Saturday 18 September 2010

The Challenge of Conventions

I'm winded by that last post, so this one is now a series of bullet-points that I hope to expand upon later.

This is a post that Annette Mees, one of my fellow co-directors in Coney, asked of me towards the upcoming pilot of Art Heist.

Flow Theory was reverse-engineered by Cziksentmihalyi from the question 'what are you doing now and how happy are you doing it'.

If you picture a graph with the challenge presented by your activity along one axis and the skills you have to meet that challenge against the other axis, then the sweet spot of flow is where the challenge slightly exceeds your skills, but where you can stretch yourself (or if you go via Vygotsky, stretch yourself with peers) to meet that challenge.

Aside: when you are in flow, there's often reported a sense of losing track of time.

On an Artist-Teacher Exchange Scheme at BAC, two educational psychologists recommended a teaching approach to give a group of kids a challenge, look to see if they are smiling in their eyes, if they are then they are in flow, leave them, if not, then adjust the difficulty of the challenge until they are.

Cziksentmihalyi shows an expansion of the array of emotions that are typically felt in the various imbalances of challenge and skill.

So far, now this.

I think we can really usefully characterise as a challenge the experience of an audience from the conventions of a piece of art. They have varying skill for interpreting those conventions, contingent on their previous experience and understanding.

Challenge versus skill. Flowing around flow.

It's also a challenge to an audience to experience a story, which by continually provoking the implicit question 'what happens next' is challenging them to answer that in mind.

How perhaps the brilliant maxim of Improbable after Keith Johnstone - what we most want to happen next is what we didn't know we were expecting all along - is a reflection of being in the sweet spot of flow in the challenge of what happens next.

Look back at that graph of emotions. Think about yourself and the conventions of the art, story, music, play that you engage with in different circumstances and moods. And how you respond. That difficult play. The book you take for the beach. The game you play to unwind. Remember the last time you watched a film and time just flew by.

But your skill is not fixed. You learn, pretty quickly. A piece of work challenging with new conventions may be more widely appreciated if it itself helps its audience learn and master those new conventions as it unfolds.



Attribution theory. It's about how and where you attribute the cause of a situation/phenomenon. Crudely speaking, there's a difference between the default locus of attribution in being a participant and a spectator. A participant will tend to attribute to the situation. A footballer slips and misses a penalty and they'll blame the pitch. A spectator will tend to attribute personally: what a rubbish player. It's usually more complicated, but certainly you'd be a fool as a spectator to attribute personally based on one viewing only of that player.

Faced with art challenging beyond their experience, a conventional critic has to resist the temptation to attribute to the artist labels like wilful, self-indulgent etc. If they are to be a useful critic.

Addendum explaining (but not excusing) the existence of Christopher Hart at the Sunday Times.

Papa Bound Conventions

I spoke last week at the Media Arts Festival at the Roundhouse, on a panel on games chaired by Clare Reddington chair of the Pervasive Media Studio, alongside Margaret Robertson all-round game-egg of Hide & Seek, and Alice Taylor fab digital-game-commissioner for C4 Education, a splendid line-up to be asked into.

I spoke on Papa Sangre, a game I'm making for the iPhone alongside a brillliant array of collaborators. It's a game-(under)world that is rendered primarily in sound and music, so I got to ask the audience if they wanted to see a screenshot: just to close their eyes. The panel is online here, video 12 (you don't have to, even if you are my mum, this is just for my reference).

And now to digress, a lot.

Papa Sangre was commissioned by 4IP as a game that could be played by the visually-impaired as well as the sighted. Constraint being the mother of invention. Or in this case, the mother of incorporation.

The seed for Papa Sangre is a live game called Sangre y Patatas based itself on Blood and Potatoes, a game I'd run in theatre rooms for years. It's a game of stealth and cunning to avoid a bloody loud death, played with eyes closed. And I ran it for the usual reasons, general warm-up of brains and bodies, punctuate work with a shot of fun, etc. But also occasionally adapting it rapidly and iteratively to more interesting purpose, the game becoming an engine of exploration.

Here's another digression as an example of how. The very first show I directed professionally was The Bound Man at BAC in 1998, although it had started as a student production. To give due credit, it was a dark fairy-tale adapted previously into a performance text by Andrew Prichard from a short story by Ilse Aichinger; we'd then devised from that text. The text was itself a story conjured and told by two severed heads. A man wakes up in a forest to find himself bound head to toe in rope and before he can escape, is taken into a circus where he becomes the star act. The circus becomes jealous and the bound man is forced to face a wolf, and it ends - well, it just ends back with the severed heads frustrated in the darkness.

