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.