On Monday night I went along to a public discussion panel in Westminster Hall entitled “Taking Video Games Seriously“.

It was a strange sort of gathering- but interesting for all that, as I’ve not been to a talk like it before. It was chaired by the rather charming Labour MP Tom Watson, and featured contributions from various speakers (including Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc. and Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture) and was attended by people like me (i.e. busybodies from agencies), other interested MPs, various NGO representatives, Games Industry lobbyists and also the Gamer-interest pressure group “Gamers Voice“.

look, it's Ed Vaizey!

It was a pretty wide-ranging discussion, and if you are interested in exactly what was said, there is a highly accurate liveblog of the event very helpfully posted here.

My reason for writing this post however, was sparked by one moment in particular- a question from a journalist at the back of the room who asked the panel why games were so bad at doing narrative. He said he understood the debate about games not seeking to ape the conventions of film, but felt that the kind of storytelling employed by classic LucasArts games like Grim Fandango had been regrettably superceded by newer games like BAFTA-winning BioShock that instead offer “nothing more than the ability to machine-gun Ayn Rand fans”.

Grim Fandango, from LucasArts in 1998

Now BioShock has more famous and qualified advocates than I, and it doesn’t need me to rush to its defence.

I do happen to think that the questioner was wrong though, in a very specific way.

LucasArts made several cherished ‘point and click’ adventure games that were better narrative vehicles than other games- or at least they seemed that way. In my opinion, the gameplay they represented was simply more narrative-centric than other forms- because it prioritizes the development of story above game-world immersion, ‘sandbox’ exploration and player agency. LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango seem to tell better stories to observers because they give a more familiar approximation of linear, text-with-pictures type narrative forms than any of the more modern popular genres (particularly FPS and MMORPG) do. They look like better stories.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

The distinction between looking and playing is important here, I think. I remember watching Monkey Island being played and imagining it must be great fun – it was funny, brilliantly animated and seemed to make intuitive sense as a story. Ironically, as an observer I was probably deriving as much enjoyment from spectating as my brother was from playing the game, given that a great deal of playing simply consisted of moving Guybrush around the screen and reading the text prompts that resulted. It was basically an animated picture book; extremely well-crafted, but a picture book nonetheless.

Personally I don’t miss the ‘point and click’ genre at all (with the possible exception of Myst). Having recently downloaded Monkey Island for the iPhone I quickly realised why I never finished the game the first time around and salvaged the disk space.

I don’t personally believe that the narrative itself is intrinsically better in this sort of game (good though it often is), but more to the point, I certainly don’t believe that any given story is better told in this format. In fact, it was the mention of BioShock that made me sit up and pay attention because BioShock has one of the best examples of a truly game-specific mode of storytelling that I can think of.

*spoiler alert – the twist in BioShock is revealed below – if you haven’t played it you should probably stop here*

Now BioShock has been (justly) celebrated precisely for the fact that it is a narrative-rich world, in fact it is positively overflowing with narrative elements – but only if you choose to engage with them. Rather than asserting the priority of text over image, of figure over ground, the game functions as a world first and foremost.

Indeed, if you want to machine gun as many Ayn Rand fans as you like simply to get to the end, you can do that. You won’t avoid the story completely, but you’ll get a much more streamlined version. Hell, if you don’t even want to use the map, you can turn on a compass that will automatically point you in the right direction! Shoot away, and navigation be damned!

Of course, if you want to find out more, you can do that too. As a shooter, it’s mechanics are clever, well-balanced and satisfying, but Rapture’s depth as an immersive world to inhabit is hard to rival. There is a game achievement available for uncovering every scrap of narrative describing cracked visionary Andrew Ryan’s underwater city-  though it will take you considerable time to get. Essentially, it’s up to you how much or how little narrative you chose to wrap your experience of playing in, and that’s what makes it a modern videogame in the truest sense.

Rapture

Of course this is more or less true for most modern games. What makes BioShock special is the pivotal scene roughly two-thirds of the way through the game; the confrontation with Andrew Ryan himself.

This is where everything goes topsy-turvy; your character’s true origins, purpose and worth are unveiled in brutal fashion.

Ryan reveals that your character is nothing but a pawn, a mindless automaton who has been doing the bidding of a hidden power up to this point, under the influence of deeply buried pyschological ‘trigger words’.

The manner in which he reveals this is shocking: he commands you to kill him – using your trigger word – and refuses to defend himself, challenging you to defeat your programming and relent.

You cannot.