So there's a wolf. Played by a person, not (necessarily) on all fours, not in a furry costume, but just a person... who is transformed through a system of sense-movement adaptation to play like a wolf. This system had been devised by choreographer Alex New but it was not choreography to block a sequence of actions, rather a process to transform the weighting of your senses in play so you can't help but act as wolf. You don't even have to be a dancer. Alex was frighteningly and ineffably so, but an injury he'd picked up meant I had to take over for the first performances in college, and anyone who knows me knows how I dance... and even I could get by. It's incredible to play, without thinking you are acting like an animal. If you want to know any more, you'll have to find me and buy me a drink.

when it came to BAC, we cast the fittingly-named Dan Synge (say it aloud) as wolf, and he, Alex, myself and others from the company spent long sessions in a basement playing Blood and Potatoes, and rapidly evolving the game and plugging into it what we knew of playing wolf, to help discover more. One session ended up in pitch darkness, piles of chairs around the room to become a landscape of noisy hazard and refuge, one of us as wolf pursuing the others relentlessly. And then discovering that if counter-intuitively we added a tiny amount of light - one bar of an electric fire to be precise - then the glow it cast became a dangerous corridor we'd literally scamper across to avoid being caught. Dan's learning as wolf was shaped by the properties and constraints at play (and it was the most brilliant fun).

It's interesting watching people playtest Papa Sangre because even though movement in this case means walking with your thumbs, step by step, the immersion of the binaural sound all around you means that you feel like you're in that world, and your body starts to respond, scrunching in fear when you 'step' on something crunchy like bones exactly like real people playing Sangre y Patatas and stepping into a pile of tortilla chips. The experience is intensely present-tense, not least because you can't as easily conjure a map of a pitch-dark space to remember where you are.

This post is fast becoming a series of tangential digressions.

A lot of play is best kept plastic in form as it develops, until you find the shape, constraints, conventions of play that fit precisely what you need. Experimental isn't a euphemism for non-conventional, or even indulgent or weird, but a reflection of this process of iterative innovation. Conventional similarly doesn't mean boring or stuffy, but literally using conventions that are already generally understood by audiences which are sometimes therefore the most fit for purpose.

Nor is there only one set of conventions that are conventional. For instance - and this is not a dig at them - Punchdrunk are forever called experimental in mainstream press, but more often they use conventions established for what could be called their own conventional work; experimental here really just means a different set of conventions.

Back to the panel. Clare had asked us to ask a question directly for the audience and I ended up with a (relatively tame) provocation based on all the above: there is no inherent superiority in medium, genre or convention.

The challenge is to resist a properly conservative attitude which can become dangerously habitual for the risk-averse, that only the kind of work that you already know how to make is any good. The danger in these conservative times, with an uncertain funding landscape, is the temptation to play safe without an edge of experimentation. You'll end up stiff. Looking at you, broadcasters, in every medium.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Make Believe by Jimmy Stewart

I was asked along to deliver a 5-minute provocation to Wonderlab today, and posting the essay here by request.


Hello, I’m Tassos Stevens. I’m a co-director and runner of Coney, an agency making play where it’s all about you, founded on principles of adventure, loveliness and reciprocity, amongst others.

But I am not here to talk about that. Actually I’ve brought along something to read by somebody else. There’s this writer I know called Jimmy Stewart – yep, just like but obviously not the Jimmy Stewart – and there’s a short essay of his that I’ve brought along. It does read a bit like an incomplete manifesto, but if he were here, he wouldn’t apologise for that. He’s at least half-Martian which makes his perspective somewhat alien and his language occasionally rather dense. But that’s probably why I like it.

So this is…

Make Believe by Jimmy Stewart

Play is make believe at the double. I look at something and I first see what it is, or at least what I believe it is, be it Simon Russell Beale, a banana, February 14th. But then I make believe what if that what is were something else: Hamlet, a revolver, the feast of St Valentine. What if. What is. We're playful when we hold two spheres of belief in our brains overlapping. Humans are really good at it. There’s facility especially when it's conventional, meaning we are practiced at it, or if we are in a collection of other human-people simultaneously doing that same juggle of spheres. But it’s most inspirational when we discover it ourselves together.

The distance between these two spheres of what if and what is, it's a dynamic space, sparking like the electrical storm of Van der Graaf. Sometimes so close the spheres are almost touching, sometimes miles apart, but the meaning of play is found across that distance. Still what if is only charged if it is grounded and connected to what is. There’s no chance of transformation otherwise.

