarily need big apparel companies, toy makers, or technology companies to bring great stuff to market today – although it certainly helps. Small creators can bring an artisanal dimension to the art – everything in Laser Lace Letters has been put together from start to finish by an artist, whether its weaving the lace or putting the wax seal on the package.
I’d love to see a publishing partnership with a group like a hackerspace. Some very interesting and innovative stuff would come out of that.
This question has two parts. First, who is the intended audience for Laser Lace Letters? And second, how broad is the audience you imagine for tangible story projects in general?
If you like steampunk, ARGs, or mystery stories, you’re going to love Laser Lace. Though we’re doing some online teasers/expansions, the core experience is no-tech, so anyone who can pick up a book can enjoy one of these stories.
That said, while Laser Lace is a reading experience for adults, I think the audience skews a bit younger, with people who are more familiar with things like the Harry Potter franchise that has all sorts of artifacture surrounding it. The steampunk audience is in about that age range as well, so I’m reaching out to an audience that has a sweet tooth for this kind of thing.
I’m really trying to introduce some diversity to steampunk and break gender norms. Too often, the genre seems like an endless parade of white men. So, when we went to create an in-game advert to appear in the new Clockwork Watch comic, the art we created was of an Indian woman. She’s wearing period costume and some stylish goggles, and she’s utterly gorgeous. Again, we can’t see the characters in the main story, so most of them we have no idea what their race is. I want to open it up a bit, so everyone can come and play in our world.
The breadth of audience for tangible stories depends a lot on the type of story. You have the best shot by working in a genre that has a popular appeal, just because so much of the story is tied up in stye. I’m inclined to think that kids who grew up on things like Harry Potter and the Ologies books are going to be more disposed than the current average to start reading things like Laser Lace, as they move out of their teens and into their twenties over the next five years.
Of course, as extensions of a bigger story world, tangible stories are a pretty easy sell to fans of the larger project. They’re like merchandising and spinoff fiction rolled in one.
What can readers do to support this project?
If you like the idea, you can check out all the stories and pledge on our Kickstarter page, or if you’re broke, you can spread the word on your various Twitters, Facespaces, and Mumblers.
Any surprises you can tease us with?
We’re slowly rolling out teasers for each of the stories at LaserLaceLetters.com, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of four of those stories. Pretty soon you’re going to meet our mad science character and get a load of his special brand of quackery.
Also I highly advise you watch the stream for Desert Bus for Hope. A bunch of comedians play the worst video game ever made until you stop giving them money for charity. It’s a blast and well…you’ll just have to see.
Finally, what’s next for you?
If all goes well, I’ll be lasering and writing for several months. I hope to take Laser Lace to trade shows and conventions in the Spring and Summer of 2013, including at least one event with the Clockwork Watch crew. After that, so very many projects. I’m still working on an object-augmented book called Research and Developments, as well as a tangible city exploration project.
A lot of different disciplines have been converging on pervasive gaming (or whatever you want to call it) over the past few years. What’s your trajectory into this space?
Ian and I have always loved playing games. We first started making games when we were undergrads at the University of Chicago; at the time, I was studying Comparative Literature, and Ian was studying English. We read about The Beast and were inspired by its ability to bring people together to solve seemingly impossible problems. We got an arts grant from the U of C to make a similarly structured (but entirely noncommercial) game called Helen Chanam, in which players were tasked with finding a missing art student. Shortly afterward, we moved to San Francisco and created SF0. Our goal in SF0 was to let players experience what we had experienced while making our first game: to create adventure and mystery for each other. In SF0 everyone is a player, but everyone is also a game designer. Since our success with SF0, we’ve started a company called Situate and have continued to make games that blur the line between everyday life and game.
There are quite a few urban derive projects out there, but one of the things that’s made SF0 so special is the way that you use a pretty tight set of game mechanics to structure and drive the players’ creative interventions. One line from the game’s About page stands out in this regard: “You may find that your own willingness to interact with the city in new ways varies linearly with relation to your Score.” Why did you choose to structure things with rules and point systems?
Games provide an incredibly compelling vehicle for recontextualizing normal spaces. When we play a game, we let go of our everyday constraints, and our everyday motivations for action. Games open up new possibilities, and new ways of interacting with the world and each other, especially when played offline. Rules and points are an invaluable part of any game, and a key component in allowing us to behave playfully. We can ignore the rules of our everyday lives by embracing the alternate rules of the game. Points both help players track their progress through the game world, and provide a pleasant motivation for continuing to play. (Although with SF0, we found that many of the most advanced players didn’t really care that much about their score after a certain point.)
