The Institute Screening: Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at OCADU

institute

OCADU Digital Futures is running a special free advance screening of The Institute this Thursday, September 12th, 2013, at OCAD University. We will be hosting a Q&A following the screening with at least one special mystery guest. Details below…

Where:
OCAD University Auditorium (room 190)

When:
Thursday, September 12, 2013 6:30 PM

** free **

To those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see… “The Institute” is a feature length documentary examining the San Francisco phenomenon of the Jejune Institute.

Is it a cult? Is it a game? Or is it a life changing adventure?

The film looks over the precipice at an emergent new art form where the real world and fictional narratives merge to create unforeseen and often unsettling consequences. Follow along as we disclose a world whose secret identity may mean the difference between enlightenment and total incomprehension…

http://www.theinstitutemovie.com/

More info: Interview with Jeff Hull (1), Interview with Jeff Hull (2), OCADU event listing

Pronunciation Book

“Empathy is the key to science. You don’t know that when you begin.” Tumble into the rabbit hole that is the Pronunciation Book YouTube channel, which has been counting down to…something…for the past 47 days. You may have stumbled across the Pronunciation Book before the countdown began, when all it was doing was telling you how to pronounce things like Quinnipiac, Enjolras, and banana. But since July 9th, 2013, the channel has taken a decidedly mysterious turn. Sarah Brin (@dinosaurrparty) of The Creators Project writes:

It may be possible that Pronunciation Book is not so much a game as it is an alternative reality. More specifically, it may be possible that the words and phrases repeated in the series are telling a story. However fragmented and sometimes Pynchonian the narrative may appear, this mode of storytelling may be a new development in the field of serial narratives. (Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov and many other writers were known to have published their work in regular installments, too.)

This is all pure conjecture, of course, and we’ll have to wait September 24th (77 days from July 9, 2013) to find out whether or not there is a message to be found within Pronunciation Book. (The Creators Project)

More: Unfiction: Pronunciation Book – Countdown 77

Half a shade off from the reality we are living already: an interview with Jacob Garbe of ISA

Jacob Garbe is a Bay Area artist, designer, and MFA student at UC Santa Cruz. His latest ARG-like creation, XMPLAR, involves an iOS and Android app, a frighteningly believable fictional corporation (of which Jacob is apparently an employee), a series of physical installations involving a dizzying array of display systems and interfaces, and a live performance. If you’re in the area, you can experience the dramatic culmination of this phase of XMPLAR at the UCSC DANM ground (ctrl) exhibition on May 2, 2013. The exhibit runs until the 5th, but the opening reception on the 2nd promises to be extra special. Wherever you are, you can explore the app and website now and for the foreseeable future. Jacob spoke with me via email over the weekend:

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!

Thanks, Jacob!

Further information: Integrated Security Automation, Inc., UCSC DANM ground (ctrl), Jacob Garbe.

Henry Jenkins interviews me about Reality Ends Here

Special thanks to Henry Jenkins for conducting a wide-ranging two-part interview with Simon Wiscombe, Tracy Fullerton, and me about my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here (A.K.A. SCA Reality, “The Game”, etc):

All of this cloak and dagger stuff was part of an innovative game — an Alternate Reality Game of sorts — which is being conducted amongst the entering Cinema School undergraduates this year. If my own experiences are any indication, the game is proving to be enormously successful at getting students involved, excited about entering the Cinema School, more aware of its resources, more connected to its faculty, more engaged with its research, more connected across different divisions. It is also getting them involved in collaborative and production like activities than most entering students who have had to wait for a bit before they would be allowed to take production classes. I’ve seen lots of discussion over the past few years about the potentials of using ARGS for pedagogical purposes. But, this is the first time I’ve seen such a large scale experiment in integrating ARG activities across an entire school to orient entering students to a program and to serve a range of instructional goals. The passion the game is motivating in USC students is palpable. And I can tell you that many of the faculty, who have gotten pulled into the game through one play mechanic or another, are feeling a real pride in their school for its willingness to embrace this kind of experimentation and innovation. (henryjenkins.org)

Read the full interview.

More info on the game here.

Jeff Hull on The Games of Nonchalance: a guerrilla street war against banality and routine

Jeff Hull is the founder and creative director of Nonchalance, a hybrid arts consultancy based in San Francisco. At this year’s IndieCade, Nonchalance won the World/Story Award for their “epic, immersive, poly-media, real-world adventure,” the Games of Nonchalance. In the Games of Nonchalance, participants experience a vast transmedia interactive narrative woven into the fabric of the Bay Area, following threads of story and mystery through city streets and a wide array of on- and offline media artifacts. I caught up with Jeff Hull shortly after his appearance at IndieCade.

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.

[This interview originally appeared at the always-awesome jawbone.tv]

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

ARGFest Panel: City Gaming & Public Art

ARGFest 2010 is just around the corner, and I’m lucky enough to attending as a panelist. I’ll be taking part in a discussion with Anne Dennington, Carl DiSalvo, and Sara Thacher titled, “TransGenre: City Gaming & Public Art.” Here’s the description, written by panel organizer Peggy Weil (see schedule here):

ARGs are not only transmedia, they are TransGenre. Games in general, and city games in particular, have “crossed over” from the cult/gamer and commercial/marketing sectors as celebrated innovations in public art. International art festivals from the Venice Biennale to San Jose’s ZeroOne are commissioning game designers to create site-specific artworks transforming the urban landscape into urban gamescape.

While urban game designers are tech-savvy and urban gamers find themselves in virtual and augmented realities – required to take full advantage of mobile/social networks – games as public art have theatrical roots, particularly in street theater, improv, performance art, club culture and literature.

This panel will address the intersection of city gaming as public art identifying both precedents and opportunities for game designers to create work for public spaces. (ARGFest)

Taking risks and dancing with audiences: Andrea Phillips on writing for transmedia and ARGs

I met Andrea Phillips at this year’s SXSW, where she delivered a smart, wide-ranging talk about the representation of women in ARGs. Andrea is a veteran ARG writer, designer, and player, and is the current chair of the IGDA ARG Special Interest Group. In this interview, Andrea discusses her creative process and the formal and technical limitations (and possibilities) of ARGs and other playful forms of transmedia storytelling:

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.

Thanks, Andrea!

UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here

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.