Now it is not simply the twist itself – the ‘story-flip’- that makes this part of the game so powerful (though it is brilliantly conceieved). It is also the fact that the game remains ‘a game’ throughout this exposition. Unlike other narrative interventions in games (like the Metal Gear series for example) your agency isn’t removed by a cut-scene- your ‘screen-hands’ remain in place and at your command. Indeed, whilst Ryan is talking to you, you are able to switch weapons or plasmids in anticipation of the fight to come.

It never arrives.

Andrew Ryan; alive

Instead, as well as a ‘story-flip’, you are disoriented by a physical and unexpected ‘control-flip’, which confounds your most basic expectations as a player. As the twist is revealed, your powerlessness is made physically manifest. Once the trigger-word is uttered, the controller in your hands becomes dead weight. Useless.

Your on-screen hands repeatedly bludgeon Ryan, until he can no longer get to his feet, and beyond.

Nothing you do with your controller can change this.

Not only are you a powerless pawn in-game, you are a powerless pawn out of the game as well. The device and control system that has been mastered by you, has allowed you to reach this point, is overridden completely.

This might sound simple, but because the game remains a game throughout – your first-person perspective and your HUD remain at all times- the loss of control is a sudden, physical sensation. Like a slitting of the spinal cord that connects you to your character, you, the omniscient conciousness that not only animates the on-screen body but controls (even pauses) the world of Rapture itself at your convenience, become a mute and paralysed observer to a brutal crime.

Your complicity in the story is compounded by your inability to act (and to interact) when it matters.

Andrew Ryan; dead

It is one of the most powerful bits of writing for a specific medium I can think of. It left me feeling used in a way no storytelling alone could convey. It affected me the player, not simply me the observer. It was, I guess, a kind of storyfeeling.

This ability of games, to suddenly remind you of your physicality – to play with the sensations of your interaction with the game device itself- is the most criminally underused tool in the industry’s box of narrative tricks. The sudden realisation that the games designers are breaking the fourth wall- are speaking to you, the player, the guy who is playing this game right now- is a device that other mass-produced media cannot replicate.

The only other (and equally brilliant) example I can think of that employs this approach is in Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (on the Nintendo DS). There is a moment in the final third of the game when you are asked to transfer a symbol on your in-game map from your active screen (the one you can interact with using a stylus) to the map on your inert screen (that displays information but cannot be manipulated).

DS twin-screen Zelda action!

This seemingly simple task completely confounded me. I tried everything I could think of, but the sum total of my knowledge built up in-game (and from hundreds of hours spent in previous Zelda games)  proved totally useless. This problem had no analog with a Zelda game on any other Nintendo device – which is it’s particular genius.

I was on a train at the time, and out of sheer frustration was about to slam the DS petulantly shut when I realised… that shutting the DS was the answer.

DS open...

...DS closed.

By bringing the two screens physically together – effectively preventing you from actually playing – you could move the mark across this otherwise impenetrable boundary.

It was laugh-out-loud brilliant.

A playful,  unexpected and welcome acknowledgement of you as a player, as a person holding the device and physically interacting with it.

Again, the fourth wall is breached. You are recognised as not simply controlling Link the character, but having the ability to collapse and close the game’s entire narrative universe whenever you choose; the game has deliberately brought your physical context into it’s locus of effect. It is telling its story in your space, through your hands- not simply via a screen, some text, and some music and some sound effects.

This is how games can tell stories no other medium can.

They know you are playing them, and with this knowledge, the player – you – also become their medium.

The more designers that realise this, the closer I think we’ll get to a truly unique narrative form that is born of and designed for games alone.

Along with most of the media agencies in London, my colleagues and I are already mentally preparing for this year’s main event- the mega-pitch happening sometime in autumn featuring the UK’s “number one advertiser”, the COI.

Even though I’ve yet to start any proper work on it, something has already started to mentally niggle me- and it’s to do with the efficacy of social advertising.

Now I (and I think most planners) LOVE working with COI briefs. This is for a number of different reasons; not only do they offer a chance to flex some planning muscles we don’t get to use that often (hard to reach audiences, meaty messaging challenges etc), they also provide a subtle sort of catharsis… we get to feel like we might be using our advertising powers for good rather than for evil.

I think that deep down, most of the time we feel like Nick O’ Teen rather than Superman, and when we work on COI campaigns, we get to change sides.

This can create a pretty heady sense of self-congratulation, and I’m starting to wonder whether the giddiness that results from working on something that actually matters might be blinding us to something more fundamental- that social campaigns are often very poorly served by advertising.

