Guest Post by Paul King
The most recent time I loaded up the game Dark Souls, my character unsheathed a sword from her back and drew her shield. And then I noticed a message, written maybe two steps away: “Grief.”
The world of Dark Souls is, as the title would suggest, dark. It’s a classic, worn down fantasy world where everything is crumbling. Your character begins in a prison for the lost and undead; your default state is one of decay. Even as you continue to a city meant for gods, all is in dangerous, ruinous disrepair.
And most of the game is spent alone. Save a few neutral, stationary characters, any sort of dialogue is non-existent. Your hero never speaks, only grunts in the heat of battle, and these stationary merchants quickly run out of new phrases, things to sell you, or purposes to exist.
But at a certain point, your character may buy (or steal) a chunk of soapstone from one of these merchants. Once you obtain the soapstone, you may use it to write, coating the floor in incandescent orange scribbles that, upon interaction, reveal their text.
During the course of Dark Souls, no fix for the broken world emerges. At times, other characters hint that the universe has descended into darkness from a former glory, and your lone hero’s quest might be the thing to restore it. But nothing you do on your journey really changes anything; felled enemies reappear upon your death and subsequent rebirth, and also upon the saving of your progress. But while your standard fantasy actions yield no change and are easily erased, the soapstone allows you to impact the game’s world in a singular, everlasting way: through writing.
There’s a multiplayer component of Dark Souls that allows players to enter the world of another. One can invade or be summoned, and these are adversarial or cooperative interactions, respectively. Both are temporary.
Messages penned with the soapstone, on the other hand, are permanent. Quit the game and return days later, they will still be there. And perhaps more importantly, while invasions and summons are constrained to a single instance of the game world—that of the invaded or summoning player—messages, instead, are universal. Write a message on the floor of a chapel within your game, and the same message appears in the same chapel of another person’s game.
And there they sit, for any other player who happens by it. But much like the world of Dark Souls, the system in which messages are created is opaque and difficult.
The soapstone may be used to write a variety of messages, but only from a template. You choose a format—for instance, “Try _____” or “Be wary of ______.” Once you’ve chosen a format, you can then choose from a list of categories to fill that blank. Options here include orientation (“Try left,” “Be wary of right”), objects (“Try sword,” “Be wary of chest”), and attributes (“Try fire”).
Because the messages are selected from a template, speech is limited, and as such, messages become muddied. As with the world, story, and mission of the game, the onus is on the player as a reader to determine the intent of a message. And as with the rest of the game, the system can be frustrating—authorial intent easily becomes unclear, especially in the wake of present danger due to the game’s refusal to be paused. Pick the wrong moment to write a message, or linger too long on selecting the correct Mad-Libbian phrase and it might instead spell death.
And Dark Souls’ closed language system isn’t immune to classic video game juvenility. At a certain point, my character encountered the message “Amazing chest ahead,” but instead of referring to what would make the most sense—a treasure chest—it was instead placed in front of a female character as an unfortunate reference to her anatomy.
While this example is depressing, it’s fortunately rare. It also serves to underscore what is an even more important facet of the closed language: context. Not only may players choose what combinations of message to write, they may also choose where to place it within the world—for it to be a static element in the world of others. The same message becomes manifold depending on its placement.
A canned, writable phrase in the game is “Praise the Sun!” This is one of the only phrases that does not contain a mutable component (alongside “Good Job!” and “I did it!”). Its placement is intended in relation to one of the game’s religions—meant to be written in a peaceful, brightly lit area upon which the sun shines. A prayer.
I found it once at the bottom of a sewer. Surrounded by the carcasses of massive, dead rats—think The Princess Bride—here it was: “Praise the Sun!” In this context it served as an entirely different message, rife with a sense of irony not possible if placed in a different area. Though the text said differently, the message was obviously one of despair.
Just before an encounter with a massive, angry beast, somebody had written “try jumping.” And after dying to the creature several times—an event that happens with most encounters of the difficult game—the message clicked. And indeed, it was jumping from a ledge and plunging a sword into the monster’s waiting back that proved to be the best strategy.
Elsewhere, I found the same message written on a set of uneven stone stairs, a crumbling railing beside it. “Try jumping.” I angled my view downward, past the railing, and saw only an endless descent, one that would surely kill me.
