Understanding the future through a counterfactual past: The Golden Institute

Contrary to much of the recent discussion around transmedia storytelling and alternate reality games, not all the work being done in the realm of multi-modal world building is about “driving eyeballs toward content” or “creating opportunities for monetization.” Sascha Pohlflepp’s The Golden Institute is a great example of how artists can build elaborate and penetrating critiques through the creation of a system of interrelated media artifacts. It also flies in the face of Jeff Gomez’s definition of transmedia storytelling as being inherently geared toward mass audiences; if The Golden Institute isn’t transmedia storytelling, what is it?

From Sascha’s documentation of the project:

The Golden Institute for Energy in Colorado was the premier research and development facility for energy technologies in an alternate reality where Jimmy Carter had defeated Ronald Reagan in the US election of 1980. Equipped with virtually unlimited funding to make the United States the most energy-rich nation on the planet, its scientific and technical advancements were rapid and often groundbreaking.

Its scope ranged from planetary engineering to the enabling of individual participation and profit from the creation of electricity. Notable projects include the development of the state of Nevada into a weather experimentation zone and the new gold rush in the form of lightning-harvesters that followed, or major modifications made to the national infrastructure in an attempt to use freeways as a power plants. The institute’s vision continues to inform the American consciousness to this day. In relation to energy preservation and harnessing, but also in terms of man’s relationship to the forces of nature. (The Golden Institute)

See also: photo documentation, We Make Money Not Art, Worldchanging

Trap doors and hatches all around: Jeff Hull on infusing variability and play into the workaday world

Last month, I put out a call on the IGDA ARG SIG discussion list for information about the use of pervasive games and ARGs in museums, universities, libraries, and other institutions (for more on that, see this resource). One of the people who responded to this call was none other than Jeff Hull of nonchalance, the Bay Area urban art organization responsible for (among other things) the Jejune Institute, which happens to be one of my favorite pervasive story/game projects ever. Sensing that Jeff was a kindred soul of sorts, I asked him if he would do an interview about public space, community, and play.

It strikes me that a lot of the work going on right now in location-based experience design can trace its origins back to Situationism, sticker art, and — going way back — graffiti. There are also some obvious connections to amusement park and museum design. What are the big touchstones for you?

Wow. I’ve never had any one zero in so accurately on my influences before. For years, before we started Nonchalance, I was doing a guerrilla campaign called Oaklandish that was really attempting to fuse together the ideals of Situationism and Street Art. We’d use multi-media devices and historicaly driven content to produce happenings designed to gather large groups of people together in negative urban spaces, so they could begin to interact with each other and the space around them in new ways. It was literally “the construction of situations”, with a strong post-graffiti mindset. Haring and Basquiat are like Patron Saints to me for the very literate, site-specific graffiti art they did early on. And, yes, we absolutely had an amusement park mentality as we are created the Games of Nonchalance. When I grew up I worked as a child performer at a place called “Children’s Fairyland” in Oakland, and it was this magical hokey little fantasy world, where you could literally fall down a rabbit hole. They had magic keys where you could turn them in a lock box and suddenly hear a recording of a nursery rhyme, while looking at a diorama of the cow jumping over the moon, or whatever. There was a yellow brick road leading through the park to an Emerald City. We want to present those kinds of interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, fuzed into the urban landscape.

Over the past few years, a lot of different disciplines have been coming together around notions of embodied experience, public space, community, and play. Everyone from performance artists to game designers to educators and curators seem to be grasping at different versions of the same thing. But what *is* that thing? Do we even have a word for it?

Interestingly, most of our intern applicants have been architecture students. Somehow they’re all thinking about their work in a different way, too. There’s some kind of convergence. When I asked the question to our production manager Sara Thacher, she felt like it wasn’t necessarily useful to put a label on it, but we both agreed that the zeitgeist is happening. Sara is more interested in “why” so many different people are exploring this new “Third Space”. We agreed it is in part a reaction to the narrow confines of sanctioned activities in public space, which have been largely defined by commerce. We can legally: commute, shop, and drink a latte. Walk or run in a park between sun up and sun down. Otherwise you’re somehow suspect. People feel isolated by that. I think we’re all trying to loosen those reigns through their own individual contributions.

