RE: [-empyre-] escape Artist

hello Brian. your nocturnal Paris energies sure give us a mouthful to wake up to! Thanks!
The tiger in the cage in the thinking of theatre where I come from raises a whole pride of tigers - real paper intellectual ones - including Diderot, Brecht, Kantor... whose reflections on visibility - or not - of the bars, of the curtains, footlights, artifices of (a) "play" open up a can of worms. But since tigers don't eat worms but rather eaters of the early bird eaters of worms or eaters of the grass the worms help grow I'll not got there.
The whole question of framing whereby different "registers", modalities of being/ experiencing are affirmed is fascinating. "la rampe". brings pressingly to mind that undyingly relevant Scotsman - there are a few of them - Victor Turner. whose discussion of liminal and liminoid phenomena and the means - socially more or less explicitly negotiated - whereby they come about dwells on areas of slippage between religion/ ritual/ theatre and the ebbs and flows of separation - aloofness - and normalisation - integration - that they are subject to and dependent on. In terms that relate to some of the earlier discussion about architecture's "ambient" versus art's "focal" presence/ impact. Turner also discusses the way Puritanism then Calvinism amputated play and make believe activities from the arid work-only-work ethic. Weber hovering in the background. But then of course - and lots of today's "critical" media scholars (Lazzarato et al) have excellently commented on this - (sometimes not so) subtle ways of confounding work and play, play and consumption, have become woven insidiously into life styles featuring role play for team work and management, leisure as a cathartic component of work schemes, exploitable imaginative unleashings via "sandpits" (one of our research councils regularly organises sandpits, but i really can't imagine those guys with a bucket and spade). 
so while suppression of "the "ludic" face of the work-play continuum that had formerly caught up the whole of society into a single process moving through sacred and profane, solemn and festival phases in the seasonal round" has entrained "the entertainment genres of industrial leisure" (Turner), the art world and the "critical" world are left trying to deal with the landslides and erosions left by casual re-engineering (is this the instrumentalisation people are referring to?) of our creative energies. and  politically correct market-driven constructs positing that everybody is creative all the time - anything else being construed as elitism or sectarianism of some kind - perversively (sic) take the vitally critically destabilising sting out of art in our days of "user-generated content". and maybe art's gone somewhere/ become something else. not a problem per se but it is/ would be good to find it.
we built the cage. we hunted the tiger. hubris all the way. so what do we do now? pretend we didn't? play at being surprised by all this? make a living out of trying to make sense of it all like the bunch of hermeneuts we are?  who's really in the cage and who's outside it?  critical spatial practices indeed!
very best from redeemingly momentarily blue geordie skies


From: on behalf of Brian Holmes
Sent: Sat 15/09/2007 2:21 AM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: 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 its  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

empyre forum

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