The Situationists, Phenomenology and Pervasive Gaming: New Narrative Strategies.

This piece of writing represents the spaces, ideas and places I’ve been thinking on throughout the first 3 months of my PhD. The next 6 months will be made of thinking deeper into the ideas covered in this piece, and working on a creative project exploring the same aspects. Please respect the IP of this content. It’s protected by a CC license.

Duncan Speakman

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In scattered and barely noticed ways, the desire to construct one’s own life was shaping the twentieth century (McDonough 2004, 10)

Another key ’09 [theatre] trend was the removal of performers from performances altogether. Whether directed by headphones or left to negotiate for themselves in shows like Coney’s Small Town Anywhere, increasingly the spectator was becoming the spectacle. (Haydon 2009)

From 1957-69 a new radical reading of the commodification of western capitalist society emerged. The situationists, born out of the fiery nihilism of the Dadaists and the irreverent playfulness of the Surrealists cast their gaze over society and saw:

That the alienation which in the nineteenth century was rooted in production had, in the twentieth century, become rooted in consumption. Consumption had come to define happiness and to suppress all other possibilities of freedom and selfhood. […] Everyone was first and foremost a member of an economy based on commodities” (McDonough 2004, 3)

The situationists identified a transition from the Marxist state of alienation, to a once-removed state of spectacular illusion. This ‘spectacle’ transformed every inch of our lives into an empty capitalist dream, maintained through the mutation of desires into needs. However the situationists believed that the image of society as it is was still intact behind the spectacle, and so they set about attempting to break the illusion.

“Just as the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy” –out of Marx’s dictum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it – now one had to look to the demands of art (McDonough 2004, 11)

The situationists saw art as the solution – an art practised by every member of society, an art that ceased to be art and became a continually revised way of seeing.  The situationists (though they didn’t credit it) were summoning the phenomenological ‘bracketing’ aspect of art:

Phenomenologists like to pick objects up with their minds, so to speak, and turn them around, examining them from all sides. This cannot be accomplished by viewing them frontally as they are embedded in the rest of the experiential world – hence bracketing (Roach 1992, 354)

This bracketing aspect – or epoché – that art provides is at the root of its ability to reveal the spectacle.

Art was at the root of the situationists’ calls for reclamation of public space and leisure time, they intended to use it to deconstruct the spectacular way of seeing, and reconstruct playful new ways of being. The tools which the situationists put forward were the détournement and the dérive. The détournement worked within the spectacle to highlight and ridicule the way it presented itself, this was a radical (though playful) reclamation of news footage, advertising, as well as the ridiculing of stars, celebrity and subversion of print material from popular culture.

The situationists also promoted a kind of unitary urbanism, they wanted each individual to augment their own environment; to take it and twist it, to reveal spaces as space, and not a means-to-an-end, a journey to work, the supermarket, a transaction in time. They wanted to reclaim architecture and urban space by subverting its use and design, and to also rediscover it as a place in its own right. They proposed this be done through the dérive. Reclaiming being-oriented rather than commodity-oriented experiencing of space.

The Situationists burned brightly and rapidly. They were radical, didactic, and sought revolution – a revolution built on the reclamation of our individual selves from the spectacle of capitalist society. They recognised that the political function of the arts is to provide people with a vision of the way the world is constructed, and they offered tools to rebuild it in our image. Their ideas reached their culmination with the events of May 1968, but

If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also realized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act […] may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go.” (McDonough 2004, 18)

However their tools are still useful to us. With the advent of the 21st century we find ourselves in a new “‘era of the spectacle’ where the site of power has shifted from the exterior screens of simulation to the interior body of the material subject.” (Causey 2006, 179) We are now living in an era of embeddedness.

Technologized cultural systems resist simulating signs of the real to mask the real and instead practice a technique of embeddedness […] which draws attention to a reconstructed material truth and ocular proof that seeks to coerce through a type of shock and awe. The strategy of simulation and spectacle has been extended and fundamentally altered. The linked performances of terror, war, propaganda and consumerism have not fully abandoned the strategies of illusory simulation, but have instead complicated their operation with an image regime and the bodily presence of a material embeddedness. (Causey 2006, 151)

The example drawn by Causey contrasts the illusion of Gulf War I – of cut together clips, narrators, and news packages – to the rolling embedded coverage of Gulf War II. ‘This is happening now’, the spectacle says, ‘there is no room for editing or cutting, we use embedded reporters, there is no room for simulation; this is reality’. In this age of celebrity and self-deluding X factor hopefuls, we no longer only find our desires maintained as needs, we find our dreams regulated too. This corruption of the data-flow of contemporary life extends beyond ‘reality TV’ to 24-hour rolling news, the advent of the ‘real-time’ and ‘social’ web. We are led to believe that the data we receive is live, uncut, and true. Through these tools the spectacle embeds itself in our lives. And in our Technoculture capitalism has a new currency: information. Facebook, Google, Youtube, we are now data packages, not only are we consumers, but we are consumed. It is the ‘interior body of the material subject’ where the battle for subjectivity must now be fought, in our selves.

