Alternative reality art, social agency, and collective action

In 1992, Rikrit Tiravanija held a solo show where he cooked Thai food for visitors at 303 Gallery in New York. Of the experience, he stated, “It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people” (“WTF is…Relational Aesthetics?). Similarly, performance artist Robert Karimi (the Peoples Cook), cooks meals for audiences on stage and throws dinner parties in public spaces to promote community and address issues “from food justice to displacement and violence” (“Art and Social Change”). Karimi’s project is vocally political. If as McGonigal state, the effect of immersive aesthetics is to “create access to new sources of collective empowerment, especially through the forging of a strong sense of community” then the works described above–what Nicolas Bourriaud would call “relational aesthetics,” accomplish just this. Relational aesthetics, as Bourriaud defines it, is “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (113). One cannot always easily define the boundaries of relational aesthetics. Mary Flanagan’s giant Joystick (2006), for example, invited the public to collaborate in controlling a ten-foot joystick to collectively navigate classic ATARI games. Where Tiravanija and Karimi forge community through shared consumption, Flanagan fosters community through collaborative action. (Is it coincidental that she utilizes a game aesthetic?)

Relational aesthetics differ from immersive games in their methods of cultivating community bonds. While immersive games such as Beast engage participants over a comparatively longer stretch of time, relational aesthetics is often fleeting, or as one might say, “here one moment and gone the next.” If we take as our premise that extended group experiences have a greater capacity to incubate lasting group bonds, then we might conclude that immersive games have an advantage over conventional works of relational aesthetics. Nonetheless, the types of experiences that relational aesthetics invites individuals to partake of are often grounded in concentrated, in-person interaction rather than sporadic digital interaction. Its ability to invite viewers to partake in an intensive, face-to-face social experience may lend it to be more conductive to forming lasting, “grounded” relationships. While relational aesthetics does meddle in reality to create environments in which, “everything phenomenologically speaking, is real,” it often take place in galleries, museums, and other spaces under the header of “exhibition.” If it is not declared an exhibition, then the project will typically be advertised as one of a known artist. The maintenance of an overt conceptual boundary between “the real” and “art” (play) arguably makes relational aesthetics a less fertile training ground for collective activism. If group bonds are seen as internal to and contained to the experience of a work of art, then little conviction of the “reality” of the experience remains after, save for the effects of potential “bleed.” That said, relational aesthetics claim its own domain of effectiveness by openly conflating the conceptual distinction between the terms “art” and “reality.” If immersive games question the boundary between reality and play by way of evading the question, then relational aesthetics attempts to dissolve the boundary through open acceptance of their commonalities.

Parafictions operate more covertly and directly than works of relational aesthetics in realizing political change. Michael Blum’s A Tribute to Safiye Behar was an exhibition erected at Istanbul’s Ninth International Biennial to highlight the life of a fictionalized historical figure, Safiye Behar, who purportedly enjoyed an intimate friendship with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. For the purpose of the biennial, he constructed a historical house museum where he featured materials alleged to be from historical societies, archives, and Behar’s descendants. As Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes it, Blum:

Set up vitrines featuring her letters, photographs, and books, and arranged original furnishings in the rooms of the apartment, to be peered at over Plexiglass barriers. He relayed Behar’s life story with both bilingual didactics and a certain flair for stagecraft (a side table bore a dish of roasted chickpeas, Kemal’s favorite snack). A video interview with Behar’s grandson, Chicago architect Melik Tutuncu, brought her family legacy up to the present (52).

While A Tribute was contextualized within an art biennial, Blum capitalized on the audience approaching his project as a historical exhibition by way of the common conflation of the presentation of art and the presentation of its history. Most art, after all, is presented as a relic of the artist’s process rather than mobilized to work its process on the audience. Moreover, like the producers of the Beast, Blum, when questioned about the reality of the exhibition, would reply that Behar as “real to me” (Lambert-Beatty 53). Finally, unlike works of relational aesthetics, parafictions create an “in-group” in which individuals are aware of their membership but often estranged from the bulk of other members in the group.