My name for it is Socio-Reengineering. That’s Jejune Institute terminology, and in our story it has dubious connotations, but we’re actually quite sincere about this aim. To infuse variability and play into the workaday world by re-engineering the way that people navigate and experience the space and the population around them. Sometimes it can happen in a seemingly spontaneous way, like a flash mob, and sometimes it is the result of meticulous design and effort.

One thing I really like about the Jejune Insitute is the fact that it’s a cross-platform interactive narrative that works a little bit like a gallery installation: it’s just *there*, online, on the air, and in physical space. This represents a very different approach to storytelling than that found in more “traditional” ARGs, which are typically structured around the gradual unveiling of story information leading up to a climax event of some sort. What made you pick this different path? What did you gain (and/or lose) by abandoning the unity of time?

You’re correct about the induction center as “gallery installation”. We wanted to create an immersive automated well-curated environment, and to have it exist semi-permanantly. We were outsiders to the ARG universe, and totally ignorant of it’s culture and customs. So when we finally appeared at the ARG Fest-o-Con in Portland, we learned that we had inadvertently solved one of the major stumbling blocks of earlier ARG’s; “replayability”. What we had produced could be experienced over and over again, and shared with friends, and so on. The big trade off was that it was local. People in other parts of the world are not able to experience it directly. But ideally we’ll be able to produce unique experiences in other cities in the future. Every city should have their own game!

The other thing that led in this direction was that after doing work in the streets for so long I became very curious about those semi-public and private spaces as well. What are the boundaries between them? A corporate office building has all those questions built into them. There’s this very sterile environment that is in someways meant to intimidate people. We used that to our advantage in the narrative, and at the same time subverted it by asking people to explore and reexamine that space. That was a clear incentive for us in creating the induction center.

You’ve been embedding story and play into the Bay Area for a while now. What kind of dividends has this paid in terms of building community and bringing like-minded individuals together?

For players; yes, there’s definitely been a coming together of like-minded people, especially with the recently released Act IV. It emphasizes group play, inter-dynamics, and trust so that when the group completes the experience they have truly been through a rite of passage together. We’ve been hearing from participants that they have really gelled with other players this way and formed deeper bonds. You can really see it in the EPWA protest video; all these weirdos just coming out of the woodwork to party in the streets. Ironically, because I’ve remained “behind the curtains” for so long, I don’t feel like I’ve benefitted socially from any of these activities! I’m really looking forward to coming out from backstage more and interacting directly with the players in the future.

Is civic engagement an artistic imperative?

I’d say not. Great art can be something completely personal and private.

I live in Los Angeles. Do the kinds of projects we’re talking about work best in denser cities like San Francisco or London? Or can we imagine locative stories anywhere, and on any scale?

I view these productions as being fully scaleable. It’s not so much an issue of geography and architecture as much as culture. A map isn’t unpredictable, but people can be! Once you know who the participant is then you can begin to imagine how they might interact in that particular environment. For example, I’d love to produce something for Las Vegas. There is also the “Accomplice” game in Hollywood, which operates a little more like dinner theater in the streets.

If you go back to the 1990s, a lot of people were predicting that the future of storytelling and play was going to be defined by screens, VR goggles, and, ultimately, brain implants. Thankfully, it looks like that’s not the way we’re heading — at least not right away. Where do you see all this locative stuff going in the next few years?

Mobile technology can potentially allow us to get away from the screen and back into the real world. I’m awaiting a few app features to be developed so we can take our immersive experiences to a new level, and which would allow other users to create their own real world adventures. I want my phone to let me know about the secret discovery awaiting me right around the corner. Then I want to share that discovery. I foresee every institution with real space developing their own interactive mobile applications; the Magic Mountain choose-your-own adventure iPhone game, the MOMA interactive mystery tour, or the narrative based campus orientation experience, as you had mentioned. I think at first there will be a ton of poorly designed ones, until people get over the novelty of it and recognize it as a true art form, like film.