Play is a live, fluxing reinvention, ever negotiated, always In Play. You can't make me believe anything unless I want to believe. I don't want to play by your rules, says the stubborn kid who is sometimes the very best of us. And it matters then in this negotiation whose rules, who is telling that stubborn kid what if, and even who is paying them to do so.

But the best play doesn't tell you how to act, play invites you to imagine what if and - if then - what do you want to do about it. It's a principled belief that creates an action-space, where the agent of play is you.

Peter Brook was a theatre director and once asked what it is for an actor to exit pursued by a bear. I see a bear, I feel fear, I run. I see a bear, I run, I feel fear. Two pursuits. Brook argues that they are equivalent, and it only depends on the actor and the director together which suits them best. Too true. But if you want an actor with agency, better to be governed by a principle than ordered into action.

Game arises from play. A ruleset crystallises a set of actions distilled from an experience of play. That crystal can be popped in your pocket to be played with again and again, any time, any place, with anyone entranced by its sparkle. It gets chipped and scratched, then rubbed and polished. It becomes a lens that focuses action in time and space and for one brief encounter let’s us act as if we lived in a simpler world, the kind of world that can be described in a ruleset. But the very best thing about it is that if we want to, we can smash it up and grind it into paste to make believe anew. Even if let alone, its inherent ephemerality will let it pass; like a playful version of the second law of thermodynamics, people stop playing attention and soon the game dissolves into flux. It’s the playful spirit of the game that’s more important than the letter of the rules.

Which is as it should be. Jane McGonigal says reality is broken and let’s fix it with game, a whiff of formalin in the air. Her lens on the world is rather monocular, fundamentalist in the proper sense of the word. It rarely admits failure and dreams of a superhumanity. But I think I can do no better than make play with people, and forcing them into one game they don’t want to play is like trying to choreograph butterflies.

Try to be a theatre director of any scene of people in play and you discover many games tumbling out at once - games of status, of desire, of curiosity, of connection, and of greed, of all the sins and of all the virtues – plus hope – and as an actor here you can’t stop still, moment by moment a different game crackles into life. And in reality, these games are all being played all at once: by different people at different times in different places, interrupting and overlapping. If you look at the crystalline complexity of reality through a monocle, no wonder it looks broken.

Reality is broken. To which the only true playful response is: Yes And. A cascade of Yes Ands, with the odd Yes But, an occasional No Thank You, one step at a time.

Actually it’s where reality breaks that matters. Where one game breaks down and you choose to start playing another. Or simply because someone else asks you to play nicer for them. Augusto Boal was another theatre director who never stopped playing what if with reality, again and again, until it broke and then he asked the audience if they had a better idea and if they wanted to get up and do it.

As a society, as individuals, it’s how we respond to fail more than to epic win that matters. It’s in fail that we find the dimensions of our capacity for resilience: connectedness, the ability to be stretched, our very own agency, powered by accurate reflection of what is with still space to dream what if.


That’s as far as Jimmy got. Slight hyperbole there at the end, sorry about that.

And, by uncanny coincidence, that’s all I’ve got too. Thanks.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Horses for Courses

This is a placeholder for a full post I should write about different digital platforms and how and why people use them.

This arising from a discussion on Twitter with @ellinson and @matttrueman (and I am @tassosstevens)

Monday 7 June 2010


The most famous sequence of numbers in pi is the Feynman Point which comprises the 762nd through 767th decimal places of pi '...999999'. It is named after the physicist Richard Feynman for his remark that he would like to memorise the digits of pi as far as that point; when reciting them, he would be able to finish with '...nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, and so on'.

The Feynman Point is visually very beautiful to me; I see it as a deep, thick rim of dark blue light.

Daniel Tammett, person with synaesthesia and autism, quoted in The Frog Who Croaked Blue by Jamie Ward. Fascinating reading for a current project.

I find Tammett's visualisation incredibly evocative. I suspect this is the test that confirms me as geek.

Friday 21 May 2010


It's the World Cup. And maybe no better place outside South Africa to watch it than London, where every nation of the world lives somewhere, and so it's always possible to find that somewhere showing any game to the people who really give a shit about the result.

Some of my most memorable ball-watching experiences have been thus - an Italian bar in Soho erupting as they stole the game from Nigeria in World Cup '94, the entire population of Palmers Green dancing through the streets as Greece muscled Euro '04, a bar in Stokey bursting into Polish hymns as they lost to Germany in Euro '08.

I'd like to get a bit better organised this time. So please post as comments here or tweet with #worldcuplondon any suggestions for good places for finding people watching...

