Monday, 31 October 2011

8 Realities in One Day....

I have experienced a lot of different 'realities' in my time via my experiences in Central America (and NZ) with sorcerers and shamans, through meditating at sacred and haunted sites around the world, from attending (and running) consciousness shifting workshops, plus other less publishable stuff. Lets just say it's been a interesting life.

However it was in humble old Auckland that I had one of my most interesting experiences - an encounter with 8 different realities in one day.

 Several weeks ago I gave the unit's talented first year BCT students (located in Interdisciplinary Unit of AUT University's Faculty of Art and Design.) the the task of creating an alternate reality that travelled across physical and digital space - essentially a transmedia narrative/game.  The result was a intriguing mix of worlds filled with wonder, paranoia, uncertainty and excitement. The sample 'run-through' of each reality lasted 30 minutes, although the realities would normally run for much longer and be enacted on a much larger scale. I was assisted on the day by my colleague Gabriel Teo and Roy Davies an Augmented Reality expert. In this blog I want to highlight the skill of the students involved and give you a taste of each of their games....

For our first reality were were catapulted into a world hyper-surveillance. In this world, the Urawera Anti-Terror Raids led to killings by the authorities BCT students were mysteriously missing after discovering this dark secret. In the beginning a detective came into our office to quiz us on student movements.  My interrogation was then interrupted by a dramatic phone call by one of the students to tell us they were being hunted. From there we were led to a secret folder containing an intriguing mix of 'real' news articles and those that were 'created'. This play on authenticity and truth invited us to reflect on our assumed trust in media and authorities and was a key success point of the creation of this reality.

The next experience took us into the past, and the life of a master perfumer (inspired by the movie 'Perfume'). Our job was to fulfill his last wish and put together the ultimate perfume. By using symbols revealed in his mysterious journal- the top, base and middle notes of the perfume were tracked across the building (aided by music and scent trails) and eventually brought to the perfume maker for integration.

The multi-sensory aspect was unique and very successful part of this project but at a certain point the smells became overwhelming. At one point, by unhappy coincidence, a woman entered our lift and sprayed deodorant all over herself as the doors closed. We almost collapsed. This was a really fun reality to experience that left a mark on us and our cloths for the rest of the day.

After leaving this sensorial, old world reality, the next world we encountered was extremely hi-tech. Disturbingly so. After being delivered a phone via courier, we were fed information via Twitter which sent us to various areas of the building. QR codes fed information to us to show us that our world was being targeted by a group intent on stealing our reality, killing humanity and selling our world to interdimensional tourists (nice). Adverts were leaked to us showing how our (empty) world was marketed to potential interdimensional immigrants and footage also sent of damage done to other realities in the action of stealing them). Other video elements added to the intrigue. The technical quality of the artifacts (including original music composition in the videos and some great special effects), and the use of live interactive feed were major areas of success for this student group.

After a short break to compose ourselves we were told to report to the Headquarters of The Regulation (I had been sent an identity form the night before which I was required to present on arrival- see photo right). Bodyguards dressed in black greeted me and my colleagues at the door and we were taken into a disturbingly dark room where our personal items were removed and an introductory video shown to us informing us of 'The Rules'.We were then given MP3/pods and headphones and taken on a tour of the streets surrounding the building. The audio track walked us through a tour of a dystopian Auckland city where well known buildings such as the Town Hall become centres of oppression and re-education.  As we passed the Auckland Library the audio was interrupted by an insurgent broadcast by The Adjustment and a member of this organisation (one of the students) started running and screaming at us.
The bodyguards (who were trailing us) grabbed the intruder and forcibly removed him. We were then rushed back inside to learn that we were being tested on our obediance and loyalty and that only one of us (not me) had passed. The immersive audio in this experience, the attention to live production elements like the many extras that were brought in to pepper the space in fore and background, and the cohesion of the materials used made this a very unsettling, professionally executed experience.

The next reality provided light, joyful relief. It was based around childhood realities where robots could speak and magical tea-parties spontaneously appeared at the bottom of your garden. To enter this reality we crawled through a cardboard tunnel, opened a treasure box and extracted a giant talking cardboard robot from underneath a pile of boxes. The computer generated voice of the robot ( 'Jimbot') gave us a map, explained we were to use it and then invited us on walk out of the building and down the streets (much to the amusement of the passers by). After we left Jimbot floundering on steep hill we came upon The Wild Boys dancing around in grass skirts.