Collaborative production games have a long pre-digital history. For example, some of the spirit of SF0 seems to trace its origins to Fluxus’ “event scores” and other participatory performance activities and games. What are some of the big inspirations for you from the world of analog games and interventions?
We’re greatly inspired by the Situationists; so much so, in fact, that one of the groups in SF0 is called the BART Psychogeographical Association. We were particularly inspired by the Situationist critique of urban spaces structured for cars and consumerism, the concept of a revolution of everyday life, and resisting the spectacle through everyday direct action and modified behaviors. That is not to say, however, that SF0 is a Situationist game-the Situationists are simply a major inspiration.
InterroBANG and Flashback are both projects intended to be engaged with by young people, students and teachers and as extensions to more formal classroom activities. Did this make the design process significantly different for you and your team? Why or why not?
The design process was actually pretty similar. We tried to structure InterroBang and Flashback in the same way that we structured SF0: give players fun and exciting things to do, and inspire them to create fun and adventure for each other. We wanted the games to act as democratizing forces, allowing students to review each others’ work, and even shape curriculum by giving them the ability to create new missions for the games. We believe real learning can only happen when you’re excited about the topic at hand, so we focused on inciting passion for subject areas rather than trying to teach specific dates and times. In Flashback, we wanted to present history as a living entity, something you participate in directly by taking action in the world.
Can you briefly describe these two projects? What is the main gameplay and what are some key observations about the ways in which people play them? In hindsight, is there something you think that works particularly well and in turn, anything you would change?
Both games have almost the same gameplay as SF0. You start at Level 1 with 0 points. You get points and progress through a series of levels by completing missions in the real world, and posting documentation of what you did online. Other players vote and comment on your work. You also have the ability to create missions for other players to complete. Both projects targeted high school-age students and younger. Flashback was about American history and civics, and InterroBang was more about general problem solving. A quote from Flashback’s about page sums it up nicely: “Flashback is a game in which you complete real-world missions with the aim of de- and re-constructing American History and connecting with others to change the world. You begin at level 1 with 0 points. As you complete missions and advance in level you gain the skills and historical knowledge you’ll need to develop strategies for overcoming persistent historical injustices and defeating your class enemies.”
We were very excited to see how creative and engaged students were in both projects–we got some truly amazing results. Most of the kids who played the games loved them, and I think part of the reason was that we gave them more freedom and space to be expressive than is usually possible in a classroom. We also learned that the games worked best in classrooms with excellent teachers who took time to work with their kids. If I could change anything about these games it would be to give students even more freedom and trust, and provide more support to participating teachers.
Do you think that location-awareness poses unique or new redefinitions of activism?
This is a very interesting question that I don’t really feel qualified to answer. Knowing and being connected to your surroundings is certainly very important. That said, when we’re online it doesn’t really matter where we’re physically located. SF0, for example, is called “SF0” because we initially thought it would only be for residents of San Francisco. Instead, people started playing it from all over the world and SF0-like communities sprouted up in many unusual and unexpected places.
What is your perspective on “gamification” – both generally, and more specifically, in context to civic society and engagement?
I believe that games should fun and stimulating more than anything else. I love that people want to make more and more interactions playful or “gameful” but I think the current trend of trying to add a game layer to every possible activity is worthless unless the resulting games are high quality. Just because something can be a game doesn’t mean it needs to be.
In terms of civic society and engagement: I believe that games can improve the world in the same way that a great work of art can improve the world. Games, like art, have the capacity to teach us, challenge us, and reveal the world to us in unexpected ways. Both games and art can defamiliarize the world, make it new, and this I think is the starting point for all forms of change.
[This interview, co-written with Susana Ruiz, originally appeared in Volume 3, Issue 3 of the International Journal of Learning and Media (MIT Press), as a part of the “Civic Tripod” report prepared by Susana Ruiz, Ben Stokes, and me.]
What was your trajectory into this kind of art practice?
I come from a background in Architecture and Media Art, and have been experimenting with alternate trajectories for what has come to be called urban computing for about ten years now. I have always been fascinated with cities and technology, and my practice has emerged out of a curiosity regarding how forms of mobile and embedded, networked and distributed computing can shape our experience of the city and the choices we make there.
Most location- and context-sensitive apps are about making things faster and more efficient. Serendipitor slows things down and disrupts the flow. Why do you think this is an important thing to do?