Côte d'Ivoire
Korea DPR
Korea Republic
New Zealand
South Africa
United States

Sunday 2 May 2010


I flew east from London on Thursday afternoon.

The plane looped north of Iceland to avoid any ash 15000 feet beneath, then over northern Greenland, waves of brilliant white slashed by black rock, this view North.

It then swept over Canada and down the Rockies before bumping down into Los Angeles on Thursday evening, just as the sun was setting.

A couple of hours in a transit room and we took off again out over the Pacific, cutting a south-east diagonal across the ocean. No land bar tiny islands invisible against the black sea, but rolling clouds lit silver by a full moon, and above an inky sky filled with stars I couldn't recognise.

I tried to take a photo but all that exposed was the blink of a red light against the engine.

Better to imagine this view South as the negative of view North.

We crossed the Date Line and landed in Auckland before dawn on Saturday morning. Friday was removed by view South.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Please come to the Opera House, Langtry

Out in Texas on a road-trip, I drove west as far as Langtry, as far as I dared before I had to turn again to reach Austin in time. It was a dot on the map next to the Rio Grande. And when I got there, here's what I found.

At the end of the 19th century, Langtry was ruled by Judge Roy Bean. 'I am the law west of the Pecos River', declared Judge Bean to the rest of the USA. His courthouse doubled as the saloon bar, dispensing hooch and justice. When the US banned a heavyweight boxing match, Judge Bean stepped in and hosted the bout in Mexico, literally yards over the border on a sand-bed. He made money and a name for himself, cock-snooker.

There's a story about how the town came to be called Langtry. This story may not be true, but I want it to be so and that's more important.

It had been called Vinegaroon, after a scorpion-like creature called the Vinegaroon, that when startled does not have a sting in its tail but rather squirts a cloud of vinegar at its attacker. Handy if you're making salad dressing.

Judge Bean changed the name to Langtry because he was obsessed with English music-hall star Lillie Langtry. Certainly, he hung her photo over the bar. He probably dreamt of her. He christened his house the Opera House so this cock-snooker west of the Pecos River could write to invite her to the Opera House, Langtry.

Lillie Langtry did visit the town that was her namesake.

But not until a year after Judge Bean had died.



The Opera House

Lillie above the bar

Police Gazette report on the bout

Old house

Rio Grande

Sunday 11 April 2010

Time, it's a funny thing

I did a Peachy Coochy - the live art world's version of Pecha Kucha - on request of Tipping Point last summer as part of a night of reflections on climate change. A friend just requested I share words and pictures, so all follow.


I've never done a Peachy Coochy before. I was invited a week ago to do this one. I did a first burst of writing for it last Friday. Then procrastinated. And most of these slides I made this afternoon. Pretty much at the last minute. Then timed how many words I can speak in 20 seconds. Near enough.

What do you worry about? Recently I was researching happiness and wellbeing in teenagers. Some of that research was just asking them straightforward focus group stylee questions. Each group was asked collectively to arrange these particular concerns in order of importance for them. What did they worry about even? Could they agree?

Here's the typical answer for a group. The top for all groups were friends and family, followed by relationships. Social. That's important to remember. One kid actually laughed "Is anyone worried about the environment?" It was even beneath 'what's in the news?' because a couple were freaked out by swine flu.

John Berger on the procrastination of smoking. ‘A cigarette’, Berger said, inhaling deeply, ‘is a breathing space. It makes a parenthesis. The time of a cigarette is a parenthesis, and if it is shared you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.’”

I once designed a social game about The Tragedy of the Commons. This is a thought-experiment published in Science in 1968, the year before I was born. Imagine you're all shepherds grazing sheep on common ground. Where's the tragedy in that? Here it comes.

You get richer as an indvidual the more sheep you graze. But the more sheep collectively are grazed by all shepherds, the common ground is ruined. In the game, one group turned it into desert. You're always telling yourself that if the others are cheating, why shouldn't I?

In 1985 when I was a teenager my favourite film was Rumblefish. nd my favourite scene was a monologue on time by Tom Waits. I couldn't find it on the interweb, it exists only in the dark past of human knowledge. All I can remember is it starting 'Time, it's a funny thing'.

Here's a little test. For the duration of the next slide. I'll buy a pint for the first person who stands up and waves their arms. But if you all stay seated and still, I'll donate £10 to Plane Stupid. I promise. Ready Steady Go.


As I write this a couple of hours ago, I don't know what's just happened in the future. I suspect that someone may have shot up and then sat back down again protesting that they don't want to spoil it. Or that everyone sat expectantly, their gaze a gentle pressure. Are we ever otherwise aware of that gentle pressure?

