BT Residency, playing with reality

Ju Row Farr on Ulrike and Eamon Compliant

Final one of the day. I promise. I find Ulrike and Eamon Compliant fascinating because it is a more political and personal work. Also a lot is achieved with an automated call system and a very linear set of procedures to the experience. It is low key, but contains the same elements that make the other works successful. It is mixing fact/fiction/imaginary/real with a very simple set of technologies.

Ulrike and Eamon Compliant is an ambulatory work commissioned by the De La Warr Pavilion for the Venice Biennale.
For the first time since Desert Rain (1999), this project is based on real world events and is an explicit engagement with political questions. Participants are invited to assume the role of Ulrike or Eamon and make a walk through the city while receiving phone calls. The experience culminates with an interview in a hidden room.

Ulrike and Eamon Compliant from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

  • Venice is a place to be seen and not seen at the same time. It is a city built on, or in the sea. It is entirely a walking city, with no cars. There are hordes of tourist, but the locals know/recognise each other very well. [Venice is very liminal in many ways and the video highlights some of the use of the boundary between city and water. It was for many hundreds of years the trading gateway between Europe and the east. The touristic nature of the entire place now because it is steeped in history and is a giant doorway to the past.]
  • You can’t be other people but you can blur this through the work. The identity of the walker and the character are blurred. [Taking on a character, and archetype or a myth. Losing one’s own identity to the liminal experience.]
  • The piece asks the question about why people do, or can, make the sorts of decisions that Eamon Collins and Ulrike Meinhof made. [Terrorists are outsider figures, and outsider figures are common archetypes in games, play and ritual.]
  • They aren’t much different but have followed a path which ultimately they can’t back out of. But there is a point where they could make different decisions and back out. [What makes you an outsider? Where is the edge of that?]
  • “What is the moment that flips someone? What is the threshold moment when you can’t go back?”
  • The main point of drama, the asking of the question about whether you would go somewhere and answer questions about what you would fight for happens about 2/3 of the way through. [This fits with my idea that the climax event of pervasive experiences should happen at the end of the liminal phase and then followed by reintegration]
  • They had originally intended to have an extensive make up process to physically alter people to look like the characters but decided against this. They did add/keep the sunglasses. [Very much like a fake moustache making a big difference in street games, or festivals for that matter. The removal and replacement of identity. An archetype to play up to or play as.]
  • Factual
  • Engaging with the current debate about terrorism, but consciously selecting conflicts from the past.
  • Purposefully thrilling
  • It all ends with a short interview with the artists where they ask the participants about what they would fight for and the questions themselves seem to bring it home in a personal and everyday way. This is followed by allowing them to watch (via one-way mirror) the beginning of the next interview. Then they return to the start. [This feels very much like an integration process.]


BT Residency, playing with reality

A bit more on Uncle Roy All Around You

Some more about Uncle Roy All Around You whilst talking to Ju.

Between CYSMN and Uncle Roy they did a research residency at Banff and produced a research project called Bystander.

