Blog

The Audience as the Artist: LARP's Place in Media

August 31, 2018

Thanks to George Hickman, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

For most of us, we experience the role of an audience member far more often than we experience the role of an artist. On our daily commutes, our mood is at the whim of the radio or our playlist on shuffle. We leave the movie theater buzzing with conversation about the actors, the soundtrack, and the plot. We can't go to bed until we finish that chapter, or that episode, or that level. We are constantly put in the position of an audience member, asked to respond to all kinds of media. Though, as technology continues to expand into our lives, rarely are the audience member and the artist in the same room. For both the artist and the audience, there is a dissonance in this modern experience of entertainment. A large gap between the actor and the front row. But what happens when we are asked to do almost the opposite of this? What happens when we have a room full of audience and artists, constantly exchanging roles with each other?

The form of media called Live Action Role Play (LARP) has been around since the 1980s. In its essence, LARP is a cross between improvisational theater, video games, and escape-the-room. The members of the game build a story together, and in the same way that improv actors write sketches, some of the planning takes place before the game, and some of the planning takes place in the moment. There are two roles one can have when entering a LARP: players and staff writers. Players adopt the role of a character and react to events as their character would react. Staff writers plan the plot structure for the game, and appear as multiple characters throughout the story, in order to see that plot structure through.

While these roles are different, both roles play audience for each other. If I, as a staff member, create a museum heist plot, I will probably play the museum guard and two players might put together a plan to knock me out and steal the ancient treasure. In this scene, I will have some idea of what is going to happen: I probably placed the ancient treasure in the room ahead of time, I might even be able to predict which two players will find me in the museum, and I can make a guess as to how they might make sure I don't talk. But most of the components of this plot are unknown, they will be improvised, once the players arrive on the scene. Will they use brute force or will they charm me into keeping quiet? Did they hire a helping hand or will they show up in disguises? And most importantly, will they accomplish the heist successfully?

Considering this scenario, you can see that LARP distinctly troubles the notion of audience. Here, the staff writer and the players are all audience members for each other's performance. They not only feed off of each other's responses, but they require each other's responses to carry out a scene, to LARP.

In the essay "The Great Divide", Emily Nussbaum describes the divide of the audience when the 70's sitcom All in the Family first came on TV. Half of the audience understood Norman Lear's intent and saw that Archie Bunker was meant to be a satire of racism, homophobia, sexism, and plenty of other problems in American culture. Then, to Lear's surprise, the other half of America cherished Archie, and loved the way he spoke his mind. In the essay Nussbaum asks, "Can there ever be a bad audience member?" After all, she says, who wants to hear that they have been watching something wrong? Is it even possible to watch something wrong, or is the divided audience simply an indication of unsuccessful art? In asking these questions, Nussbaum places the role of the audience in quite a weighty position. The sitcom All in the Family wouldn't have been the success that it was, if it weren't a platform for playing out these tense political discussions in a comedic environment. To raise the question of the bad audience member, is to place the viewers and the writers in equal roles of importance when it comes to determining the meaning of an artwork. By placing the audience and the artist in equal roles of importance, Nussbaum dismisses the age-old image of an actor performing on stage while the audience simply listens and applauds.

Live Action Role Play takes the role of audience and turns it even further on its head. It could be argued that LARP eliminates the role of audience, or at least allows for a more nebulous definition of the word. Unlike an improv sketch, where an audience sits in addition to the improv performers, there are no boundaries that determine who is involved in any given scene. LARPers can be called to the spotlight at any time. You might think this scene is about your best friend and her girlfriend, but when the girlfriend turns and accuses you two of having an affair together, you are thrown in the center of the scene without warning!

LARP shows us that our audiences can be trusted with influencing or even creating the content of our art. Archie Bunker shows us that too, as the aura surrounding his character was determined as much by Norman Lear as it was by the families that sat around their television sets in 1971. Perhaps this equality between audience and artist is something that we see in other genres too. In webcomics, artists will post weekly updates to an ongoing story. In this time frame, fans have the chance to critique, speculate, or possibly even influence the trajectory of the plot. In video games, the player has an incredible amount of control over the trajectory of the story. My playthrough of Skyrim where I robbed an entire village of its sweet rolls and then became a famous bard is greatly different from my sister who joined the Dark Brotherhood and married a huntress.

Can other genres similarly learn to trouble the notion of audience? Like John Cage's "4'33", can music experiment with giving the audience control over its content? Like Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors, can film become a choose-your-own adventure? If being an audience member feels less like being a viewer and more like being an artist, what will we learn about ourselves as creators and listeners? Perhaps this shift in the role of the audience is a bigger movement, and LARP is only one branch of a much larger tree, but it is without a doubt one of the strongest examples of this phenomena. If other artistic mediums were to trouble the notion of audience within their own fields, perhaps this new collaborative wave of art could teach us something about the roles that we as consumers expect to find ourselves in.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Betty Crocker Culture

July 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Food is often thought of in terms of comfort, enjoyment, family gatherings, and parties. We have barbecues in summer and stews in winter. Messy finger foods accompany sporting events and polite finger foods accompany baby showers. These things are linked by their participation in custom. Custom (or convention), as discussed in the Syntopicon, stems from public opinion. Adler claims, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group” (210B). Therefore, a focus on Betty Crocker’s popularity may enlighten commonalities or trends among American lifestyles.

