Playtime: Game Mythologies
Since March 2012, the Maison d’Ailleurs Museum in Switzerland has hosted Playtime: Videogame Mythologies, an exhibition I curated dealing with the creative, historical and social foundations of videogames, and with the cultural space they occupy today. The Maison (also known as the Museum of Science Fiction, Utopia and Extraordinary Journeys) is really an unique environment; his former director, Patrick Gyger, was gracious enough not only to commision the project but also to allow me to try something different, discarding the approach of previous “art and games” or “history of games” shows.
The exhibition is still open until December 9, featuring brilliant artists and game designers like Julian Oliver, Tale of Tales, Jason Rohrer, Arturo Castro, Dominique Cunin, Ryota Kuwakubo or Sheldon Brown, among many others. To celebrate the final days of the show I’m posting my essay for the exhibition catalogue; it features Tati’s Playtime, Spacewar, a history of videogames in museums and how to construct a mythology of videogames.
If you are close to French-speaking Switzerland, the Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon-les-Bains is definitely worthy of a trip.
In 1964, the popular french film director and actor Jaques Tati started the production process of his fourth film. It was going to be a long and difficult journey that culminated three years later with puzzling, unexpected results. Depending on how you look at it, it was a catastrophical failure with the audience that left Tati seriously indebted, or a spectacular creative achievement. it definitely holds to this day a special place of its own in the history of Film. It’s no wonder really that audiences didn’t know what to make of Playtime, because Tati had never made a film like that. In fact, no one had.
Playtime is a film with no real story, dialogues or very much of a plot. It loosely follows Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s signature character, as he wanders around a modernist, futurist version of Paris made of steel and glass. It’s the city that is the most prominent character in the film; the architecture, spare and geometric, defines very strongly what characters get to do in every scene. In order to produce the spatial qualities that he was looking for, Tati embarked in building up one of the most elaborate, complex film sets ever conceived. It was so monumental it deserved having a name of its own: Tativille.
Making Tativille a reality took a hundred constructions workers, almost 12000 square feet of glass and half a million square feet of concrete. The set had it’s own power plant, roads, electrical grid, and even fully working elevators. Once Tativille was standing the director was going to dream up Playtime there, get the film to arise out those streets, offices and restaurants. However, the shooting was anything but easy. Catastrophic Storms, constant budget problems and overruns extended the shooting throughout three long years.
In 2012 we know that Playtime was a catastrophic box office failure that ruined Tati; we know that critics appreciated it since it was projected for the first time, and that it is universally recognized as a classic. We know it has always been considered something of an anomaly; Truffaut famously said that Playtime was “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently”, and legendary northamerican critic Roger Ebert wrote that “it ocuppies no genre and does not create a new one”.
In 2012, there are many attributes of Playtime that call our attention. Attributes that were less noticeable in 1967. (If you have not seen the film, this would be a good moment to buy or rent it, and come back once you are done).
As you sit down to watch Tati’s masterpiece in 2012, the first thing that one finds interesting is what you could anacronically call the “low resolution” of the film. In many sequences there are so few colors on screen, you can almost count them (Tati said he wanted to make it look as a black and white film that had been shot in color). The action takes place in rooms and buildings characterized by pure lines, spare empty spaces, blocky elements. It’s an extremely synthetic world.
And then, we are never too close to Hulot, our hero - the shots are framed so that we usually contemplate a full room, corridor, or gallery, with all the elements that make up the environment. Hulot is there in the middle, trying to make sense of his surroundings and find his way towards the next room. Some of the most clasic sequences of the film follow an almost isometric reading of space, the method of representing three dimensional objects or spaces in a two dimensional medium.
When the film starts, both the viewer and the main character are dropped in this world with little explanation. Since there are no central conflicts, no obvious big idea moving the plot forward, the main narrative device is exploration; getting Hulot from one point to another. But in order to do this, he must understand the rules of every space, its properties and possibilities. In one specially memorable sequence, he paces around a waiting room, paying attention to the few objects in the environment, inspecting them with curiosity to understand what is it that they do, what can they be used for.