Of course there are some great individual pieces of creative (the DfT’s cameraphone ad by Leo Burnett is a standout example) and some pretty cool media stunts- like this from Ogilvy & Mather Mumbai:

oglivymather_hsbc_climate2

Using public swimming pools to physically manifest a vision of a globally-warmed future is a pretty nice idea. But is it anything other than a nice idea?

I’m wondering whether we celebrate the cleverness of these ideas because of their appropriateness to the task at hand or because we like the fact that they are cleverer, more daring than the average piece of messaging. The fact that they’re good in both a qualitative sense and a moral sense makes them doubly worth celebrating (and probably explains why they do so well at events like Cannes).

Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is worth remembering that  for every one of these exceptional pieces of insight or execution, there is mountain of mundanity within the category – for example:

osocio

I don’t know what you think about this particular ad (and who knows, it may be working) but for me, the fact that it’s for a good cause doesn’t excuse the essential lameness of the idea. The camp-sinister imagery lurking within the typical smiley-happy veneer of ‘lifestyle’ advertising isn’t shocking or unsettling; it’s as expected and as dismiss-able as the glossy ads it apes.

Is there a problem here? Most people already know the message content of any given social campaign and are unlikely to disagree with its core premise – don’t drink too much, stop look and listen, giving blood saves lives, smoking is bad for you and so on and so on. What agencies seem to do by default is attempt to find ever more ‘creative’ ways of dramatising the stuff we already know.  However diverting the stunt, however carefully orchestrated the shock- does any of it actually address the cognitive dissonance that’s at the heart of these issues?

Even celebrated work like TfL’s ‘spot the rollerskating bear’ viral fits the same template – it’s an old dog with a new trick. If the our objective is to change behaviour, why is so much money being spent on telling people stuff they already agree with? The issue that we need to address won’t be solved by dramatising various tragic things that can happen to us if we don’t do what we’re supposed to- the problem is that people agree with this stuff but still don’t act in accordance with what they believe.

This is why advertising might be a bad choice for social campaigns per-se; advertising rarely makes people think, it more often absolves them from thinking. Advertising works (in the main) by fulfilling expectations rather than confounding them. The advertiser’s toolbox is stuffed with tropes. We work within an accepted vocabulary that allows us to make reference, analogy, allusion and the occasional sleight of hand- all techniques that rely on the audience’s media literacy, their expectations of how advertising behaves.

So what happens when the art of creating comfortable fallacy collides with the need to convey genuine and meaningful intent?

Quite often you get weird and unhappy marriages, like this:

img00283-20090404-1002

Even without the ‘UGC’ adorning the site, this ad connotes all the wrong things for me.

Conversational wit is not something people generally associate with police officers, and it’s employment here creates a strange sense of remoteness – the copy-writing makes it clear that you’re dealing with advertising, not any kind of direct consumer promise. Given that, the choice of words actually does seem inappropriate, particularly when combined with a medium that excels in creating a direct, physical presence you have to walk around. It’s supposed to be friendly, an avuncular invitation to you to share in a joke, but instead it’s in your face, encouraging you to laugh at something that’s not funny in a vaguely threatening way. Bizarre.

Moreover, this communication exists in a medium with no obvious means of interaction. The public can text in to a shortcode, but are fundamentally unable to see themselves represented in this campaign, to feel part of it, unless they take the very direct route of actually writing on it- of vandalising it. Promoting ‘talking’ with a static poster. Hmmm.

Social advertising like this is weird. It’s like the notes that appear on appliances and doors in a shared flat that become the site of contrasting claims.

aggressivepostit

People leaving announcements in communal spaces aren’t actually having a conversation with someone, they’re playing out a performance in public- a performance that sacrifices the efficiency of actually dealing with the issue for the appearance of dealing with it. Advertising of this type dramatises a relationship whilst simultaneously avoiding the kids of actual, embodied behaviours that are important in relationships – like listening, being respectful, finding time to talk to someone on their terms and so on.

There could be all sorts of reasons why someone felt compelled to write “I’d like to stab you in the face” on this ad – but I think a contributing factor may well be that people actually resent being communicated with in this way when its about stuff that matters. Behavioural stuff. Moral stuff. Responsibility stuff. The double-whammy of a high-handed tone and the sense that a dialogue is being avoided rather then sought tends to annoy – exactly as it does on the fridge door of a shared flat. Often the most immediate urge is to reply, right there, on the annoying note itself. Otherwise, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever left a ‘please clean this’ post-it can attest, a note is much easier to ignore than a conversation.

