# Oct 20, 2010

“Metaphor time: imagine a desert, seen from above. There are many branching paths leading to many villages. When travellers cross the desert, you can clearly see the route they take, where they stop off, and so on. But what if night has fallen? Then, all you can see are the little fires in the villages. Occasionally, travellers emerge from the darkness and sit by the fires for a while, and then move on. But the routes they take between those fires belong to them alone.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that, while we control the actual chunks of the story, the paths between them belong to the player alone, and that’s a big deal. Just as in a film the story is told through the edit, in Echo Bazaar, the story is told through the darkened paths between the fires. In cinematic terms, it’s a montage: we provide the shots, the player does the arrangement.”

- Betterblog | Echo Bazaar Narrative Structures, part three

# Oct 18, 2010

“Is it possible to imagine an artwork that would retain the power to challenge fixed or conventional meanings without dividing its audience into philistines and cognoscenti?” (22)

Frank Kester, Conversation Pieces

# Oct 16, 2010

“It denotes an activity aimed at creating situations, as opposed to passively recognizing them in academic or other separate terms. At all levels of social practice or individual history. We replace existential passivity with the construction of moments of life, and doubt with playful affirmation. Up till now philosophers and artists have only interpreted situations; the point now is to transform them. Since human beings are molded by the situations they go through, it is essential to create human situations. Since individuals are defined by their situation, they need the power to create situations worthy of their desires. This is the perspective in which poetry (communication fulfilled in concrete situations), the appropriation of nature, and complete social liberation must all merge and be realized. Our era is going to replace the fixed frontier of the extreme situations that phenomenology has limited itself to describing with the practical creation of situations; it is going to continually shift this frontier with the development of our realization. We want a phenomeno-praxis. We have no doubt that this will be the first banality of the movement toward the liberation that is now possible. What situations are to be transformed? At different levels it could be the whole planet, or an era (a civilization in Burckhardt’s sense, for example), or a moment of individual life. On with the show!”

Situationist Questionnaire

Transmedia: New Platforms – The Games of Nonchalance

[This post originally appeared at In Media Res as a part of the Transmedia: New Platforms theme week.]

This video is a trailer for “The Games of Nonchalance,” a four-part transmedia experience “woven into the fabric of San Francisco.” Participation in “The Games of Nonchalance” begins with the discovery of one of the project’s many “rabbit holes,” some of which can be found online (such as at the mysterious Jejune Institute’s website), and some of which are physically embedded in the Bay Area (such as posters pasted to telephone poles, performers appearing at live events, player-created get-togethers, low-power FM radio signals, and even “hobo coins” distributed in the local economy). Once a prospective player has tumbled into one of these rabbit holes, they quickly discover a rich story world that quite literally makes a theme park out of the city, layering story and interaction across living, breathing urban space-time. Readers who are interested in a more complete description of the experience can find one here, or can read my interview with the group’s founder, Jeff Hull.

“The Games of Nonchalance” testifies to the notion of transmedia as a flexible praxis that can function across a wide range of techno-social contexts. Put differently, transmedia’s true referent is not a constellation of convergent technologies, but rather a mindset put into practice. The platform for Nonchalance is the world in general, and the city of San Francisco in particular. Within these broad constraints, anything capable of carrying story and/or facilitating participation and performance is fair game. Narrative figures emerge through the aggregate effect of the creators’ exploitation of the affordances of many different media forms, old and new. Immersion in this sense is a tangible reality — that is, since elements of the story-world could appear in just about any context at any time, the player’s experience is one of being surrounded. This contrasts sharply with more literal-minded “immersive technologies” that operate in tightly constrained (usually screen-based) contexts and appeal to a narrow slice of their players’ sensoria.

Subtlemob creator Duncan Speakman on “framing everyday realities”

Duncan Speakman’s Subtlemob project, “As if it were the last time,” will be taking place in Culver City this weekend as a part of the IndieCade Big Games program [sign up here]. The project immerses audiences in “the cinema of everyday life” by inviting them to quietly and anonymously gather at a secret location equipped with headphones, MP3 players, and customized sound files provided by the artist. By all accounts, the ensuing experience is a powerful one, something that “captures what it is to escape from the world for a little bit – and then to return and find that you see things just a bit differently.” In the interview below, Duncan talks about his trajectory as a media artist and the curious connections between locative art and the core impulses of documentary cinema.

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.

Transforming space with play: an interview with David Fono of Atmosphere Industries

Atmosphere Industries is a Toronto-based cross-media design collective whose projects “combine fun, community, technology, and a hearty helping of sprinkles.” Atmosphere’s pervasive games and experiences have exhibited around the world at events such as Come Out and Play (NYC), where they took home the 2010 Best in Fest and Best Use of Tech awards. This weekend, their faux-celebrity camera-stalking game, Paparazzi, will appear as a part of the IndieCade 2010 Big Games Program [sign up for the game here, or just drop by the IndieCade Village at 1:45pm on Saturday, October 9th]. In the leadup to IndieCade, co-founder David Fono took some time out from his preparations to talk with me about Atmosphere’s interaction design philosophy and playful approach to community building.

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!