A heavy task indeed, and a harder one as the remnants of reality are fundamentally altered rather than hidden by the spectacle. But we have a fight-back on our hands. The advent of the social-political online world, the wiki, and the prevalence of online gaming, also points towards a trend in narrative consumption and rebellion – this is the player as protagonist, everyone as editor, this is a gasp, a cry, a demand for the opportunity for us to eschew our bit-parts in the spectacle. To take control, to remake our selves, our surroundings, our ways of seeing.

This is the movement from audience to participant.

A new way of being is starting to emerge, it is imperative to bring the arts to that world to report from it. (Thompson 2009)

The situationists, I suggest, have provided us with the tools to deal with the spectacle, and phenomenology the way of seeing how we are embedded.

Phenomenology was the first movement to focus on the specific conditions of human embeddedness in an environment, and to make visible the phenomenon of the environment itself.  (Moran 2002, 5)

Phenomenology emphasises “world-constituting consciousness” (Moran 2002, 22) – an understanding of world-constituting processes is important in order to examine all aspects of the spectacular world. Art is the realm of the double – of re-representation. Nowhere has this been truer than of the theatre. But it is also true, now, of a new world: the virtual.

In virtual worlds, technology is widely allowing us to reclaim the reporting of our world, to take control over data, our information. Online spaces must be reclaimed, prevented from being colonised. It may currently be a place where our data is bought and sold, but it is also a place where we can take control, trade data on our own terms.

The online world is deeply involved in new trends of narrative and world-constituting. We see echoes in the avatar/online game, of theatre’s actor/play, and on discussion and image boards – we find the void, anonymity. Anonymity is fuelling subversive attempts to opt out of the organisation of myth, to bomb the spectacle. Just as the Angry Brigade of the 60s and 70s

Cultivated an image of a large, diffuse, and unidentifiable collection of dissenters: ‘The AB is the man or woman sitting next to you. They have guns in their pockets and anger in their minds.’

Now we are too many to know each other […]‘THEY COULD NOT JAIL US FOR WE DID NOT EXIST’ (Plant 1992, 126-7)

We now see online spaces such as 4chan and /b/ giving rise to phenomena such as Anonymous, DDoS attacks and defacement of the websites of celebrities, political targets, the Church of Scientology.  They are digital terrorists.

[Anonymous is] the first internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re travelling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely. (Landers 2008)

Other attempts to break out of the embedded spectacle include Orange Alternative style playful recuperation – subvertising, flashmobs, cultural memes and viral videos. However in the fast paced world of technology, capitalism and the establishment promptly absorb these forms. The flashmob and viral video have been taken on by advertising, and when social networks are used by political subversives, they are quickly infiltrated by virtual Agent Provocateurs – as was seen in the #IranElection Twitter fuelled riots of 2009.

Only Anonymous have resisted recuperation by the spectacle. They are dangerous, racist, misogynistic, righteous and unpredictable by turn. They are all things, they are anyone, they are nothing and they are no one. They embody that of virtual worlds which is made in the void; they do not exist, their potential is everywhere. And as yet they have resisted that which the Angry Brigade succumbed to, the AB could not be caught, but they were labelled ‘terror’. The void with which the AB threatened Italian society was turned into a useful bogeyman for the spectacle:

The spectacle of terrorism provides a socially cohesive common enemy, legitimised needs for vigilance, security, and new forms of police repression, and encourages the opinion that even the faultiest of democracies is superior to the reign of terror. (Plant 1992, 128)

The web and the online ethic also continues to be colonised by the capitalist spectacle. The groups of people on a night out, frozen in wide smiles and pouts, shuddering ever so-slightly as they wait for the flash to go off. ‘It didn’t happen if there aren’t photos of it on Facebook’. They are cultivating digital versions of themselves. Personal data, buying habits, images, memories, thoughts and feelings are entrusted to huge multinational companies and – much more than the goods we make, our money, our time – they trade in pieces of our selves.

So while situationists offer the tools, and phenomenology the way of seeing, it is in theatre that we find world-constituting in its purest expression, and theatre in which we need to find new forms to tackle the spectacle’s colonisation of the self. As the spectacle in our society warps the raw data of contemporary being, theatre too, struggles to maintain its political power. As the corruption runs deeper and deeper, all of the virtual and theatre worlds are compromised and their revolutionary potential smothered.

To preserve their revolutionary potential, these worlds need each other.