Obviously the average social campaign is slightly more sophisticated than a note left on a fridge- good insight, inspiring artwork, copy-writing, layout and such can achieve much. Also, there are many iconic examples of social advertising that have left their mark on our shared culture. However, despite (perhaps because of) their well-meaningness, the majority of social ads seem to me to occupy the same region of attention bandwidth as high-handed notes- somewhere between ignorable and annoying. Having flicked through a few pages of ads over at Osocio, it seems to me that a lot of NGOs could have spent their money more effectively by avoiding advertising altogether.

I snapped this in our office kitchen the other day – and I think it’s a pretty apt summation of the effectiveness of this approach. Scroll down for the punchline…

img00279-20090324-1339

The nameless one offers ‘many thanks’ which are meaningless in motivational terms.

‘Helping to keep the kitchen tidy’ is clearly not enough of a shared or meaningful objective – and given the proximity of the crime to the warning, one almost gets the suspicion that the offenders actually enjoy the failure to comply.

No-ones behaviour is being impacted positively here.

It seems we need more creative ways of thinking about the context of the action and the use of incentives, disincentives and social norming pressures to make the right course of action seem more desirable, or in fact seem the natural thing to do, so we don’t even think about it. Advertising should not be our default.

By way of contrast to the swimming pool stunt above, I really liked this project from Bristol, mostly because of the context in which it’s encountered. To see the Mumbai ad, you have to be going swimming at a pool anyway (which in Mumbai probably puts you in a minority I guess), or be a reader of advertising blogs. To understand the threat of global warming in Bristol, you just walk around town as usual, but you see the familiar made strange as your own personal landmarks and waypoints start to tell you a new and disturbing tale.

In an instant, your perspective is altered.

watermarks-rsa

This isn’t advertising delivering a message to behave better, this is a behavioural intervention. Perhaps tellingly, it came from the arts sector rather than the commercial.

Images sourced from Osocio, Inhabitat and Flickr user Vinnie Drake

Last week  I attended a talk (arranged by Skillswap Brighton) on the topic of persuasive design.

This is something of a buzz topic right now- from the ubiquity of Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (winner of my “desk-furniture for planners award 2009″), to the emergence of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, to the biggest advertiser in the UK‘s newly-stated ambition of ‘behaviour change’- it concerns bypassing the traditional ‘change-attitudes-first’ model of communications and going straight for the behaviour jugular by influencing an individual’s decision-making apparatus without necessarily engaging their conscious mind. A lot of this stuff builds upon the still-awesome exploration of human adaptation to environments in Jane Fulton-Suri’s photographic essay ‘thoughtless acts‘.

thoughtless

One of my favoutite books, that is.

The speaker I went to see was the fresh-faced Dan Lockton, a research student at Brunel University who has achieved no small measure of fame already for his compelling work in this area. His contribution to the field is the Design with Intent Toolkit (free to download and experiment with) which helps to stratify the various ways in which designers can influence people’s behaviour whether by ‘enabling’ choice (making an option more attractive by making it easier than alternatives) or by constraining choice (the opposite – think park benches that are designed to discourage people sleeping on them).

Here he is, giving the very talk I witnessed:

dan_lockton2

He also has a knack of coming with rather good analogies – particularly for design that failed to understand the behavioural ecosystem it exists within.

One I particularly liked was the vision of a fire door propped open by a fire extinguisher.

extinguish

Anyway, the Design with Intent approach is very interesting and I think enormously relevant to any communications practice in this day and age when everything is media, and the practise of embedding communications thinking in products, services, interfaces and interactions becomes ever more important.

Here’s an example image of one of Lockton’s Design with Intent Toolkit‘s ‘lenses’:

DwI Toolkit

These various ‘lenses’ are used to provoke a myriad of possible design solutions to a particular behavioural problem.

The example he used in the talk was the problem of household energy consumption, where behavioural ‘decisions’ (or more correctly, non-decisions)  account for somewhere in the region of 26-36% of usage. Kettles, for example, are routinely overfilled- even for the purpose of making a single cup of tea. This is a behavioural norm that is harmless routine at the level of the individual, but that has extreme and problematic ramifications at the state or global level.

So what’s the solution?

Is it a ’2.0′ style social interface that uploads your kettle-data to the web and automatically compares and contrasts you with your neighbours, fellow citizens or global best-users?

Or is it a plastic filter that automatically shuts after 1 mug’s worth of water is detected?

Or is it a signalling system employing emoticons to provide a timely feedback loop at the point of filling?

