A four year old on the philosophical categories of the natural and artificial

Real things have blood in them. Not real things don’t.

Yesterday my son was looking at his baby doll and wondering why the head looked the same colour when held up to the light as your hand does. And he knows that hands look pinky because of the light shining through the blood. He was confused and experiencing an ontological crisis. Was the doll real (living) because it looked like it had blood in it, or as he had assumed not real (artificial)?

I love the thought of blood signifying reality. And all the things he gets to play with are not real.


A simple take on post-digital

Yesterday at Blast Theory’s ACT Otherwise workshop I dropped the term post-digital in the middle of a set of deliberate provocations. It’s a term that has drifted occasionally around the DCRC over the last year, and seems to be in the process of Arriving. My arguments have been that digital cultural research (which the centre does) should all now be contextualised as post-digital research.

So what do I mean by post-digital? Because just like post-structuralism and post-modernism it is easy to get caught up in the concept of it being reactionary or negative as opposed to developmental. I’m also not entirely sure I mean one thing by it myself.

My simplest explanation however, now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, is that post-digital is when the categories of digital and non-digital become meaningless. There is a point where the two so thoroughly infuse each other that they are not two separate domains. I.e. that there is no sense in talking about digital media and non-digital media when they are all now just media. Digital production techniques so thoroughly infuse what might be seen as traditional media, that it is not the same anymore. The digital is now already there, not becoming, and false binaries keep us in the past, if they even ever existed as clear dualities. And this extends to cover synonymous debates such as virtual vs real or online vs physical. These are all already hybridised.

When I dropped this concept of the post-digital yesterday Andy Field did a nice little example/summary of post-digital when talking about how the nature of reading a book has changed. And I’m paraphrasing his words in my language, because it is not that books have physically changed, but that they’ve managed to stay a (meta)stable form in a network of changing production and consumption technologies. But I think some of the reaction to the concept of going post-digital are common in foregrounding the digital as a simple transformational force. People get stuck and struck with the sheer wonder of the changes “Did you know that digital/technology has fundamentally changed X?” And the answer is yes and…? How do we get on with stopping marvelling at the fact that it is changing things and work out what we do with that?

Matt Locke’s talk after mine was about post-digital attention. It wonderfully charted that pre to post trajectory and did end up asking that question of “what next?” His central argument is that contemporary technologies now allow content producers to experience the attention of their audiences. But he doesn’t end there, he asks, in a beautifully embodied way, “What does that feel like?” and “How does that change the practice of producing worK?”

I co-opted and twisted Matt Adam’s metaphor (or maybe it was a challenge) about technology development as an explosion that has already happened, and said that I thought technology had exploded, taking it beyond the sense of explosion as growth to explosion as blown apart. And I still like that, it has exploded and the little pieces are everywhere, embedded in the quotidian. It is time to stop being awed by the explosion and look at the fragments.

Simondon, Technology and Hacking

Steven Shapiro has some nice angles on the relevancy of Simondon to current technology development. Shapiro summarises Simondon’s points…

Technology is also necessary to the expansion of knowledge, according to Simondon. It is not the mere application of scientific knowledge, so much as it is the precondition for there to be such a thing as scientific knowledge: if only because scientific knowledge is generated when technology doesn’t work as expected, when it breaks down or deviates from its utilitarian function.

If things work then we’re not interested in why. When they don’t work properly we start getting curious and develop science to give us explanations for why they don’t work. Then we can fix stuff.

Decades before the fact, Simondon is here theorizing and advocating what today would be called hacking and hacker culture. Indeed, I think that the culture of hacking still has not caught up with Simondon, in the sense that hacking is mostly justified in pragmatic and/or libertarian terms, whereas Simondon adds a third dimension, a depth, to hacking by showing how it is essentially tied to technology as a basic component of human beings’ presence in the world.

Hacking is a way to figure out where things break, or work. To lead the way for “scientific” development to follow up in the wake of the not working. Hacking and dirty invention are not only a valid methods of inquiry, they are vital. There are interesting parallels with CS Peirce’s abductive reasoning.

Big Games and Hipsters

Here’s a copy of the paper I presented at ISEA in Istanbul. Presentation below.

Pervasive and street gamers are compared and contrasted with the infamous subculture known as hipsters, showing that although they are quite different social groups their aesthetics operate in similar ways. Specific attention is given to the emergent, socially relative nature of these aesthetics and the operation of ‘cool’ cultural capital. These findings are based on ethnographic field work carried out in 2010 at the Come Out and Play festival.


Audio Obscura – More Liminal Media

Yesterday on radio4 I overheard a fascinating description of an audio piece for railway stations and have been doing a bit of poking about. I’ve not experienced the piece but the descriptions by participants and the artist make it fit nicely into the concepts of the liminal and subjunctive worlds. Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura is meant to be like a camera obscura for aural experiences.