What’s next for nonchalance?

On the practical side, we just put together a board of advisors to help us develop our business. On the creative side, we’re talking to a potential collaborator right now in the mental health field about producing a multi-sensory maze that serves therapeutic purposes. It would essentially be an inward-bound expedition through the gauntlet of emotions, with positive achievements built into it. Have you ever been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? It would be like that, but for your psyche. That’s one thing on the table, but we’re still looking at other opportunities.

Nonchalance‘s practice stands at the intersection of three core concepts: Narrative, Consciousness, and Space (both public and private). Founded in Oakland in 1999 by director Jeff Hull, the organization’s primary goal is to infuse more variability and play into the civic realm. Over the intervening years the team has comprised a fluctuating roster of collaborators that currently includes Sara Thacher, Sean Aaberg, and Uriah Findley. Past projects have included “Oaklandish,” “The Liberation Drive-In,” “Urban Capture the Flag,” and “The Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society.” With over 100 free public events under its belt, Nonchalance has received thirteen consecutive “Best of the East Bay Awards,” and produced exhibits and installations for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Oakland Museum of CA, Southern Exposure and the Oakland International Airport. They are currently wrapping production on the “Games of Nonchalance,” an “Immersive Media Narrative” leading participants on a journey of urban exploration throughout San Francisco’s hidden present and past.

What I’m seeing at SXSWi

I’ll be at SXSWi from Friday, March 12th until Monday, March 15th (view my conference profile here). Here’s what I’m thinking of checking out while I’m there:

Friday, March 12th

Friday seems a little light, but there are still a few interesting panels:

  • 2:30pm, Day Stage DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Learning I just like the title of this one. Moderated by Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company.
  • 3:30pm, 10AB Jacks of All Trades or Masters of One? “The web originated with generalists – webmasters designing, building, and developing. Today, a web team can have a dozen different specialist roles, each highly-focused. With that in mind, what are the strengths of specialists and generalists, and when are each put to their best use on a project or in an organization?”
  • either 5:00pm, Ballroom B Time+Social+Location. What’s Next in Mobile Experiences? Featuring Naveen Selvadurai of foursquare. “As more devices become location aware, social uses will continue to evolve beyond just who and what, to WHEN. Adding the temporal dimension creates new opportunities for social interaction. Learn about ways to leverage and use technology to add features at the intersection of temporal, social, and location.”
  • or 5:00pm 6AB With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Future of Video Games “Video games are more popular than ever, and new games are delivering all kinds of social benefits, from video-game therapy for treating PTSD, to sims for train surgeons, to alternate-reality games that actually bring people together in real life. Will video games be a positive force for people and society in the future (as they arguably are today)? This panel is co-sponsored by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.”

Saturday, March 13th

This is where things really heat up…lots of great stuff about locative media, physical computing, ARGs, and more.

