- Play and Performance in Civic Space
- Reframing Learning and Mobile
- Play and real-world social change
Interview: Jeff Hull
Jeff Hull is the founder and creative director of Nonchalance, a hybrid arts consultancy based in San Francisco. At IndieCade 2010, Nonchalance won the World/Story Award for their “epic, immersive, poly-media, real-world adventure,” the Games of Nonchalance.
It strikes me that a lot of the work going on right now in location-based experience design can trace its origins back to Situationism, sticker art, and — going way back — graffiti. There are also some obvious connections to amusement park and museum design. What are the big touchstones for you?
Wow. I’ve never had any one zero in so accurately on my influences before. For years, before we started Nonchalance, I was doing a guerrilla campaign called Oaklandish that was really attempting to fuse together the ideals of Situationism and Street Art. We’d use multi-media devices and historicaly driven content to produce happenings designed to gather large groups of people together in negative urban spaces, so they could begin to interact with each other and the space around them in new ways. It was literally “the construction of situations”, with a strong post-graffiti mindset. Haring and Basquiat are like Patron Saints to me for the very literate, site-specific graffiti art they did early on. And, yes, we absolutely had an amusement park mentality as we are created the Games of Nonchalance. When I grew up I worked as a child performer at a place called “Children’s Fairyland” in Oakland, and it was this magical hokey little fantasy world, where you could literally fall down a rabbit hole. They had magic keys where you could turn them in a lock box and suddenly hear a recording of a nursery rhyme, while looking at a diorama of the cow jumping over the moon, or whatever. There was a yellow brick road leading through the park to an Emerald City. We want to present those kinds of interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, fuzed into the urban landscape.
Over the past few years, a lot of different disciplines have been coming together around notions of embodied experience, public space, community, and play. Everyone from performance artists to game designers to educators and curators seem to be grasping at different versions of the same thing. But what *is* that thing? Do we even have a word for it?
Interestingly, most of our intern applicants have been architecture students. Somehow they’re all thinking about their work in a different way, too. There’s some kind of convergence. When I asked the question to our production manager Sara Thacher, she felt like it wasn’t necessarily useful to put a label on it, but we both agreed that the zeitgeist is happening. Sara is more interested in “why” so many different people are exploring this new “Third Space”. We agreed it is in part a reaction to the narrow confines of sanctioned activities in public space, which have been largely defined by commerce. We can legally: commute, shop, and drink a latte. Walk or run in a park between sun up and sun down. Otherwise you’re somehow suspect. People feel isolated by that. I think we’re all trying to loosen those reigns through their own individual contributions.
My name for it is Socio-Reengineering. That’s Jejune Institute terminology, and in our story it has dubious connotations, but we’re actually quite sincere about this aim. To infuse variability and play into the workaday world by re-engineering the way that people navigate and experience the space and the population around them. Sometimes it can happen in a seemingly spontaneous way, like a flash mob, and sometimes it is the result of meticulous design and effort.
One thing I really like about the Jejune Insitute is the fact that it’s a cross-platform interactive narrative that works a little bit like a gallery installation: it’s just *there*, online, on the air, and in physical space. This represents a very different approach to storytelling than that found in more “traditional” ARGs, which are typically structured around the gradual unveiling of story information leading up to a climax event of some sort. What made you pick this different path? What did you gain (and/or lose) by abandoning the unity of time?
You’re correct about the induction center as “gallery installation”. We wanted to create an immersive automated well-curated environment, and to have it exist semi-permanantly. We were outsiders to the ARG universe, and totally ignorant of it’s culture and customs. So when we finally appeared at the ARG Fest-o-Con in Portland, we learned that we had inadvertently solved one of the major stumbling blocks of earlier ARG’s; “replayability”. What we had produced could be experienced over and over again, and shared with friends, and so on. The big trade off was that it was local. People in other parts of the world are not able to experience it directly. But ideally we’ll be able to produce unique experiences in other cities in the future. Every city should have their own game!
The other thing that led in this direction was that after doing work in the streets for so long I became very curious about those semi-public and private spaces as well. What are the boundaries between them? A corporate office building has all those questions built into them. There’s this very sterile environment that is in someways meant to intimidate people. We used that to our advantage in the narrative, and at the same time subverted it by asking people to explore and reexamine that space. That was a clear incentive for us in creating the induction center.
You’ve been embedding story and play into the Bay Area for a while now. What kind of dividends has this paid in terms of building community and bringing like-minded individuals together?
For players; yes, there’s definitely been a coming together of like-minded people, especially with the recently released Act IV. It emphasizes group play, inter-dynamics, and trust so that when the group completes the experience they have truly been through a rite of passage together. We’ve been hearing from participants that they have really gelled with other players this way and formed deeper bonds. You can really see it in the EPWA protest video; all these weirdos just coming out of the woodwork to party in the streets. Ironically, because I’ve remained “behind the curtains” for so long, I don’t feel like I’ve benefitted socially from any of these activities! I’m really looking forward to coming out from backstage more and interacting directly with the players in the future.
Is civic engagement an artistic imperative?
I’d say not. Great art can be something completely personal and private.
I live in Los Angeles. Do the kinds of projects we’re talking about work best in denser cities like San Francisco or London? Or can we imagine locative stories anywhere, and on any scale?
I view these productions as being fully scaleable. It’s not so much an issue of geography and architecture as much as culture. A map isn’t unpredictable, but people can be! Once you know who the participant is then you can begin to imagine how they might interact in that particular environment. For example, I’d love to produce something for Las Vegas. There is also the “Accomplice” game in Hollywood, which operates a little more like dinner theater in the streets.