  • This was to investigate what people would do in the street. Not what spectacular, or outlandish things, but how would and could they interact with other players or other people outside the piece/game. [again it is interesting to explore the idea that a set of seemingly mundane actions can fit together to form a situation that is far from mundane]
  • It wasn’t highly technical and used what they called paper trails, what seem like a form of paper prototyping for this experience. They ended up with cards and decks that could be shuffled.
  • They wanted to explore what it felt to be taking part or not. What is that line you cross when you take part? What does it feel like to cross that line? [liminal pay dirt for me]
Uncle Roy came about through a desire to put the players in the street, and in that was a natural progression from CYSMN.
  • It was about absence and presence
  • A quest to find a person who wasn’t going to be there
  • About trying to get the virtual and the real to work together [although it would really seem about getting online players to work with physical players]
  • Cinematic experience of cities
  • The feeling of success and failure – game-like reward systems
  • “Turning corners, moving you from one thing to the next.” [working with similar spatial metaphors to the concept of the liminal]
  • “You think you know where you are going but the carpet can be whipped out.”
  • “You agree to enter, but don’t know where you are going.”
  • How can people enjoy something that is not there
  • People probably felt confused or frustrated [i think this is probably a common response to liminal activities. Participants are presented with structures that are outside the ordinary and a lack of control.]
  • I asked what was the best bit – The contract at the end [where a player would commit to another player, for a year, to “be there” in a crisis]
    • the potential for real change and real world effect [this is the same real world change that occurs through the experience of liminal states, which are educational, reflective and transitional all at once]
    • But it needs a framework to lead up to it, the contract would not work without the rest of the experience [the anti-structure]
  • But also the limousine seems to be a favourite bit for all the artists
    • A fantasy vehicle, part of a collective imaginary [in tribal rituals myths are recited at the same time as the activities and he relationships between the symbols in both resonate]
    •  But slightly transgressive [as the actions in ritual often are taboo activities, ritual is a place to explore and also feel repulsed by the taboo]
    • A symbol of the high life [but the ford granada they use is a richer symbol than that, a reference to the past, a dilapidated symbol of previous wealth, a heavy touch of kitchiness. A white one, the colour of rebirth for neophytes and a vehicle back to the real world.]
We ended with a discussion on the idea of challenge which I found very fascinating. Opening up the space between competition, collaboration and challenge. Blast Theory’s goal is to challenge on a spiritual, mental and physical level and to ask questions [challenge] that other people would like to know the answers to. The word challenge has a richer, and more effective set of connotations for games than competition and when designing for challenge gives a very different set of possibilities that can play into the mental, spiritual and physical.
BT Residency, game studies, playing with reality

Ju Row Farr on Can You See Me Now?

Can You See Me Now? gets a lot of coverage and in the literature comes across as a, if not the, seminal pervasive game. It is played in the city, purposely mixes realities and uses devices with GPS technology, ticking all the boxes for this type of gameplay. I’m only going to pull out some of my relevant notes as it is covered very well in many academic papers and books.

Can You See Me Now? is a game that happens simultaneously online and on the streets. Players from anywhere in the world can play online in a virtual city against members of Blast Theory. Tracked by satellites, Blast Theory’s runners appear online next to your player on a map of the city. On the streets, handheld computers showing the positions of online players guide the runners in tracking you down.

  • This is their gamiest piece [by far]
  • It was a chase game and they understood and wanted to bring the affective elements from chasing into this mixed reality technical system, such as the feeling of being shouted at, people breathing down your neck, the sound of running footsteps behind you, hiding and jumping out. [Between Ritual Process (1969) and Drama, Fields Metaphors (1974), it seems that Turner has started to pick up an understanding of the affect of ritual, though doesn’t develop it]
  • This is important as how do you keep someone engaged in the 3D world without some sort of contact with the physical players. How do you get someone involved in the virtual world
  • When designing the virtual world they ask themselves is this world in the past, the present or the future. This decision is important to how the piece functions. For example this ties in with the piece asking you for the name of someone who you haven’t seen for a while.
  • The players (who are all in the virtual world) would have to work together to catch the runners.
  • Used Walkie-Talkies for the specific aesthetic that they bring and that they are seemingly lo-tech solution [Same reason I used them for RoboRacers, they have a lovely textural quality about them]
  • Purposefully a non-naturalistic 3D world. Very obviously alternate. Very obviously fictional, not an attempt at a copy of the real world.
  • Much emergent behaviour occurred in the 3D world, peple did things that were unexpected. Patterns emerged that were different from offline. Some people used it like a chat room, there were fans/stalkers/followers who appeared in each playing.
  • The avatars in the 3D world are all identical, though one type for runners and one type for players. [stripping of identity in liminal spaces]
  • The runners ended up in what is basically a paramilitary look. They needed them to feel like a team, needed a uniform. No logos. To feel purposeful and competent needed to be dressed purposeful and confident. [Again a removal/replacement of identity. Uniforms like this put the individual in a liminal space. It is interesting that they were black as this also symbolises death, a state in which ritual participants are often identified as]
  • The runners had all their garb laid out on tables gridded with tape and would be dressed and geared up before going out into the streets to run. [the description of this is so reminiscent of ritual preparation and formalised actions in taking on the symbols of the ritual, the ritual garb.]
  • The runners became part of a group, looking out for each other. The situations were on busy streets, dangerous, tiring, stressful. [communitas and the situations that promote communitas]
  • In different countries the reactions to the runners was very different. In Japan they gathered followings who would run around with them. [although the garb looks somewhat scary in western culture, maybe it has different connotations in the east]
  • Want the players to be angry and playful at the same time.