It did. After I learned a lesson about trust, I discovered another message, not far away: “Beware liar.”
And what begins to emerge from identical phrases is a changing language, one dependent entirely on a static world. While some messages are incredibly straightforward (my favorite is “Illusory wall ahead”), others are incredibly vague.
One of the more interesting categories to choose a “blank” from is “Concepts.” The category sits at the bottom of the list, beneath “Characters,” “Objects,” and more, almost as if it were an afterthought. It is from this list some nameless stranger chose to pen “grief.”
What strikes me especially about the use of “grief” is that it is wholly unnecessary—the entire world embodies “grief.” Though “happiness” is present on the list of concepts, the use of the word makes little to no sense in the context of Dark Souls—there is, ultimately, nothing happy within the game.
But within the constraints of the language system, these awkward, single words can be used in new ways that don’t necessarily pertain to the game. Before a particularly trying monster, instead of writing “Try lightning”—the monster’s supposed weakness—one could instead place “Try hope,” stepping outside of intended use.
What’s interesting about these concepts is that they were placed in an otherwise interesting and well-thought out system; one that plays to the same difficulties and themes of the game. It is only when we as players make a conscious decision to write a specific message does the system break down, distancing itself from in-game tips and evolving into something poetic. When the system breaks, it allows players to leave an effective mark on not only their game world, but the game worlds of others.
Because while all messages might be eternal, the ones that conform to a useful fantasy system—tips, locations, or secrets—ultimately interact with the world by blending into it, not changing it. The jumping tip about the monster led me to a strategic shortcut, while the deceitful note on the staircase created a new, interactive game experience. Those that reference nothing in the world but language concepts create new experiences entirely outside of the game.
Much of Dark Souls deals with the idea of immortality. Your character, like most video game characters, is seemingly tireless. Die, and be brought back again, and again, unceasingly until the game is done. The environments and enemies around you never change, and the latter is in seemingly endless supply. Even when your quest is over, the only option is to start over, either as a new character or the same one, this time in a harder difficulty.
Though the entirety of the game is caught up in this idea of perpetual fantasy, it promotes an unchanging stasis rather than an everlasting immortality. The player created messages—which ultimately exist outside of developer boundary or intent—are the only things that truly seem to point towards immortality. While standard, intentional messages quickly blend into the context of the game’s world; those that break the mold escape the world and its shortfall. When a message references nothing external in the static game world—through the intentional or unintentional garbling of the closed system—it turns into a testament of itself. As a result, it transforms the writer from a player, into an author, leaving an indelible mark.
Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.
“I willingly was a participant in the lifestyle of the motorcycle club, and it is a lot like any other social scene, with it’s own codes and mores, only perhaps faster and at times more violent. But at the same time, it is upfront, so in that sense you know what you are dealing with and it is clear what is expected from you… I have never been uncomfortable around the club and have never felt threatened in any way, if they like you, and most importantly, if the leader of the club likes you, they will treat you with absolute respect.” -Laura Stewart
The two main protagonists of Laura Stewart’s latest film are the titular “Shooter,” motorcycle gang leader of Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Black Pistons, and Whitley, a young woman who is both his partner in crime and charity project.
Shooter is an actual individual whom Stewart credits with sparking her interest in perusing the project in the first place; “I didn’t even know what this film was going to be about when I started it, I had always liked Shooter and found him intriguing… he was the only subject that interested me enough to blow through all this film.” From seven hours of footage, the final cut comes in at fifty-three minutes.
Shot without a script, the film uses voice-over narration to reveal the thoughts, fears and desires of Shooter and Whitley, and we experience the filmic world Stewart creates through the lense of their impressions and experiences. Although Stewart confesses that a typical days shoot would involve “having a general idea what I’d want to film,” she cultivated a collaborative relationship with her actors and actresses wherein they would agree or decline to proceed given the premise she would establish. The goal was always to produce scenes that most realistically reflected their lives, so although the relationships and events of the film are all constructed, the characters had, “the freedom to expose the parts of their lives that they want(ed to).”
For Whitley, this entailed sound bites about coming from a broken home, learning how to cook crack by age eight, and getting thrown out of the house by fifteen. Shooter took a longer view about his romantic relationships over the years, and the protection and security he could provide Whitley for the price of obedience.