Computer science and engineering are practices that hold optimization and efficiency as important design challenges. And that’s all well and good when we’re talking about relatively instrumental applications of these technologies in urban environments. But artists frame questions in ways scientists and engineers do not, and when considering the implications of these technologies for urban life, one has to wonder what other criteria could be relevant. Who really wants a faster, seamless, more optimal and efficient life?
Projects like this are inherently multiple — even paradoxical. As you write on your website (quoting Deleuze), “AND is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in-between, between two things.” Why does this kind of instability inspire you?
Well, as Deleuze says a little further on in that quote “it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Much of my work looks for ways out of static dichotomies that serve to maintain the status quo. Destabilizing tactics often reveal the more subtle and nuanced forces at play in a given situation, and help open up lines of thinking that can help us move beyond established belief systems.
How have people been using the app? What kind of feedback have you received — and what kind of data have you gathered?
The feedback has been surprisingly positive. People seem to really enjoy the app, and have been using it around the world. Many have suggestions of their own, ideas for new instructions, ways to share their routes, etc. Much of this is anecdotal in nature, however, and I do think that the plural of anecdote is not data.
What were you looking for when you set out to design Serendipitor? And what did you end up finding?
Serendipitor is one component of a larger project called the Sentient City Survival Kit (http://survival.sentientcity.net), a project that explores the implications for privacy, autonomy, trust and serendipity in this highly optimized, efficient and over-coded “smart” city heralded by ubiquitous computing evangelists for some time now. With Serendipitor, what started as an ironic proposition – that in the near-future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be a problem, but maintaining consciousness along the way might be more difficult, and that we would need to download an application for “serendipity” from the App Store – turned out to be quite popular when implemented as an app. I didn’t expect to find that the irony could be so easily lost in the process!
What’s next — for you, and for smartphone-enabled humanity?
Smartphone-enabled non-humanity, of course. 😉
Situationist App really messes with my day sometimes. It makes me uncomfortable and interrupts important meetings. It fragments moments that would otherwise have been continuous. Is it all about breaking things, or does it put something together, too?
We’re quite comfortable with creating uncomfortable moments. Part of the idea behind what we do is to create counter-routines, to highlight and question the structure of your everyday life by imposing an alternative that clashes with it – our “Diary Will Change Your Life” book series is based on the same principle. It’s serendipity with an edge. Of course you could always just ignore the app’s notifications…
One thing I really appreciate about this App is that it’s somehow about an urbanism that’s not rooted in any particular city — or even in any particular kind of city. It works great here in LA, at least when it comes to gathering-places like bars and restaurants and workplaces. I imagine it works quite differently in London, what with people actually walking around everywhere. Is there anywhere it wouldn’t work? Or, put differently, what would a city look like that didn’t need an intervention like this?
That’s an interesting point. It does presuppose a certain kind of city, and in fact it sets out to foster it – a city where people walk around at some leisure and spend time in open communal spaces where they can see and find each other, like cafes. It also requires a certain kind of urban being and community, a city-dweller who trusts his or her fellow citizens enough to interact with them at random. We think subconsciously the model must have been Paris. Unsurprisingly, the app has done very well there, and we get lots of emails clamouring for a French version.
Do you get any kind of analytics on the back-end about where and how people are using the app? Do have a “master map” of unfolding situations to ponder?
The app was created on a shoestring, so we don’t have google-like levels of back-end data, although it would be very useful. We do know the most popular tasks / interactions – the most popular is ” Wave at me like a long-lost friend”. The least popular is “Help me rouse everyone around us into revolutionary fervour and storm the nearest TV station”, which is a shame as it’s our favourite. We also discovered something interesting when examining successful situations – when you pair up the photos of the strangers who’ve interacted, a disproportionate number look very similar. At first we thought our designer must have somehow mismatched the data. But what this must reveal is that people are much more prepared to interact with a complete stranger if they look like them. It probably makes sense in evolutionary terms, but it’s still uncanny to discover this through the app.
Constant wrote, “We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behavior.” Is this what you’re up to, then?
Yep. The original situationists pontificated at great length about situations, but didn’t actually come up with many – the derive, detournement, and not much else frankly. We see ourselves as continuing their work – although in very different historical and political circumstances obviously. Debord also foresaw new technologies would lead to new situationist techniques. This app is one of the first to explore geolocation technology as a means of remodelling urban relationships. Most geolocation apps seem to focus on providing coupons for cheaper coffee, which makes us despair ever so slightly.
