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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but felt that the kind of storytelling employed by classic LucasArts games like Grim Fandango had been regrettably superceded by newer games like BAFTA-winning BioShock that instead offer “nothing more than the ability to machine-gun Ayn Rand fans”.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.

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

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:

a-half-times-a-half-times-a-half-coarsejournal

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’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.

paula-scher

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.

paulaschernyc

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.

paulaschertsunami

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

lost-locke2Yesterday I wrote about Lost‘s deliberately vague storytelling, and suggested that the narrative paradigm the show adopts is more akin to that of an ARG or a mystery game (like purported influence, Myst) than to a more typical unfolding of dramatic events. Today I wanted to focus our attention behind the scenes, and think about the lore surrounding how Lost’s stories get written.

There are two aspects of the show’s creative process that I think are worthy of some examination; both the writers’ approach to writing the show and role of the writers themselves in the Lost universe.

In the case of the former, popular legend (and a great deal of messageboard commentary) has it that the witers on Lost have only a vague idea how the story will ultimately pan out, and perhaps even less fixed notions on how any given character’s arc will develop from series to series. In effect, when writing Lost, those involved are making it up on the fly, improvising willy-nilly and creating a discordant mess of half-baked plot lines, ultimately to rely on a heavy-handed deus ex machina to resolve the story come the series’ end.

I have no idea how close to the mark this is, but in terms of how much license the writers have to alter the direction and flow of the show (adding unexpected narrative nodes and connections), it does seem to be the case that they are afforded extraordinary freedom.

Given the difficulties that some American television dramas (particularly those in the science-fiction genre) have had with Networks approving storylines  (Joss Whedon‘s new series Dollhouse is a case in point) or indeed with writers arguably being allowed too much scope for sweeping character changes (I’m looking at you Sylar) it is remarkable that Lost seems to operate the way it does.

It is interesting to speculate on ther mindset of the creators; the narrative, the story, the message, whatever you want to call it seems to play second fiddle to themore immediate, tangible qualities of the world they are trying to create. Their willingness to re-write at the drop of a hat is aptly demonstrated in the anecdotes about the casting process and- seems typical of the  approach to the show overall (the character of Hurley was invented after Jorge Garcia auditioned for the role of Sawyer, and the character of Sawyer was re-written to fit the accent and irascibility of Josh Holloway).

Perhaps the best example of this willingness to adapt and change mid-flow is the character of Benjamin Linus, easily the most compelling, complex and devious player in the whole drama.

benjamin_linus_by_lecsica_by_michaelemersonclub

It is hard to imagine how a character who is so central- indeed pivotal– to the world of Lost was originally only scripted for three episodes in season 2. So the story goes, his contract was extended to eight episodes, and then to the whole of series 3 and 4 as the writers sort of riffed off of Michael Emerson‘s brilliant, bug-eyed presence.

It appears that the overall narrative, the ‘story’ of what happens in Lost is far from sacrosanct – and in the case of Ben’s character, much the better for it. The world of Lost and the charisma of the players who inhabit it seem to be more important to the creators than the integrity of the tale itself. This of course, is another reason why Lost sits uneasily with television dramas like The Wire – a show that takes the existing televisual tradition of the hard-bitten cop drama to an apex of verisimilitude.

In The Wire, the story (ultimately the moral of the story) is everything – and quite right too.

In Lost however, it is the being in the world that seems to matter most.

Why is it that this seems to upset people? In much the same way that pop bands often get castigated for not having written their own songs, for being simply performers (though it doesn’t seem to affect president Obama)- it seems to many as if the writers of Lost are somehow affronting us, insulting our intelligence by not sitting down and writing the show properly.

I suspect this is something about the show, and something about the audience.

Because Lost seems to ride roughshod over the writerly, literary approach to narrative, it seems somehow less genuine when compared to shows that have a more readily demonstrable artistic vision. At the same time, the kind of audience that time-traveling, science-fiction, high-concept adventure shows would normally attract can be quite fickle, and I suspect many see Lost as a high-gloss confidence trick – a mainstream, big-budget drama that looks like its written for sci-fi fans but is a actually a hollow shell designed to suck in ratings and plenty of these…

dollars1

I have some sympathy with this view, because I’m exactly that type of fickle fan – however, rather than castigate Lost for sitting outside of one artistic tradition, I prefer to locate what it does within another. As the introduction of Benjamin Linus shows, in Lost’s peculiar ecosystem one actor’s performance, one variation, can literally remake everything else around it.

This example doesn’t suggest a writer carefully constructing narrative in accordance with an artistic vision, instead it shows new content being generated through the interactions of a set number of players acting in accordance with some basic rules.

It is emergence.

In this sense, Lost can be said to (at least in some part) be generating itself.

