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 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 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)

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.


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

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.

Nick Tandavanitj on Uncle Roy

More rough notes from another conversation with Nick Tandavantij, this time about Uncle Roy All Around You, a collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab and part of the Equator project.

Although it seems trivial to say, but one of the things that has struck me from various discussions was that the character of Uncle Roy was very important. A lot of effort went into creating him as a truly believable character with a rich emotional backstory. Although maybe the details are not there the feel of him as a person has been well worked through. He was like a remote family member, someone who told jokes that weren’t funny, good hearted, reliable. He says in the dialogue that he is not connected to people, that he misses that feeling of connection. He talks about strangers and walking past strangers on the street. He wants to make a connection, but can’t. He wants to help others make that connection, even if they can’t. (Uncle Roy may or may not be dead, he is a liminal character in the game, riding the players like a Loa. Instructing and guiding the player, talking to them from the telemediated lands of the possibly dead.)

  • An experiment with the physical and the real (leading on from Can You See Me Now, this has players/audience in both online and physical roles.)
  • At the front desk the players are given the task of finding Uncle Roy
  • Used GSM modems on PDAs
  • Performer at front desk sets the challenge and takes all the players personal effects, keys, wallet, phone, etc. For security and also removes identity. (this is a very ritualistic process, removing symbols of identity is a classic entry point into liminal spaces)
  • No GPS, all self reported locations on maps.
  • Uncle Roy’s clues are ambiguous to begin with but become clearer the longer you stay in one spot. Deliberately unclear, but not misleading. (rich, deep symbolic interpretation is part of the ritual structure. the meanings are inexact, but interpretable.)
  • Scripted interactions from performers to help debug and error catch. Up to 8 “debugging” performers available and certainly 4 at any one time.
  • The physical bit was ticketed, with up to 20 people per hour. Physical players took about 45 mins to an hour to play. There were bottlenecks in the phonebox and Uncle Roy’s office.
  • The online bit was available in the gallery and online, with many more online players than physical.
  • The online players could find Uncle Roy’s office much easier than the physical players.
  • At the end the players are invited to make a commitment. Would you be there in case of an emergency. Most physical players made commitment, not many online players did. (220 physical players and 443 online players made commitments, so not all matches could be between physical and online)
  • “Somewhere in the game there is a stranger who is also answering these questions. Are you willing to make a commitment to that person that you will be available for them if they have a crisis? The commitment will last for 12 months and, in return, they will commit to you for the same period.”
  • The project would extend beyond the event and somehow fit back into their lives. Something would last. (My take is that this commitment is part of that sense of communitas, that could be taken back into everyday life. Something that allows the spontaneous communitas to last beyond the experience.)
  • A lot of the work was set up theatrically, as an obvious contrivance. The players could walk behind the ‘set’ of Uncle Roy’s office built inside another office (most specifically the ICA version). (Many rituals seem like obvious contrivances, not trying to hide the fact that they are sets. They are not seamless, immersive experiences, they are liminal experiences and the fact of that blends the real, fictional and imaginary.)
  • The office was set up like a place for Uncle Roy to watch or observe, which was also what was obviously happening to the physical players, who were being streamed to online players. (the place feels like it was a location for vigil, a place to go away and reflect on one’s relationship to society)
  • A lot of attention went into constructing Uncle Roy’s office as an installation piece. More care and attention went into it than if it was merely a checkpoint. Uncle Roy’s office was also streamed live to the online players.
  • “navigating the city by a different set of rules”
  • “we wanted it to be like a game” (it is like a game, but also appears to have some very obvious departures)
  • “an area of uncertainty”
  • Uses a white Ford Grenada limo at the end. (This is very symbolic of the high and players getting in are both taking an ironic form of luxury transport, but also doing something transgressive by getting into a stranger’s car. It is a white limo which symbolises purity, maybe showing that the player has been through this journey and comes back purified somehow.)

Whilst exploring the connection between using 3D virtual worlds and reality they talked a lot about B-movies and made a video mood board as part of the production process. This had things like the body snatchers, ghosts and the lost highway in it. It was called the spooky video montage. This feeling of spookiness and uncertainty was what they wanted to recreate in Uncle Roy. People should be a little scared of the virtual (and the liminal).

Uncle Roy All Around You from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

Nick Tandavanitj on Kidnap

These are rough notes from talking with Nick Tandavanitj about their 1998 piece Kidnap. As I’ve found from talking with all three of them, Kidnap was a seminal work for Blast Theory. It marks a major conceptual, and also importantly, production departure from previous works and helped set them on their current road.

  • Their starting point for previous work was that it revolved around, and would feel like, going out for the night, i.e. in the theme, the narrative and that it is completely participatory. (fell like or fit into other liminoid activities)
  • The piece is about the rise of the internet
  • It is based in real life. Not a performance, not an installation, not virtual, not imaginary.
  • It was a truly pervasive art work. (not in the technological sense, but in the true sense of the word)
  • It involved conceptual participation (an idea that seems to resonate with the talk of other pervasive game designers, a pyramid of engagement, from the final two, to semi-finalists, through those who entered the competition and out to a wider audience through the media)
  • To ensure this they spent a lot of time, effort and money on a PR company
  • Very much a progression from Atomic and Safehouse
  • A lot of care and attention was paid to details, such as the sign up forms, the marketing and the kidnap blipvert (the details of the process were carefully considered, this seems to come through from the installations Atomic and Safehouse)
  • The piece was very much about surveillance. The final 10 semi-finalists were tailed for 2 days and sent a spy film like surveillance photo. The kidnap was filmed and the entire experience was streamed live for the two days.
  • The final two participants reasons for taking part were radically different. They had significantly different life narratives and expectations of how this experience would fit in to their own lives.
  • Debra was Australian and new to the UK. She wanted to meet people and just hang out with everyone to make friends.
  • Russel was bored with his life and wanted excitement. To him this would be a mythic spy/crime/film experience.
  • The kidnaped were locked in a box for 2 days. Lots of boredom and silence. Stretches of boredom wedged between two moments of high excitement with the odd bit of excitement and interactivity inbetween. (sounds similar to Turner’s use of Dewey and Dilthey in Anthropology of Experience)
  • Finishes up with a press conference at the ICA (An interesting reintroduction into the structures of society, the way those who have been through extreme liminal experiences come back as heroes and their status has been elevated.)