Custom is often founded upon opinion. However, people often assume that custom stems from natural rules. Since customs become so deeply ingrained, it may be difficult to tell whether the belief is driven by nature or by opinion. Either way, once established, beliefs are incredibly difficult to change. They often lead to areas of taste, preference and judgement. A widely accepted social custom allows the majority to pass judgement on those who do not follow the accepted ritual. Montaigne goes so far as to assert that all moral judgements are matters of opinion. He says that “the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them” (211B). Adler adds, “As may be seen in the chapter on Beauty, Montaigne assembles an abundance of evidence to show that standards of beauty vary with different peoples. The tastes or preferences of one group are as unaccountable as they are frequently revolting to another” (211B). This statement is never so true than when applied to food. Certainly individuals have individual likes and dislikes, but so too does society. And as noted before, once societal norms are established, they become very difficult to break. They may bend, each region may interpret the norm slightly differently, but custom, once in place, tends to hold.

Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America directly addresses changes in food culture from 1930s to 1970s in America. Packaged foods began to arrive in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Every imaginable food product quickly flooded this market. But it turns out that changing people’s association with cooking was not nearly so easy as companies thought. At the time, most popular recipes touted themselves as “quick and easy” or labor-saving, so companies assumed the American woman would rejoice at the introduction of pre-packaged meals and meats and mixes. That turned out not to be the case. In her book, Shapiro investigates what packaged foods succeeded and why. She wanders through the many twists and turns of the packaged food industry which directly intersects with popular culture.

For example, one large stumbling block against packaged food was a cultural sense of duty. Women, by and large, felt that they must show effort in the kitchen. To question this effort was to question a woman’s duty, love, respect and morals. In fact, cake mixes were market-tested many times with marginal success. Pillsbury and General Mills (owner of the Betty Crocker brand) led the research and sales for cake mixes. When the companies made the recipes a bit more involved and asked women to add eggs, cake mix sales improved. The small effort of mixing, combined with a lot of advertising, helped the cook feel both involved and successful.

Shapiro writes: “Dichter rightly perceived the overwhelming weight of the moral and emotional imperative to bake cakes from scratch. His research spurred countless ads and magazine articles aimed at persuading women to differentiate between the plain cake layers - ‘merely step number one,’ according to Living – the finished masterpiece. ‘Now, success in cakemaking is packaged right along with the precision ingredients,’ Myrna Johnston assured readers of Better Homes & Gardens in 1953. ‘You can put your effort into glorifying your cake with frosting, dreaming up an exciting trim that puts your own label on it.’ For modern women, these authorities proclaimed, the real art of baking began after the cake emerged from the oven” (77). Shapiro also acknowledges, though, that in addition to demanding more effort, real eggs improved the cake’s flavor and texture. As these packaged foods became more accessible and widely tested, the marketing also ramped up. Company-sponsored baking contests, radio programs, and advertisements kept packaged food in the public eye.

This passage interests me not simply because of the eggs. I am also fascinated by the extreme changes in cake-making itself. About 50 years earlier, cakes would have taken a day to make, unfrosted. Now, the introduction of a cake-mix affords the baker enough time to decorate with flair. Instead of making a delicious cake, the company emphasizes a beautiful cake, one in which the baker adds their own signature on top – in the artistry of the frosting. The cake is notable more for how it looks than how it tastes. This change arrives in tandem with beautifully designed and illustrated cookbooks, such as Betty Crocker’s.

Betty Crocker’s ageless appeal is partially due to the fact that she is not real. Instead, Washburn-Crosby (maker of Gold Medal Flour, now a part of General Mills) invented her in 1921. Betty Crocker was voiced by a number of people on radio programs throughout the 20s and 30s. She had her first official portrait painted in 1936. The brand’s success capitalized upon common American trends. They polled the everyday chef, listened to the advice of housewives and complimented their work. They advertised and wrote trend-setting cookbooks. In short, Betty Crocker cookbooks address popular frustrations and desires. In the section on “Kitchen Know-How”, the Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook from 1961 advises: “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and the family’s, too! Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a ‘labor of love.’” This cookbook touts itself as a book that is “charming, practical and fun to use.” Though Betty Crocker was not a real person, people reacted strongly to her sense of style, clarity, ease, ambition, ability to incorporate flavor, and lively spirit.

In the Epilogue of Something from the Oven, Shapiro claims, “In the end, it took both a cook and a feminist to liberate the American kitchen. By liberation I don’t mean freedom from cooking, though the women’s movement is often construed in those terms. I mean that the cooking itself has been freed, or at least notably loosened, from the grip of the food industry and the constraints of gender” (249). While I am not sure about her claim that women have been freed from kitchen labor, I do see how cooking has been liberated. In accepting cake mixes, shortcuts and time-saving equipment, it is possible to spend much less time in the kitchen.

In the Syntopicon, Adler writes, “Art involves voluntary making. Custom involves voluntary doing” (208A). This interests me as I think about changes in our association with food, not simply family meals, but elegant events and children’s parties. American food has definitely evolved since the introduction of processed foods. Yet, since cooking interacts so closely with culture, I am still left with many questions that a text like Shapiro’s begins to address. For example: How does food interact with progress? How does it restrict progress? What is considered “progress” in the kitchen? Can we consider a type of food liberating? For example, are microwaveable meals or Lunchables liberating? On the other hand, are foods made from homegrown gardens liberating? In short, what does our food say about culture today?

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

 

Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.