Again throughout I heard very detailed descriptions of the procedures of the piece from end to end. The level of recollection of the details from work nearly a decade old is quite surprising and I believe shows the level of care paid to the little elements and how these contribute to the work.

Can You See Me Now? Tokyo from Blast Theory on Vimeo.


BT Residency, playing with reality

Ju Row Farr on Desert Rain

There is a great quote from the very end of this Desert Rain documentary video. I’m not sure whether it is a piece of content from the installation, or a vox pop from one of the players. Still I feel that this sums up both the liminality of the installation itself and the liminality of both war itself and Baudrillard’s hyperreal war. (UPDATE: It was Glenn, a british soldier in Iraq)

You’ve seen something you never imagined you were going to see. Then you’ve got to go back to the real world. Or, I might put that the other way around.

Desert Rain from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

These are the rough notes from my discussion with Ju Row Farr about their piece Desert Rain. Again my observations in green.

  • Established an ongoing relationship with the MRL/Nottingham U (if Kidnap established a new relationship with media and audiences then this established a new use of technology)
  • Came from work on the Gulf War. Baudrilliard and his ideas of the virtual and the hyperreal. (There is a difference in the way hyperreality and liminality are set forth. Hyperreality is almost like liminality expanding to take up everything and remove the seams, a liminal experience where the threshold has disappeared)
  • It mixed the fictional/factual/imaginary/real.
  • Tried to get people proximal to the gulf war, emotively and intellectually, but through physical activity (the physical metaphor mimics the notion of the threshold, or the centre/periphery concept)
  • Asked to do things you’ve never done before, but made up of actions that are fairly mundane
  • Desert Rain was much more of a game, or influenced by games, in the very least because of the use of the virtual world technology
  • Participants were physically changed going into the installation, handed over their own coats and donned identical raincoats (elements of separation stage of ritual)
  • We talked about gateways, and that each section of Desert Rain was a successive gateway. Although much focus has been put on the game bit, that was only one part of the experience. (the language of gateways. it also feels very much like the procedures of ritual)
  • They wanted an afterglow or rumour to come away afterwards. They slipped a small box of desert sand into people’s pockets to take away. (this was one of the nicest examples of elements of transition that I think abound in their work. the very nature of ritual is such that you are intended to take back something from the experience into the so called real world, that it is a state change)
  • Desert Rain required collaboration to “succeed”
  • You could really lose yourself in the moment and in the game, lost in the fiction paralleling being lost in the war.
  • A lot in this was about crossing lines, social lines and moving from a position of the familiar to the unfamiliar.
  • “to connect people” (communitas)
  • “to punch through” (liminal language)
  • On process – “get the hors d’oeuvre right and the main meal will taste right” (a nice reflection on the procedures and the importance of the separation phase)
  • “Crossing thresholds gives a buzz”
  • Mysteries in the ways people interact (reflecting I think on the difference between societas and communitas, the tensions between structured, hierarchical, role-typed social interaction and the homogenous, direct, authentic types of social interaction. Both are mysterious and the transitions between them are mysterious.)
  • The end, the psychological debrief gives a symmetry to the work, an in and an out. (repeatedly I do find a care paid to the way the experience ends and the integration processes is a core part of the whole installation)
  • They want the participants to feel a need to talk about it afterwards, and they give them the chance through things like interviews and questionnaires. (This all relates to the process of integration at the end of the ritual, where the things you have learnt are reflected upon and massaged back into the structures of the everyday)
BT Residency, playing with reality

Ju Row Farr on Kidnap

Ju Row Farr is one of the full time, founding artists of Blast Theory. As with the others I’ve sat down and discussed their work with and although I’ve tried to steer things always towards thinking through liminality I’ve just generally let the conversation take its own course. Here I’m trying to present some of the elements of ritual process that I’ve dragged out.

