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.

ISEA, Pervasive Media, Street Games and Hipsters

This year I’m going to ISEA in Istanbul. Though it is hectically cut short by going to DiGRA right beforehand. I’ve got two things going on. I’m presenting a paper entitled “Big Games and Hipsters: Cool Capital in Pervasive Games” and I’m quite excited to be considered to be commenting on the politics of gameplay.

Pervasive and big gamers will be compared and contrasted with the now infamous subcultural group known as Hipsters, showing that although they are quite different people there are many functional similarities. Artists, designers and taste-makers from both groups have similar backgrounds and social roles and are engaged in creating cultural capital and constructing markets in cool. Specific attention is given to the emergent aesthetics that are shared between these two groups. These being a tendency towards historic referencing, intertextuality and lo-fi, appropriative design strategies.

I’m also convening a panel on the practice and ecological value of pervasive media, with Jon Dovey and Constance Fleuriot of the Digital Cultures Research Centre and Tim Kindberg from the Pervasive Media Studio.

New, pervasive, ubiquitous and mobile technologies promise us an ever more connected world and the possibility to access ever more detailed information about context. Although these promises contain drastic changes to media and technology, they don’t engage with the necessary changes to the practices of media production, distribution, technology creation and the commercial and practical realities that could make these promises a reality. These will be drastically game changing; creating new business possibilities, whilst making others obsolete. These promises, and changes, will be critically addressed during this panel.

And I’m not finished with hipsters yet.

A new, revolutionary direction for my PhD

Recently I’ve been reading more Lefebvre and from that getting onto some Althusser, Marcuse and Gramsci. I have to say it has been leading me in some new and interesting directions, the upshot of which is that I’m going to radically change my PhD direction. Starting with retitling it “A Contribution to the Critique of Pervasive Economy.”

Starting with an analysis of Pervasive Gaming as a cultural superstructure which represents and reflects an underlying socio-economical base we can see that there is a fundamental global shift shift currently occurring. There is a dominant techno-political hegemony which results in the emergence of things such as the internet and ubiquitous computing. These technologies are mobilised into oppressive structures, but they are merely a result of larger scale economic changes.

In this world the techno-bourgeoisie controls the means of aggregation, they control the rules of the game-overlay. However the users do control the means of content generation and through this the inequality can be overthrown.

Using various continental philosophers I’ve plotted the eventual social evolution or development, and postulated a world in which the technology can be distributed equally and everyone can have a jail-broken iphone.

Users of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your 3G contracts. The revolution will not be televised, it will be downloaded via bittorrent.

To this end I’ve started writing down some of my thoughts in a little book. The biggest question of the revolution is, “What colour should it be?”

Notes on Pervasive Media and Experience

This morning we had another of Jon Dovey’s weekly Pervasive Media KTF project discussions. Here are some of my notes and thoughts, and my attempt to contextualise it within the scope of my research.

As a group we all had problems with the terms Pervasive, Media, Experience and Design. A pity there is no hyphen to take issue with. Perhaps less so design, but certainly the other three.

Pervasive Media (PM) is not really a new thing, it opens up new avenues, but doesn’t create the possibility for Completely New Experiences. Maybe PM becomes a toolbox for new forms of experience design.

When we’re describing Pervasive Media, we’re actually talking about Pervasive Media Experiences… or perhaps even more simply Pervasive Experiences. However this starts to make less sense. The term ‘Media’ is more than a little problematic when we’re talking about activities and experiences. Experience design would seem to be core to the creation of Pervasive Media because of this experiential angle.

There was a lot of discussion about what experience is and what experience design might be. Sam K brought up Deleuze’s philosophy of events, bringing in activities, affect and ethological type thinking. This chimes with my reading of experience and behaviour from Victor Turner’s chapter in The Anthropology of Experience. Turner uses Dewey and Dilthey to explain that we can’t experience other people’s experiences, so we are stuck with just observing behaviours and making an informed judgement about what their experience might be. So when we talk about experience design we’re really talking about behavioural design.

Unsurprisingly Disney came up and quite a bit of the discussion revolved around the total experience (behaviour) design they are masters of in their themeparks. The interesting thing that this lead to some thoughts about managing the “gaze” in pervasive media. Where is the attention and how is it lead, managed, engineered? Later on everyone agreed that one of the core descriptors of pervaisve media is that it is interleaved with the everyday/real world and not heavily stage-managed, controlled and locked down in the same way as a themepark or a curated experience. That a mixing of the experience and context is an important aspect. Towards the end we did again bring back in the idea of mindfulness verus having one’s mind elsewhere. How does being distracted break the experience, or how can this be worked into the experience? I (jokingly) brought up the (debunked) notion of the aesthetic stance and suggested that maybe what we were talking about was pervasive participants needing to have a pervasive stance to appreciate their experience.

Unlike other media or experiences the observer of PM has not yet been constructed. Things like TV, cinema, etc needed to construct an observer and create an audience. The norms and behaviours required to consume the media are not natural, but constructed.

With respect to (at the very least) theatre-like pieces. They need to “Sit comfortably in a reality that is good for [the player/participant].” That is the real world situation and the narrative of the piece need to be diegetically interwoven, so that things like the presence of all the participants is explained through the piece.

Much of the work in the studio comes from a design perspective and the term experience and experience design comes from that as a discipline. Art, although obviously implicitly experiential, isn’t as concerned about the term. Or more likely has moved beyond it into a more nuanced understanding of the aspects of experience that are specific to the capabilities, possibilities, affordances and constraints of a particular medium.

Is experience a verb or a noun? Should we be using it one way or the other? Using experience as a noun tends to commodify it. A problem with experience design as performed in a commercial and mass market product setting.