Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Virtually Real

There is a lot of foot traffic as we make our way up Marshall Street towards Malvern. We are blocks away from hipsters' paradise, or Maboneng as it is dubbed, but have entered another country, where people buy second-hand threads out of necessity and tailors work with their sewing machines on the pavement. As audience members of Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie's peripatetic Between, we are observers of the street life, though at times passers-by glare at us as if we are the subjects of the work. The performers are hard to detect, they are sometimes part of our group or emerge from the throng. It's a guessing game: who and what is for real, and who is on show?

This performance for the Drama for Life festival wasn't anything new. Taking to Joburg's inner city streets as part of a cultural adventure, a way of mapping, and challenging invisible boundaries, and coming to grips with "the other" has quite peculiarly become a (predominantly white) middle-class pursuit. For those who live or pass through the inner city this is everyday life. Underpinning this drive for the middle classes to steep themselves in inner city life is the compulsion to confront "the real Joburg" - that is, the inner city that was abandoned (by white people) from the late 1980s and fell into a state of entropy. Of course, no part of Joburg is more real than another.

The Goethe Institut's New Imaginaries initiative is feeding off this trend, expanding its cultural scope. Its recent Shoe Shop project, which was the first installation, may have centred on migration and movement, exploiting the metaphor attached to urban strolls, but it was significant that one of the key events was a street parade from Braamfontein to the Drill Hall in the inner city that further ritualised this desire to penetrate, confront and reconcile with the "real" Joburg.

The spirit of the project was slightly undermined by the fact that the "real" Joburgers, the inner city residents, didn't feel comfortable joining the party at the Drill Hall - the wire fence and gate manned by guards was one of the deterrents. In reality there have to be security measures in place - borders need to be drawn.

The A Maze festival, the next installation of the initiative took place last week and was also a self-consciously Joburg event. It's as if anything that is set in this city is overwritten by its location.

As a project run by the German digital gaming enthusiast, Thorsten Wiedemann, who has been pioneering the interface between art and gaming in Berlin, Joburgers were encouraged to reconceive their relationship to the city in virtual realms. Gaming enthusiasts were invited to spend a weekend creating computer games set in or relating to Joburg. Dubbed a "Game Jam" it kicked off with Donna Kukama, a performance artist, informing participants of the theme: "chop-shop".

Some gamers opted for literal interpretations by designing games that depicted this activity, while others, among them Michael Geyser, a web programmer, interpreted it as a mode of creation that is analogous with cut-'n'-paste culture.

With only the weekend to create the game, he appropriated Google Maps of Joburg's inner city and free code available on Wikipedia, designing a game set in the future, where cyber technology had become a more lucrative industry than mining. The graphics are rudimentary; consisting of an animated map and Joburg's skyline. It is the text that roots it in an imagined future, although repeated references to a struggle between mining houses and citizens evoke the Marikana massacre.

Reality is hard to escape. The game isn't expected to enjoy any kind of afterlife; the Game Jam is supposed to create interest in the possibilities of computer games as an art form rather than just pure entertainment.

Hermann Pienaar, an 18-year-old gaming enthusiast who participated in the Game Jam, believes that gaming models could be applied to other spheres of life.
"Companies and governments would operate more efficiently if they applied the thinking behind gaming to other things. Games allow you to find faults in a system easily. If something isn't working you have to redesign it."

Pienaar and Geyser's games go on display in the basement of the Alexander theatre. Exhibiting games proves a tricky endeavour. The exhibition of games created by artists collaborating with gamemakers in the foyer of the Wits Art Museum situates them as objects to some degree, the bright lights surrounding them and the busy reality outside the glass walls impedes an immersive experience. You are aware that you are viewing objects, not interacting with them.

It's a stretch calling these displays exhibitions; the "works" aren't labelled, or titled, there isn't even a driving theme or information available for visitors, and the works haven't been thoughtfully curated. The display in the basement is poorly lit, which aids immersion, but the games' rudimentary graphics deny this. It is the strong musical programme attached to the festival that facilitates immersion in the digital sphere.

James Webb's Telepylos, which he dubs a film without images, really fixes us in an indefinable imagined space. In the vein of Musique Concréte, a form of music pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s, Webb creates music from movie sound samples. The audience are blindfolded and consequently free to let their thoughts wander.

Immersion in the virtual, however, isn't the objective of A Maze. Rather the idea is to inspire people to see how gaming can empower them to redesign their cities and find ways of re-engaging with space and forging different kinds of relationships to it and its inhabitants. In other words, the ideas underpinning these virtual realms should be transferred into real space. This aspect of A Maze comes to the fore during the conference.

Georg Russegger, from the University of Art and Design Linz, encourages "gamification" as a tool of interaction. Exploiting computer parlance, he advocates "hacking yourself first". He encourages dreaming up your own games and believes playfulness can be used as a catalyst for change.

A few days later I find myself back on Joburg's streets testing this approach in Anthea Moys and Sebastian Quack's Flipside, a game they have developed that is said to involve teleportation. It's a regressive space; we feel like children as we are apprised of the rules and rituals, divided into competing teams and given a shot of teleportation juice - cream soda. Each team is a fictional TV production company tasked with concocting fictional narratives in Berlin.

We first have to teleport to Berlin, which is done through a little dance on a cloth at the corner of a street. Instructions come from our "reality dealer". We become so caught up that we dash around Braamfontein filming our stories without caring how ridiculous we appear. It is liberating to be freed from the world of appearances. Instead of feeling like we are tourists surveying the daily experiences of the impoverished, we are connecting with each other. We get extra points for including bystanders, so passers-by are temporarily absorbed into the madness. We are all working towards a common goal and the politics of the space become peripheral.

The gaming model offers possibilities - virtual and real - for exploring Joburg, freeing us up from the models performers have been using. But games come with their own sets of limitations; being the game itself, the rules. They also spark our competitive nature and support a goal-orientated mode, leading to friction and failure. As Russegger said, who gets to play and where, are pertinent questions.If the artificial construct of the game is removed is there anything lasting or authentic left? - published in The Sunday Independent, September 09, 2012.

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