  • 9:30am, Hilton G ActivityStrea.ms: Is It Getting Streamy In Here? Chris Messina presents. “From Facebook’s newsfeed to Twitter’s relentless real-time updates, the metaphor of the “stream” has taken social networking beyond blog posts and on to rich social activities. Learn about ActivityStrea.ms – the open format adopted by Facebook, MySpace, and Windows Live – and how it’s fundamentally changing the social web.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette Presented by Andrea Phillips. “ARGs are often trotted out as a shining example of woman-friendly games. They boast unusually high rates of female developers and players, and a slew of kick-ass female leads. But if you dig a little deeper, are they just the post-Buffy version of Princess Peach, always needing to be saved?”
  • either 12:30pm, 12AB Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas Presenters include Julian Bleecker, Jennifer Leonard, and Stuart Candy. “Design fiction is an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling. The goal is to move away from the routine of lifeless scenarios-based thinking. We will share design fiction projects and discuss related techniques for design thinking, communication and exploration of near future concepts.”
  • or 12:30pm, 6AB Playing with Place: Location-Based Games and Services “Location based games and services are finally ready to go mainstream. This panel of professionals explores how to creatively craft the experiences and business models for different types of places like backyards, cities, towns, suburbs, exurbs, hiking trails, parks, and deserts.”
  • 2:00pm, Exhibit Hall 1 Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity I’m definitely looking forward to seeing danah boyd talk.
  • 3:30pm, Hilton F Moon 2.0: The Outer Limits of Lunar Exploration Can’t pass up a moon-oriented panel. “Space sector representatives will discuss how the use of web and mobile technologies create opportunities for participation in future exploration of the Moon. The panel focuses on how X PRIZE, NASA, commercial space companies, and others generate greater interaction and interest in Moon missions using collaborative platforms and social media.”
  • 5:00pm, Hilton D Does My Sh*t-Talking Really Help Your Brand? Panelists include Ivan Askwith and Amber Case. “We’ve heard that ”all press is good press.” But during SXSW 2009, several panels provoked heated audience debates over a new variation: is social marketing successful if people talk about it? Controversial campaigns such as Whopper Sacrifice warrant a discussion about what really makes social media successful… and what doesn’t.”
  • 6:00pm, Brush Square Park – E Dorkbot Great way to end the day. “Think of it as a science fair with free beer. Ample doses of electricity, tomfoolery, mayhem, makers and music combine to form one exquisite geek talent show. Sponsored by SXSW Interactive, the International Game Developer’s Association of Austin, Mr. Data, Ricochet Labs and the Digital Media Council. “

Sunday, March 14th

Another good day, slightly more tech-oriented.

  • 9:30am, Ballroom E Web of Things – Connecting People and Objects on the Web “WoT is a vision of a Web with more devices than people on it. We extend the Web to the real world by enabling devices to become physical Web resources that follow the founding principles of the Web architecture (REST). We will demo a physical mashup with real objects the attendance can interact with using a simple RESTful API.”
  • 11:00am, Hilton H Here Are Lions: The Cartography of the Future “A new breed of maps is revealing breakthroughs in our understanding of biology, neuroscience, ecology and the physical world. We can now map not just physical geographies, but also genomes, neural pathways, emotions, social networks and ideas. These new maps reveal how society will change over the next twenty years.”
  • 11:00am, Ballroom D Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data Clay Shirky’s talk.
  • 12:30pm, 5ABC The 10-Minute Transmedia Experience Presented by Maureen McHugh and Steve Peters of No Mimes Media. “Transmedia experiences ‘- stories played out across multiple platforms: on the web, through mobile and even in the audience’s environment ‘- are going more and more mainstream. Audiences are beginning to expect collaboration in the creation of the experience. What are the techniques to constructing an immersive, compelling 10-minute experience? Transmedia and Alternate Reality Game veterans Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh of No Mimes Media lead this core conversation, where participants will experience the astonishingly immersive nature of transmedia, and discuss the conceptual issues and architecture of the experience. Fans and professionals from any industry are welcome.”
  • 3:30pm, Ballroom C Revenge Of Kick-Ass Mash-Ups with Punk Rock APIs More punk DIY stuff. “Last time we wrote an API layer for a dozen different sites and services, using nothing but free online tools and client-side JavaScript. This time we’ll crack into client-side OAuth. This time actual working code WILL BE WRITTEN BY YOU. This time … it’s personal.”
  • 7:00pm, Austin Grand Ballroom 13th Annual SXSW Web Awards Ceremony “The Web Awards Ceremony is the centerpiece of evening activities at the SXSW Interactive Festival and an event not to be missed. Hosted by Doug Benson with special surprises in store for the big ‘lucky 13’!”