As the film goes forward, we get to visit new places, each more complicated and puzzling than the previous one. In fact, the film is structured around the sequence of architectures: the airport, the offices, the trade exhibition, the apartments, the restaurant, and the final carrousel of cars. It’s interesting to see how we only move forward, and once we leave one place we never go back to it (with the exception of the brief closing scene at the airport, providing closure and circularity to the whole picture). We are quite literally, jumping from level to level.
As films go, Playtime is undeniably special. But one cannot help feeling that what Tati was aiming for was something that film couldn’t completely do for him. It is as if he was looking for a medium that, more than telling stories, would allow him to create full fledged worlds. Playtime is an exercise in creating a territory in the imagination full of surprises, joyful challenges and small delightful rewards. More than spectators, he wants us to be explorers gathering the treasures he has planted all over his synthetic city.
Neurogastronomy, Ferran Adrià and Cuisine as Performance
Adrià has worked with Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, who has conducted tests seeking to determine whether it’s possible to enhance the taste or flavour of a dish by scientifically matching how, and on what, food is presented. Spence’s research has shown, for instance, that a strawberry mousse is judged to be ten per cent sweeter when served on a white plate than on a black one. Similarly, serving food on spoons made of different materials affects the way that it is perceived. “Lots of young chefs now are really switched on to neuroscience and neurogastronomy and are saying, ‘OK, this is going to be part of our future,’” says Spence, who has also worked with British chef Heston Blumenthal to create sounds that are semantically congruent with food, “not only the perfect preparation, but also an understanding of the brain science and what it can deliver.”
Adrià’s success as the most influential cook in the last 15 years was built on exploring the possibilities of chemistry and physics to alter essential properties of food, in order to remove natural associations (between a specific texture and a specific flavour) and build new ones. What’s beyond? Looking into the neurology of taste to research how materials, spatial configuration, or even the sociology of eating is part of the experience of food seems like a fascinating space for Adrià to make new contributions.
Neurogastronomy, or How the Brain Makes Flavours is enough of a notion to have already a book of its own. But along the neurology it would also be interesting to look at new performativities of eating, new ceremonials and contexts to locate the rite of dining together. Two projects that call my attention in this sense: the recent, very successful Open Data Cooking workshop in Helsinki produced by Pixelache, were participants developed recipes that were also exercises in Data Visualization, using the dish as a visual canvas.
Map of Finland showing the differences in alcohol consumption across the Country . Each region is symbolized with typical food from the area
The other is Natalie Jeremijenko’s intriguing Cross Species Dinners, where the politics and science of eating are expanded by including new kind of considerations about how should we look at food, introducing parameters like ecological disasters or the nutricional needs of non-human species as gastronomic qualities to be considered in the kitchen.
Other parts of the Wired article about the future of Adrià and El Bulli in its current metamorphosis from Restaurant to Lab I’m more sceptical about. First of all, Adrià jumping into the Open Culture bandwagon is a bit of a joke:
Unlike the traditional model, in which a chef would closely guard his secrets, openness was an important concept for Adrià, as was the creation of a network through which ideas could be circulated. “In 1997 we realised that it was very important to share our findings and developments so that we could continuously feed into other people’s processes”
Adrià’s hardly an open source enthusiast and he’s never been. He has stated in numerous ocassions his belief in the originality and ownership of ideas, something that was very apparent a couple of years ago when members from the Medialab Prado community and him met during the shooting of a TV pilot. As much as we’d liked otherwise, there was little common ground between both parties. (If you speak spanish you can watch the whole program online, where he says, for instance, that if cuisine was not a patent-free zone he would patent like crazy.) And although he is building an online Bullipedia, his partner of choice for the new El Bulli is Telefónica, a corporate giant, more specifically its R+D branch.
