Situationist Space, and Pervasive Gaming
In scattered and barely noticed ways, the desire to construct one’s own life was shaping the twentieth century p.10
(This and all subsequent quotes are, unless stated otherwise, from Essays in Guy Debord and the Situationist International edited by Tom McDonough (MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2004))
Those who have been following my tweets over the past two weeks are so will have seen that one of the places I’ve started reading for my PhD is contemporary philosophy. Now there’s a degree to which you could argue philosophy has nothing to do with the advent of technology and the arts. And that’s the degree to which you’d be wrong. Philosophy takes a step back from the world, from society, and looks at what it is to be. It is the science of thought, it brought us into the age of enlightenment, it showed us why we felt empty after religion became irrelevant and it shows us how we’ve tried to fill that gap. The two main movements I’m looking at to kick off with are the situationists, and phenomenology. One looks at the reclamation of physical space from the spectacle of advance capitalism, and the other attempts to form a science of subjective realities.
OK, it may not be sounding strictly relevant yet.
I believe in 3D thought – I think that theory is nothing without practice, and also, that practice is nothing if not situated – to some degree, within theory. I don’t necessarily mean the dry theory of academia, anything, even art for arts sake is situated in theory – in thought – by design. I’m going to look at the situationists here, because they have everything to do with an event I’m attending tomorrow – a city wide pervasive gaming event held by Hide&Seek.
The situationists came out of nothing. Literally. They developed out of Dadaism, which, in reaction to the horror of the world wars, made art out of nothing, and nothing out of art. Dada had seen life treated as nothing, the situationists had seen the beginning of this nothing being replaced with a bigger, newer, shinier absence: consumerism.
If society is organized around consumption, one participates in social life as a consumer; the spectacle produces spectators, and thus protects itself from questioning. It induces passivity rather than action, contemplation rather than thinking, and a degradation of life into materialism. […] Desires are degraded or displaced into needs and maintained as needs. p.8
The situationists talk about a life built on spectacle, a virtual world built of everything we’re told we should think, say and feel. It’s not just the tools of consumerism such as “advertising, or propaganda, or television. It is a world. The spectacle as we experience it, but fail to perceive it, “it is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images”” p.9
Our society is dominated by the spectacle- by the spin of modern politics, by the narrative of modern life, by the dreams we’re given and happily ever afters we’re taught to crave. The situationists saw this. But they also saw that we are united.
Foreclosing the construction of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. p.11
The solution? The reclamation of our world, the subversion of the spaces dominated by narratives not of our own making. They suggested two modes of change: the dérive, and détournement.
The détournement is simple, it is the subversion of cultural artefacts, the kind that feed the spectacle, turned upside down to highlight the edifice of our culture:
The dérive is an actual reclamation of the space around us. Think of your life, your day to day life as a map. Draw on that map your place of work, your home, and the place where you shop. How often do you move out of that triangle? When you move in space, how much of it do you actually see? How much of it is owned and loaned out to others? How does it make you feel? Why does it matter? This is our environment, why do we only think it’s important when we go on holiday?
When on a dérive you attempt to step aside from class, gender, and the crowd, fragmenting and disrupting social constructions. “the dérive replaced the figure of the voyeur with that of the walker” p.255
If all the world is a continually remade spectacle, we need to remake our own world every day to counter that.
Why is this relevant to theatre and digital tech?
The role of the “public”, if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, “livers,” will increase. p.47
This is the movement from audience to participant.
I believe that the advent of the social online world, and the prevalence of online gaming, points towards a trend in narrative consumption – this is the player as protagonist, this is a gasp, a cry, a demand for the opportunity for us to eschew our bit-parts in the spectacle. To remake ourselves, our surroundings. This is something both theatre, and technology does every day.
I believe that art and technology combined are best placed to reveal to us our society, and the places that it is able to go. I also think it is absolutely necessary that they do so.
Those who mistrust the machine and those who glorify it show the same incapacity to utilize it. Machine work and mass production offer unheard-of possibilities for creation, and those who are able to place these possibilities at the service of a daring imagination will be my creators of tomorrow. p.75
This was written over 40 years ago, and yet speaks almost exactly of the main driving force of my thesis.
There are people who say that liveness is everything, and there are people who say that soon, everything will be virtual, we will have remade our flawed world into something new. I think they are both wrong.
There is a lot of buzz in the live performance world about live streaming at the moment, and although I do believe it a really useful device in making cultural content ubiquitous, it is much less interesting to me, because all you’re doing is replacing one frame, with another.
I don’t think people who resist crashing online worlds with live performance fear change, I think they don’t understand why it is relevant – that’s where I think the discussion needs to lie; sure it’s possible, but is it valuable? What is valuable? What should performance do? Live performance does not need to be ‘harnessed’ by online worlds, but rather to continue to evolve to reflect the changing experience of people who are living between worlds, and inventing new kinds of storytelling.
At the same time there is a move towards using ethics of digital storytelling in a live context, which shouldn’t be dismissed for all the interesting things that can be produced with live storytelling in a digital one. A brilliant example of this is the ‘pervasive gaming’ of companies such as Hide&Seek– they replace passive audience with single or multi player, often using digital tech as interface/tool in the work. They apply an open source ethic to developing their pieces, and they are all about the player as protagonist – taking gaming ethics to a live world.
I don’t think liveness is all, but there’s no way it should be dismissed. Likewise there are different ways of using tech in delivering an event online – straight streaming is very good at amplifying content – but social media tools are also excellent for amplifying a process and an experience.
Art exists to test societies’ ideas, to grapple with memories, to imagine futures. I believe performance needs to be at the forefront of this, exploring online identity, experience, ethics. We, in the arts, need to stop trying to catch up with the rest of the world, and start looking ahead. We need to challenge new ways of being, and we need to redefine and question concepts of virtuality and liveness. The most interesting places are the gaps in between, and you cannot examine one without the other.
Whoever constructs situations […] “by bringing his movements to bear on external nature and transforming it … transforms his own nature at the same time” p.91
We need to shine a light through the cracks in our realities. We understand that so much is constructed, why not now consider how we can reconstruct them?
Tomorrow I shall be taking part in Hide&Seek’s Sandpit tour. The event is free to attend (though you need to book) and is being held in the City of Nottingham. All throughout the City of Nottingham. Open-source built city-wide games are brought to players, who choose their game, and play their narrative, reclaiming the city space for invented leisure. Here’s a video from Hide&Seek, talking about their work with pervasive gaming:
I will write some more (probably not as much [!]) after I’ve been to the event.
The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language p.290
In the meantime, next time you’re in a space, any space, and you have some time. Let go. Let go of where you’re going, and who you are in relation to it, let the rush and the characters and the adverts fade by. Drift.