Monday, March 15th

Some really great panels today — unfortunately I have to leave late in the afternoon…

  • 9:30am, Hilton K Interactive Documentaries: A Multidimensional Narrative Panel features my friends from Take Action Games. “Documentaries are just not about ‘documenting’ an event – they interpret and synthesize many sources of information to explain a situation or express a specific point of view. So where does the user interact with this specific project? How can the users input influence the content and the creators? Meet interactive documentary producers to hear how they approach their medium. Learn what’s new when designing a weaving narrative and how do you make it engaging.”
  • 1:10pm, 12AB Hyperlocal Focus: Growing A Vibrant Community Media Ecosystem “Filmmakers, videobloggers, podcasters, pirate & low-power radio jocks and public access TV producers are all creating content in your local community, but they often don’t collaborate or even talk to each other, despite using the same tools and sometimes even seeking the same audiences. A 15 year-old videoblogger and a 50 year-old technical director at a local network TV affiliate may have a lot to learn from each other, but in what context would they ever meet? How can you engage local content creators and build a vibrant media community? This session is about how to create (and utilize) healthy, sustainable user-generated media scenes in local communities, using community media centers, creative salons, non-profit media arts foundations, citizen journalism organizations and grass roots organizing principals.”
  • 5:20pm, 12AB Transmedia Storytelling – Creating Stories That Work Over all Platforms Presented by James Milward of Secret Location fame. “Why and how are narrative worlds, be it traditional Film, Television, or New Media stories expanding across different media outlets and platforms? What are the emerging features of ‘Transmedia’ behavior, consumption and production? What do these new forms of storytelling, product and service design and branding tell us about future convergence of culture and technology?”

…and if I could stay until Tuesday, I definitely wouldn’t miss:

  • 9:30am, 6AB Playing with 140 Characters: Designing Games for Twitter “Twitter: a strange new platform for games. In this panel, the design collective Local No. 12 discusses how they have learned to work within the tight constraints of Twitter, while exploring new forms of gameplay and social interaction. This session will cover the state of games on Twitter, what has and hasn’t worked, and best practices for creating games for this platform.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB Pervasive Games and Playful Experiences: Rendering the Real World “The most photorealistic, networked environment you can play in is real life. Mobile internet, pervasive gaming and sensor-enriched public spaces enable new possibilities in game-play, distributed story-telling and immersive events. Building on previous SXSW events, leading practitioners will explore the ethics, design challenges and business potential of this new form. This session is supported by UK Trade & Investment and Arts Council, England.”

What have I left out? Let me know via twitter or in the comments. See you in Austin!

Learning by ARG: an interview with Mela Kocher Lennstroem

Mela Kocher Lennstroem is a Swiss games researcher currently living in San Diego, where she conducts post-doctoral research on “the blurring of reality and fiction in digital media, especially in ARGs.” I caught up with Mela via Twitter and email after she co-presented (with Ken Eklund, Stephen Petrina, and PJ Rusnak) a “mini ARG” at the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Conference in La Jolla, California — an event I wish I’d attended, especially after talking to Mela about what happened during her session.

First off, I noticed your dissertation, “Follow the Pixel Rabbit,” on your website. Even though I can’t read German, I found it interesting to flip through the pages. Speaking generally, what’s your dissertation about — and what does the Alice reference in the title mean?

I wrote my dissertation on storytelling in video games around 2002/2003. At that time game studies was still a pretty new thing at universities in Switzerland (and games not really accepted as a serious academic subject). With the reference to Alice in Wonderland I wanted to make the statement that digital games offer a magic, bizarre and wonderful world for the one who dares to enter. My dissertation is about different ways of storytelling and player engagement of video games, hyperfiction and interactive movies – latter being a genre that failed remarkably in its beginnings – just watch/play I’m Your Man!

Obviously you are engaged with a lot of different fields of inquiry, from game design to narratology to aesthetics. How did you end up deciding to study/make this kind of stuff? What path did you take to becoming a theorist-practitioner?

Besides frenetically playing Games & Watch as a child, I lead a pretty video game-free life until my roommate in college got me into Myst and Riven. I studied German literature at that point and was curious to test the traditional literary theory frameset on games – and luckily my professor was encouraging that. Writing a dissertation on the topic was a pretty natural step (since it was fun, challenging and exciting), and during that time I played lots of games and taught many game workshops for teachers and librarians. In the past years I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by ARGs and their vast potential for storytelling and blurring the lines between fiction and reality – so I was more than happy to have gotten a research grant to study, play and now even make ARGs in the USA for two years.