50 years ago a Disneyland episode called Magic Highway predicted the future of transport. Here's a shot of the tubular highways that should have been criscrossing the globe. What struck me was just how few cars they imagined in the future. Some of their gadgets - like the cliff elevator - only worked for one family car at a time. They didn't show any waiting traffic.

50 years ago, here is a family in their camper van. We're often told that it's our grandchildren who will pay for our treatment of the planet. I wonder about the alternate reality in which everything happened 50 years sooner. Where our grandparents fucked up and we are their grandchildren.

Here's another experiment. If you ask people how happy they think they will be in a month's time. It matters what the weather is like when you ask them: if it's sunny when you ask them the question then they are more likely to imagine they will be happy in the future than if it is raining.

I was googling for an image of a snooze alarm because I snoozed a lot this morning. I found this gadget. It's called a Snuz N Luz. Everytime you press the snooze button it automatically donates money from your bank account to a charity that you hate. In this case, for, the Republican Party.

There were plenty experiments I found in my research that demonstrate we're happier when we make quick decisions that satisfy us, rather than agonising over decisions. Agony. That's the word we use. And we like to make choices from limited options. Two or three most. Not the freedom of choice so much as the tyranny.

Here are three choices.
Experiments reckon that in a choice of three like this we look for two that we can compare and take the one that's better. So here we'd most likely choose the bottle that's £8. But if we took away the option of the £15 bottle, choosing between the top two only, we'd choose the £7 bottle

Here are another three choices. Of course I constructed this rather rhetorically. But still, I wonder if these are the three choices we always are presenting to ourselves in our minds. And of course, I'm still sticking with the middle of the road choice.

In 2007 an alternate-reality game called World Without Oil asked people to write on the interweb the imagined stories of their own lives. As if oil was running out here and now. I thought it was a brilliant idea for a game. But then it didn't look like much fun to keep playing. Rather like a lot of hard work.

Sometimes I have a solipstic fantasy that everyday I am dying. In one way or another. But that a couple of minutes before I die in one universe, I skip into an alternate reality and avoid death. In my fantasy, it's exactly like slipping into the next lane on the road and overtaking myself.

As an epilogue. I'm writing these slides 2 hours ago and I can't help but worry that I am sounding worthy, preaching to the converted. Here's an image I found by googling crazy preacher to put a face to my fear. It's the Reverend Billy. Thanks.

Monday 29 March 2010

Ryan Stevens and the Man from Mars


And a smattering of our lovely audience. Photos by Paul Bennun.

Jimmy Stewart... strode into performance at BAC earlier this month. I'd been fearful - not just that its personal resonance wouldn't overwhelm but also quite simply that it wasn't going to be rubbish... you never know, and I've never done anything previously to put myself on the line quite like it. Or learnt an hour-long text.

But in the end, it was a quite beautiful experience to be a part of and some very lovely, generous responses from audience afterwards. Thanks to all of them who played the Planet Earth - entirely from a sitting position, but taking a very central role especially in one section.

Thanks to Tracky Crombie who wove beautiful light with love and to Chris Goode our outside eye for the afternoon, although his kind words risk this turning into even more of a love-in but it has to be said for a so-called maverick he's really very good at the nuts and bolts of staging a piece simply and saying the right things to get the most out of a nervous actor.

And thanks to Nick, the Ryan in Ryan Stevens, for being a glorious other half of sound and music. One genius moment when I took my first step into the story and a sample of treading into snow deep and crisp and even - I couldn't stop grinning because the biomechanical feedback from the sound is so strong that each step actually physically felt like I was wading through snow.

Here are some words from Jimmy Stewart... which give some of its rather peculiar character. The hugging machine actually exists in the house of Temple Grandin, although I reimagined and let it out for a run inspired by seeing massage machines in a motorway service station. You'll have to hear Nick's extraordinary soundscape in your head as you read it.

You can usually find a hugging machine in a boat-train terminal. There'll be a line of them between the amusement arcade and the branch of Starbucks next to Departures. A hugging machine looks like a big comfy chair, cushioned as soft as a rabbit's cheek. You curl up inside it. Sometimes there's a frame in your eyeline to accommodate a photograph you may be carrying of a loved one. You place a coin in the slot underneath your right hand. Most hugging machines take Euros nowadays. Its motors hum and it grasps you first by your shoulders, then wraps itself entirely about you. Its hug is neither gentle like a grandmother nor tight like a grieving bear. The amplitude of hug is tuned to that which happens between humans who are lovers of at least three years' standing who are separating for a week or two but no doubt they'll see each other again soon. This is the most profitable hug in a marketplace of disconsolate commuters.