Theatre has always been in the business of world-constituting. It could bracket the spectacle and show you a new illusion. And now, with the advent of the player-as-protagonist ethic of online worlds, theatre can bracket the modern spectacle and embed you in other realities.

In the last century the situationists called for the

Invention of a new species of games. The most general aim must be to broaden the nonmediocre portion of life, to reduce its empty moments as much as possible. […] The situationist game stands out from the standard conception of the game by the radical negation of the ludic features of competition and of its separation from the stream of life. (Debord 2004, 45)

This is exactly what Pervasive Games do. Pervasive Gaming is a fluid term for location (often) urban-based games. The Pervasive Gaming collective Hide&Seek describe their work as “social games and playful experiences” (Hide&Seek 2010). They are somewhere between computer games, and the games you used to play as a child, they have also worked with pioneering theatre companies such as Punchdrunk on what they term ‘Multiplatform Immersive Theatre Experiences’ or MITE – using virtual and real worlds, and exploring narrative in the spaces between them.

In this study I am widening the definition of ‘Pervasive Gaming’ to include all performance strategies that involve augmenting personal or environmental reality from a player-as-protagonist perspective.

The playful games of Hide&Seek use a wiki-ethic to create, and run their games and events. Using the web as a place to assemble their ideas, anyone can edit and invent new games for the collective, propose and run new events, and all of the work is available under a free-to-use Creative Commons licence. Likewise they run ‘sandpit’ events – which take a similar approach to beta testing in the world of software development. The games played by Hide&Seek are never played for prizes, and take place in large groups across urban spaces. Every player is an associate artist.

In a classless society, it might be said, there will be no more painters, only situationists who, among other things, make paintings (Debord 2004, 48)

Though the majority of the games are simple and light hearted they represent a détournement of urban space, a reclamation of play and an application of player-as-protagonist ethics.

The player-as-protagonist borrows from the actor of theatre and the avatar of online worlds, allowing the user to play with aspects of the double and the void – being and nothingness – our selves as constructs. The player-as-protagonist brings us back to a truer sense of self, through absence.

Absences – of meaning, participation, reality, and identity – can constitute useful tactics in the struggle to unmask the social and economic relations of contemporary capitalist society. (Plant 1992, 181)

Theatre is death, nothing, life, everything. It is the creation of a world in front of our very eyes.  New theatrical forms like Pervasive Gaming are using digital ethics to take this way of seeing to the subject.

The ego does not believe in the possibility of its death. The unconscious thinks it is immortal. The uncanny experience of the double is death made material, unavoidable, present. (Causey 2006, 18)

To examine life as it is constituted you also need to understand death. Technology, avatars, the spaces theatre traverses between being and suspension of disbelief; there we find death, and also life. 0, 1, 0, 1, every second.

Though these Pervasive Games and events often involve recorded or other technology, which can disengage you from “the power of the double and of illusion, and thereby of the spectre of the corporeal body (death).”(Causey 2006, 98), this is countered by the danger of placing you as the avatar in the world-constituting process. You are sole creator.

Pervasive Games pick us up from our embedded state and allow us to look at ourselves from different angles. They take devices that are often designed to separate us from reality; iPods, GPS units, smart phones, and they use them to bring us into closer contact with the world. Some of the most interesting aspects of Pervasive Gaming is exemplified by the Subtlemob. Based on the idea of secret gatherings of people that the flashmob popularised, but bringing people together quietly, and conspiratorially to walk the narrative of a story.

As if it Were the Last Time was a free a sound walk-come-performance devised by Duncan Speakman and in association with Subtlemob. It took place on a small number of streets near Covent Garden. It was a (performance? Experience? Neither of these words do) for two people. Two days before the event, participants were provided with a map, an mp3, and told to set it going at 6pm.

For each and every person who took part, the experience was theirs. Entirely. And not, in staged theatre, as each audience member receiving the piece from a different perspective. This was each participant doing. The movements, the characters, the gestures, and the touch of someone’s hand on a shoulder, were all completely yours. Of your making.

Conventional suspension of disbelief – the time and credence that you pay into conventional, staged performance – pales into comparison to the weight of belief that you pour into this kind of experience. Traditional theatre is by no means irrelevant, the video game didn’t kill the cinema, theatre is powerful, but this is a form that is powerful in new and important ways. A piece of staged theatre is a rip in the space-time continuum, it is a hundred different hours, poured into one, it is a hundred held breaths, a hundred moments of people turning one thing, into another. As if it Were the Last Time was one whole moment, it was the heat of one breath, it was noticing how the ripples of rain in a puddle shake the light of shop fronts in time to a piece of music. It was stories, yours, of others, and your reflection in the window. It was one voice, lost, and your own, quiet.