We don’t know yet – but the point of this research is to generate enough good, different hypotheses to test, and then report back on the findings, because whilst it presents a very challenging design brief, reducing home energy consumption is at least easy to measure.

At the time of writing, Dan’s talk hadn’t yet been uploaded as a podcast, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find it here soon. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other interesting talks to peruse – big thanks to Skillswap Brighton for a thoroughly stimulating evening :-)

Images sourced from event organiser boxman on Flickr, from Andreas Kirstensson on Flickr, and from Dan Lockton’s site

Whilst enjoying the excellent Anish Kapoor – curated Brighton Festival this month, I’ve managed to poke around some artists’ “open houses” (most have lovely bathrooms), see a whole bunch of strange street performances, some hit-and-miss installations and a shed load of live music at the truly wonderful Great Escape festival.

One of the more off-piste projects I encountered during this period was Victoria Melody’s “The Demographic of a Pigeon Fancier”.

pigeon fancier

As the flyer says the exhibition was very much about Englishness, and by taking a very specific route into the topic (namely, the fading northern institution of pigeon racing) it seemed to succeed in bringing some of the more universal associations and connotations of ‘Englishness’ to light.

The installation consisted of a number of different elements.

The first, and most striking, was a hypnotic ‘pigeon-cam’ video projected onto the wall of the gallery opposite the entrance. Everyone who entered the exhibition stood, transfixed for some moments by the simultaneously familiar and alien viewpoint the film showed.

pigeon video hotchilicat

There was something clever about this – the fantasy of flight, of freedom as represented by seeing from a truly bird’s-eye view was successfully rendered smaller, mundane and mean by both the status of the bird itself (pigeons are generally regarded as flying vermin in London and the South) and the spectacle of the landscape it held lofty dominion over; characterless suburban semis with neatly enclosed gardens and garages, all smothered by the leaden blanket of an English sky.

Once you descended fully into the gallery space, you were faced by two suspended nests of handwritten parcel tags. One of these ‘nests’ was composed of messages sent via homing pigeon from people in Cumbria addressing ‘southerners’ in general – including pearls like the one captured below:

pigeon tags

The other nest was composed of messages written by people in Brighton addressed to inhabitants of ‘”the North” in general, and visitors were invited to record their thoughts on a blank tag with the promise that it may be included on the pigeons’ return trip to Cumbria at the end of the exhibition. The tags, and the functional hardwood shelves that housed them, were also deliberately reminiscent of another, even more rapidly fading English institution, the local Post Office.

The far wall of the gallery was covered in newspaper clippings, letters and photographs gathered by the artist during her extended tour of the North where she spent her time documenting the lives of England’s forgotten fanciers.

Adding depth to this material were 3 close-cropped talking-head documentary interviews, installed so that the monitors displaying the films served as the heads and faces of a tableaux of three stereotypical pigeon-fancying mannequins – all dressed up in flat caps and body-warmers with pies or pints of bitter clasped in plastic hands. These films played alternately, often freezing mid-sentence as another of the mannequins took its turn to speak about the decline of their 10,000 year old tradition.

Something about the gallery setting, and the genuinely thoughtful way in which the artist had used the space made this really feel like a trip into a different England; a place far removed from Brighton’s metropolitan sensibilities and somewhat mired in the past- but at the same time retaining a strong sense of pride and a surety of identity that is notable by it’s absence down here.

It was fun, interesting, thought-provoking and kind of sad all at the same time, and probably my favourite thing from the festival this year.

Sadly, I missed the liberation of the homing pigeons that took place at 10:00am on bank holiday Monday – I was in bed with a hangover- and am still eagerly watching Flickr for some photographic evidence of the event.

So far I have found an image of some specially bred fancy pigeons sitting in Jubilee Square waiting to be set free…

pigeon release fred_pipes

… if you saw it and have a photo, please send me the link – thanks!

PS if you want to know what I sent to our friends in the north, either dm me @smimarchie or send a homing pigeon :-)

Images sourced from Flickr users hotchilicat, melita_dennett and fred pipes

So a few weeks ago I went to see Brian Eno have a conversation with his friend Jon Hassell as part of the South Bank’s Ether festival. I was going to write it up, but I actually think it’s probably more interesting (and less work) to just post the hurriedly-typed notes I made in-situ.

The stage was dominated by a giant screen that showed the table top the two men had arranged their stimulus on in massive scale- whether live scribblings, images or pages from Eno’s notebook.

enohassel

It was a broad, wide- ranging chat, but stayed within the realms of the type of things Brian Eno normally talks about- the weird sex stuff was all from Hassell, who I thought was a bit of a waste of space conversationally (maybe this is unfair – he just seemed to keep taking the dialogue into less interesting places as far as I was concerned).