As we keep on getting small glimpses of what El Bulli Foundation will be like when it opens in 2015, it seems that the initial impressions that it would be somehow modelled in Media Labs/Art and Tech centers, were correct. This can be very flattering for a whole community (the most succesful restaurant in the world becoming one of us), but it’s not necessarely a good thing. The first specific examples mentioned in the article oscillate between the shallow and ridiculous (“A gestural interface has been developed by hacking Kinect devices — chefs will be able to search an online database when they’re in the middle of preparing dishes and have dirty hands”) and the lazy and predictable (“along with data from elBulli, the platform will use open data and visualisation techniques to examine where innovation should occur next”).
If you ask me, it would just be enough, and very exciting on it’s own, if the new El Bulli became a spot for rethinking our culture of eating, as it speculates about other possible realities where cooking would take place in a completely different way. It could just be the Design Interactions of food.
En cuanto a mi interés por la fantasía, me parece importante subrayar algo fundamental, que a veces se nos olvida: la frontera entre la realidad y la imaginación no es algo fijo. El realismo es sólo una forma más de describir el mundo, y no es necesariamente la mejor ni la más interesante. Yo nací en un país donde la fantasía lo envuelve a uno desde el momento de nacer. La mitología india es de una riqueza portentosa, y no me refiero sólo a las leyendas religiosas, sino a la tradición narrativa que tiene su origen en Las mil y una noches, muchas de cuyas historias surgieron en India antes de traducirse al persa y al árabe. Crecer escuchando la historia de Simbad el Marino, de Alí Babá o Aladino deja una impronta imborrable en la imaginación de un futuro escritor. El realismo no es más que una convención. Si es necesario, recurro a ella, pero no es el único recurso ni mucho menos.
My close friend and collaborator, Sue, had her iPhone stolen earlier this month. The thief had it for 5 days, after which he ransomed it back to her. In the meantime, he had it with him as he drove around LA, presumably looking for other opportunities to be an asshole.
Our phones, clearly, are really personal devices. When we talk about personal data, the mobile phone is as physical an embodiment of this as anything, a data-sensory appendage if you will. What does it mean, then, when we’ve been separated from the device? It feels like identity theft as much as the loss of valuable electronics.
So when Sue got it back, she felt a bit estranged from it. We wondered about the life her device had had away from her, which led her to use OpenPaths to take a look at where it had been. Sure enough, the thief’s home and haunts were pretty readily identifiable.
Sue had also seen the last video Id made with OpenPaths and Google Street View, and we decided to make another one with her data. However, I wanted to take it a bit further. As fun as my first video attempt had been, it’s a bit impressionistic — you just get this blitz of unconnected images. However, Sue’s data had a very clear narrative behind it. We had a collection of points that the thief had visited with the phone, so I thought we should be able to get a smooth path between them.
First, I used the Google Directions API to map the likely route that the thief would have taken between known locations, as well as filling in some intermediary points, which was @blprnt’s idea from our earlier brainstorms. One of the cool things about the Street View panorama data (described by @jaimethompson) is that it shows the linkages between consecutive images taken by the Google car. So by calculating the heading from one point to the next and heuristically choosing links between panoramas headed in the right direction, we can access all the images taken along the way. Again using heading we can point the camera in the right direction, download the tiles we want, and stitch a frame together. Applying this to the thief’s route, we got a complete reconstructed path that plays back much more like a continuous video than my previous experiment (it evens out after the frantic first 30 seconds).
It’s a bit like if Google was driving the getaway car, starting downtown where the phone was stolen, and traveling over the city until it’s finally given back. Of course, we’re leaving out the pauses when he wasnt moving, and the temporal displacement of Street View images make this a kind of a weird frankendata — while the video retains some relationship to the truth of the human interaction behind it, it remains a kind of data fiction.
Oh, and for those who prefer the written word, theres always the driving directions.
I got curious what’s now installed in these two historic locations. Inside the 333 Grant building, there’s now a Lulemon Athletica, a store which caters to yoga bunnies. It’s next door to an American Apparel. In New York, whatever once stood at 15 Dey is now gone. In its place stands a Century 21 Department Store at 17 Dey. There is a Starbucks across the street. Point being that technological history is not preserved the way that political and cultural history often are. Our important locations go unmarked, if they are remembered at all.