Small Town revisited

Here's a video documenting, as much as is possible in a short video, something of what it was like to be in A Small Town Anywhere.

Small Town Anywhere, BAC 2009 from Greg McLaren on Vimeo.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Playing in a city

Following are my notes from a panel I spoke at in Tokyo as part of Connected, the British Council's expedition taking a bunch of interactive theatre artists to Japan. I was on the panel with Matt Adams of Blast Theory, Duncan Speakman of subtlemob, Yuya Tsukahara of Contact Gonzo, and Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa from exonemo.

The panel was on making art in cities, and followed the previous day's panel on the same theme from a group of producers and curators, including Andy Field of Forest Fringe who has already posted his notes here. I'm posting these 'cos Andy asked.


Coney is an agency of adventure and play
What does that mean?
It means we make live interactive play.
Live meaning that it is responsive and talks and listens to you, the audience, and responsive too for who you are and where it is happening.
And that it's all about the audience. You are it.
The story happens wherever you are and it might be all about you and you take the leading role.

Oh and part of the game of Coney is that it is led by Rabbit. Which might be this but more likely this. But more on Rabbit in my twelve noon presentation.

Coney and digital: Because the event is about the audience, we often talk to them using digital technology to bring them into the story wherever they are.

Digital infrastructure means that we can bring people to work that is happening in any place.
People were talking yesterday about flashmobbing. It's a tool to gather an audience together.
At the end of the adventure that we made happen in around and about the National Theatre, the playing audience were assembled on the north bank of the river facing the National.

They were waiting for a signal, they didn't know what it would be.

They were in the perfect place to see the gigantic illuminated sign on the front of the building that normally advertises the plays at the National suddenly changed to a message from Rabbit that led them into the adventure.

The National Theatre is a public institution with an architecture which reflects that role. An architecture that is used by people in particular ways.

We spent a while observing what the building is, how it is used and looking for its affordances for adventure.

This word affordance. I know it from perception psychology but it is also in interaction design. It is all the uses and properties of an object or an event or a place. Not just the ones that it is designed for. Some of them can be surprising, and you can make play with those.

With the National, another part was that Rabbit sent people on a little adventure into the story which involved them ringing a phone from a concrete symbol outside the building, going down into the carpark, finding their way into the lifts through a spooky door and going all the way to the top floors - which are completely empty during the day - and meandering down before going into the bookshop, buying an out-of-date leaflet on the history but knowing to ask the staff for it to be gift-wrapped with a wink, which gave them a package with...

By having an adventure in the building about the building we could transform the way people felt inside that place and the way they perceived the building.

It was really important that we used the reality of the building and its people in the story of the adventure, wrote the least possible fiction, because that meant that people wouldn't know what was real and what was Rabbit. Because the authorship is obscured, it means that everything could be part of it, and perceptions of your place are heightened and transformed.

After an adventure Rabbit led along the banks of the Thames on Valentine's night, one player wrote that their most memorable moment was meeting a busker who was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on a banjo. They were almost certain that something so unusual and beautiful was part of the adventure. It wasn't. But it's the almost that's key, the uncertainty that is transformative.

This is public space. But that space is encroached by corporate space, private land owned by corporations who then determine the uses of that space. When Rabbit returns later this year it is likely in an adventure called The Green - SPOILER REMOVED - It's something that will start in London but then could happen in cities all over the world.

Here's something else about cities that interests me. Cities grow in similar ways so as much as they are different there are commonalities too. They may be uncontrollable but it is not without underlying principles. For example big cities are often on rivers, often by the sea. The areas near the docks will have been poor, with migrant communities refreshing every generation, unless the docks have fallen into disrepair when they will have first been transformed by artists, who always hunt for cheap space, and then by estate agents… You get the idea.

Buildings too. Institutional theatres, train stations, petrol stations, hotels, they have so much in common, wherever they are. They will have similar affordances for adventure and play, wherever they are.

And neighbourhoods. A little Coney seed piece made in collaboration by myself and Annette Mees in London with Hey Fan in Beijing, we have never met in the real world but over Skype. The piece is called Hutong. It's this red rectangle. You place it on a map of your neighbourhood at a scale of your choosing. And then you must walk the perimeter of the rectangle in your neighbourhood as best you can. Looking out for landmarks along the way - a place of books, a temple, a clock, happiness - landmarks that Fan saw when he made the first Hutong journey around the neighbourhood of Beijing that is itself called Hutong. And following other directions - on the south side, acknowledge all the dogs that you meet, on the east side, go into a cafe you've never been in before, ask the server what is their favourite hot drink and then have that. And anyone anywhere in the world can do their own Hutong. It makes you see the place in which you live in a different way and to make connections with strangers and strange places across the world, the beauty and mundanity of everyday life. Commonality and difference. The affordances of a place.