You’ve got to have a touchstone quote or two. Hit me.
Hmmm. We do have a slogan for Benrik: “Your values are our toilet paper”. Or in French: “Vos valeurs sont notre pecu”.
What’s the next step? Is there a Commune App in the works? Will you be expanding or updating Situationist App in any way?
Not sure what our next app will be yet. The market for proto-Marxist apps is no doubt huge and very lucrative. We’ll update Situationist at some point, but the idea was always to keep it extremely clean and minimal. We’ll probably add tasks suggested by our users.
Thanks again…much appreciated.
More info: http://www.situationistapp.com/
Situationist App developed by: Turned On Digital
Hi Jeff, glad to finally get around to this again (click here to read Jeff Hull’s previous interview with Jeff Watson). What’s been happening with Nonchalance over the past few months?
Basically hustling, trying to develop the business so we can continue to do radically creative work. A lot of elbow rubbing and hob-knobbery, presentations and pitches and such. There’s more exciting things, too, like doing a TEDx talk, and winning our first Indiecade Award! We’re quite proud of that.
For those who weren’t there, could you quickly describe what you did at IndieCade?
Without building the “Jejune Institute South”, we were trying to produce a street level installation to give visitors a sense of the real world nature of our game. There were a lot of art and artifacts from the game, with some gritty multi-media to back it up.
I thought of you recently as I was giving a talk on remix culture. We ended up discussing the Situationist concept of detournement, and it occurred to me that this is a good baseline description of the kind of work Nonchalance does. Is that what you’ve been doing all these years, detourning the Bay Area (and sundry other places)?
I never thought of it in that way, but the answer is yes, absolutely. I’ve always been a cut & paste, drag & drop kind of artist, and shamelessly so. I have no qualms about it because I know that what I’ve produced from these other sources is completely original.
One of the things I like the most about Situationist art is how it’s geared toward inspiring the viewer/participant to discover the untapped possibilities of the world around them — “to expose the appalling contrast between the potential constructions of life and the present poverty of life.” What are the potentials you’re exposing, and what kinds of poverty — intellectual, emotional, or even economic — do your projects work against?
“Potential constructions of life” is a great description for what we’ve attempted. We’re presenting this parallel universe in which we’re actively at war with banality and routine. It’s a guerrilla street war, too, not some hypothetical plane. The potential is for collective behavior that promotes warmth and trust, communicating something very meaningful through mass media, and generally allowing for variation, color and fun in the civic realm. The poverty exposed is that of spontaneity and creativity in every day life. We don’t always recognize how confined or restricted or repressed we are, and I’m speaking generally about “us” as a group or society, rather than us as individuals. Re-imagining and then reconstructing how we operate and function as a culture is our greatest aspiration. We can only do it in these microscopic slivers, though. The slivers exist in tandem with the rest of the world, often overshadowed by it, but they do exist, awaiting discovery by the curious dilettante.
Interestingly, the Situationists actually thought through the idea of pervasive or ambient urban/social detournement, which they (somewhat awkwardly) called “ultra-detournement.” In the same passage, they write, “the need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play.” Is this a need that you have? What needs do you see Nonchalance as being capable of fulfilling?
You always blow my mind with these questions, causing me to deeply reconsider everything I’m doing. The reference kind of evokes “The Crying of Lot 49” in which secret symbols are leading toward an entire social strata hidden right under our noses. I love the concept because it suggests a kind of sleeping giant in our midst. I suppose Nonchalance is gesturing toward that giant, prodding at it’s awakening.
A wise man once said that “[an] emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.” This kind of “emancipation” seems to be a core component of some of your recent projects, most notably Scoop!, which invited players to become reporters for an actual (temporary) FM radio station. Are even your more narrative-heavy projects like The Jejune Institute really just sly ways to get people to narrate and translate their own community?
Yes and no. We certainly enjoy superimposing our own narratives over other more dominant stories, especially on the local scale. It’s very liberating. And within that framework we’ve strongly encouraged user generated content, and experimented with “open source” media programming, such as Scoop and the 01 project.
On the other hand, that user generated content is highly facilitated and curated by us (because we consider ourselves the ultimate arbiters of style and taste in our productions). We give people a creative template to work within. There are a few folks who have run with it, though, and gone completely off the map. I’m calling out Garland Glessner, Carolee Wheeler, and Michael Wertz, founders of the Elsewhere Philatelic Society. It borrows themes from Nonchalance, but it is it’s own unique and beautiful world. That’s a great example of people narrating their own communities.
