Re: [-empyre-] escape Artist

Greetings everyone -

I'd like to say with appreciation and pleasure that this thread on "Escape Artist", and the one on "Critical Spatial Practices" from which it emerged, have been remarkably interesting. Thanks to all those who have contributed. There are too many things to talk about in all the points that have been raised, but what roped me in, beyond the initial draw of a little insight into Ryan's and Kevin's work, was the discussion of "criticality."

Now, that's one of those words which to me is very strange - an American word I don't remember from my youth not so awfully long ago, but that everyone in art circles seems to use these days, kind of like when you go back to your home town and there was a little library or bookstore or cafe which used to be called "criticism" or "critique" or whatever, and now in that same place which doesn't look the same at all anymore there is a huge mirror-glass skyscraper with elevators and escalators and people rushing around talking about how great (or how tasty, or how smart or how appealing) the "criticality" is. Well, you can't go back home I guess, so let's talk about criticality. What is it good for? Is it good for anything at all? Isn't it radical change we want, direct action, or maybe, from some other perspective, just a little real honest fun once in a while?

Pursuing that question I came upon Hugh Davies' post, and from there I followed a link to something downright impressive and interesting, which is Jane McGonigal's article on "Real Little Games." Thanks for that, Hugh. It can be found right here:

Jane McGonical has written an article which is full of things I know even less about than "criticality," namely, long and informed descriptions of an immersive game called "The Beast" which sounds intriguing to say the least, when it's a matter of people running around and even between cities with missions to carry out this or that arbitrary action in mysterious circumstances populated (or not) by noncommittal accomplices who are actually "plants," or actors hired by the corporation or PR firm behind the game which no one wants to know too much about, because the whole thing is too much fun to be ruined by the details. And it sounds pretty fun! But not only that, Jane McDonigal also provides a great discussion of the whole phenomenon of games as such, and above all of belief in games, with a key distinction borrowed from the performance theorist Richard Schechner: "In make-believe games, he suggests, players pretend to believe; in make-belief games, players willfully 'forget' or deny their own performance and thereby enable themselves to believe for real." McDonigal herself wants to displace the accent a little, and this is where it gets so interesting: "I want to resist this emphasis on the degree to which players are conscious of their performance, as if this self-awareness were a kind of psychological safety net always in danger of falling (or being intentionally tossed) away. I propose, instead, that the frame of representational play remains visible and sturdy to players in even the most believable performances of belief... Instead of asking to what extent players come to believe in the fictions they perform, we should ask: To what ends, and through what mechanisms, do players pretend to believe their own performances?"

I find the whole question great, and it's hard to resist McDonigal's discussions of the overwhelming desire that one can feel to believe in the vital interest of games whose fictional "frame" is nonetheless totally evident and acknowledged. After all, art is clearly part of life, and one of the best parts, even though itÅ fictional; good art makes life a lot more worth living, and certainly I myself have accepted letting many waking hours and even years go by immersed in a novel like Don Quixote, which in its time was considered totally immersive and which, in its second volume, even staged scenes of characters being caught up in the game of novel's own fictions (the Duke and the Duchhess, for example, who have such a great time playing games with poor old deluded Don Quixote). Already in the 17th century, the paradoxical relation between the distancing critical frame and the beckoning fictional life is pushed to a paradigmatic extreme that has been fundamental to western culture ever since; and so I find fresh considerations of the whole problematic to be eminently worth reading. If you're crazy enough to believe, for example, that ten thousand people can go out into the streets and hold up their hands to STOP CAPITALISM NOW (and I have been crazy enough to do that) then you've gotta know that the fictions of art, of which you are totally conscious, really do have an incredible importance in real life, with consequences too--something that came home to me very early one morning in the city of Prague when I watched people around me, really just right there at arm's length, being arested by some very sinister-looking plainclothesed police for having demonstrated their willingness to make believe in those selfsame idealistic fictions. So the question, then, is exactly the one that McDonigal poses, namely, "To what ends, and through what mechanisms, do players pretend to believe their own performances?"

What seems to me on the contrary very much less interesting in McDonigal's piece is that even after quoting Gregory Bateson she doesn't seem to acknowledge that the very conventions of behavior which make up so-called "real" society in all its multiple factions and aspects have something about them of this "fictional" quality, and that our adherence to them is inevitably colored by the degrees to which we pretend to believe in them, and therefore, by how we we play the game. After all, "game theory" was _the_ great cultural and diplomatic trope of the USA and its ruling elites just a generation ago, as Bateson among others knew so well. Because of this missing consideration, there ends up being something very puerile in the discovery McDonigal makes, namely, that through pervasive gaming scenarios like "The Beast" people manage to create for themselves "a real little game," or in other words, something which they do indeed find real and important. To me, however, what finally seems "perversive" (her own slip of the tongue) about these self-consciously pervasive games is how their very triviality crowds out any reflection on all the other games one is pretending to believe in. The involuntary paradox of believing in a little reality and ignoring a big one comes out most clearly in the otherwise extremely clever use she makes of an idea by someone called Apter, whom she brings up in a conversation with Elan Lee, the "puppetmaster" who organized the pervasive fiction of The Beast: "Michael J. Apter, a psychologist who studies adult play, proposes that pleasure in play is dependent upon a sturdy 'protective frame' around a perceived challenge. According to Apter, this frame assures the player that real world problems cannot intrude on play and that the game will have no real world consequences or effects. A kind of guarantee in the vein of Bateson's metacommunications ('Don't worry, this is only play'), it allows players to enjoy what would in everyday life be experienced as painfully frustrating or disturbingly risky. Apter uses a three-part analogy involving a crowd, a tiger and a cage to make his point, an analogy that I find quite relevant to immersive game design. An empty cage, Apter suggests, will produce boredom in a crowd of spectators; a tiger without a cage will produce anxiety; and a tiger in a cage will produce a pleasurable excitement. This pleasure, for Apter, represents the safe arousal we experience during play."