By giving them the “freedom to be who they want(ed) to be,” Stewart felt she was able to better coax an authentic portrayal of their “lifestyle or soul” from them. Amidst the dancing, drugs, partying and prostitution that eventually entrap Whitley, and cloud her ultimate quest for comfort and security in the hands of Shooter, we find both characters blindly searching for home in a motel and bar, and referring to a biker gang family.
Without knowing the film is fiction, it is virtually impossible to perceive it as anything but documentary. This complex fusion of fiction and reality is what interests Stewarts, who feels that, “…all our lives are continually being made up every day in our heads anyway. There is no concrete documentary in my opinion.”
The non-diegetic mood music is eclectic and often jarring— it ranges from a song by the Dirty Three, to The Rolling Stones, to Franz Schubert. One scene in particular, shot on location at the Bourbon Street bar, pairs “Nacht und Träume” with lingering close-ups on Whitley’s tightly bound bust and Shooter’s grizzled, filthy looking paw stroking her upper thigh. The camera cannibalizes the image of Whitley, lingering on her chest and leg, chiefly without inclusion of her head or face in the frame, placing the viewer in the position of objectifying misogynist right alongside Shooter.
There were a handful of reasons why Stewart opted for filming in 16mm (with some Super 8)— some were practical, others were creative license. After recent run-ins with the law that Shooter and members of motorcycle club had just prior to filming, the analogue technology of 16mm, “let them know this was not some sort of surveillance, so (they) would be comfortable with a camera around.” In addition, the film pays homage to seventies cult biker films which were also often shot quickly, using 16mm.
Stewart embraced the uncertainty that filming in 16mm comes with, stating, “That was part of what I liked best about (it), never having any idea how it would turn out until it came back from the lab in Seattle.” She notes that, “the bikes and the chrome, and the Sky Lit motel with it’s 50′s sign where the M goes out after a lot of rain, this was something I felt needed to be on 16mm.” While the quality of shooting with film goes a long way towards setting the stylized tone of the film, the rigid, traditional and conservative gender roles that both Shooter and Whitley personify also reinforce this feeling. The trance-like spell their gritty, sparse, and often desperate monologues invoke, incanted under the pulsing neon light of the Vegas-style motel sign transport the viewer to a bygone era, so much so that moments when a man in a recumbent bike pedals past the Bourbon Street bar, or a different man gets into his car in the parking lot of the Sky Lit while talking on his cell phone are unexpectedly shocking, standing out as wrinkles in the time warp.
Stewart reports that the bikers like the film, and that, interestingly, “the guys all say it is more about relationships.” Through an interesting blend of narrative and documentary, and improvisation and confessional, Stewart employs classic Hollywood filmic troupes alongside contemporary motorcycle club culture and aesthetics to create a film that navigates its own interesting path somewhere between the realms of hyper-reality and fan fiction.
All images courtesy of Laura Stewart.
Interview with Laura Stewart conducted by the author via email in September 2013.
The author would like to thank Laura Stewart.
To contact Stewart, please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This week: Duncan and Brian drop in to LA’s Chinatown and visit the Institute for Figuring!
The mission of the Institute For Figuring is to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes through innovative programming that includes exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and participatory, community based projects. The IFF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Located in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, the IFF’s venue functions both as an exhibition space and as a “play tank” for developing new methods of creative engagement with topics ranging from geometry and topology, to physics, computation, and biological form.
Founded in 2003, the IFF has developed exhibits and programs for museums, galleries, colleges, and community groups around the world. We have worked with: the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), The Hayward (London), the Science Gallery (Dublin), the New Children’s Museum (San Diego), Art Center College of Design (Pasadena), the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The Institute’s Crochet Coral Reef is now one of the largest science + art projects in the world.
At the core of the IFF’s work is the concept of material play. We believe that ideas usually presented in abstract terms can often be embodied in physical activities that engage audiences via kindergarten-like practices. Through activities such as cutting and folding paper, we affirm that the hands and eyes can serve as guides to developing the human mind. By inviting our audience to literally play with ideas, the IFF offers a new, hands-on approach to public science education that is at once intellectually rigorous, pedagogically rich, and aesthetically aware.
The podcast! This week: Duncan and Richard talk to Spencer Finch about his current exhibition “Study for Disappearance.”
What is the color of the threshold – of that liminal space before day plunges into night? Spencer Finch attempts to answer this question through his most recent body of work created specifically for Study for Disappearance, his fourth solo exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery.