Is this sort of what you mean by “Situational Design”?
Not exactly. To be honest, what I mean is “Lifestyle Curation”. That is; allow us to creatively direct an afternoon of your life. To offer a real world glimpse of the “what if”, and invite you to experience the world around you in a slightly different, although heavily contrived, way. I’m reclaiming the word “pretension” by the way. It is a positive force in my universe.
Do you feel that social media and screen-mediated forms of community are anathema to the kinds of visceral experiences you’re trying to create? If so, how is this conflict complicated/mitigated as pervasive computing and mobile media blur the boundary between the real and the virtual?
Actually, through conversations at Indiecade we began to develop a vision for a game on a traditional platform that promotes user generated content and real world interaction. That’s a direction I’d like to see video games take, where passivity becomes antiquated. Technology both empowers us and disables us to various degrees. It can support or discourage real world experience. I suppose the Games of Nonchalance represents a certain nostalgia for more sensual forms of expression and interaction. But how did we produce these experiences? How do most people discover them? Through computers.
Thanks for doing this again. Let’s catch up soon — and see you at IndieCade!
Always a pleasure, Jeff! Until next time.
Your work brings together locative media, social media, performance, interaction design, sound design, and something akin to real-time filmmaking (without a camera). How did you end up working in this heavily mixed space? That is, what’s your background as an artist, and what led from there to here?
I began as a musician, and an interest in technology led me to becoming a sound engineer. While I was studying sound enginnering at university I got turned on to to documentary production and post-production. At this point I moved to Bristol (partly led by the music scene that was around at the time, Portishead, Tricky et al). I soon got a computer and started teaching myself interactive software and became involved in developing prototypes for interactive television documentaries within the broadcast industry. It quickly became apparent that the ideas I had didn’t work on a 4:3 television screen and I found myself drifting into the art scene, where I could explore my ideas for interactive documentaries in an installation context. Over time my main work shifted into public spaces, while my sketchpad was a series of online videos that I considered to be micro-documentaries. Single take shots of everyday moments which I would present in slow motion and write a soundtrack for. Sometime after this I began working with GPS technology and located sound, there was a bit of an epiphany moment where I suddenly found myself walking around listening to my sound pieces, and seeing the films I had been making happening around me, te real world framed by the soundtrack. Previously I had shunned walkmans because of the way ey cut you off from your acoustic space, but I suddenly saw them as an opportunity to make people connect with the world around them by framing it in the same way I would create documentaries.
What are the big touchstones (artists, projects, movements, etc) for you?
From a visual perspective I think one of my biggest influences is Roy Anderson (‘you the living’, ‘songs from the second floor’). His films are detailed and heavily constructed fictions, but essentially appear to me as a series of individual framed moments of the everyday that come together to create a reflective picture of society, plus they’re funny. I haven’t managed to get the funny bit in my work yet, but I’m trying! Soundwise I find myself drawing inspiration from music that works well when listened to in public spaces, I guess this seems an obvious choice! What I mean is that there’s a huge variety of music in the world that blows me away, but some of it works better at a concert or on a home stereo. For walking the streets (and framing the world) I love Taylor Deupree, Fennesz, Godspeed You Black Emporer, Tool, and a bit of Maria Callas. Recently though my ears have been pricked by Ben Frost, his stuff has absolutely knocked me sideways so now I’m worried my next piece is going to end up ripping him off too much!
For text I find my influences in many places, aesthetically I love Ben Marcus at the moment and I’m beginning to understand Sylvia Plath, but in terms of what I’m actually making I think I’ve accidentasly become the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’, a man who spends all his effort on getting people to renact the everyday world just so he can have a richer experience (sorry Tom, that is an incredibly dumbed down description of one of my favourite ever books!)
On your website, you speak of employing walking as “both a process and/or an outcome of my work.” What is it about walking and being in public space that’s so charged with meaning?
I guess it’s where I now locate the ‘interaction’ in my work. Although I’ve returned recently to using pre-recorded linear soundtracks (as opposed to GPS or other responsive systems) the audiences still have to interact with the world when they move through it. Forcing them to move through public space forces them to deal with an environment I can’t control, forget gestural interfaces, this is real interaction, ha! But there’s also something about the narrative of a walk that I enjoy, and I like relating it to musical dynamics. The relationship goes both ways, the speed of your movment is often influenced by the pace of the soundtrack you’re listening to, but also your sense of the music is changed depending on whether your moving through a crowd in a narrow street, or walking out on to an empty plaza. When I’m writing the music with Sarah Anderson our process is to sketch out a few ideas and then take them out and walk them. We note what they make us aware of, and how they influence our movement, then we adapt and rewrite and re-walk until they are creating the effect we’re looking for. Sometimes I think that the main reason I brought walking (which I enjoy for pleasure anyway) into my work was to ensure I didn’t spend so much time spent in a dark studio, and that now I HAVE to get outside to write the music.