Pecha Kucha Fail

I was at the Dana Centre last night delivering a Pecha Kucha as part of Technology You Can't Live Without, curated by the splendid Aleks Krotoski, alongside a pretty daunting line-up of thinkers.

Our brief was to talk about a technology we can't live without and how we imagine technology developing over the next 5 years. I blithely ignored this and delivered the following, a personal history of failure with some musing on what happens through failure. And I have this weird foible of writing my words and then picking slides, so you'll get more from this than seeing my pictures. It made people laugh, maybe a bit too much, but hey.

1) This is currently my iPhone which I use to get wifi, to take photos, and to playtest a game I am making. But I cannot use it to make phone-calls because it has no sim card. This is my device of my last 12 months. It reflects my own personal history of failure with communications technology. Failure interests me. This is not an excuse for this presentation.

2) Technology is a facilitation of a human need to communicate. Said Alexander Graham Bell down the very first phone call in 1876: Come Here Watson I Need You. History does not record the nature of Bell's need for Watson but we can speculate. Perhaps he wanted a sandwich. They were two miles apart at the time.

3) The evolution of technology also affords new needs, in this case to communicate remotely. 39 years later Bell in New York would telephone Watson in San Francisco. But this evolutionary landscape is not just driven by the environment of human needs but also by those of economics of usage and accessibility. That first transcontinental call cost Bell a packet.

4) In the mid 1980's when I was a teenager I spent as much time as possible on the phone between coming home from school and settling on whatever I was doing for the evening. I'd call one friend and talk for a long time. I'd then call another friend, then another so that all of us knew what was going on. My parents would freak at the phone bill. But this was the glue of my life.

5) Talking to teenagers for research last summer, they chat to friends in the same time with the same need - between school and evening but using Facebook and IM. If they have broadband accessibility and their own computer rather than sharing with family then this is effortless free chat, affording a new need of many modes of communication simultaneously, not one to many sequentially.

6) I was a late adopter to the mobile phone. For several years I had a pager, first a numeric pager which meant that for us to communicate, I would have to find a payphone to ring the number you sent me, which might itself be a payphone in which you were standing and waiting. The knowledge that this might be so would make me run to find a payphone even when I didn't know who was trying to reach me.

7) Then I got a text pager. This would mean that you could send a text message to me but you would have to call a human operator, dictate your message to them which they would type and send to me. Often they would make mistakes, particularly on unusual names. I once failed to meet someone in a bar with an unusual name. I always regretted not meeting her.

8) But for all the fragility of my interface, pager networks are much more robust to heavy traffic than those for mobile phones which is why they remain in use for emergency services. On 7.7 it was the failure of the phone networks for several hours that made my parents, so used to the robust landline, unbearably anxious.

9) A few years ago, I sent a CD by parcel post from London to Edinburgh for a performance. The package was opened live on stage. The CD was instructed to be played but like many burned CDs it failed in the CD deck. The technician asked the audience if anyone had a Discman, miraculously someone did, the techie dangled a microphone onto its earphones and - just about - the voice on the CD could be heard. The audience stood and cheered at collectively overcoming this failure.

10) My first mobile was the old Nokia model. It's pretty robust, starts up quickly, just does messages. It's better suited to running live games than a more hi-fi model. I used my first phone to death, even when the keypad fell apart so that I couldn't press the keys with my fingers. Which meant that if it rang, I would have to find a pointy tool in my immediate environment - a pen or a matchstick or a twig - so that I could take the call.

11) My current mobile phone has a bug which makes it a time machine. Occasionally if you send me a text message it will rather send me another text message, one that you have already sent me in the past. I have been messaged countless times by one friend about a need for an espresso, by another about being sensitive to the anniversary of a bereavement, by another about recovering from an operation and I really should pop in for a coffee.

12) My family didn't get an ansamachine til 1985 so before then both me and a friend had to be standing simultaneously by an available phone in order to speak. Communication was location-specified. Recorded messages might be from the past, especially on a C90 tape, but they were the first step to afford mobility.

13) Technology both of the near past and of the near future is littered with failures. A failure of the past that I like very much is the Rabbit Phone, a location-specific mobile phone-service by Hutchison Telecom, one of four that started up in 1989. It was a bit like a wireless switchboard for a phone.