After talking to all three artists they all agree that Kidnap and Desert Rain were Blast Theory’s two game changing works. These two developed their understanding of the “medium” they are working within, radically altered their relation to performance and the audience and finally altered their use of media and technology. These two set them on the path they are on today.

Kidnap from Blast Theory on Vimeo.


  • The media campaign was a vitally important piece of the work
  • It was participatory and interactive in a very different way – through media campaign, web cams, the competition, the hostages (as some of their future work it starts to operate in many different space simultaneously, it is fiction, fact, physicality, virtual, it is truly a liminal work. The use of the internet helps to increase this liminality)
  • It was online, but highly physical
  • Through the production they didn’t have all the answers, many aspects emerged. They went into it not really knowing how it would end up or what the work would be like. (it feels like a personal journey or pilgrimage for the artists through the work)
  • The fiction of the kidnapping was important (the pretending, or suspension of disbelief for all participants, the subjunctive nature of the event)
  • As much as the kidnapping was vital to keeping the fiction (the physicality and the fiction are interlinked and mutually dependent for the liminal state)
  • Through and after this the artists became more remove as performers.
  • Blast Theory themselves were kidnapped in that they weren’t quite aware of how much they would have to put into the kidnap period. They were hostage to the kidnapees. (this is interesting in that it seems that maybe the liminality of the participants is reflected back on the artists, they are in the same liminal state as they are also doing something beyond the ordinary and on the edge. Even with permission this is a very transgressive act, especially in the effort they had to go to get Russell Ward)
  • A more sophisticated idea of the audience developed through this work, the audience was invisible and reached through all the various media they had used in the campaign, the competition and the webcam broadcast. (an invisible audience, ghosts, or spirits, watching through web cams is a lovely liminal metaphor)
  • Playing with the audience (I want to say that play is liminal, but so much of the reading I’ve done paints liminal in a serious and uncomfortable light. However play is such a polysemous word that it fits in nicely to the polysemous nature of ritual symbolic systems)

The big question after Kidnap is what do you do next? How do you top that? It is a piece that can only be done once, and where do you go after that. The answer is to do something radically different, which leads to Desert Rain.


BT Residency, playing with reality

The Blast Theory artists

The last month’s blog posts have been probably either a bit cryptic, or simple lists of bullet point notes. These are helping me shape my thinking of my month here and they may not follow a clear narrative. I do hope that in some cases some of this raw data might be of use, or at least interesting, to other people and I do intend to pull some of this together into some clearer products in the future. However as I’ve realised I’m coming away with more than I expected and a difficult job ahead of me focussing all of this into some coherence.

One thing I’m aware of is not really having introduced Blast Theory and just relied on links back to their site. I introduced my project and reason for being here nearly a month ago, but my instrumental thinking has been buffeted by what I’m figuring out about both Blast Theory’s work as well as pervasive media and gaming in general.

Blast Theory is renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting. Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group’s work explores interactivity and the social and political aspects of technology. It confronts a media saturated world in which popular culture rules, using performance, installation, video, mobile and online technologies to ask questions about the ideologies present in the information that envelops us.

Having discussed their work with all of them I’m getting a better idea of their history, production process, drives and strengths. From the way all three artists talk about their work I’m getting tantalising glimpses of how they work together and what they each bring to the equation. Ju Row Farr appears to be the most interested in the audience, the individuals that make up that audience and how the work speaks to them as individuals. Nick Tandavanitj is the craftsman of the team (or in his words “the geek artist”), making sure all the elements of the experience are right. Matt Adams seems concerned with the politics (in the small sense, as it is not overtly didactic) of the work  and how it is contextualised, keeping the big picture in mind throughout.

This is of course a gross generalisation, and I think I sense that these three aspects of audience, craft and politics are important for each of the three in different ways but the way they speak about them brings one or the other to the fore. These three aspects are a fundamental strength of their practice and the way these three aspects orbit and interact is vital to the types of work they produce.

Nick Tandavanitj - Matt Adams - Ju Row Farr

BT Residency, playing with reality

Blast Theory, Technology and Process

Originally I had thought I was coming here to fill in a technical piece of my PhD puzzle, how Blast Theory achieve their award winning experiences through technology. However the lasting impression I get is not that this is achieved the use of technology, but instead that they do this through detailed production processes and a real attention and absolute care paid to the nuts and bolts of the experience.