If we believe this to be intentional, this process would place Lost within a very different, but no less canonical tradition. Emergence is something that has fascinated many artists over the years, and continues to do so today. For an artistic read on the topic, you could do a lot worse than listen to this discussion between Will Wright and Brian Eno in this talk from the Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) series organised by the Long Now Foundation.

eno_qa_fullIn short, emergence is the study of how small interactions- which take place on only a very local level with very limited inputs- can produce complex behavioural systems. The classic example is ant colonies, where whilst individual ants don’t take orders but act as autonomous units, the colony as a whole displays complex behaviour (such as finding the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies).

Emergent behaviour can be created and studied using cellular automata, illustrated in the video below. Simple rules govern each individual cell’s behaviour, whereby its state (black or white) changes only in relation to the states of the cells in its immediate vicinity.

Out of these simple rules, very complex patterns emerge.

In art with both big and small ‘A’s, there have been plenty of experiments using algorithms and processes to generate novel and unpredictable work, from William S. Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique to the automatic writing and exquisite corpses of the Surrealists or the Musikalisches Würfelspiel supposedly practised by Mozart.

Indeed, in the Wright/Eno talk mentioned above both speakers talk about work they’ve produced based on a fascination with the possibilities of this approach.

I particularly like Brian Eno’s example of a wind chime as a cheap and basic machine for creating generative music within established rules.

So is Lost set up to allow emergent narratives to appear?

Even if not their explicit intent, it seems that the interaction of actors, writers and creators is allowed to take precedence over the pre-existing narrative if it produces a variation that feels right. It may be idle speculation on my part, but if the writers and producers really were experimenting with emergent wrting it would make the whole show a rather grand project, I hope even for those who currently feel somewhat cheated by it.

After examining how the process of writing Lost sets it apart from many of it’s contemporaries, I intend to use the next post to explore the second aspect of Lost’s writing – the role of the writers themselves in Lost’s universe, where fiction and reality are blurred.

See you tomorrow 🙂

Brian Eno image sourced from Wired and Benjamin Linus image from DeviantART user Lecsica

I suspect every man, woman and cat on the web has posted (and syndicated and twittered) this, but I am powerless to resist.

photoshop-grafitti

it’s just so…. damn good!

photoshop-grafitti2

yay for culturejamming-grafitti-interventions-that-only-photoshop-nerds-fully-get!

found here

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Update – though I was right to expect this would be picked up everywhere, I just want to point out that I managed to hit ‘publish’ before purple pooters PSFK did.

That is all.

I don’t make a big thing out of it (naturally) but I happen to hold a first-class degree in History of Art.

(Interestingly enough, I know of at least two other History of Art graduates also employed in the world of media strategy- an opportunity the rather inadequate careers department at UCL should probably include in their very thin folder of potential careers for directionless graduates.)

Anyway, when I came out of college – back in 1998- I was heartily sick of Art.

I’d spent three years reading and studying all sorts of theories; from formal analysis to feminist and queer theory to psychoanalysis to class struggle to semiotics to economics and back to formalism again, and had started to percieve the whole thing as a house of cards. It was the year of sensation at the Royal Academy, which was a pretty good metaphor for how I felt about the whole subject- it all seemed vacuous, overtly concerned with the market and fascinated by it’s own cleverness. I pretty much wanted nothing more to do with it.

Anyway, over the last few years I’ve experienced a bit of a rennaisance (l0lz) regarding Art,  largely down to the sterling work of Regine and her incomparable site, and Brighton artists Blast Theory.

I’m enthused again, and I’m enthused because the way that artists think of and utilise the media that I work with every day are so much more vibrant, so much more necessary and so obviously more concerned with how people live than the ubiquitous blandishments of the advertising community (and the meta-industry of consultants/journalists/authors on which it thrives). Seeing artists work with with digital media has helped me to see it afresh, and see possibilities I wasn’t seeing before. Which is what art should do, I suppose.

Whether it’s creating a ‘dislocative tourism agency‘ to connect physically and culturally disparate cities, or designing an alarm clock that mercilessly exploits social-connectedness to create powerful new incentives to get out of bed, it is thrilling to see digital media being employed with such an innate understanding of how it fits into people’s lives and such fertile, curious and fearless imagination.

As far as I can tell, the future of media is not being nurtured within media companies of any stripe- be it Nokia or The New York Times. In my opinion it is most definitely being imagined at the RCA, in Portslade and in myriad warehouses, co-operatives and studios the world over.

Anyway, seeing all this wonderful stuff that seemed to ‘get’ media in a manifestly different way to how I’d been seeing it actually got me excited about artists again – about how and what they think. It got me excited about going to see exhibitions again.

In fact, I got so excited about all this stuff that I actually presented a slide about Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca project to the company’s UK sponsorship department for FIVE WHOLE MINUTES.

This was perhaps ill-advised.