As someone who writes, I find it really cool to come up with this metaphor of tiger-and-cage, concerning a game called "The Beast." On the other hand, as someone who hails from that land called America, and who lives in that land called global-capitalism-at-war, I find it spooky to be talking about enjoying a game that is all about trusting in the robustness of a cage. The spooky feeling grows a lot more intense when McDonigal reports the exchange she had with Lee about all this: "I offered my own interpretation: that perhaps the central goal of successful immersive game design is to communicate to players that a cage is in place, while making it as easy and likely as possible for the players to pretend that they don't see the cage. In other words, I suggested, give the audience a tiger, build a sturdy and always visible cage, but give the crowd both the means and the incentive to say, 'What cage? I don't see a cage' even as the spectators are oohing and aahing over the cage's lovely gilt design and breathtaking size. This slight twist on Apter's analogy resonated deeply for Lee. 'It's a really beautiful way of describing many of the thoughts I've had for such a long time,' he said, vowing to keep it in mind during future projects [personal correspondence]. The key to immersive design, we agreed, is to realize that the clear visibility of the puppetmasters' work behind the curtain does not lessen the players' enjoyment."

I have not read "Foucault's Pendulum," by Umberto Eco, which McDonigal says is an exemplary meditation on this whole business of being caught up in the games you play. However, I have read Borges' story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", upon which Eco's novel is apparently based. Borges tells of a forty-volume encyclopedia, written by a team of specialists gathered around a cynical American millionaire. The encyclopedia describes in exacting and totalizing detail the civilization of Tlon in the land of Uqbar on Orbis Tertius. It is discovered in, of all places, Nashville (a media town, you see), and it provokes such a huge enthusiasm that pretty soon, everyone takes it as the very reference of reality itself. As Borges relates quite acidly: "Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re-editions and pirated editions of the Greatest Work of Man flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order - dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism - was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlon, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?"

The function of pretending to believe in the work of a puppetmaster whose cage is on display for everyone to see but which nonetheless remains conventionally invisible and inaudible in playful conversation seems to me to be one that I would treat with a little more respect and even, dare I say, "criticality." Some of you may think that I exaggerate to bring this up right now (after all, there is no beast, there is no cage) but Adorno's interpretation of the way that people pretended to believe in Hitlerian fascism jibes quite strikingly with the Borgesian parable, and indeed with McDonigal's own formulations. On the concluding page of his text "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda," Adorno writes this: "The category of 'phoniness' applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader's performance. It is through this performance that they strike a balance between their continuously mobilized instinctual urges and the historical stage of enlightenment they have reached, and which cannot be revoked arbitrarily."

The willingness of Americans to indulge themselves in social games right now is very impressive and a little sinister to me, and I find myself dismayed that "criticality" is apparently not just relegated like a discarded crumb to people teaching art, but also considered somehow outdated and useless among those people, at the very moment when the modes of adherence to the most pervasive and, for that matter, "perversive" social games is exactly what should be discussed by anyone speaking in public about what public behavior is, can be, and ought to be. There is a real question about what kinds of games we are playing, who the puppetmasters are, what the modes of engagement are and where it's all leading. In light of that, McDonigal's satisfaction with what the Surrealists used to call "le peu de reel" seems to me kind of sad and foolish and typical of what's happening everywhere you look. The point came home to me while I was writing my article, "Disconnecting the Dots of the Research Triangle", which has to do with the means and ends of university research in a very densely institutionalized corner of North Carolina. What struck my eyes when I visited the place was the process of flexibilization, corporatization and militarization that proceeds apace, without anyone really knowing what to do about it or even noticing it, for that matter. Wishing to be clever and find the little tag line, the little metaphor that would somehow clinch this perception in order to finish my article like a good boy who wants to play the article-writing game, you know, in order to perform the whole thing cleverly and seductively on stage in Amsterdam, I googled around a little and what did I find but some news from our old friend DARPA which is so active wherever there are creative minds at work. They wanted to unleash a tiger somewhere far away, and in supreme confidence that everyone would trust in the robustness of the glittering gilt cage which, in effect, looks very believable and eternal on those well-endowed campuses, they set up something called the DARPA URBAN CHALLENGE, which is a beautiful pervasive game for any engineering department, corporate lab or even garage-kit hobbyist. It involves building a car that can navigate on autopilot through a crowded urban environment, and by golly, Americans by the hundreds and thousands, including a few on one of the Research Triangle campuses, are finding a lot of pleasure in making those little tigers and racing them in perfect safety, to the copious oohing and aaahing of crowds, out in the bountiful deserts of which there are so many in our fair land. The vehicles, when perfected thanks to this crowd-sourced ingenuity, will be robotic tanks, armed with death-dealing weapons, that will be sent into cities like Baghdad to subdue the local populations without any of our boys and girls having to be hurt, or any opposition arising among the voters, or anyone having to be distracted from playing The Beast in the lovely cities of the homeland. The balance struck between the historical stage of enlightenment and the historical stage of barbarity is extraordinary. Or rather it's all too ordinary today.

Criticality as an inherited formalism that gains you brownie points in somebody's abstract book of virtues might not be worth very much. But any kind of critical artistic practice that touches another person in their intimate perception of the qualities of belief and make-belief that bind them to the social space which they inhabit seems to me worth exploring, deepening and extending in times like these. The place inside, where you decide to perform your disbelief and your little reality, makes the space that you and others will live in.

all the best, Brian

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