Festivals / Insight

Behind the Scenes of #artctrl at You Are Here 2014

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Image by Adam Thomas

Julian Fleetwood shares some of the behind the scenes antics of #artctrl, as part of the 2014 You Are Here (YAH) Festival. You Are Here is a curated festival which exists to showcase the best of Canberra’s diverse independent and experimental arts and culture. 

Earlier this year, with the support of the ACT Writers Centre, I ran an alternative reality game (ARG)/transmedia storytelling experiment called #artctrl as part of the 2014 You Are Here (YAH) Festival. ARGs, in the simplest terms, are interactive stories told across multiple platforms, predominantly on the web and at real world events; hence the related term of ‘transmedia’. ARGs aren’t radically new concepts: the first big one, The Beast, ran in 2001 as promotion for the Spielberg and Kubrick film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. With the success of related projects like Google’s Ingress, awareness of ARGs are slowly increasing, going beyond the traditional niche audience of treasure hunters and online puzzle solvers, towards the mainstream.

#artctrl was by far the most complex artistic project I’ve run and that was with the support of an incredible team of actors, designers and writers. This brief post explores some of the ideas behind the project and its connection with the YAH festival, and some of the key lessons learnt from this work.

YAH has been running since 2011, as part of the early centenary celebrations initiated by Robyn Archer. Each year the festival takes over temporarily unlet Canberra CBD sites for two weeks in March to host free artistic events. These events range from high culture (interactive dance performance at CMAG) to more cult fare (a ‘Christmas’ screening of Die Hard 2 in the old Fletcher Jones building).

Prior to #artctrl, my primary involvement with the festival had been with the Mall Stories fiction audio tours. It was my interest in expanding these tours to enable more interactive engagement with public space, combined with the unique position that YAH occupies in the Canberra artistic scene, that initiated #artctrl. The story ran from just prior to the launch of the YAH program on 28 February 2014 to just after the festival ended on 23 March. During these 6 weeks, the audience followed a secret battle for the control of Canberra arts between a bureaucratic nightmare of a government agency known as the Benevolent Ministry of Art, and a small rebellious force led by an unstable outlaw named T-Bone.

The players/audience followed the story in real time across Twitter, at live festival events, on a Facebook group, and via a blog authored by an in-game character called The Scribe. As is usual in ARGs, the audience were also able to participate in a range of interactive activities, including pledging their allegiance to one of the sides, playing a specially designed card game with the game characters, deciphering codes and, for one winner, whacking a Skywhale pinata to access the game’s grand prize.

The core audience for this project was small, as is common for ARGs. Knowing this, we designed the game with the intention that an audience member could have fun just taking part in one activity, or by simply following the story online. As The Scribe’s blog provided a regular catch-up service, the audience could also tune in and out at any time and very quickly get up to speed.

As with YAH events, there was no charge to play #artctrl. But to experience the game fully did require an investment of time and the use of a range of different skills, including puzzle solving and the courage to roleplay in public. These demands on the audience, combined with an uncertain return on their time investment, meant some of the early responses to the game were, regrettably, suspicion and even frustration. The initial secretness around the project was a contributing factor, too; the goal was to encourage people to re-imagine what happens in everyday familiar locations, but this came across to some as if they were being caught up in a guerilla marketing campaign without their consent.

Happily, the less enthusiastic responses to the project were balanced with a core audience who joyfully solved all of puzzles and participated in the story via social media and engagement with actors at YAH events. Additionally, some of the one-off interest generated for the festival by some of the bigger set pieces was quite substantial; a demo battle fought by The Hundred Swords in Garema Place on a Friday night had well over a hundred punters (if not actual swords!) and an online personality quiz that checked the “acceptability” of your artistic life was popular throughout.

The Hundred Swords Battle - Image by Anna Mayberry

The Hundred Swords Battle – Image by Anna Mayberry

I think there is a growing interest in ARG-like projects in Canberra, but perhaps the best approach for now are single short events that are sold with clear(er) expectations of what the audience will be asked to do. The format might also work well at a one or multi day events in locations with a “captured” audience that has time to spare between events, such as at a music festival. That said, the mysteriousness of #artctrl and its position within the margins of the YAH festival produced some unexpected and fascinating interactions, which would not have been possible with a more upfront presentation.

The best key performance indicator for transmedia is, I think, that an audience member is so excited by a story that they will take the time to put themselves within the world and, best of all, to extend this world with their own in-game content. I was lucky enough to experience this on a couple of occasions with #artctrl. It was an enormous effort to produce this project, but there’s nothing quite like seeing an audience member engage creatively with your work.

If you are interested in finding out more about the background of #artctrl there’s a number of in-depth posts available on my blog and most of the online game content is still available by googling #artctrl – enjoy the journey!

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