Because I’m a fan of the NFB, I’m also a fan of John Grierson. I was pleasantly surprised to see a reference to him on your site. How is it that you see your work as a kind of documentary?
Grierson described documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, films like ‘nightmail’ and ‘coal face’ seem so far removed from the type of ‘documentary’ that fills our screens today. They took everyday realities and framed then within beautiful soundtracks, creative musical editing techniques, poetry and abstraction. I guess that’s the kind of documentary I’m trying to make, ones that show us nothing more than the everyday, but try and show us how beautiful it can be. When audiences in my work are performing instructions, those instructions have been derived from observed events, so really they are just the sort of ‘re-enactments’ that traditional documentaries use all the time. I suppose that even at a base level I’m just asking people to watch the world around them, I’m just giving them a soundtrack, a natural history voiceover for anthropological documentaries about urban life? That’s probably talking it up a bit too much!!
What are your thoughts about running a walking-oriented game in a car-oriented city like Los Angeles? Can you imagine a pervasive project that could work with the car culture instead of against it?
Oh, that’s a very tough question! I can imagine something that uses cars, maybe uses their windows as frames for the world in a cinematic style, but I don’t think I’d let the audience do the driving, imagine if they were so distracted by the experience they drove into a pedestrian who was taking part in one of my other works! that would ruin everything!
UPDATE: Photos from ‘as if it were the last time’ at IndieCade here.
First, I should disclose that I have brand envy: “Atmosphere Industries” is a great name for a cross-media game design collective. What’s the story behind the name?
Thanks! We actually used to be called “Giant Dice,” but ultimately found that to be a bit too literal — plus, you know, the whole gambling allusion. Credit for “Atmosphere Industries” goes to my co-founder, Kate Raynes-Goldie. By “Atmosphere,” we mean that while our weapon of choice is games, our broader goal is to play around with ambiences and different ways of experiencing the world. The “Industries” is just meant to be ironic because factories don’t actually exist these days, or something.
Artists working in this space come from an unusually wide range of backgrounds, both in terms of theory and practice. What was your trajectory into the realm of pervasive interaction design?
I suspect I align myself with most others in this space by admitting my origin story is fairly nerdy. I went to school for computer science, discovered human-computer interaction, aligned myself with a professor who was into technology art, and developed an obsession with social media back when it was totally avant-garde. So the ingredients were there, but the catalyst was a version of The Game (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(treasure_hunt)) I played while interning at Microsoft Research. After returning home, I concocted the harebrained scheme to do something similar in Toronto, but make it last 10 times longer. So, the answer to your question is: it just seemed like fun.
Recently, some commentators have placed so-called “Big Games” in opposition to screen-based “virtual” games. Do you think this is an opposition that’s going to make sense in a few years?
I spend a lot of time trying to explain what I do to people whose only conception of a game is the kind you see on a screen. Pervasive games of any sort are very much on the fringe, and I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future. If you think of what constitutes a major success in the domain right now — Foursquare, SCVNGR, a few iPhone AR games — these are simplistic games with a small user base of early adopters. Compared to the multi-billion juggernaut that is the videogame industry, they barely even register. The entire world now thinks in terms of screens (even if those screens have GPS and accelerometers.) Personally, I don’t really expect to see this change; I mean it would be fantastic if pervasive games become a substantial force, but it’s far enough off that I find it more productive to think of our work as a niche cultural artifact that offers an alternative vision of the distant future. That’s why we’re an art collective, and not a business, per se. Though if anyone wants to give us money, we can make that work.
As a side note, it’s interesting to note that while virtually everyone stares at me blankly for at least 20 seconds while I describe what a “street game” is, virtually everyone has also spent a significant amount of time playing them — as kids! It’s definitely a comment on society that we seem to have erased these memories from our minds, and replaced them with Halo 3. I’m not sure what that comment is, though.
