Category Archives: play

playing with words

In London next week our first if:book:group brings together a small group of people from the worlds of new media, literature, theatre and playground design to discuss Narrative, Interactivity and Play.
New media fiction has been described as writing in colour rather than black and white. It’s a winning description, but they say radio has better pictures than TV, and the same may still be true of a good story in print versus a slow and clunky multimedia experiment with swimming text and sludgy soundtrack. But things are changing fast.
A funky new reader device – like the pinchable, strokeable iPhone perhaps – and, more importantly, a truly riveting, essentially digital masterpiece could quickly bring a mass readership to this kind of literature.
My sister and I have just bought my mother a widescreen tv. Mum felt I was trying to foist a monstrosity on her. Why would she want some huge, ugly screen dominating her sitting room, what was wrong with the (tiny) telly she already owned? After sleepless nights worrying she’d hate it, in the event, her conversion took less than five minutes. A schools’ programme about the Nile won her round. The quality of sound and image is outstanding; instead of getting an illustrated talk about a place, this screen transports her there.
The boundaries between page and screen, inside and outside, imagination and reality are shifting around us. We are fumbling towards new ways to make and publish fictions online. Interaction needs to be more than the multiple choice options for what’s next. Readers want to inhabit a good book, not be pressured into helping to write it. This was a point made by Guy Parsons, one of the team involved in the PerplexCity game, at a seminar on 27th September on the Reader/Writer Mash Up organised by the Reading Agency and Creative Partnerships in London
Earlier that month an ‘Unconference’ at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, raised the question of what skills we need to make and read multi-platform narratives. Are the channel hopping, multi-tasking children of today exhibiting attention deficit or vital skills in transliteracy?
Instead of visiting one site a time, now we go to our screens and mix up for ourselves a cocktail of activity: emailing friends, checking news feeds, googling for information and surfing fpr pleasure, writing our own documents while listening to music, taking a break to watch a youtube or two… This is the wwwreader in creative control.
Snug & Outdoor is a playground design company I work with which has developed a kit of abstract shapes that children themselves can arrange as they wish to reshape the schoolyard into a changing playscape. The Snug Kit, launched this November, has grown out of observation of how children actually play; they don’t enact complete adventures but drop in and out of narrative threads – walk along a wall and you’re escaping across a chasm; clamber up a tree and you’re creeping up on an enemy; enter an enclosed space and it becomes a homestead where imaginary meals are cooked and served.
So if children so effortlessly switch narratives in their play, how come I still get hooked on formulaic TV and film, over and over and over drawn in by the need to find out whodunnit, whether boy gets girl or goody escapes baddy, when we all know what’s bound to happen and have no reason to care if it didn’t? Can we overcome our addiction to conclusions and find more compelling ways to play with those seven core stories of which all fiction is made?
To be continued…

the play’s the thing

In response to Bob’s post on atomisation, Jesse Wilbur talks about how his college-era faith in Great Books seems to have largely given way to the sporadic appreciation of 30-second YouTube snippets.
That started me thinking about the literary canon. All those Great Books. There were huge critical quarrels about their validity, how they came to be great and so on: how bound up its measures of ‘quality’ were with historically-specific class and cultural assumptions. And all that.
Thinking of it as contingent and biased and so on makes it hard to think of the canon with anything like the reverence I felt towards it as a teenager. And yet, you don’t have to be T S Eliot to mourn that reverence, and everything it implied. An agreed-upon body of cultural matter that could (notionally, at least) be shared by all. Cultural cohesion externalised in print form. It’s hard not to find that a seductive idea. Cultural capital, shared frames of reference and implicit association with the elites, all easily communicable to a stranger via a few arch quotations.
And yet, if I know this body of supposedly eternal literature is the product of the collective privilege of a bunch of mostly-heterosexual dead white European males, do I really want a shared body of cultural reference framed by those assumptions? Etc, etc. This is an old debate. The question is very literally academic these days. The literary canon is the hobby of a few; new ‘literary’ books are still produced, but it seems increasingly that we are offered a choice between unacceptable (because obviously stacked in favour of the usual contenders) canonical elitism, ham-fisted revisionism, and deadening lowest-common-denominator populism. Given those options, I for one would rather stick to fooling around on messageboards.
So if the canon is this problematic, either adopted or rejected, then what replaces it? Aimless fooling around on messageboards? This atomised culture in which you cannot ever assume that you have any points of reference in common with anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps ’twas ever thus, and the literary canon was a convenient (body of) fiction papering over the cracks.
But if (and yes, I know this is a big if) the best thing the literary canon did for us was to provide a shared frame of reference for at least some, then are there other ways of achieving the same end? Stultifying elitism, PC revisionism, and drooling populism are all, in different ways, heavily invested in the idea of canon itself, which rests on the assumption that cultural content is produced by others for us to consume. This is a big assumption, and one that Alex Itin , the denizens of YouTube and a zillion other Web fora are busy prodding as we speak. It may be that fooling around on messageboards is not aimless at all.
So what does user-generated content do to enable new shared frames of reference? I’m not convinced that YouTube provides more than, as Jesse says, the occasional giggle, nor am I convinced that the ephemerality of messageboard chat is enough for a culture to chew on. But I think new art forms are beginning to emerge. For example, what I like about Itin’s work is that it moves between online and offline spaces, and involves physical exchanges of objects in real time, between strangers or friends. If (again, this is a big if) the aim of co-creation were to begin to reassemble shared points of reference amid a tundra of media atomisation, then stuff that at least in part actually happens in the physical world is infinitely more powerful than on-screen interaction.
There is huge potential in play, social algorithms, games, creative collaborations and as-yet-undiscovered open-source social codings to enable the creation of shared cultural content that can mitigate media atomisation. Computer games, ARGs and the like are beginning to explore this, but there’s much more to investigate. How might it work in textual form? How do you move between online and offline elements? How can such activity be captured? How archived or communicated? Is there a poetics of social algorithms? I can imagine a future in which the development of social algorithms within which co-creation can fruitfully take place – both on and offline – becomes an art form in its own right. And (perhaps fancifully) I imagine our current state of cultural entropy at least mitigated, if not reversed by such a distributed culture of co-creation.