You were embedded in a new world instead of conspiring with another.

Time comes to us first and foremost as an individual lifetime. (Fortier 2002, 41)

The phenomenological way of seeing pays great attention to time. Life is not Aristotelian, we need new temporal strategies in our storytelling if we are to constitute the wholeness of worlds. In As if it Were the Last Time the narrative was fractured, the one solid piece of information you were given was that the piece was in memory of another. However instead of talking about the person lost, it asked you to find yourself there as if it were your last half hour.  It was the story of a person seeing the world as they’d never see it again, you heard thoughts that occurred to them as they saw the same things you did, the memories prompted. The narrative built like a collage, like a barrage of images and sounds and ideas that didn’t fit, and then you realised they were building a whole person. And it hurt. And it was wonderful. You felt like you were falling off a building. Or maybe ‘you’ didn’t, maybe only I did.

This was a piece truly about the thickness of experience. It went all the way around the back. It also talked about ‘drifting’, asked you to dérive–find places that made you feel certain ways.

There were moments when it faltered, when things didn’t fit with what you were hearing, but you were seeking, willing them to get back on track, because this was you – your belief at risk. This wasn’t an actor fluffing their lines, it was you, as an avatar of the narrative.

[An avatar is] a machine that is attached to the psychology of its user. From within that machine the driver can peek out, squinting through alien eyes, and find a new world. And, oddly, the driver can also look into himself, as if gazing into his navel, and find a new landscape inside as well (Meadows 2008, 8)

I wrote on my blog after returning from the experience:

“Those thirty minutes were the most vivid, most high contrast of my week. It was true augmented reality, and I want to take my friends and loved ones back to share it. It hurts that I can’t. But that’s kind of what being is, isn’t it?”

‘A work of art born on the stage lives only for a moment, and no matter how beautiful it may be it cannot be commanded to stay with us’ (Fortier 2002, 49)

Works Cited

Alderman, Harold. “Heidegger’s Critique of Science and Technology.” In Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, edited by M Murray. New York: Yale University Press, 1978.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness, Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin. London: Fontana Press, 1992.

Causey, Matthew. Theatre and Performance in a Digital Culture, from simulation to Embeddedness. Oxon: Routledge, 2006.

Debord, Guy. “Report in the Construction of Situations.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist Internatinal, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Debord, Guy. “The Great Sleep and its Clients.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Debord, Guy. “The Situationist and the New Forms of Action in Politics or Art.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Dusek, Val. Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006.

Fortier, Mark. Theory/Theatre. London: Routledge, 2002.

Haydon, Andrew. The year in theatre: trends of 2009. December 30, 2009. (accessed January 1, 2010).

Hide&Seek. Hide and Seek – Projects. January 6, 2010. (accessed January 6, 2010).

Husserl, E. “Introduction to the Logical Investigations.” In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Husserl, Edmund. “Consciousness as Intentional Experience.” In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Landers, Chris. Serious Business: Anonymous Takes on Scientology. March 2, 2008. (accessed July 3, 2008).

“Editorial Notes: Priority Communication.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

McDonough, Tom. “Editorial Notes: The Meaning of Decay in Art.” In Guy Deb ord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

McDonough, Tom. “Introduction.” In Guy Debord and the Situatinist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

McDonough, Tom. “Situationist Space.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Meadows, Mark Stephen. I, Avatar, the Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Berkley, CA: New Riders, 2008.

Moran, Dermot. “Introduction.” In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture, the Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. London: Routledge, 1992.

Reinach, Adolf. “Concerning Phenomenology.” In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Roach, Joseph R. “Introduction to Phenomenology and Hermeneutics .” In Critical Theory and Performance, edited by Janelle G Reinelt and Joseph R Roach. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Scheler, Max. “The Being of the Person.” In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney. New York: Routledge, 2002.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, On the Phenomenology of Theater. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

States, Bert O. “The Phenomenological Attitude.” In Critical Theory and Performance, edited by Janelle G Reinelt and Joseph R Roach. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Subtlemob. Subtlemob. (accessed 10 06, 2009).

Thompson, Bill. Speech at the Shift Happens 2.0 Arts and Technology Conference. (June 30, 2009).

Tsakos, Natasha. “Natasha Tsakos’ Multimedia Theatrical Adventure.” TED Talks. (accessed October 6, 2009).

Various. “Extracts from Letters to the Situationist International.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

—. Pervasive Game. (accessed January 6, 2010).

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10 Responses to “The Situationists, Phenomenology and Pervasive Gaming: New Narrative Strategies.”

  1. Hannah Williams November 8, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    I’m writing currently starting research for my dissertation looking at technology in performance in particular Blast theory and subtlemob, found it really helpful reading this and gaining some futher insight into the area :) Thanks

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