The power in a work like Blum’s lies within its ability to mobilize individuals to have direct, collective effect rather than in its tendency to promote collaborative campaigns. Michel de Certeau describes that “to make people believe is to make them act” (McIntyre 6). Capitalizing on veristic detail and the proclivity to regard history as factual, Blum’s work cultivated a sizeable cohort of “believers,” who continued (or began) to believe long after the exhibition was over. As Lambert-Beatty notes, a newspaper article written years later mentioned Safiye Behar as a real historical figure completely estranged from the context of art (53). Incidents such as this hold greater social import than merely spreading misinformation; they can catalyze the formation of political beliefs that have the potential to motivate groups to create change. Lambert-Beatty writes that the fiction, presented as reality, undermined stereotypes about Turkey as “backwards, other, and ‘Islamist’” at a critical moment when Turkey’s application to the European Union was being actively considered (52-53). A piece such as Blum’s primes those who experience its parafiction, either firsthand or secondhand, to alter their political and social outlooks. These effects have, in turn, the ability to translate into “real” sociopolitical action, even by route of the individual, whose actions in the case of voting become public and collective, or in the case of social media, become viral and efficacious. Parafictional works are unique in directly impacting a believer’s affect rather than acting as a tool of persuasion. While this sounds good, its ethics remain questionable. Surely Blum’s project cast a more accurate light on the sociopolitical mindset of Turkish citizens than its corrupt government sought to impart, and so, was using a falsified means of achieving a more accurate impression unethical? Could it not have been the case that a more subtle though accurate intervention would have made less progress towards confronting the Turkish government’s own manipulative tactics? Are parafictions really just vehicles for corrective, manipulative action, and if so, is it truly problematic for artists to take up the same as oppressors?

The difference between relational aesthetics and parafictions highlights a crucial difference between games that prep their participants for directed collaborative activism and games that prep their participants for individual activism with collective effects. McGonigal’s interest in Beast is directed at how it motivated players to lead a collaborative investigative effort, namely regarding the events of 9/11. The lingering question is, in what contexts could the social dynamics of Beast be effectively deployed? It is certainly the case that many a grassroots effort has aided formal investigations, it is also the case that grassroots interventions often interfere. A December 2018 article detailing the search for a missing person notes, “Although police are grateful for the offers from citizens to help with the search, they said it could hamper the ability for dogs to track scents, which can interfere with the operation” (“Body of missing Roanoke County man found on hiking trail). Group-led efforts are moreover indirect in their political effects. Whereas changing individuals’ beliefs has the capacity to translate into their direct action, the activities of groups are typically motivated towards effecting changes in beliefs that then translate to direct actions. For example, lobbying groups are designed to influence public opinion and policy, whereas those whose opinions’ are influenced are expected to vote for or implement a change in policy, directly. Of course, collectives can organize direct action campaigns, whether that means public protest or constructive public actions. Do games such as the Beast though, serve as effective platforms for organizing individuals on the basis of social and political beliefs or do they simply serve as conduits for collective sensation? I’m hesitant to have faith in the ability of “apolitical” games and works of art to harness group energy and repurpose it for productive forms of collective action. If anything, the potential for capitalizing on group bonds for the purpose of an alternative agenda highlights not that groups are powerful, but rather that they are highly manipulable.

Finally, I would ask what it would look like if games did operate like parafictions. Would a parafictional game cultivate an internal fiction, or is that too similar to what alternate reality/pervasive/immersive games do already? Would a parafictional game entail more explicit interaction between the “in-group” of the game and the “out-group” of the world at large? Is there really a difference between playing “mind games” and playing games that induct the public into parafictions? Isn’t the post-truth trend towards manipulating information a sort of game played by its political perpetrators? Do we need to combat games with games, and, even if we don’t need to, might “games” be more effective than taking the “moral high ground”? Is the moral high ground more heavily determined by outcome, intent, or process?; regardless, might there such a thing as beneficent vice? In serving society at large, there are in practice always “tolerable” individual sacrifices made in order to serve the greater good; is the manipulation of reality a tactic within the realm of the humane, and if not, why isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “Alternative reality art, social agency, and collective action

  1. The clearest example of parafiction ultimately manipulating reality in my head is the Slender Man. The Slender Man started out as a photo shop contest on the Something Awful forums, where the creator thought of this mysterious figure who shows up in old photographs and encourages people to murder. Gradually, Slender Man took off as a meme/creepypasta, showing up in photos and having stories of encounters. There were even several extremely popular webseries created based on the character, like Marble Hornets and TribeTwelve, and even a few (awful) movies!

    For years, though, Slender Man was more of a kind of joke on the internet, just a fun thing people would reference. That is until the Slender Man stabbings, when two girls tried to murder one of their friends in a bid to attract the Slender Man. Apparently they had read about the character online and failed to recognize the fictional status of the character: their actions in turn sparked a mass panic regarding this mysterious internet character who seemed to be influencing kids to murder. Somehow, what started as a harmless internet story built up such a reputation and lore online that it ultimately bled out into the real world.

    Manipulating reality is tangible. But it requires a great number of people willing to play along in order to influence others.


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