Sunday, 27 February 2011

Image Threads: an installation proposal

‘There are very few places, now, where you can go and not have identity, to be completely anonymous and say whatever you’d like. And saying whatever you like, I think, is powerful’ - moot, founder of 4chan

This installation will explore how the tactile aspects of our interface with communication devices affect the content of discourse and inscribe particular modes of self-presentation, by recreating in material form the digital communications structure of the image board. Visitors will be invited to contribute to anonymous discussions by writing messages on the backs of postcards and attaching them to message threads hanging from helium balloons. This combination of graphical and written communication in the hands of anonymous contributors will simulate online ‘image boards’ such as those hosted on the infamous 4chan.

Receiving as much web traffic as the New York Times or the Washington Post, 4chan is home to an enormously influential online subculture. Any regular user of the internet has participated in modes of discourse and expression that originate on 4chan’s imageboards. It has a reputation for depravity; much of its discourse is explicitly sexual or otherwise offensive. However, it is also the source of the most well-known memes of internet culture, and its hive mind of anonymous contributors has powered some of the most high- profile collective actions in the history of the internet. The image board is an important site of contemporary cultural production that should be explored by anybody interested in identity and discourse in the internet age. In this installation, the plan is not to deliberately include offensive content, but to see how the same communication platform in materialised form changes the nature of the content contributed by users - presumably people won't post offensive material, and I'm interested in what they will post instead.

This installation will be an experiment into how the virtuality of digital media affects self-presentation and the content of discourse. Visitors will be given the opportunity to interact in a tactile way with a communication structure that simulates the virtual communication of an image board. It is a chance to reflect on the effects of anonymity and virtuality on digital communications media, and also to consider materiality and simulation in the unusual case of an installation that represents the virtual.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Monday, 14 February 2011

Panoptic games

***This blog post contains spoilers. Go play Portal and Metal Gear, then come back and read this.***

I have some recollection of first playing the Sims, and assuming that controlling the lives of tiny little people who I created would be like playing god. But it never felt like playing god. There was no power trip, no sense of responsiblity and no guilty feeling that I had crossed a line that humanity must never cross. It's not that I wasn't immersed in the game or didn't on some level believe that the Sims were real. I did play the game as though there really were tiny little people who just wanted to have their needs met and their goals fulfilled; my rational knowledge that this was all a computer-modeled simulation that could easily be hacked didn't get in the way of my emotional response to the poverty, sickness or loneliness of my Sims. But I didn't feel like their god.

Looking back, I think the reason for this may have been that although I had a panoptic gaze over the Sims, they were not aware of it, and as a result their behaviour was not affected by my gaze. I suspect that if they had looked up at me guiltily after sleeping with their best friend's spouse, I might have felt like their god. They did look up pleadingly at me when their needs were not being met, but they didn't try to bargain with me as they would if they were more aware of my presence. If they had promised some sacred offering that would please their maker (say, the construction of a beautiful garden or the enactment of a ritual orgy) in return for my favour, I might have felt more like a god.

Portal is an obvious example of a panoptic game - you're surrounded by cameras, and the viewer periodically chides you if you misbehave, to remind you that you are being watched. But in this case, the panopticon fails. Maybe it's because you don't want to die, maybe it's because you know that you can disobey, or maybe it's because you have seen glimpses of a world in-game beyond Glados' gaze, but in the end you do disobey and you do wreak havoc. The failure of the panopticon is written in the game's narrative, but I'm still left with the niggling question - what if Glados had understood human behaviour just a little better? What if she had managed to get the world outside of the shiny, white testing areas closed off completely so that you knew you were always in range of her watchful eyes no matter where you went? What if she had offered some reward better than cake? Would you have disobeyed her then? Is it possible to re-write Portal so that the player feels obliged to jump in the fire pit?