Rather than being experts in whizzy technology (though they do have a deep understanding of how to use it) their skills like in the planning of the process of experiences. It is fascinating to hear all the three artists discuss the intricate, step by step details of the various works (often dating back 10 years) and it is very telling that they all remember the step by step details with high degree. To achieve this sort of recall points to them having spent a lot of time finessing these processes. This goes all the way back to kidnap, and for example getting entry forms just right.

Most of the attention Blast Theory gets for their work is focussed on the glitzy main event, the GPS game, virtual world, or the technology. However it is the attention that they pay to how a participant enters and leaves that experience that really distinguishes their pieces. And it is here that they show that they can achieve liminal experiences by ushering people carefully across the threshold and into their works. The beginnings and ends, which usually have nothing to do with high tech, are the mechanisms that assist this liminality.

Another interesting point about their processes is that although they say they “want to make you do things you’ve never done before” they are not trying to make you do actions you haven’t tried before. The things they want to get you to do are made up of fairly mundane, everyday physical actions, and these, pieced together and executed in a different context are what bring about the experiences. Other liminal experiences also have this same relationship: pilgrimages are just extended commuting; rituals involve lots of small, easily repeatable symbolic actions; festivals often involve simple things such as processions, or easily replicable dances. The individual actions can be mundane, but take on different symbolic meaning in the context of the participant’s liminal state.

Victor Turner’s description of the Isoma ritual that he writes about in The Ritual Process feels very similar. The whole ritual is complex, and the doctors involved are the only ones that appreciate the whole, but the other participants take part by digging holes, slaughtering chickens or singing simple songs.

Having just read another review of the – i’m still gutted I didn’t go this year – game 2.8 hours later, it is interesting to see the reviewer describe some of the same carefully considered details emerging to build that liminal game space.

playing with reality

Momus, Pervasive Gaming, Art and Commerce

Only today do I come across an excellent post from the playful, weird, sino-celtic musician-cum-artist Momus. Seems he was invited to Hide and Seek in 2008 and did some digging around Pervasive Games. It’s a great post and I’m both happy and annoyed as he has a few conclusions that are strikingly similar to my PhD work. It is great to see someone who is critical, and an outsider to the scene, doing some research about the subject and forming some interesting conclusions. He hits on the some of the exclusivity I’ve witnessed and coincidentally mentions hipsters. Hipsters and exclusivity seem always go together somehow. He wants in, but also out… and ultimately, from what I know, he was out.

This unethical exclusion, this flagrant rudeness, is something Charlie Booker and Chris Morris rammed home time after time in Nathan Barley, the story of an infuriatingly ludic prankster / media node who constantly flaunts his freedom and disinhibition in front of unfree and inhibited people.


What happens when fun and games become values you can’t question? […] Fun and games, at that point, become orb and sceptre, ball and chains. Liberation, at that point, becomes difficulty and differential calculus. It becomes emotion, idealism, seriousness, quietness, dignity.

Also today I was talking to a PR person about how to sell pervasive gaming to big brands and extend audiences. Marketing departments, quite understandable, don’t get pervasive games… I don’t think I do yet either.

One thing I’ve found it really fascinating from my research is that practitioners around pervasive gaming consider themselves to largely be designers. Those working professionally are in what look like small design companies. They fit into that field and market and are attempting to situated themselves commercially as such.

There are interesting tensions and orbits between whether the practice of pervasive gaming is art or design. Some of the most successful companies working in this field certainly take money from both the art and design worlds and are constantly recontextualising themselves to appear as one or the other to the commissioners that provide money to each. Not that I consider these to be two clear cut categories by any stretch, but there is a lot of chasing back and forth between these two checkpoints.

The practice of design, and situating this form of gaming alongside brands, is one which doesn’t naturally allow for the sorts of critical engagements that Momus raises as problems he saw in pervasive urban gaming. In fact brands want differentiation and distinction as part of their message and it is interesting to see that play out. Not that art is entirely innocent either, in that work made largely for the gallery context is already exclusive by its nature. Can you ever win?