If you go back to the 1990s, a lot of people were predicting that the future of storytelling and play was going to be defined by screens, VR goggles, and, ultimately, brain implants. Thankfully, it looks like that’s not the way we’re heading — at least not right away. Where do you see all this locative stuff going in the next few years?
Mobile technology can potentially allow us to get away from the screen and back into the real world. I’m awaiting a few app features to be developed so we can take our immersive experiences to a new level, and which would allow other users to create their own real world adventures. I want my phone to let me know about the secret discovery awaiting me right around the corner. Then I want to share that discovery. I foresee every institution with real space developing their own interactive mobile applications; the Magic Mountain choose-your-own adventure iPhone game, the MOMA interactive mystery tour, or the narrative based campus orientation experience, as you had mentioned. I think at first there will be a ton of poorly designed ones, until people get over the novelty of it and recognize it as a true art form, like film.
What’s next for nonchalance?
On the practical side, we just put together a board of advisors to help us develop our business. On the creative side, we’re talking to a potential collaborator right now in the mental health field about producing a multi-sensory maze that serves therapeutic purposes. It would essentially be an inward-bound expedition through the gauntlet of emotions, with positive achievements built into it. Have you ever been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? It would be like that, but for your psyche. That’s one thing on the table, but we’re still looking at other opportunities.
For those who weren’t there, could you quickly describe what you did at IndieCade?
Without building the “Jejune Institute South”, we were trying to produce a street level installation to give visitors a sense of the real world nature of our game. There were a lot of art and artifacts from the game, with some gritty multi-media to back it up.
I thought of you recently as I was giving a talk on remix culture. We ended up discussing the Situationist concept of detournement, and it occurred to me that this is a good baseline description of the kind of work Nonchalance does. Is that what you’ve been doing all these years, detourning the Bay Area (and sundry other places)?
I never thought of it in that way, but the answer is yes, absolutely. I’ve always been a cut & paste, drag & drop kind of artist, and shamelessly so. I have no qualms about it because I know that what I’ve produced from these other sources is completely original.
One of the things I like the most about Situationist art is how it’s geared toward inspiring the viewer/participant to discover the untapped possibilities of the world around them — “to expose the appalling contrast between the potential constructions of life and the present poverty of life.” What are the potentials you’re exposing, and what kinds of poverty — intellectual, emotional, or even economic — do your projects work against?
“Potential constructions of life” is a great description for what we’ve attempted. We’re presenting this parallel universe in which we’re actively at war with banality and routine. It’s a guerrilla street war, too, not some hypothetical plane. The potential is for collective behavior that promotes warmth and trust, communicating something very meaningful through mass media, and generally allowing for variation, color and fun in the civic realm. The poverty exposed is that of spontaneity and creativity in every day life. We don’t always recognize how confined or restricted or repressed we are, and I’m speaking generally about “us” as a group or society, rather than us as individuals. Re-imagining and then reconstructing how we operate and function as a culture is our greatest aspiration. We can only do it in these microscopic slivers, though. The slivers exist in tandem with the rest of the world, often overshadowed by it, but they do exist, awaiting discovery by the curious dilettante.
Interestingly, the Situationists actually thought through the idea of pervasive or ambient urban/social detournement, which they (somewhat awkwardly) called “ultra-detournement.” In the same passage, they write, “the need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play.” Is this a need that you have? What needs do you see Nonchalance as being capable of fulfilling?
You always blow my mind with these questions, causing me to deeply reconsider everything I’m doing. The reference kind of evokes “The Crying of Lot 49” in which secret symbols are leading toward an entire social strata hidden right under our noses. I love the concept because it suggests a kind of sleeping giant in our midst. I suppose Nonchalance is gesturing toward that giant, prodding at it’s awakening.
A wise man once said that “[an] emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.” This kind of “emancipation” seems to be a core component of some of your recent projects, most notably Scoop!, which invited players to become reporters for an actual (temporary) FM radio station. Are even your more narrative-heavy projects like The Jejune Institute really just sly ways to get people to narrate and translate their own community?
Yes and no. We certainly enjoy superimposing our own narratives over other more dominant stories, especially on the local scale. It’s very liberating. And within that framework we’ve strongly encouraged user generated content, and experimented with “open source” media programming, such as Scoop and the 01 project.
On the other hand, that user generated content is highly facilitated and curated by us (because we consider ourselves the ultimate arbiters of style and taste in our productions). We give people a creative template to work within. There are a few folks who have run with it, though, and gone completely off the map. I’m calling out Garland Glessner, Carolee Wheeler, and Michael Wertz, founders of the Elsewhere Philatelic Society. It borrows themes from Nonchalance, but it is it’s own unique and beautiful world. That’s a great example of people narrating their own communities.
Is this sort of what you mean by “Situational Design”?
Not exactly. To be honest, what I mean is “Lifestyle Curation”. That is; allow us to creatively direct an afternoon of your life. To offer a real world glimpse of the “what if”, and invite you to experience the world around you in a slightly different, although heavily contrived, way. I’m reclaiming the word “pretension” by the way. It is a positive force in my universe.
Do you feel that social media and screen-mediated forms of community are anathema to the kinds of visceral experiences you’re trying to create? If so, how is this conflict complicated/mitigated as pervasive computing and mobile media blur the boundary between the real and the virtual?
Actually, through conversations at Indiecade we began to develop a vision for a game on a traditional platform that promotes user generated content and real world interaction. That’s a direction I’d like to see video games take, where passivity becomes antiquated. Technology both empowers us and disables us to various degrees. It can support or discourage real world experience. I suppose the Games of Nonchalance represents a certain nostalgia for more sensual forms of expression and interaction. But how did we produce these experiences? How do most people discover them? Through computers.
About the Author
Jeff Watson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on investigating how mobile and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and participation.