fat chance

I began to wonder if perhaps my biggest obstacle was the game itself. Maybe the intricate ephemeralities of a city could not be anticipated, no less manipulated, without a loss of resonance. Or perhaps my problem was not one of structure, but rather one of artifice. Here Cage’s words were doubly instructive, for in both the framing and the framed his emphasis was equal: the essential element was life. The everyday, the here and now, and the ‘search to find a language or form that can adequately convey its complexity, ambiguity and elusiveness’ (Johnstone 2008, p. 16). This had been my intention and my interest all along, to collaborate with the found city. But artifice had crept into my schemas: the questions and the badges were both fabrication, interruption. As installations they made no gesture of recognition or reply toward the world in which they were inserted. In this sense they were as clumsy as an overt fiction that attempted to appropriate the real in order to enhance its own allure.

It may be that artifice is fundamental to the definition of a game, even one created for playing on the game board of the ambiguous city. Media scholar Hugh Davies implies as much; while advocating for a minimalist approach to the design of pervasive games, he nonetheless foregrounds the constructed nature of the experience:

‘[S]pace is already rich with content, embedded with objects, beings, memories and nostalgia waiting for us to ascribe meaning to and thus redefine it as place,’ Davies observes. ‘Designers need only contribute small additions that tie seamlessly into the real world to appropriate an entire area as being of their own design … Indeed, in order for players to form real and lasting relationships with city spaces, not game exclusive ones, it is important for game designers to minimise the artifice of the Pervasive Game spaces’ (Davies 2007, p. 3).

Yet if artifice is inherent to the concept of a game, so too is a counterbalancing mechanism: chance. In many games this mechanism is a closed system: roll the dice, shuffle the cards, flip the coin. Possibility exists only within these predetermined bounds. But games and other playful encounters that situate themselves within the everyday; within the complex, ambiguous, elusive city — these projects tend to draw on the indeterminacy of life itself. Art historian Owen Smith reflects on the close relationship between chance and the everyday among what he terms the ‘amodernist’ artists of the 1950s and 1960s, chief among them John Cage. ‘The recognition of indeterminacy as a prevailing principle of nature, as well as a central aspect of the creative process, reinforced the attitude that the world is based on ambiguities, ruptures, and incongruities,’ Smith writes. ‘The use of chance … is important beyond its use as an artistic technique (chance as a means to produce some end). Rather, it reflected a recognition of the fluid and shifting nature of the world …’ (2011, pp. 122-124). Or to return to Cage himself: ‘Chance comes in here to give us the unknown’ (Nattiez and Samuels 1995, p. 48).

This was what I sought, in my desire to be surprised by the game and by myself alike. Ambiguities, ruptures, incongruities … the magic of the unknown.