Haley Moore: Tangible Storytelling and the Laser Lace Letters

Haley Moore is an artist and designer who specializes in using technology to tell stories with objects. She is also the cohost of the Transmedia Talk podcast, and has covered the ARG and transmedia scenes for the Workbook Project, among other outlets. Haley’s wealth of experience in conceiving and fabricating story artifacts (including the flags, medals, and other swag we commissioned for Reality Ends Here) has established her as an expert in what she calls “evidentiary fiction” or “tangible storytelling.” Her most recent project, The Laser Lace Letters, exemplifies the kind of care, detail, and depth present in Haley’s object-driven storyworlds.

Hi Haley! Thanks for doing this interview. I thought we would start with the big picture first. Could you tell us a bit about “tangible storytelling,” and how you ended up working in this space?

Tangible storytelling – that’s easy, it’s telling stories through physical objects. It can be a supportive art that sets the mood for a story, like dressing a set, costuming a character, or choosing just the right presentation for your mailers. Often it’s the first thing people experience in a transmedia campaign, through an object they get in the mail or something set up in a public place. Some projects rely more on tangible, some less.

At its deepest, tangible storytelling ties in closely with the idea of story archaeology. When we’re asking the reader to dig up some fossils, I’m the person who designs the bones.

I started doing tangible work on my very first Alternate Reality Game, which was a fan ARG for the TV show Alias. Shortly after, I was recruited to build some key artifacts for Dave Szulborski’s second Chasing the Wish ARG, Catching the Wish. By then, my reputation for being a jack-of-all-trades craftsperson was settled, and my artistic development became hopelessly entangled with ARGs.

Describe the Laser Lace Letters. How do people experience the story world you have created? How does it differ from other kinds of fiction?

Every few days, I’m coming up with a new way to describe Laser Lace, and at the moment it’s this: Laser Lace Letters are short stories that you explore by pawing through other people’s stuff.

In Laser Lace Letters, you’re tasked with piecing together the evidence related to a disappearance – and by evidence, I actually mean physical artifacts. Diary pages, sketches from the journals of inventors, pages torn out of childrens books, deeds, manifestoes, photographs, love notes, suicide letters.

The cool thing is, all this evidence comes from an alternate steampunk Victorian era, so you aren’t just looking at beautiful handwritten letters, but ones that talk about clockwork powered tiny robots and how you can use them to assassinate people, or what it’s like to be an airship captain, or the challenges of being a stage magician in a world where technology is already a bit magical. It’s like this fell out of time and into your mailbox.

At the center of each story, we have a unique central artifact. I’ve been working on these for about a year now – felt laser cut cameos that represent the central character in each of our seven stories. When you’re done with Laser Lace Letters, you come away with a wearable momento.

These things are made on a hobby laser cutter that I’ll be buying with the money raised in the Kickstarter. They’re amazingly detailed – for example, one of them features an airship fleet, complete with little windows on the sides of the cabin. We have one cameo that’s surrounded by crimson gears, daggers, and a bloody red heart.

Obviously, there are a lot of things in this approach that are different from film or a novel. There’s no third person omniscient and no proscenium. Each story has at least one character who’s a bit of a narrator, but it’s very much about reading between the lines and putting the pieces together. Voice and intertextuality are extremely important, and because we can’t see our characters, context and style become part of the narrative language. Even the color of paper each character writes on becomes significant.

What were your inspirations for the project?

Ah, Jordan Weisman, how do I love thee? I was utterly enchanted with Cathy’s Book, and I dug on Personal Effects: Dark Art. Like most people, I was also in love with the Jejune Institute, even though I never got a chance to play it in person. Those are tangible, tech-light experiences that present really deep rabbit holes to fall into.

I’ve been tossing the idea of a steampunk project around ever since I met Yomi Ayeni at Storyworld last year and found out he was interested in partnering with some other artists for Clockwork Watch. That’s exactly what ended up happening with Laser Lace, it’s the first big Clockwork Watch spinoff.

A couple of other things spurred it on. Girl Genius is a fantastic comic that influenced the way I think about steampunk. David Malki does a series called True Stuff From Old Books, which is full of very real weirdness from the same era that steampunk stories exist in. I’m a huge fan of the Phoenix Wright games, which often involve closely examining evidence. I’ve been knee deep in the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and also following the work of Lea Redmond, a killer tangible artist who runs World’s Smallest Postal Service and was involved with Jejune.

The cameos came directly out of some experiments that I did at the Dallas Makerspace last December. I’d finished my annual donation to the Desert Bus for Hope Craftalong. Last year was a giant soft mosaic made from laser cut felt, and afterward I started experimenting with self-forming woven shapes using the leftover felt. The story grew out of the design process, and has a lot of close ties to the real origins of the cameos.