russian ideas, british delivery

This weekend I watched a performance of Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. It’s pure Stoppard: erudition delivered in a crossfire of dialogue and movement, skipping through time like a smartly thrown stone.
It is the story of young Russian intellectuals—Michael Bakunin, Nickolai Stankevich, Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev—discovering foreign philosophy during the time of Tsar Nicholas I (a particularly conservative government). The young men, driven by Bakunin (played by Ethan Hawke), investigate the philosophies of Kant, Schelling, Goethe, Fichte, and Hegel. Bakunin ferociously pursues each philosopher and sprays his new knowledge at everyone he knows—most significantly his four sisters. By sharing books, writing letters, and expounding during summer visits to the family home he becomes the main vector of change in their lives. This first play is as much about the sisters’ struggle to withstand the shifting currents of MIchael’s idealism as it is about the early days of Russian intellectualism, or the last days of slavery in Russia, or the collision between ideas and reality.
Stoppard weaves these different themes together so deftly you can hardly tell where one ends and another begins. More importantly, it’s difficult to see how you could have one absent the others. The first act of the play is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin family estate, over the course of seven years. A phalanx of ragged bodies is set in the background, behind a sheer scrim representing the serfs. Their presence is constant, menacing, but generally unobtrusive to the Bakunin family, as they go about their own tumults brought on by one thing or another that Michael has done. At times you forget the serfs are there, and then, suddenly, you’ll look up and see the staggered rows of ragged bodies and a sense of foreboding descends.
The second act is set in Moscow, during the same seven years. Stoppard rewinds time to show us how events in the city led to the disruptions at Premukhino. The action in the city is invested with a sense of urgency, where the young men verbally joust as they try to define their latest position with regard to the newest book they’ve read. Moscow is a hotbed of anti-tsarist sentiment and foreign idealism. The political tension is high, the sensation of fear and revolt bubbles just below the surface. But Moscow is also an incubator for love, and it is there we witness the first real contact between humans, not just the meeting of like minds.
The play is a tour of European philosophy in the 1800’s, and it is highly ambitious (something you could say about any 9-hour trilogy, I suppose). But it is, nevertheless, gripping stuff. Billy Crudup does an amazing turn as Belinsky, completely inhabiting the character and committing to the moment. Ethan Hawke was fine as Bakunin, though his insouciance had a Reality Bites mopiness that seemed out of place in a young man who was struggling to bring Mother Russia into the modern era. The performance in the second act was more balanced and more powerful.
Prior to seeing the play I was concerned that the first act of a trilogy would have a sense of being open in the way a cliffhanger is open. I was watching it with two visitors from out of town, and it is unlikely they’ll be able to return to see Shipwrecked or Salvage. I didn’t want them to leave with a sense of the work being unfinished. While the action is indeed open-ended, there is a very strong sense of closure at the end of the second act. It is more portentous than unfinished: there is war and exile and a nobleman at the end of his life, contemplating the loss of his son and the dissolution of his estate. It is a nod to the great Russian novels, but with the unfussy delivery that I recognize from other Stoppard plays.
One of the things I kept noticing during the performance was the presence of books. When Stankevich passed a book to Bakunin, I felt the transfer of knowledge. The play expresses ideal of what we think about at the Institute: books as vehicles for big ideas. There is a treatise waiting to be written about the view of literature defining a nation (explosively presented in a monologue from Belinsky). And there is, throughout, a very powerful sense that the printed word is vastly important. But there is also that sense of impending loss, which makes us question where we are today. Do we live in a world where idealism is lost, and where the gilt-edged books filled with new philosophies are no longer valued? Or is it the opposite? Do we live in a world where the book is doing better than ever, and idealism takes so many forms that it is unrecognizable?