It is possible for a panoptic game to exist? Can a game control your behaviour by making you feel that you are under surveillance? Perhaps all games do, without necessarily having the sign of surveillance built into the game world. You know that the game itself is assessing your actions and giving you points accordingly - it's surveying you so that it can reward good behaviour, rather than punish the bad. Games are hard-wired with a protestant work-ethic - the knowledge that your virtuous hard work in the game will be rewarded drives you to spend hours on end on even dull, menial tasks like levelling up. You pursue side-quests that could take hours of your time, just for the fanfare and pat on the head that the almighty algorithm will give you. The 'camera shy' challenge in Portal is an ironic case in point. You spend time and effort seeking out and destroying the sign of surveillance for the reward of your real panoptic observer, the game itself.

An awareness of the power balance of seeing and being seen is key to the Metal Gear series. Your first concern is not being spotted by the guards. If one guard sees you, you are seen by all, thanks to their radio communication, so if you do enter a confrontation you usually try to break their communication device to disrupt the network of connections that comprises the panoptic gaze. After that, you're trying not to be seen on camera, either by avoiding their visual range or by shooting them. So in general, you either avoid the gaze or you attempt to disrupt it. However, this is only the sign of surveillance - the real panoptic gaze is from your commander, who sees everything you do, reads signals from your body that even you are not aware of, and yells at you if you fail, as if dying weren't punishment enough. Snake is always, at the end of the day, a soldier, a pawn and prisoner of an all-powerful governing system that he can never observe in its entirety. Of course, in terms of the storyline, the gaze of his commander is a minor expression of control compared to the fact that the government gave him life, made him who he is and then tried to kill him. But in terms of the gameplay experience itself, the gaze of the government is ultimately more real than the events that occur in the game, because the gaze is the game. Metal Gear Solid 2 was a thrilling shock to the system as I was reminded that the game is in fact gaming me, and I'm just trying to play within its confines to see what I can make of it.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Constructing the self

I'm reading Judith Butler on how the self is constructed out of normative gender. It reminds me of a Channel 4 TV series for older teens that I saw when I was a younger teen - I don't remember the name of the series or any details like character names, all I remember is this one scene. Nevertheless, I appreciate this scene as an example of our intuitive understanding that gender categories are closely tied up with the stability of the self. The scene somehow makes more sense because of the portrayal of the character as outside of hegemonic norms of embodied gender presentation.

The protagonist is an enigmatic, dark, 'alternative' and tomboy from that lovely time when the hottest alternative fashion was baggy clothes, chunky criminal damage jeans and dirty blonde dreadlocks. She's had a massive row with her long-term boyfriend and is now alone in her tiny flat, distraught, on the verge of doing something really stupid. Behind a cupboard door is a huge collection of minidisk recordings of her psychotherapy sessions. She picks out disks at random and listens back over hours and hours of conversations about her subconscious, her childhood, how she relates to others... and then she finds that one is missing. She realises that her boyfriend must have been listening to them, eavesdropping on her most intimate conversations. He was just feeling shut out and wanted to take part in her emotional life.

I love this scene as an illustration of the problem of making sense of the self as both the agent and object of enquiry - her self-discovery and self-control are mediated by her therapist and her boyfriend, each with differing effects. Here the construction of the self - or maybe a reconstruction or a re-envisioning of an already constructed selfhood - is carried out by a process of documentation and the compilation of an archive. The minidisc collection sprawls out over a huge amount of wallspace. It is colossal, too immense to be taken in all at once, but through the process of archiving an attempt has been made to tame and control it. The invasion of the romantic other has interrupted the archive, upseting the whole construct.

However, is this scene's value as an example limited by the fact that I have no idea what the context is? I cannot give the TV series a name, or the character. Nobody can go and view this scene and give their own reading of it, except by re-interpreting my own description of the scene filtered by my own memory of something I saw over ten years ago. The specific self being discussed here is not a real human being or even a complete fictional character, but an incomplete fragment of a self, remembered and reconceived by my mind in pursuit of my own subjective interest in the questions of selfhood and gender.