This kind of work seems to have so much potential, especially in the age of the ebook. It’s almost like this is where physical book publishing in general needs to head — that is, toward providing readers with more than just pages of text, but with real artifacts that can’t be duplicated digitally. In that sense, do you consider this a kind of publishing project?

It’s an ironic question, because Laser Lace straddles the border between digital and physical. Everything has a digital origin – even the cameos, which are made from parts cut out by a computer-controlled robot. And yet, so far on Kickstarter, people have shown that they want the physical version of the stories rather than the digital version. Designers have to set out to create a specific physical experience, in order to get audiences to not take the “shortcut” to digital.

Yep, it’s a publishing project. It’s most similar to a comic book series, except we have a digital book instead of a trade paperback.
I think we’re in a transitional era right now, where the safest thing is for publishers to stick with a straightforward content design that they know how to push to both print and digital efficiently. I can’t wait to see what happens once we get a good standard for introducing interactivity in a traditional reading flow on a tablet. Then, I have a feeling digital artifacts are going to become extremely common, just as they are in video games.
There’s no doubt that publishers can profit from integrating tangible in the right way – but I’ve imagined what this project would look like in the hands of a big publisher, and it involves manufacturing everything in China and leaning on economies of scale; it’s a big investment for a publisher to make.

The flipside of the internet age is that, even though it’s pulling the traditional reading experience to digital, it’s also connecting suppliers and creators. Today, a small outfit can do a project like this, which would have been impossible without a publisher ten years ago. It’s the same reason we don’t necessarily need big apparel companies, toy makers, or technology companies to bring great stuff to market today – although it certainly helps. Small creators can bring an artisanal dimension to the art – everything in Laser Lace Letters has been put together from start to finish by an artist, whether its weaving the lace or putting the wax seal on the package.

I’d love to see a publishing partnership with a group like a hackerspace. Some very interesting and innovative stuff would come out of that.

This question has two parts. First, who is the intended audience for Laser Lace Letters? And second, how broad is the audience you imagine for tangible story projects in general?

If you like steampunk, ARGs, or mystery stories, you’re going to love Laser Lace. Though we’re doing some online teasers/expansions, the core experience is no-tech, so anyone who can pick up a book can enjoy one of these stories.

That said, while Laser Lace is a reading experience for adults, I think the audience skews a bit younger, with people who are more familiar with things like the Harry Potter franchise that has all sorts of artifacture surrounding it. The steampunk audience is in about that age range as well, so I’m reaching out to an audience that has a sweet tooth for this kind of thing.

I’m really trying to introduce some diversity to steampunk and break gender norms. Too often, the genre seems like an endless parade of white men. So, when we went to create an in-game advert to appear in the new Clockwork Watch comic, the art we created was of an Indian woman. She’s wearing period costume and some stylish goggles, and she’s utterly gorgeous. Again, we can’t see the characters in the main story, so most of them we have no idea what their race is. I want to open it up a bit, so everyone can come and play in our world.

The breadth of audience for tangible stories depends a lot on the type of story. You have the best shot by working in a genre that has a popular appeal, just because so much of the story is tied up in stye. I’m inclined to think that kids who grew up on things like Harry Potter and the Ologies books are going to be more disposed than the current average to start reading things like Laser Lace, as they move out of their teens and into their twenties over the next five years.

Of course, as extensions of a bigger story world, tangible stories are a pretty easy sell to fans of the larger project. They’re like merchandising and spinoff fiction rolled in one.

What can readers do to support this project?

If you like the idea, you can check out all the stories and pledge on our Kickstarter page, or if you’re broke, you can spread the word on your various Twitters, Facespaces, and Mumblers.

Any surprises you can tease us with?

We’re slowly rolling out teasers for each of the stories at LaserLaceLetters.com, but we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of four of those stories. Pretty soon you’re going to meet our mad science character and get a load of his special brand of quackery.

Also I highly advise you watch the stream for Desert Bus for Hope. A bunch of comedians play the worst video game ever made until you stop giving them money for charity. It’s a blast and well…you’ll just have to see.

Finally, what’s next for you?

If all goes well, I’ll be lasering and writing for several months. I hope to take Laser Lace to trade shows and conventions in the Spring and Summer of 2013, including at least one event with the Clockwork Watch crew. After that, so very many projects. I’m still working on an object-augmented book called Research and Developments, as well as a tangible city exploration project.

Innovation Ecotones

An ecotone — literally, a place where ecologies are in tension — is a transitional area between different biomes, such as the boundary between grassland and forest or between different kinds of forests. Such places are sites for evolutionary dynamism, conflict, and experimentation. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, draws on the ecotone as analogy and inspiration in her provocative essay regarding the future of design education and other institutional systems, Innovation Ecotones (.pdf).

