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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.

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Forget Blue or Brown Eyes, My Baby Will Have Five-Hundred Eyes

August 17, 2018

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

Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.

Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.

Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.

Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.

Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.

As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.

Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.

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Eight Bites Do Not Satisfy Me

March 9, 2018

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

An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.

In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.

The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.

When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).

Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.

In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.

Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.

 

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Defining the Self

September 22, 2017

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

Last week, I attended a lecture at St. John's College titled, “The Intermittencies of the Self: Philosophic and Poetic Inquiries into the Nature of Selfhood (Or: Is Literature the Most Important Activity a Human Being Can Engage in, and Should You Dedicate Your Life to It?)”. The speaker, David Carl, used a number of texts to trace an argument about the way that a self may be constructed. He focused on Fernando Pessoa's experiment of writing in another persona altogether and Schopenhauer's theories of representation. Though Pessoa is perhaps one of the first to use fictitious journal entries as a way to literally become another voice, the discussion of self, self-perception, self-creation and how we create an identity is not new. Literature is constantly evolving the discussion of self.

Perhaps this is the reason for the recent explosion of memoir and creative nonfiction. These genres place the self into the landscape being discussed. For example, instead of commenting on scenery, one actually depicts an interaction with the landscape. This approach of weaving different texts in and out of the author's life is often called “braiding”. Though the author remains the focal point of the story (as in memoir), there will be pieces of heavily researched data entering and informing their lives.

A recent essay by Nicole Walker in Creative Nonfiction discusses the possibilities of this approach while simultaneously demonstrating the technique. In this essay, Walker writes about her life as a child which now informs her political and personal landscape. In so doing, she weaves in and out scientific explanations of the environment, religious affiliations, common misconceptions and generalizations, as well as a discussion of the essay format itself. I think that this technique offers an interesting avenue towards self-discovery. In braiding, one can literally write about anything as long as some connection is made between the self of the story and the thing being discussed. In other words, it forces abstract thought. I wonder if creating connections with something completely outside of ourselves will allow for more empathy? It seems like a natural progression: to travel through different to similar to myself and then back to similar and finally, different. As Walker's essay demonstrates, we are often surprised at the connections and revelations that this style offers. Braided content requires a high level of analysis and sometimes abstraction. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in this french-braiding technique which seems to erase the I, or even in the case of Pessoa (who literally attempted to erase himself and push another voice forward), we find the self? Wouldn't it be ironic if the ability to understand a completely foreign character (or thing) leads us to self-development?

In Carl's lecture, he touched on a couple of my favorite quotes. First, Wallace Stevens wrote, “Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into.” Of course, one of the reasons that I study literature is to meet worlds from which I can gain no other access. Even if that world is fantastical and experimental, there is something to be gained if the piece carries a question or idea that also plagues our society or ourselves. Our world seems fascinated with labels. Yet, identity is not always easily constructed. For example, we have the ability to move often (which troubles the question: “Where are you from?”). We also change jobs more often than a decade or two ago (so, “What do you do?” becomes tricky to succinctly answer). These two seemingly basic questions may have four or ten answers. We do a lot. We expect a lot. And while that is exciting and opportunity-filled, but it is also stifling if we feel that a single identity is in some way necessary. And this is where literature allows some travel, some leeway, some discussion. Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, “Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.” In other words, if we use literature to reach out, our universe may continue to expand.

Which brings me to the second quote from Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation: “[The aesthetic experience] consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares: we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.” For me, this means that contemplation allows us to open our mind to ideas. Personally, I am excited by this great, wide open space dedicated to development.

Many thanks to David Carl for his inspiring lecture as well as St. John's College for hosting the event. For more information on St. John's College Dean Lecture Series, visit: https://www.sjc.edu/santa-fe/events/lectures

For more on Pessoa, read last week's blog.

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