Nick reckons there was no camaraderie, no communitas, between the kidnap victims. Though this has been heavily debated since, perhaps although they didn’t discuss deep and meaningful topics they may have still developed a bond. Apparently they also kept in touch for some time afterwards. In the video documentation there is a very poignant image of them both in hoods holding hands, but memories are hazy and that might have been faked for the cameras on the way to the press conference.

Kidnap Blipvert from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

Matt Adams, Blast Theory and Liminality

These are very rough notes from a discussion with Matt Adams of Blast Theory about the nature of their work over the last 20 years. It was sadly very short, but very productive. Although we covered quite a lot of ground these are the notes I pulled out that chat which directly speak to my examination of liminality. Although, as I’ve found, they haven’t been addressing the ideas of ritual and liminality directly, they have been playing with these through taking performance on a wild tangent and continuously addressing the themes of isolation, strangers and authentic human interaction.

My comments are in brackets.

  • Blast Theory’s work comes from performance. But as performers they have stepped back from the spotlight.
  • Originally seeking to take performance away from the ritualised aspects of theatre practice. Playing with the structures of what performance is/should be. (Theatre has ossified certain relationships with works, and there needs to be some new authenticity or directness. They want more liminality, more communitas to appear in their work.)
  • Their works are unfinished, in the Brian Eno sense. That the works are not interactive, but unfinished until there is an audience. (See interview here for Eno discussing what he means by unfinished as an alternative to interactive.)
  • Interactive works lead people like sheep through them. (linear, interactive works… not necessarily a bad thing)
  • From Desert Rain onwards there has been an exploration of the pollution between the virtual, the real, the fictional, the imaginary. (These are the contemporary liminal spaces.)
  • The works deliberately put people in an uncertain state, one where they are productively of balance. (liminal words, uncertain, off-balance and interesting to note that these states can be seen as clearly productive)
  • Leakage
  • Cities are entropic, chaotic (chaos as opposed to structure, chaos could be seen to be a synonym for anti-structure, esp in its non-linear guise. Everyday spaces are productuve enough to work for this and heterotopias are not required for ritual space.)
  • Works are purposely individual. But ones where the player/audience/participant are “exposing themselves” (but I feel that this individuality reflects on society, BTs works are like vigils, but in many cases bring people together at the end, often pairing up strangers)
  • Since Desert Rain been working with the idea of the virtual. But not doing the virtual/3D engine stuff anymore because it is hard/intensive/time consuming.
  • Since CYSMN been working with the idea of cities
  • Strangers are a recurring theme. The lack of, or connection with, strangers. Partly drawn from the sense of isolation that the internet brings. (the lack of communitas)
  • The idea of using mobiles/devices as a cultural platform. (BT engages with technics rather than in a overly critical manner, these are aspects of our world and the code/space can be liminal, a canvas and productive rather than didactic)
The following are some direct quotes that use wonderfully liminal language.
  • “operate on the borders of your control”
  • “being off balance”
  • “we don’t understand exactly what we are doing”
  • “grasping in the dark”
  • “searching for knowledge”
  • the works have to in some way “expose ourselves”
  • “We make work that puts you in a place you’ve never been before”

Rites of Residency – Blast Theory day 10

It is coming to the end of my second week at Blast Theory. Living day and night with liminality, suddenly everything I see becomes about liminality. Sort of like being given a hammer and everything now looks like a nail. So I’m busy banging things in with ritual processes at the moment that this residency I’m currently doing looks a lot like a nail.

The idea of an artistic residency is a lot like moving into a liminal space. Although the guys here have started calling me a theorist in residence rather than artist. I’m living in a place away from home, with a massively reduced set of belongings and very selective symbols of my new identity (books, computer, yoga mat). I had envisioned this as being sort of like a retreat, or that I would be living something like a monastic experience of simplicity and contemplation, and that is largely what it has become. In his chapter Communitas: Model and Process Turner has quite a bit to say about monks, especially the Franciscans who tried to, unsuccessfully, institutionalise communitas. Monastic life and the very concepts of the brotherhood are founded in communitas and liminal spaces, away from the everyday.  I have a journey at the beginning and end of every week, where I go, via train, on a long journey from home. With the british rail system that sometimes does feel like Joseph Campbell‘s heroes journey. I’m in Brighton, which, as a seaside resort town, is also a very liminal place. Blast Theory’s studios are also very liminal, sitting as they do near boundary road, the edge of Hove. They are set on the edge of the docks, basically built into a cliff. When you enter the building you descend three floors to the studios themselves. They are sandwiched in between a Travis Perkins lumber yard and the cliff face. At night the lumber yard is dead, like an underworld behind heavy double glazing. I’ve seen a scrawny, grey, urban fox scamper right by me, like a ghost or troubled spirit, whilst standing at the window.

Soon, I start my journey back from this liminal land of the dead, via Southern Trains to Bristol and straight into yet another liminal rite of passage. Tomorrow I turn 40.