You recently appeared on a panel at the Digital Media and Learning conference entitled, “Storytellers, Storymakers and Learning by ARG.” As a part of the panel, you and your co-panelist, game designer Ken Eklund (World Without Oil), designed and ran a mini-ARG. What was the purpose of this game, and how did it work?

The conference theme was “Diversifying Participation”, and our team wanted to discuss ARGs & participatory learning. Since it would probably take an hour to explain what ARGs are (and people still wouldn’t get it!), it seemed more effective (and way more fun!) to have the audience engage in one first hand. The game plot went like this: One of the speakers (which ended up being me) got lost on campus and was not be able to show up for the session in time. While Ken explained this to the waiting conference attendees, he had a “stress-induced narcoleptic attack of 20 minutes” so the audience was completely left to themselves (while our other two team members, PJ Rusnak and Stephen Petrina, stayed incognito in the room for possible trouble shooting).

I wish I had been there. How many people ended up participating?

You should have! There were around 40 people in a quite tiny room so it was packed. It was amazing which strategies the participants came up with – they started a Facebook search, tried to sneak Ken’s phone from his sleeping hand, they tweeted me, tried to call and text me and physically went out on campus to search for me – unfortunately for them, in my fictional world my phone was malfunctioning and I could only send them pictures from my location via tweet to ping.fm. That constraint gave way to lots of creativity, though (as our PM team had hoped for), and the participants truly engaged in their storymaking efforts.

What kind of feedback did you get? How was the notion of “learning by ARG” understood by the assembled educators?

There was definitely excitement in the room during the game (I watched the video later on). Most of them immediately understood that it was a game, and got into play mode. My favorite reaction was the (failed) gamejack attempt of one man who offered to hold his own speech while they were waiting for the scheduled speaker. Another person doubted that I was truly lost but suggested that I might just need a bit of comforting to take up my role as speaker. Lovely!

Even from this short ARG performance, people saw the great potential ARGs bear for learning – via features like creativity, collaboration, common goals, instant player feedback, immersion, role play, problem-solving… Most attendants thought of the ARG as an inspiring experience during an academic conference stuffed with formal one-to-many presentations.

On a more meta level, how do participatory game constructs like storymaking ARGs complicate or extend your thinking on narrative in digital games? Are the categories of “story” and “game” collapsing into one another, or do the traditional boundaries still hold?

ARGs have a potential for storytelling and storymaking that video games do not have, because of the possibility for real time interaction with the puppet masters and the actual chance for the player (or the more believable illusion!) to influence the course of the game. Narrative adventure video games are in comparison to that so limited and often incoherent due to their closed programming. Of course, more open structured video games like GTA offer completely different ways of experiencing and creating a story as well which also extends beyond the realm of the screen, but ARGs just take this idea much further. But new options bear new problems, and ARGs rely on the puppet masters’ coherent and instant feedback and their fair choices – and on the collaboration of the fellow players.

To your second question: I’d rather keep the concepts of “story” and “game” apart for analytical reasons, even though they tend to overlap [in the case of] ARGs: [that is,] I can play by being part of the story or by trying to crack a code. I would say that ARGs make story playable, but they are more story than game – but then this also depends on what the player is looking for. I myself love to ‘stalk’ a character and get into the game through character interaction while others love to solve puzzles etc. – the more traditional game-aspects of an ARG.

What’s next for ARGs — and for your research in general?

I’m curious to see if ARGs will develop towards shorter, replayable and even payable game formats for wider audiences (and therefore blend with features of video games).

I myself got very intrigued by having experienced a challenging setting like the academic conference as a playground, and I hope to investigate further in that direction. I’m not a fan of serious games per se, but I do believe that “play” in general provides at its core some of the most valuable experiences for living and learning.

Thanks, Mela!