Train stations are essentially liminal spaces, places of strangers, and everyone is passing through these thresholds on their own little or large journeys. The way that the voices you are hearing become attached to passersby and become overheard, internal monologues is a wonderful example of the subjunctive connections between two worlds, a diegetic amalgam. It is especially telling that Greenlaw places it in Manchester Piccadilly and London St Pancras and describes them as being international. Her use of words such as “physical,” “immediate” and “unsettled” as well as saying that the piece is intended to “give yourself away to those around you” shows how it works with the ideas of the liminal and with communitas.

It also occurred to me today that the deeper psychological explanation for subjunctivity and liminality is possibly to do with cognitive dissonance. Or experiencing tensions, breaking points and stretchings of dissonance.

A Machine To See With – A Very Liminal Experience

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read any further if you want to experience A Machine To See With, especially at the Brighton Digital Festival this September. Which of course you will be doing if you can.

A Machine To See With is an incredibly liminal experience and uses liminal symbolism and evokes communitas in a variety of manners. I believe that it is the manipulation of these which gives this work its affect and power.

From the very first instance you, as a participant, are directed to step out of the everyday and perform a very transgressive act, robbing a bank. You are told to ignore any other interruptions for the duration, you aren’t you anymore you are this new, different person living on the edge. Instantly you feel like you have crossed a threshold and you aren’t like everyone else, you are following a script, concentrating on fleeting instructions that wont be repeated and scanning the crowd sticking out. Feeling conspicuous hustling along clasping a mobile to your head.

The script purposefully evokes the sense of being in a film through describing the locations of cameras, the types of shot you might be in and the very fact that your eyes are a machine to see with. The participant is put in a film set as they describe the buildings around as just flats and the people as extras. You are put beyond just being inside a story to actually being in the filming of a film. The fiction of the robbery is mixed with the very clear reality around you. to It feels very much like being in a deconstructed film. The audio is somewhat like listening to a film script, complete with location details and scene direction whilst at the same time your eyes are the camera picking up the shots. When the script describes something and then you see it there is a frission; a subjunctive pleasure when the world of make-believe bank robbers IS the world around you.

The locations themselves are wonderfully liminal. Early on you enter a toilet cubicle to reflect. Public toilets have a great sense of taboo about them, they are places to excrete and leave, or hang around for illicit sex. They are not comfortable places to loiter. Even being asked to visit a toilet in a pub without asking is crossing a line. Using the top floor of the car park tower is brilliant. It is the meeting place between the ground and the air, another sky pier in Brighton. When I did the piece it was empty and very cinematic, another break from the everyday streets. It was an ascent into the heavens and standing on the edge of the sky. Although I didn’t get to enter the car myself (I was testing), the symbolism of entering a strange, parked car is very much breaking a social law, another transgressive act. One that harks back to Blast Theory’s use of the limousine in Uncle Roy. They use other highly symbolic urban geography, such as getting you to navigate back alleyways, stand on the edge of the car park, circumnavigate the periphery of the bank and just before entering the bank the lead stands on the edge of the pavement getting ready.

Your partner, and the pairing of strangers is very, very important. The two of you shouldn’t know each other, but you meet up to rob a bank. You are drawn together in a complicit, transgressive act. There is a sense of communitas, a breaking down of the regular rules of society, you are both here to commit a crime. In the performance you are meeting a stranger, you have no idea who they are, what their status is, but now you are both to be criminals, outsiders, the archetype of crime film bank robbers. You are playing out a modern myth cycle, that of the heist, the crime movie. In the same way that ancient rituals would often be accompanied by recitals or performances of myths, so in this you hear and enact a contemporary mythic journey.

The experience is totally entrancing. Although I was only taking part in tests and not the full performance I felt in a very heightened and agitated state. Very much on the edge. The tests we were doing are there to eliminate disjunctions and tweak the subjunctive nature of the piece to help it create an ‘as if’ world. The pleasure in hearing this piece as if you are in a script or the movie itself is very intense and enjoyable. The sense of being outside the everyday world and different from all the “extras” around you is palpable and fascinating. But I think best of all is the build up to the final crossing of the line. The whole piece is a 45 minute build up to the final, climactic entry to the bank. It is all exceedingly well choreographed and my heart was thumping at the time I approached the bank even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, that I wouldn’t be doing it, and that I would be told to run before entering the bank. The climax of A Machine to See With is all about leading you to the edge and then yanking you back. It is a cliffhanger in a very real sense.

The final scene is also very rich, but I don’t want to go into detail here. But it again brings back Blast Theory’s fascination with strangers and again evokes the feeling of communitas and tries to get at authentic human relations. The piece ends rather abruptly in a place you really didn’t expect to be and in a state of mind you really also didn’t expect to be in.

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.]


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.

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.