Anyway, this is my record of the two hours:

“Stop moving the ohp!
Not just about making attractive things, creating new worlds
Systems + structures, music as a metaphor for collaborative society
‘Surrender’ a choice vs control
Surfing, bridge building
Human history is the surrender zone
4 areas: art, sex, drugs, religion
Not me, us, the flow
The north owns broadcasting (most powerful technology) an ideology of survival
Science makes opposites that are false
Media pipeline is narrow, demands caricature
Is there always a valid opposite opinion? Culture of agument
Elevate the nutter
Geometry makes equal makes opposite- these are abstractions_
misleading when applied to human affairs
Anus- wordism- desire to control by fencing language
Drug companies- inventing illnesses, not cures (paxil)
Creating by naming (WMD) propagenda
What exists before language? Is weird sex marginalised when it should
be lionised? How much is universal?
Porn does not equal happiness, equals alienation
Pleasure is evolution’s compass- now we’ve virtualised it
Scale effect- a qualitative as well as a quantitative effect. All
political systems work well on a small scale
Intrinsic/conferred value
There is no reality referred to in the credit crisis- it is a belief
system that propagates itself- conferred value is easily unconferred,
intrinsic value is not
Art is all about conferring value (creates something from nothing, is ephemeral)
Most art loses value
We are mixed up
Gold moves between real and abstract
Nearly everything happens in the middle ground, not at the poles
What is it that you really like?
Wanking as surrealist art
Art is valuable because its harmless
Eudemonic criteria
Navigating possible worlds
It exists because it’s non verbal
Charts are v useful!
Being blown off course- haircuts
Real information in cultural choices
Dialectic between control/surrender
Religion is like classical music- an attempt for ecstasy”
Read the rest of this entry »

I was in San Francisco last month. It’s really a little depressing that I’m not still there now. It was beautiful and hot- see?

sf1

Mmmmm… ice cream sherbet…

Anyway, I’m drafting a different post to round up all of the brilliant things I saw while I was there. This post is meant to single out one particular event for special bloggy attention; the 2008 SECA award at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SECA is an acronym that stands for “Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art”; a local art interest group that bi-annually selects four local artists worthy of special attention and features them in an exhibition at SFMoMA. This year, the recipients were Trevor Paglen, Desiree Holman, Tauba Auerbach and Jordan Kantor.

Charlotte and I were just really lucky that this exhibition was on, as we stumbled into the gallery with no plan and only an hour until closing time (for anyone who can feasibly get there it runs until May 10th). Apart from Trevor Paglen who has achieved relatively substantial web-fame, I didn’t have prior knowledge of any of the exhibited artists; a fact of which I’m now ashamed as this was a thought-provoking and entertaining exhibition, choc-full of great work.

The aforementioned Paglen is probably best known for his photographic project ‘The Other Night Sky‘ where he meticulously locates, ‘captures’ and identifies classified US surveillance satellites as they orbit the earth. The image below exemplifies this series of works, which look like they could’ve been liberated from the pages of an issue of National Geographic.

Without the context supplied by their titles, these images appear to be well-crafted yet essentially innocent time-lapse photographs of celestial bodies. They look like nature photographs, and they evoke the appropriate set of associations and responses as a result (the sense of awe, the sense of one’s own inconsequence, etc) until the works’ titles- which are literal, scientific, flat and factual- impinge upon the reverie.

paglenons

Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada

These are not marvels of nature, but man-made machines. Machines with a purpose.Machines constructed here on earth and forcibly blasted into orbit by millions upon millions of $$$ worth of political and military will.

Moreover, they’re machines that you’re not supposed to know about.

The image hanging on the gallery wall is a mute witness to countless hours of investigative effort: contacting amateur ‘spotter’ communities, matching sightings from enthusiasts all over the planet, building mathematical models of prospective orbital paths, eventually identifying a space and time window that might yield a photographic capture.

It is this effort that the art work – that Paglen’s whole practice, in fact- is really concerned with: the surveiling of the surveilors. The fact that the images recall the conventions of nature photography serves to make their tortuous back-story all the more sinister.