I see games and activities that layer interaction over the real world simultaneously moving in two general directions: along one path, I think there’s a movement toward more asynchronous or “ambient” games that players can integrate into their daily lives as a kind of background activity — think cross-media Parking Wars or Farmville. The other path leads to real-time/real-world games that work kind of like events or theatre performances, where players show up and have an intense, focused experience. As a designer, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of these paths?
One of my great internal struggles is deciding which of these I’d rather be working on at any given moment.
Ambient games are fantastic, because you have the chance to draw users into deep, sustained narrative or gameplay structures. There’s more raw material to play with a long-term experience, and more user attention to take advantage of. More importantly from a “business” perspective, you can reach a way larger audience. Getting 40 people to love your game is very satisfying, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally want to appear on the cover of Wired.
In terms of crafting a powerful experience, though, nothing beats an event. Theatre really is definitely an apt analogy here. I recently had the following revelation: This is theatre, and I should be talking to theatre people. Big games are fundamentally performative and narrative-driven even when they’re not, and when you start looking at interactive theatre shows, the boundary between the two forms becomes essentially invisible. And the difference between making a casual, online game vs. a theatrical performance is comparable to the difference between writing an essay and having a fist-fight. The great thing about theatre, of course, is that it’s highly visceral, profoundly draining, and over almost instantly.
More than a few of your games have covert or overt political/educational messages. Is this just a natural consequence of setting your games in the real world, or are Situationist-style political interventions a part of Atmosphere’s mandate?
To be honest, this is something I’ve never really thought about. Our latest game, Gentrification: The Game!, was (for obvious reasons) our most seemingly political, but we went to great pains to avoid embedding a distinct political message in the game. We were primarily concerned with creating a compelling game. Our mandate is simply to provide enjoyable, playful experiences that transform and reflect a space.
Our interest in themes like gentrification isn’t the result of a pointed artistic agenda, but neither is it a natural consequence of doing our work — I think, rather, it’s a consequence of doing our work well. Our games are about spaces, and if you’re going to have an audience engage meaningfully with a space, you have a responsibility to explore the issues and concerns that are particular to that space. If you’re faithful to that design principle, political or educational themes are unavoidable. A general failure to accomplish this is central to the critiques of pervasive gaming I’ve seen, and just about every game could benefit from deeper ties to the context which it appropriates. But it’s very, very hard to do, and I guess that’s why we don’t see too much of it.
What’s coming up for Atmosphere?
We’ve got a few projects in the pipeline, including some collaborations with theatre folks, as well as some online-only games. But the big thing for the foreseeable future is trying to build up a community around pervasive games (or, more broadly, “unconventional games”) in Toronto. There is a shocking lack of people doing this sort of thing in Canada as a whole. So, if you’re a Torontonian and you’re reading this, you should probably contact us. We have a website going up soon at recess.to, and we’re planning to get some regular events running in the new year.
Thanks for taking the time to do this — and see you at IndieCade!
You’re a self-identified science fiction writer working in a very hard-to-pin-down storytelling medium. How did you end up writing and designing ARGs?
I was one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers, back in 2001. As a writer, it was like a lightning bolt falling from heaven. I went through the experience and thought, “That. I want to do THAT.” It took a few years to go anywhere, though. Finally my fellow moderators, Dan and Adrian Hon, started talking about forming the company that would later become Mind Candy. I begged them to let me help out so relentlessly that they had no choice but hire me. I’ve been in the business ever since.
One of the things that is quickly becoming an issue with game and transmedia writing is the sometimes tenuous position of the writer in the apparatus of production. How do you think being an ARG writer differs from being, say, a TV writer or a novelist?
At its best, writing for an ARG is a performing art. When you write a novel, you work in isolation; you won’t get feedback from the bulk of your readers until it’s completed. And with a TV show, production schedules mean the writing is completed sometimes months before a show airs.
With an ARG, though, you can dance with your audience. If they take a shine to a minor character, you can boost that character’s role midstream. If they’re bored with a plot thread, you can catch it early and fix it. And that kind of feedback is addictive to a writer. It can be difficult to get that kind of feedback in other media at all. But in an ARG, you’re doing something close to watching their faces as they read along, so you know when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing.
In the larger realm of production and transmedia, though, I think this causes some logistical problems. A great transmedia experience requires an agility that traditional means of production just don’t have, and the writer can be placed in a difficult position, trying to maintain the integrity of the experience while working within the framework of your production schedule.
In a recent post on this issue on your blog, you wrote that sometimes “there are so many writers working on a project that it’s hard to know whose hand [is] guiding the wheel. But these are solveable problems, and solving them would benefit us all.” What kinds of first steps do you think need to be taken to advance the cause?