An essay by John Preus about making a table:
Quilting, a designation generally reserved for things made of fabric, is the result of surplus parts. It is not quite an assemblage or collage, although that history certainly relates to what is interesting to me about the table. An assemblage has to incorporate disparate parts, disruptions, things that were not meant to be together, a forced marriage, so to speak. Being that all of the table parts are wood, it isn’t suitable to describe it as an assemblage or a collage. And it is not marquetry, which is an image or pattern-making technique using veneers of different colors to develop a picture. Quilting takes parts of other things to make a new thing. I would venture to guess that it comes out of a utilitarian folk tradition in which materials were limited and people had to make do with what was around. That may have been true long ago, but I am sure that quilting happens now more among folks with time to kill, than among low income folks trying to save material, textiles being as inexpensive as they are.
I put together a list of articles written about the Expo art fair spree here.
Britton Bertrand thinks back on 2005:
The years 2005 and 2006 were ok years for Chicago Art. It seemed to be an upswing couple of years when apartment galleries and art interest were peaking. (These things come in waves – I’d put us in a upward motion now after reaching the bottom in 2011.) The MCA was showing interesting work (a Dan Flavin Retrospective, Deb Sokolow and William J. O’Brien had 12 x 12’s), blogs were percolating with critical activity (anyone remember panel-house.com or iconoduel.org?) and this new fandangled thing called a podcast had people sitting with their bulky desktops and REALLY listening.
Amanda Browder says GOOD MORNING New York:
“Good Morning!” is a fabric installation that will be draped on the facade of the building located at 72 East 4th Street, NYC. All the fabric is donated by people from the neighborhood, as well the generous support from Materials for the Arts.
read an interview with Browder about the piece here.
More on the subject of John Preus — Thea Liberty Nichols posted an incredible essay about Preus’, who’s work she recently curated at the Experimental Sound Studio:
John Preus is an artist, musician, carpenter, woodworker, and magpie. In the long-standing tradition of Chicago artists scavenging for “trash treasure,” he lets serendipity and the thrill of the hunt guide him in sourcing discarded materials. Each new piece is a design challenge, contingent on entropy and surplus, to revive what others have cast-off or given up on. His materials offer up an infinite number of solutions which he is constantly attempting to “extract and exploit.”
Juliana Driever posted an artist profile about Ernesto Pujol:
Pujol is a site-specific public performance artist and social choreographer. He has a long record of intellectual and interdisciplinary art practices which have dealt with concepts of collective and individual and collective identity, the sacred, social and political issues, and public/private space. Since the late 90′s, Pujol has also been working on public group performances, where the focus has rested with action, movement, the journey – and the central concept of the “artist-as-citizen.” Additionally, he is the founder of The Field School Project, where young and emerging artists are individually mentored in site-specific practices.
Atlanta-based Meredith Kooi writes about a photo show curated around feminism, performativity, and photography organized by the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery:
The works in the show by the artists Jill Frank, Mónika Sziládi, and duo Double Zero (Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought) examine how to make a photograph of someone, a person, a woman (perhaps) and what that means. One of the organizing principles of the show – performativity, a buzz word indeed especially since the 1990s with Judith Butler’s work on gender – finds itself in relation to photographs that draw attention to the process of their making. Alongside considerations of gender and femininity as performative gestures, the works in the show investigate the apparatus of photography and imagistic representation itself – Jill Frank’s work in particular. Adding to this work by Frank is the Untitled (Projection) series by Steffani Jemison presented in her solo exhibition, When I Turn My Head, in the upstairs gallery at Hagedorn.
Monica Westin posted an interview between Yolanda Cesta Cursach and Tolcachir about Tolcachir’s upcoming performance at the MCA:
Tercer Cuerpo is partly about labor and identity, particularly the disappearance of sustainable, meaningful jobs for people. What happens to these characters, and us, when we must find meaning in our lives apart from a career or calling? The always-already obsolescence of the form of theater makes the piece of interest to representing labor in contemporary performance and medium specificity in dealing with contemporary collapses of space and time. But the company Timbre 4 is also a landmark for contemporary Argentinan art practices; their home base in the working-class Boedo neighborhood of Buenos Aires has become a hotbed and model for independent, experimental theater and performance.