Paglen’s other project featured in the SECA exhibition is Symbology, which documents the rich visual language of ‘black operations’ in the US military. Given that the projects, places and departments immortalized in this work do not officially exist, these meticulously collected decorative patches (displayed single-file in one long horizontal frame) are a strangely kitsch physical remnant of an unknowable world.

pagleninsignia

They are surprisingly decipherable, demonstrating camaraderie, bravado and no shortage of black humour. They could be doodles on a schoolboy’s notebook.

They are all the realer for it – unexpectedly characterful, human and mundane where they ought to be secretive, obscure and glamorous. It is this supreme recognisability that unsettled me – their surfeit of everyday-ness seemed to crystallize a hard and frightening reality from the realm of playful, enjoyable conspiracy theories and harmless TV drama paranoia. These little objects are powerful- physically and culturally real in a way the sealed manila folder of popular imagination ever could be.

Desiree Holman was only showing one work, The Magic Window. This mixed media installation was a playful (if a little creepy) meditation on the role of Television in creating and fulfilling popular fantasy.

The centrepiece of the work was a video triptych. The centre panel was blank when we first walked in and sat down. The flanking panels each featured a roughly-assembled stage set designed to resemble the living room of a well-loved sitcom family; that of the Connors from  Roseanne on the left, and that of the Huxtables from The Cosby Show on the right.

In each set, actors wearing masks went about enacting typical interactions between these familiar characters: on the right, ‘Cliff’ and ‘Theo’ engaged in horseplay with a basketball, whilst on the left ‘Roseanne’ sat on the sofa, chatting to ‘DJ’ as ‘Darlene’ moved about the room.

What was immediately striking about these films was the deliberation with which Holman drew our attention to the artifice – to the tell-tale exposed edges of her representation. Her sketch of the ‘Roseanne’ mask below, clearly shows its ‘mask-ness’ as well as being recognisable as Roseanne Barr – as others in the gallery noted, the masks are more than a little reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The same attention to lack-of detail was true of the sets the action took place in.

Click on the image for a video clip:

themagicwindow

Holman seemed to want us to buy in to the fiction, but at the same time remain always aware of her purpose- her presence in the re-staging of these familiar (yet warped) scenes.

Soon enough, the two families invade each other’s worlds (oddly recalling the Run DMC/Aerosmith ‘walk this way’ video) and wordlessly interact via hand gestures and the domestic ritual offerings of cookies. Subsequently, the central panel of the triptych comes alive- showcasing a bizarre ‘third space’, a sort of space disco where the characters dance together in jerky, awkward rhythms to a pounding electronica track- whilst glowing green.

desiree3

It was pretty odd.

At the same time however, it was interesting and entertaining: the blending of these two sitcoms that both dealt with different forms of social prejudice in their different decades seems obvious in hindsight. Also, highlighting the role-play that takes place in family relationships (which also provides the dramatic impetus in sitcoms) via the donning of masks seemed to me to be asking more profound questions than the pantomime performance initially suggested. In its deliberately rough-shod presentation it referenced the DIY video aesthetic of Youtube, an important platform for video art and as prevalent a force in popular culture as each of these sitcoms were in their respective heyday.

Tauba Auerbach seems to be an artist fascinated by systems, whether visual, mathematical or cultural. I thought her work was completely brilliant.

tauba-auerbach

This image shows some pieces from a series dealing with Auerbach’s interest in randomness, particularly the difficulty associated with simulating randomness through algorithms. She has created a whole series of images of Television static – analogue noise that at first glance appears random, but when captured in a photograph…

taubastatic11

…actually contains patterns. Patterns which can be extracted and made into beautiful, decorative works in artistic media like paint…

taubacmy4l

…or through printmaking techniques like this aquatint:

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which are the antithesis of randomness – deliberate, precise and authored.

Another series also on display featured her various experiments with language; interrogating the alphabet as a visual system (as in The Whole Alphabet, from Centre Out, Digital V below) or playing with anagrams, letter subtraction games and the physical appearance of letters to highlight the essential ambiguity of these fundamental components of our culture.

wholealphafromcenterl

If you’re interested, the exhibition catalogue is available here, and Tauba Auerbach’s “50/50″ book can be ordered here. Trevor Paglen has books to sell on Amazon.

Sadly, my rather lengthy enjoyment of Paglen, Holman and Auerbach’s work meant I had somewhat less than 5 minutes to look at Jordan Kantor’s stuff. I’ve got nothing to say except that he seemed to borrow more than a little from Gerhard Richter – but in an obviously deliberate way.

Anyway; a really great exhibition in a really great gallery. Also, if you are inclined towards podcastery, SF MoMA makes a generous amount of the audio guides to its exhibitions available for downloading, which aside from being edifying, can be used very effectively to transport oneself out of London bendy-bus hell to a calm, white-walled gallery of the imagination.