The first step would be looking at the kinds of roles game writers and transmedia writers fall into right now, to see if we can find common structures. In games, there’s a lot of support for the title ‘narrative designer’ right now. That’s the person who comes up with the spine of the story, whether or not they ever write a word of player-facing copy. Maybe we need to go in that direction, and separate the narrative designer from the world designer.
And given the performative element of an ARG, maybe we need to be crediting writers alongside actors. ‘The character of Alice Liddell was performed by Ada Lovelace, and written by Marshall Thurgood.’
Shifting gears a bit, I’m curious about how you tackle the complex demands of ARG writing and design. After meeting with a client, where do you begin? What comes first for you, the formal constraints (ie, the kinds of interactions you want to produce) or the story material?
Everything I do begins with a big idea. Sometimes that’s mine, and it springs into existence fully-formed — “What if everyone wrote about waking up with superpowers?” Sometimes it’s the assignment given to me by a client. “We have XYZ requirements and assets. What do you have for us?”
From there, I do a little research and a little bit of what looks from the outside like nothing at all. Going to the gym, walking to school, cooking. The important thing is that I leave my brain unoccupied so it’s free to come up with stuff, like particles popping into existence in a vacuum. As the idea simmers in the back of my head, everything about what the project should look like becomes obvious to me. It feels very much like discovering something that was already there.
Specific story elements come last for me. Tension and pacing and structure are the first things that come to mind, and the specific plot and story elements flow out of that. It’s the opposite of the way I did things a few years ago. I used to think of story and plot detail first! I’m not sure why it’s changed, but I’m helpless to do it any other way, now.
Historically, most ARGs have been event-driven time-released stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. One of the nice things about this narrative structure is that it allows writers to plan (and re-plan, as conditions on the ground shift) their stories in much the same way that they do in more traditional forms: that is, via character arcs, acts, orchestrated patterns of conflict, and so on. However, these kinds of ARGs are usually not replayable, and many people — for many reasons — feel that this is an area where the form could stand to experiment a little bit. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree that we need to experiment more. But the good news is that the experimenting is going on now.
Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things my project Routes did was creating a weekly webisode from the events in the ARG, so you could interact with the live experience while it played out, but there is also an artifact of the experience that gives the project a long tail it wouldn’t have otherwise. In the metaphor of the ARG as a live concert, that’s creating a recording you can listen to at any time. You won’t be able to do all of the same things — you won’t be able to throw your underwear up on stage or smell the guy in front of you — but you’ll get some sense of what it was like to have been there. I think this technique could definitely move into wider use.
And there are a number of entirely replayable experiences, too: Smokescreen, the Cathy’s Book series, etc. The downside of this is that you lose some wonder, some discovery, a ton of reactivity, and the camaraderie of a single community playing along together. It transforms into a different kind of experience.
So can a system for storytelling — that is, a set of story-world parameters and rules of engagement — be considered a kind of fiction? If so, how does this change our understanding of what a writer is?
Oh, it absolutely can. I’d consider My Super First Day to be a set of very loose story-world parameters that I’ve set, and I consider it a work of fiction. It doesn’t make me a writer, though; I only get to be a writer if I also participate. But I’m indisputably the creator.
You may also be familiar with Ghyll and The Song of the Sorcelator, both arguably just frameworks for writer-participants to play around with. This is one of the things I keep playing around with in my personal work, actually; where is the line between a creator and a participant, and how can you blur it in a way that will be rewarding to everybody?
As time goes on, I think the boundary will become ever more nebulous. We’re already seeing major entertainment franchises take a kinder, gentler stand on fanfiction and fanart. That’s the first step in building collaborative culture. The secret, of course, is that once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker.
Where do you see all this going in the next five years? And what’s next for you?
Five years is an incredibly long time. Five years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, and when you walked into a digital agency and said ‘interactive’ they thought you were talking about banner ads and SEO. I think in five years, the entire entertainment landscape is going to look so profoundly different that anything I have to say on it is worthless.
As for me, I have a couple of things cooking right now. I try to do enough professional projects to keep the rent paid, and enough personal projects that I feel I’m always pushing my own limits. But my personal projects are largely microscopic in scale and experimental to the point of self-indulgence. I’m thinking about trying to do a bigger, more ambitious experimental personal project toward the end of the year, and possibly funding through Kickstarter or some such thing. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I feel like it would be a shame not to try. The creative life is all about taking risks.
UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here