If an occupation is something that we choose, a preoccupation seems to be something that chooses us. Adulthood took me to new neighbourhoods, where I would write new fables. Love, loss, longing, uncertainty — a life no more or less extraordinary than the next. And for a long time I forgot about those houses in the woods. But eventually I found myself grappling with a story that seemed impossible to write. It was too big, too painful, too much of a conclusion despite the new beginning that it implied. In search of something that I couldn’t name, I found my way back out into the neighbourhood. For hours and hours, I would walk. As I settled into the solace of this routine, strange things began to catch my eye. Messages, they almost seemed. I started photographing them. And while my painful story still needed to be written, these walks enlarged from solace into something larger and more luminous.
Meanwhile, I was writing other stories. As a journalist, and in my spare time as a frustrated novelist. Truth be told, the journalism was frustrating too. Neither fact nor fiction seemed able to invoke what I was after; what I had always been after: possibility. Because of course the job of journalism is to report on what is known; to dispel ambiguities rather than create them. And fiction demarcates itself from possibility by its very definition, regardless of how many truths it may be enlisted to tell. Once upon a time: not this time; not here, not now, not you. T1
T1:While editing a nearly-final draft of this dissertation it occurred to me that my interest in the instability of knowledge can be traced back to my experience as a journalist. During my years as a reporter I found myself repeatedly confronted with this instability, and with my collusion in obscuring its reality. I came to see, with discomfited clarity, how the narratives that we reply upon to understand the world are nearly always the sum of facts and explanations provided by subject matter experts. But the knowledge constructed by these experts remains impenetrable and irrefutable unless we share their particular expertise, for as philosopher and game designer Chris Bateman proposes, every fact is ‘derived by a practice, or a collection of practices’ (2016, pp. 8-9). Bateman offers geological and historical examples (the height of a mountain; the history of a city); likewise, I can think of stories that I wrote about vaccines, pesticides and labour laws (to name just a few) which forced me to acknowledge the limits of my reporting. For as Bateman notes: ‘It is these practices that have the authentic claim to knowledge — knowing “the facts” without the practices that underlie them is only trusting that you are connected by a chain of reliable witnesses to those who do possess the relevant skills. Furthermore, the extent to which we truly share in the knowledge being conveyed in such a way will always be limited by the extent we understand the relevant practices’ (ibid. p. 9).
When I eventually left the field of journalism I did so shaken by this understanding, and frustrated by the uncritical approach to knowledge held by most consumers of mass media — myself included, when I failed to recall this newsroom lesson in epistemology. Perhaps Bateman’s words should be appended to every news report: ‘If the world is understood solely as the totality of facts, we will miss the more important point that being in the world involves far more than mere facts, which are merely the residue of the skills that provided them’ (ibid.).
I was seeking a third way. Eventually I caught a glimpse of what it might look like, in the emerging phenomenon of the Alternate Reality Game. Now an established entertainment genre, the ARG is an interactive narrative that is delivered in a deliberately fragmented fashion through multiple media platforms and material interactions. As I wrote when I first discovered the form, the ARG was ‘a game that lived by the tagline “This is not a game,” relying on real-time role playing, storytelling, cipher-cracking, and the collective arcane knowledge of its players; that didn’t necessarily begin online, and didn’t necessarily end there’ (Kilby 2002, para. 7). In other words: here, and now, and you.
But also clearly fiction, despite occasional moments of delicious ambiguity. As games journalist Michael Andersen notes, “This is not a game” was always a conceit; a frame. ‘Although a literal reading of the mantra denies this central truth,’ he writes, ‘alternate reality games are still games. They merely ask players to extend their suspension of disbelief across media, in exchange for a more engrossing narrative’ (2012, para. 14).
This art of immersion was intriguing nonetheless, and I continued to follow its evolution across various related forms. I became particularly interested in experiences that existed predominantly or entirely offline, in contrast to the web-centric ARG T2. Eventually this interest would lead me away from journalism and into a masters program in media art, where I began to forge my own third way.
T2:Media art in the early 2000s was transformed by the rise of ubiquitous computing and the possibilities offered by this pervasive connectivity. As games scholar Sebastian Deterding notes: ‘Intertwined with both the serious games movement and artistic play practices, new forms of gaming evolved in the early 2000s that extended games into new contexts and spaces’ (2014, p. 31). These new forms expanded the magic circle of play ‘spatially, temporally, or socially’ (Montola 2009, p. 12), and collectively become known as pervasive games (Deterding 2014).
At the forefront of this movement was (and arguably still is) the UK-based artist collective Blast Theory, which has been producing works since the late 1990s that are ‘less about winning games than layering alternative meanings and narratives into participants’ experience of moving through cities or staged environments’ (ibid.).
I discovered Blast Theory in 2006 through my participation on a media arts listserv whose members were discussing the burgeoning hybridity of the field. A mention on the mailing list led to an article by media theorist and producer Matt Locke, in which he offers an enticing summary of his experience with Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy All Around You (2003):
‘I’m standing in a red phone booth on the lower half of Regent St, London. Outside, a drunk-looking man in a tweed suit looks desperate to make a phone call, whilst I’m standing here, holding a PDA, waiting for the phone to ring. After what seems like an age, the call comes, and a man’s voice tells me that I have to trust him, and that he has something he has to ask me to do for him. After he finishes the call, I’ve got to head north, take the first left turn, and get into the white limousine that’s parked by the side of the road. I wait in the limousine for about 5 minutes, then a man in a brown suit gets in and sits next to me. Without saying a word, the limousine drives off, and the man starts asking me questions, looking straight ahead all the time. Have I ever had to trust a stranger? Would I be able to help someone I’ve never met if they were in need? Could I be at the end of the phone whenever they needed to call me? Could I commit to that for a year? (Locke 2003, para. 3).
Inspired by this first glimpse of immersive, mixed reality theatre I went on to read everything I could locate about Blast Theory’s work. The artists became a touchstone in my own fledgling creative practice, and in fact a year later I would interview to be their assistant. What interested me about Blast Theory’s oeuvre was not the innovative use of technology, but how the work went beyond just performance and play, nudging participants out of the arena of art and into the void of edgy, unlabelled experience. Blast Theory is good at ambiguity.
Locke’s article also introduced me to relational aesthetics, a term coined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in an attempt to characterise ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’ (Bourriaud 1998, p. 113). The majority of Blast Theory’s work could be said to fall under this rubric, as could another formative project that I was soon to encounter.