All images were sourced from the artists’ websites

I just read about this project at the electro^plankton blog, and had to re-post it immediately!

I know a couple of clever folks who tutor courses in the ITP department of NYU, and was lucky enough to hang out and chat with them a bit whilst in New York last month. The kind of work they’re doing over there I find thoroughly absorbing and just a little inspirational.

This project (Kacie Kinzer’s “tweenbots”) has been making news in its own right over the last few days, and is a brilliantly realised experiment in complex systems, navigation and anthropomorphic empathy. Basically, this little robot can only head in one direction. It bears a little flag, upon which its desired destination is communicated. This is the sum total of the powers at its disposal in its attempt to navigate part of New York city.

peoplebotweb

Basically, it relies entirely upon interventions from the perambulating public in order to achieve his goal- people have to stop, take an interest, and then to redirect, realign, retrieve and rescue him if he is to have any hope of success.

Perhaps surprisingly, succeed he does – via the interventions of 29 individuals over some 41minutes in Washington Square park.

tweenbot-path

I guess depending in the kindness of strangers can be a viable wayfaring strategy – if you’re helpless/cute/robotic enough to make it work.

For more info, visit the site.

Images sourced from http://www.tweenbots.com

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I’m not going to write a post about maps.

The topic is too big, and there’s so much great material out there already that there’s no need for me to add anything that isn’t more carefully researched and considered than this! If you are interested in (relatively) current discussions and interesting ideas in the world of maps and mapping you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of this book, or Peter Hall’s essay on visualization in the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition catalogue.

It was browsing through this beautiful book however, that I came across the work of Paula Scher- who I’d been hitherto completely ignorant of.

youarehere1

Paula Scher paints maps.

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Paris, 2007

That is to say she makes amazing, colour-saturated paintings that are at least part map – they are too sensual, too irregular, too wilfully representational to be truly map-like.

Nonetheless they are instantly familiar to us, both from the graphical language of political maps (coloured states, boundary lines, textual hierarchy), the design language of transport maps (bold, simplified lines and dots) and the ubiquity of the satellite’s-eye view we encounter on our PC’s, mobile phones and in our cars.

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NYC Transit, 2007

They straddle a space between the authoritarian, didactic tone of the cartographic map that is designed to show the world as fact, and the hand-made, ornately annotated maps drawn from memory that we make for one another (and for ourselves) that show the world as imagined, as experienced and as filtered by human concerns.

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Tsunami, 2006

For all that, they are also huge and imposing things that I imagine you can get lost in for hours- shown to scale below.

paulaschertsunami-by-litherland

lovely, lovely things.

Gallery image sourced from Flickr user litherland, all other images sourced from Paula Scher’s site

I went to the Brighton Photo Biennial in 2008 and had a great time touring the city and discovering some great artworks.

bpb

One of the things that it re-confirmed for me was how brilliant an organisation Brighton-based Photoworks is. They organise loads of talks and exhibitions throughout the South East as well as producting a truly excellent magazine (subscribe here) and publishing numerous monographs and collections of critical essays. Their logo is a guarantee of excellence as far as I’m concerned.

I wanted to share one of their publications here; Mark Power‘s arresting “26 different endings”. It’s been sitting on the coffee table in our new house for the last week and I can’t stop looking at it!

The idea behind the project is this: Mark Power tours the fringes of the historic and ubiquitous London A to Z, finding the places at the edge of the page -the places that fall just the wrong side of the invisible line- and captures them in a monumental photograph.

It is a tribute to the sites where the grid ends, a portrait of London’s invisible boundary.

What I love about these images is the sense of pathos imbued in every one. The complete assence of people lends them an eerie quality; the places framed and displayed feel abandoned, somehow tragic – as if being outside the map really has consigned them to the land of the forgotten. The fact that the title of each piece is an A to Z grid reference adds to this sense of forgotten places- they are named for how the map sees them rather than how people would have lived in them, humanised and personalised them.

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Z22 West

At the same time they retain a lyrical, mysterious quality that makes you want to enter the frame and explore, peek round the corners of these strange ghost-town streets and abandoned, neglected fields.

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A148 South

The scenes of suburbia also retain a sense of pride in their closed, gated Englishness.

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O145 East

All the beautiful images are united by the other dominant feature of this collection, the leaden London sky.

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F76 West

If your coffee table is in need of some fresh artiness, please go ahead and buy the book (in special edition) here.

me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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