A Small Town Anywhere

Multiplayer social media games, including ARGs like Top Secret Dance Off and Must Love Robots, Facebook games like School of Magic, and collaborative production games such as SF0 are inherently about performance. These games allow players to exercise their public voices, step into the limelight, and actively engage with others through performative acts such as videotaping themselves dancing, submitting fictional robot-dating videos, engaging with friends in role playing mini-games, and creating and documenting ad hoc street art interventions. Likewise, performance artists are discovering the generative and poetic potentials of the magic circle and are finding ways to make theatre-going experiences more and more game-like. One example of this productively category-defying overlap is Coney‘s A Small Town Anywhere, which is kind of like an elaborate game of Werewolf, and kind of like an evening at the theatre, and in many ways not at all like either of those things.

A Small Town Anywhere is a theatrical event. It happened at the BAC or Battersea Arts Centre between October 15th and November 7th 2009. A Small Town Anywhere casts a Playing Audience as the citizens of, well, A Small Town Anywhere. There are no actors in the Town except the Playing Audience, who are free to interact and explore as they please. Henri Georges, the Historian convening A Small Town Anywhere, wishes to stress that visitors will not be expected to ‘perform’ in any uncomfortable manner, merely conversing with other vistors and perhaps writing a letter or two. You can speak to Henri in advance of your visit and perhaps discover a history for yourself in the Town, or simply turn up to play your part. (smalltownanywhere.net)

Lyn Gardner’s piece in The Guardian summarizes the experience and impact of the event nicely:

The letter is not addressed to me, but I open it anyway. Having control over the mail is one of the perks of being the postmistress in a small French town. The anonymous writer is, I discover, making a serious allegation – and it’s about me. There are hints about a murdered baby, its corpse buried under a juniper tree. I am, of course, as guilty as hell.

I look around the town square where the baker and butcher are gossiping, watch the children going into the schoolroom, see the mayor walk by. I wonder who wrote the letter. Then I do what I have done with all the previous letters I’ve intercepted. I destroy it. Then I write several ­ letters of my own, slyly suggesting that the schoolmistress was, last year, rumoured to be pregnant. Soon, the whole town will know.

I’m taking part in A Small Town Anywhere, a theatre piece in which the audience are the performers. It’s currently playing at London’s BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), part of a season of interactive shows that redefine the boundaries of theatre. Here, the show is both drama and game. Audience members – there are about 30 per performance – play characters in an imaginary French town. There is no script; every audience member plays a part in developing the story, and thus becomes responsible for its outcome.

And that outcome is not always pretty. The show ends with the community deciding who must be banished from the town to save the rest. (The Guardian)

More: Brendan Adkins’ description of his experience at the event, Matt Trueman’s review [and don’t miss Coney’s own notes on the production, in the comments below!].

# Mar 5, 2010

“He was yelling, ‘Here, Iggy, Iggy.’ He was yelling pretty urgently so I knew he had a step. There’s different pitches of yell. You could tell he had a step and I was just trying to lay it in and he jumped on it,” said Iginla. “I was hoping I wasn’t too late.”

“I saw everyone cheering and I couldn’t believe it. It was done. I didn’t see where he put it. I just saw him jumping around. It was awesome.”

Sidney Crosby lifts Canada to Olympic hockey gold – Vancouver 2010 Olympics – thestar.com

# Mar 3, 2010

“Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Museum 2.0: Exhibits and Artifacts as Social Objects

“audience behaviour – in particular, the traditional theatre behaviour of sitting politely in rows and not speaking – is a learned behaviour and one that can be quickly unlearned. We already see signs of that. Put people in a traditional theatre auditorium, and – with the exception of a few mobile phones going off – people behave traditionally. But let them loose in other spaces, and they now increasingly expect to get the opportunity to play, genuinely interact, curate their own experience of the work and feel that their presence really does make a difference – that being there matters. And if it really does matter, it changes the contract between artists and audiences. That’s challenging, but also offers the potential for everyone to create, act and experiment together.”

Wisdom of the crowd: interactive theatre is where it’s at | Lyn Gardner | Stage | guardian.co.uk

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