Nonetheless, I have regained a passion for seeing Art again, primarily because it helps me to think in a less-trammelled way about how things are or might be or might have been. So in a long and rambling manner, I thought I’d post about some of the stuff I’ve seen recently (towards the end of last year) that got me all hot and bothered: the Domestic Appliance exhibition at Flowers East in Shoreditch and the Heart of Glass exhibition that was part of Concrete and Glass, also (surprise surprise) in Shoreditch.

First up, Domestic Appliance.

I actually got to see this as part of our frankly kick-ass strategy team ‘awayday‘. What I loved about this – apart from all the great exhibits- was the fact that none of my colleagues realized that the stuff they were looking at spanned decades of artistic production. The excitement and playfulness of the exhibition had rendered studying the little plaques on the walls irrelevant. The objects themselves were enough; the  curator’s vision defeated the audience’s impulse to try and ‘own’ the exhibits by naming and categorising them into some sort of taxonomy. Domestic Appliance wasn’t an edifying lecture on the canon of kinetic art, but rather a brief glimpse of the weird and wonderful other lives of the objects inhabiting our homes – a Toy Story for grown ups who like their fairytales a little askew.

Jean Tinguely’s Mouton, the scariest and  most deranged thing on show (like a little piece of  Silent Hill somehow existing in Hackney) was from 1962:

mouton-jean-tinguelyjpg

Theo Kaccoufka’s quietly obscene Fountain dated from 1994:

fountain-theo-kaccoufa

And bringing us bang up to date were Tim Lewis’ bewithching, gracefully moving (and heavily photographed) Pony

pny-tim-lewis3

…and Ian Burns’ The Way We Know It – Surrounded Islands (Version 1) – Keep it clean and organized which created a sense of drama by using live audio/visual feeds to magnify the changing light that was being reflected onto a tiny diorama of found objects.

the-way-we-know-it-surrounded-islands-ian-burns

A special mention also has to go to Max Dean, Raffaello D’Andrea and Matt Donovan’s Robotic Chair which held audiences rapt as it repeatedly assembled and disassembled itself. The BANG it made when losing it’s limbs made me jump at least three times.

robotic-chair-max-dean

A fantastic way to spend a few hours and a powerful hit of mental wasabi for me.

Right, now onto Heart of Glass.

I actually got a ticket for the Concrete and Glass mini-festival by entering a competition via email on the opening day (w00t, go me)- which meant I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, of course.

As a result I skulked around, smoked cigarettes to look less lonely (pathetic) and went home waaaay before TV on the Radio got started.

Nonetheless, one of the things I did manage to do was visit the brilliant Heart of Glass exhibition in the creepy basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. I’m not sure whether it was this awesome setting, or the head-rush from the fags, but I had a really fantastic time exploring the nooks and crannies of this impromptu gallery.

The exhibition was also a competition – one lucky artist of those exhibiting would be awarded the prize of a solo show at next years event. For what it’s worth, my highlights included Alistair Mcclymont’s The Limitations of Logic and the Absence of Absolute Certainty, a swirling shifting tornado of water vapour that would repeatedly coalesce into a powerful, visible form and then become loose and unstructured again. It was like a ghostly apparition, moving in a natural and yet weirdly unnatural way that seemed brilliantly otherworldly in the dilapidated dark setting.

the-limitations-of-logic1

There’s a video of it doing what I was trying to describe here.

I also loved Kate Terry’s Thread Installation #19, another work that visitors felt compelled to move through and around, the lines of thread changing from visible to invisible depending on your relation to the light source. It’s geometric beauty seemed to come from the digital realm – something created by an algorithm rather than by an artist fastening resolutely analogue thread to tacks hammered into the walls. The smoothness and regularity was thrown into sharp relief by the crumbling walls and dirty, sandy floor of the room that housed it.

thread-installation19

Paul Archard’s Horseplay was unsettling, in a slightly-scary-fun sort of way.

horsebox

The horsebox dominated the low room in which it was diplayed. People (me included) attempting to peer in were unnerved by the powerful, reverberating sounds of a stallion’s breathing- and left with the sense that the box could hardly contain it’s inhabitant. Every three-minutes or so there would be an explosion of whinnying and snorting that made the box shudder and shake, giving everyone a start. It created a genuinely physical response from those milling about the room, and is a great example of a ‘site-specific installation’ properly doing what it says on the tin.

Lastly, my personal favourite was Kate MccGwire’s Vex.

Caged within a victorian curiosity cabinet, it was a kind of stuffed nightmare- a mutant mess of serpent and bird, sinuously turning in on itself.

vex1

Up close the individual feathers (gathered over a period of months from London pigeons) made attractive (pretty, even) patterns and yet backing away from the thing, I felt disturbed by it, but never able to take my eyes off it.

Compelling stuff, and worthy of winning I think.

I feel a bit sad posting about these exhibitions given that they’re both over. However, if you happen to stumble across a mention of any of theses artists or works featured in an exhibition near you I reckon you could do a lot worse than checking them out.

Images credits: flickr users David Emery and turn towards the light

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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