Here, Pendleton-Jullian outlines the continuum between linear (“twentieth century”) and elastic/non-hierarchical (“twenty-first century”) learning and innovation models:

The left side of this continuum corresponds to models, methods, and mechanisms associated with twentieth century learning and the right side corresponds to how we are beginning to conceive of knowledge construction for the twenty-first century. A twentieth-century approach to education holds fast to the notion of teaching as a systematic delivery of knowledge—knowledge that is vetted and sanctioned and delivered in discipline-based packages from expert teachers to students. It is education in which one learns about specific stuff and how to do specific things.

In contrast, twenty-first century learning environments are about learning that extends far beyond the classroom (it scales), which in turn promotes elasticity and agency. The assumption is that we need to prepare for futures in which the specific things we will be doing, and specific stuff we will need to know, do not yet exist. Implicated in an education for the twenty-first century are all sorts of new mechanisms—cultural, social, and intellectual mechanisms—that are either directly or indirectly affiliated with the digital age as a global phenomenon.

Intuitively, we understand that a twenty-first century approach to learning is radically different from education that focuses on the accumulation of information and the simplistic transfer of culture and ideas associated with this information. But what is it more precisely? I would suggest that it begins with an epistemological shift in which learning how to learn and act (learning to be), in a highly situated manner, replaces learning about something. And then it is about how this scales, so as to create elasticity and agency.

Agency is the key word here. In the staid and siloed ecologies of traditional education, everyone has their place. Agency is reduced to choosing which silo you’re going to set yourself into — a choice which can drastically scale back your exposure to what’s going on in other silos. As a result, your world — your learning ecology — becomes smaller and less diverse over time. And the less diverse a given ecology becomes, the slower its pace of evolution and innovation.

In an “ecotone culture,” what once was siloed begins to collide, mix, and cross-pollinate, opening new vectors for discovery and collaboration. The results are unpredictable, but rich:

Because the students of the ecotone culture share the space and their work with others unlike themselves – with diverse species – there will be those cases in which one enters as one thing and evolves into something else: an architect, for instance, evolves into a musician/architect; or an astronomer evolves into an astronomer/environmentalist. Like the Greenbul [a bird whose song pitch and aeronautical capabilities adapt in response to its environment], though, it is not a change of song but a new tonality that honors both the song structure and the new context. This means that this new talent will acquire the ability to contribute in more than one field and maintain a key presence in multiple camps.

The ecotone analogy is extensive and highly productive. Diversity of species, new species development, keystone species as engineers, distribution of nutrients, corridors for transfer of creatures and stuff—even the idea of microhabitats (smaller habitats within larger habitats, like a tidal pool)—are all intensely relevant in terms of conceiving, designing, and implementing organizational structures and mechanisms for this innovation ecology model. Each component might independently have an impact and add value to the system, but the fact that the ecotone is a system, rather than a collection of components, means that their collective impact scale.

It should be noted that establishing an innovation ecotone in an institutional setting does not mean that one must completely change the entire system overnight. As I’ve observed over the past few months, a lightweight and entirely opt-in pervasive game geared around peer discovery and collaborative production can have transformative effects on an otherwise siloed educational environment. Once the channels for agency and disciplinary elasticity have been opened, it’s hard to close them again. After all, young media artists, theorists, and designers (among many others) are eager to find their niche in the world, to discover their identities, and to make a contribution — and in diversity, there is opportunity.

Download the complete text: Innovation Ecotones (.pdf)

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.

Radiation cats and atomic priesthoods: the Human Interference Task Force

The question of how to mark the places where we store nuclear waste such that people in the distant future won’t do things like build towns or nurseries or farms on top or inside of them is one of my favorite transmedia design challenges. It’s a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a way to communicate with a diverse and unknowable range of cultures and attitudes across a vast gulf of time. Nuclear waste can take upwards of 20,000 years to decay.

Solutions to the problem, such as those proposed by the Human Interference Task Force, a workgroup formed in 1981 by the US government, include the construction of monumental reinforced concrete architectural elements (obelisks, pyramids, and so on, all inscribed with a range of frightening DANGER! symbols), the breeding of super-friendly genetically-engineered cats that change color in the presence of radioactivity, and the establishment of a multi-millennium-scale religious order or “atomic priesthood”.

More info: Wikipedia: Human Interference Task Force, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia

16 June 2014: Tunisian transmedia campaign

16 Juin 2014 is a participatory transmedia event that took place in February of 2011. The project engaged the Tunisian public via a variety of platforms and interactions in playfully imagining the country’s post-revolution future. 16 Juin 2014 was spearheaded by ad agency Memac Ogilvy Label:

Memac Ogilvy Label decided to show everyone how bright Tunisia’s future could be if everyone all started building it now. The agency convinced six brands and five major Tunisian media outlets (one radio, one television, two newspapers and one online magazine) to participate in the June 16th 2014 campaign. During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. To further engage people, the agency launched a hashtag on Twitter [#16juin2014] and 16juin2014.com, a website with all the content and where people could share their own vision of the future. (The Inspiration Room)