14) You could only use a Rabbit phone when you were within 100 yards of a Rabbit sign. And you couldn't receive incoming calls, only make outgoing. It went bust in 1994, but some companies bought the base station and handsets cheap to use as a wireless office phone. Cheap technology finds a new niche to thrive post-failure.

15) A BBC article in 2002 about the advent of wifi argues that the failure of Rabbit phones doesn't bode well for location-specific wireless internet hotspots. The only places that might make something out of it, reckoned expert Adam Zawel, were hotels which bundled in the charges with room rates.

16) In Austin airport there are free internet terminals but in Houston airport there is now a Boingo wireless network that you have to pay for, so the free terminals have been ripped out. But Boingo needs you to be online to download the app to get online so I had to feed five one-dollar bills into a pay-terminal for 10 minutes. The poor pay more.

17) Many internet cafes in London outside the centre are often run for diaspora communities. Computers in internet cafes are evolved to be super-optimised for chat programmes and for games. They meet the needs of communication and play, not just for migrants but for children and students, those who may not have access to their own machines.

18) Here in Houston Airport is another device, one that I have never seen before nor would have predicted. It's called a rapid charger where you pay to plug your phone or laptop or other device into a choice of cables. It's based on people not being smart enough to bring their own chargers. It may only thrive in this tiny niche where forgetful people have a long time between flights. It may fail.

19) Perhaps we have a tendency to imagine the future of technology as sleek and squeaky clean. Almost as if we are corporate creationists, we conceive that perfect devices are shaped from the clay. Where early adopters do the cleverest things. Even though occasionally the really clever affordances of technology aren’t always those of primary design.

20) The evolutionary environment for technology is messy, driven by failure. It is an environment in which needs and economics run amok, killing great ideas in the wrong habitat, preserving oddities in niches, It’s an enviroment which may yet change beyond recognition as the world changes. But I’m peculiarly reassured by how often our ingenuity can bridge the failure gap, how failure reveals the human.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Tokyo > Mars > Texas

I haven't been here in a while, I've been in other places.

Spent last week in Tokyo as part of the British Council's Connected gang and had an immense time. Special pleasures not limited to these: to hear 'konichi-wa usagi desu' spoken by a Japanese accomplice, to meet an old friend from 20 years ago and eat delectable sushi, to wander under an umbrella in Live Art Speed Date before hitting Chatroulette with Mel Wilson, to get to know better a whole bunch of brilliant Brit talents, to speak on making Art in Cities as part of a really inspiring panel, to make connections with most exciting artists and producers from all over Asia, to find a lakeside memorial to two friends who overcame The Global Tides Of Bias (my next band name, when Death to Cattle finally blow the roof).

This week I'm off to Mars, as performing the play what I wrote - Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) - alongside Nick Ryan at BAC. If you are reading this, you are very welcome to come. It might be quite good and I don't do an American accent.

And then straight after I am off to Texas as part of the Arts Council delegation to South By South West interactive.

I'm the lucky one.

Sunday 24 January 2010


The London Snorkelling Team gig at the Vortex. This really is it. A meticulously playful quartet of Tom Haines, Chris Branch, Pascal Wyse and Ross Hughes doing 'music like they imagined happened in the 1950s', no other way to put it. Interplay with live overhead projector animation by the Perrett brothers - one track has an overhead of a band mixer, so each of the four goes up or down in volume, plus responding to effects buttons of Echo, Weird and Horse. Ed Gaughan emcees as if we are in a town hall on a small island somewhere in the 1950s, including a shipping forecast and a voodoo seance. Will Adamsdale ghosts as an existentially-challenged magician. Ed and Will are breathstealingly funny. Jonjo O'Neill leaps out of the audience to tap his way through a number.

Light entertainment like I can't imagine better. Give them the Morecambe & Wise slot.

I laughed hard, especially at Ed's introduction of a deadpan Ross as 'mute since childhood but although outwardly incommunicative I believe that he has a rich interior life'. (You may have to have been there). Which he told me afterwards was a quote from Pope Pius XIV describing St Francis of Assisi in his assessment towards the sainthood. That had just popped into his head after he read it years ago in research for a failed show. He's probably making it up but I don't care.

They were launching their album called Audio Recording and Map, because its track listing takes the form of a map made by the Perretts in glorious fold-out colour.

Get it. But get to them playing live.

I know and have worked with a lot of them, but that is also because they are lovely and brilliant with equal integrity. Earpiece that Tom and I made last year also heavily featured the magnificent LST track The French Horse.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Darkness overcomes the city

A gem via Old Hollywood, which I'm posting so as not to lose for myself: production shot of preparing Mephistophiles for Murnau's Faust.