Wooden Puzzle QR Code
They showed us how to pop some nearby balloons with wooden weapons, and inside we found wooden soldered QR code puzzle 'blocks'. After assembling these together and photographing the resulting QR code we followed the clue to an orange flowered garden where a mad tea party was taking place. After making us perform a series of odd tasks the bizarrely believable mad Alice character spilled tea all over the tablecloth to reveal our next clue. From there we encountered a disturbing flasher who temped us with a chocolate bar on a fishing line and finally, of course, Santa Clause who gave us a magical present. This realities success came from the authenticity and innovation shown in each childhood reality and the commitment of each actor/student in to their respective roles

Next up was a morality quest based on spiritual virtues and slightly more esoteric theme.The group created a mysterious group called G.U.R.U/ (Guidance under the Rule of the Universe -a group of enlightened beings) who assisted us to move through a series of 'trials' overlaid on a map
in order to find pieces of parchment that, when pieced together, reveal previously hidden truths.
Beginning with a mysterious email with a link to the website and a map that can be downloaded, the game starts  in earnest when a stranger hands a package to the player, containing instructions, the transparent map overlay, and a camera. When the map and overlay are placed together, they reveal the locations of the tasks ahead. The tasks themselves were technically and creatively very interesting, and it definitely felt as if different aspects of ourselves were being tested which was the point of the game. They were: a wiki race with 'Plato' as the end point and 'knot' as the beginning (try this yourself!); a puzzle testing patience; a very tricky memory test involving a programmed machine and projector that punched out combinations of colours and numbers (and almost did me in); and a knotted box that tested perseverance (which we cheated on by tearing the knot off as a whole from the side of the box). I probably failed the existential tests but felt as if there were some great areas of learning in a short space of time with some interesting themes and ideas behind the tasks.

We entered our next reality via a screaming madman running into our studio. As he is was carted off by goons he dropped a piece of paper covered with crazed scrawls that led us into a reality that is the real history of what occurred after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in nuclear devastation. A scrawl on the paper led us to a blog which tasked us with reuniting him with material he has lost. This material exposes a dark secret involving human experimentation and layers of lies. Along the way, were given the moral choice of turning him into the authorities but we voted to help him (good liberals that we are).

The acting was very well done in this reality, as was the attention to research detail, and resulting authenticity, of the alternate history story. Interestingly there is a whole genre of alternate history writing and gaming - including a great forum for anyone interested in this work.

In our final reality walk-through, a (fake) gunshot in another part of the studio led us to a murder scene and a reality involving a terrorist bomb plot against NZ government who have sent troops to a secret war  now raging in Pakistan. This reality successfully located the ARG in a physical scene or installation - a sort of home base where we returned over and over again to to find new clues and piece together what was really going on. There was some nice programming involved to find hidden clues using photo scanning technology and also for the sophisticated cracking of the bombs code. A very effectively (newly) sub-titled Osama Bin-Laden video (which I didn't allow them to make public on YouTube!) was one of the highlights adding a disturbingly authentic element to the overall experience.

At the end of the day I felt ontologically fried, but quite a few learning points had emerged: how best to manage 'live'feeds (e.g twitter, texts) when the signal can be patchy; how to build 'cohesive' and immersive realities when you don't have complete control over the spaces involved; how to work safely when dealing with the innocent public?; how to build atmosphere over a period of time; how to create truly authentic artifacts on a limited (no) budget. Lots of good stuff to work with if we run this project again, or the student's want to take the work further individually next year.

I notice that I now view the streets surrounding the building differently. Playful and disturbing memories are now overlaid on what were tired or overlooked physical spaces. The landscape in and around our building is now littered with the energies of strange mix of imaginal worlds. This layering of realities is the focus of my PHD project and this project, thanks to the great work of the students, has helped me really see the potential of this material to change the way we engage with our landscapes and create learning experiences within diverse communities.

Comments and questions welcome.....

[All photos and visual works in this blog were kindly provided by the students. Please do not reproduce without permission. If you want more information, or to contact the students directly, please let me know and I will forward the information to them]

PS: In the days before and after the game I became a little paranoid not knowing what was coming at me next. For example a court bailiff left a officious calling card in my front door and I wondered if the students had found my address and sent this as part of one of their realities. After ringing the Ministry of Justice I found out it was a case of mistaken identity. Someone else's dark reality.

1 comment:

Angelo Vermeulen said...

Wonderfully interesting post! I actually love all of these projects. Really creative experiments trying to generate hybrid worlds. Wish I could've experienced the blending of AR, social media, storytelling, and performance myself. Will forward this to my own students in Belgium and the Philippines. They might come up with their own stories.