Saturday closed out, as per always, with some Endless Opportunities —
1 Professor/Associate Professor in Art and the Public Sphere, Oslo National Academy of the Arts Closing date: Review of applications will begin October 15, 2013
2. A Blade of Grass announces ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art Deadline: Monday, December 2, 2013
A Blade of Grass, a new funding organization that nurtures socially engaged art, is pleased to announce the launch of the ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. Seven Fellows will be selected to receive an unrestricted stipend of 20,000 USD to realize an innovative community-based project. The program will also offer tailored professional support to socially engaged artists including documentation and assessment of each project, and workshops that teach skills that are particularly relevant to artists working directly with communities to enact social change…Letters of inquiry will be due Monday, December 2, 2013. Finalists will be invited to submit full applications in January 2014 and selections will be made and announced in April 2014. A Blade of Grass will hold two informational Fellowship Workshops prior to each annual application deadline. This year, they will be held on September 17 and November 6. To view the complete application and selection guidelines visit the A Blade of Grass website: www.abladeofgrass.org/
3. Heads up on the rapidly approaching deadline for entries to Curate NYC:
This citywide cultural initiative provides New York City artists a rare and powerful opportunity to expose their work to top curators around the world. See our current entries here: http://www.curatenyc.org/2013/. There are numerous opportunities for exhibition, and no cost to participating. Curate NYC is a civic venture produced by arts philanthropist Danny Simmons and marketing strategist Brian Tate, in partnership with the NYC Economic Development Corporation, to heighten visibility for local artists and to promote the City’s positive image.
4. Kress Foundation Grants DIGITAL RESOURCES GRANTS PROGRAM Deadline: 01 October 2013
Supports efforts to integrate new technologies into the practice of art history and the creation of important online resources in art history, including both textual and visual resources… The Digital Resources program is intended to create incentives for historians of art and architecture, as well as archivists and librarians who support their work, to convert important existing information resources to digital form. These resources will reach a vastly larger audience of specialists, teachers, and students online than they could ever reach previously, while also fostering new forms of research and collaboration and new approaches to teaching and learning. Support will also be offered for the digitization of important visual resources (especially art history photographic archives) in the area of pre-modern European art history; of primary textual sources (especially the literary and documentary sources of European art history); for promising initiatives in online publishing; and for innovative experiments in the field of digital art history. Please note that this grant program does not typically support the digitization of museum object collections. More on that here.
5.GET CA$H FOR QUEER ART! The Critical Fierceness Grant & Mark Aguhar Memorial Fund
Since its founding in 2005, Chances Dances has sought to create a safe space for all gender expressions by bringing together the varied LGBTIQ communities of Chicago. The creation of the Critical Fierceness grant expands upon this goal by offering a unique opportunity for queer artistic expression. Individuals or groups who wish to utilize the Critical Fierceness Grant for artistic purposes and who identify themselves or their work as queer are encouraged to apply. The Critical Fierceness Grant supports queer artists with financial assistance of up to $500.
In 2012,Chances Dances expanded the Critical Fierceness Grant to include the Mark Aguhar Memorial Grant, which seeks to fund projects by queer woman-identified and trans-feminine artists of color. The Mark Aguhar Memorial Grant supports feminine-spectrum queer artists of color with financial assistance of up to $1000. Chances Dances is proud to provide both these opportunities for personal exploration, community development and radical change through art. Read more.
6. ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE PROGRAM FOR PRINTMAKERS | Kala Art Institute, CA Residencies starting in November, December, January, February, or March Deadline: 15 October 2013
Artists working in various printmaking techniques, photo-processes, book arts and digital media including video production can apply to become an Artist-in-Residence at Kala Art Institute… Resident artists receive 24-hour access to the printmaking workshop and/or electronic media center, individual storage space, possible exposure on Kala’s website and in other exhibitions at Kala or outside exhibition spaces, and participation in a vital, international artistic community. Artists also receive a 20% discount on classes and private tutoring offered by Kala. You will find out if you have been accepted approximately two weeks after the application deadline. Kala’s Studio Managers sometimes require the artist to complete certain classes or technical tutorials before beginning the residency. If this is the case, the artist is given a list of the classes/tutorials required. At this point the artist may accept or reject the offer of a residency. More info here: http://www.kala.org/air/air.html