Artist and game designer Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley held an intimate playtesting event, WE CAN’T DO THIS ALONE, in south London on 11 April 2022. The event followed a six month period of research and development (R&D) with Serpentine’s Arts Technologies team where she and developer Rob Prouse employed surveillance technologies such as motion capture, facial recognition and eye-tracking to create game interactions where players’ presence, movement and identity act at a game controller.
WE CAN’T DO THIS ALONE marked a chance to test these prototypes with the public in a new game experience. On entering the event’s location––a chroma-key green studio with cyclorama walls––audience members were guided to their seats by balaclava-clad ushers, the artist’ agents. They found the artist singing on an inflatable boat set against a green-screen stage, with the studio divided into two parts on either side. Several cameras were pointed around and the audience had been told before arrival that their every motion would be recorded. Two monitors in front of the stage displayed the in-game action to the seated audience, keying in the game engine’s real-time visuals via the greenscreen. Danielle wore a red mask and muffled her voice with the help of a vocoder (voice changer). On their seats, the audience found an envelope, indicating their role and task for the duration of the show. It also warned that this information should be kept absolutely confidential.
As the evening began, audience members learned that they were cohabitants of a village with six clairvoyants (selected from the audience by the artist). Following the murder of one of the clairvoyants by another, it’s the audience’s task to find out who the killer is by asking the five remaining clairvoyants questions. It’s up to them to collectively decide the killer’s identity, those in the community who need to be protected, and determine how to protect them. The audience’s actions and inputs promoted and shaped the development of the play’s activity. Throughout, audience members discussed the mystery with the people around them, trying to solve it with further clues that prompted them to play both within and outside of the virtual game world, at one point scanning their faces into characters and at another point using their eyes to navigate clues. Throughout, the audience themselves faced inquisition and limited time, each one suspicious of the other, and just as the artist designed. Although the killer wasn’t found at the end of the show, the social construction simulated by this performance and the wider core issue it addressed：supremacy, is still worth thinking about after the event…
AZ: This is a thought-provoking and memorable event that adopts game interaction approaches to stimulate people’s interests, thus leading audiences to deeply ponder issues around supremacy, communities, and responsibilities. The event reminds us of a game called Mafia, also known as Werewolf, which was released in 1986 and became popular again in Asia not long ago. The rules of that particular game also require players to find out the lying werewolf through their judgments and votes. Was your inspiration for the event derived from such game analogues? What was the genesis of your project?
D:Yes and no. During the pandemic, a game called Among Us was really popular. Among Us is similar to Werewolf but it’s played online, and includes elements like having to do tasks and claim your innocence. There’s something really interesting about having to claim that you are innocent, even though there’s a lot of evidence stacked against you. But originally, when I was planning this, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I had just written this story about six clairvoyants who were like a family, one of them had betrayed the other five, and for that they were killed.
Writing that story made me start thinking about ‘Cancel culture’, how communities can harm each other sometimes, and how your friends and even those closest to you can turn on you. It came mostly from thinking about how people within your particular community can cause you the most harm because they’re the ones that know how to hurt you the best. They know what you’re going through, and they have a similar experience to you. So the project was a mix of trying to figure out how to bring people together but also showing that there could be a wealth of differences between them. Showing that assumptions based on looking at a person or based on a person’s ‘role’ could be completely wrong. Everyone essentially is their own individual, with their own thoughts and continuously shifting mindset. Especially because of the US political situation, but regarding the politics in the UK as well, it made me think a lot about how very open-minded people can become very narrow-minded because of events they go through in their lives. That was the basis for the play.
AZ: This is a very interesting and realistic perspective about how situations change. Every moment could lead to drastically different results. Before the game started, you declared to everyone; ‘This is not a performance, but everyone is a performer.’ You encouraged people to be active. How do you see the engagement with this project? Did participation meet your expectations?
D:Good question. I think I expected the audience to be a little more sheepish than they were, but I think the singing at the beginning helped people become part of the performance. I’m someone who really doesn’t like “passive art”, by which I mean traditional art that has been placed in a gallery for those with wealth, money, or time to enjoy at their own leisure, however they want to. I want to turn the tables and say ‘you have to work in order to enjoy the art’. Enjoying art doesn’t mean that it’s always pleasant. Sometimes it’s an experience that changes you, and sometimes it’s an experience that makes you very uncomfortable. We got feedback that some people did feel very uncomfortable and didn’t necessarily like it. But that’s really good feedback. It’s really interesting that this can be art – that art can make you feel like you don’t want to do it again. I find that to be a more fascinating way of appreciating art, because you’re thinking about yourself, your boundaries, what you want to put up with, what you don’t, and what kind of things make you scared. For example, people are scared of being called a supremacist, a racist, a fascist or transphobic, all these kinds of things. I think it’s really interesting to play with what’s going on there, to bring such anxiety forward and have a conversation about it. Sometimes, because someone might be avoiding scenarios, they aren’t actually enacting or activating those supremacist ideas, those kinds of violences, those anti-particular-people sentiments such as transphobia. But equally through such avoidance, they are also helping to enact and uphold such systems of abuse, so that’s what I was trying to get at.
In terms of audience participation, I didn’t expect a particular kind of engagement this time. The way in which we designed the experience was that engagement is essential for the piece to go anywhere. If no one engages, then no one can see the art. I think having cut-and-dry rules like that for yourself is really good, because you can say, okay, no one’s going to come on stage, well, that means the performance is over. It’s ten minutes in and you’re responsible for the performance being over. That’s the format that I want to play with. You have to put in effort in order for the art to exist. If the art does not exist, then tell the audience to put in effort. Overall I was quite happy with the engagement and I’m excited to see how it will change next time. I’ve learned more about how to encourage participation, also how to give people alternative ways to join in without it feeling like peer pressure.
AZ: You put yourself into the audience and attempt to understand their experiences for the sake of bringing the most out of your work. Some of your work makes people feel scared, and your previous works SHE KEEPS ME DAME ALIVE and BlackTransSea.com made us feel stressed and solemn since they discussed serious issues. This time, the project focuses on issues of supremacy and murder, with characters encountering fatal endings. However, interestingly, the event’s overall atmosphere was playful and upbeat. How did you design for this? Were there any surprises or anything that happened outside of your original plan?
D:It’s a really hard question to answer because most of the play is improvised. Most of it is reacting to the audience, how they’re feeling, the way they’re looking at me, what they say in the room and the general demeanour. I take that as an input as if you’re inputting into a video game; the way someone is sitting, the way someone is acting, the way someone is looking. I’m taking these things as points of access. There’s nothing that didn’t go to plan, but there are a lot of things that weren’t planned that happened.
The format completely changed for instance – the way the audience asked questions in the end was completely improvised, and originally in the script, the clairvoyants answer together, but in the moment I decided that they should answer one by one. The scene where we chose which clairvoyant was guilty was also very different from the scenario planned and completely improvised, with each giving an alibi as to why they couldn’t be the guilty party. There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t expect to happen. The ending was completely unplanned in general, so obviously I also didn’t expect any of that to happen either.
AZ: Did you encounter any challenges while attempting to balance the improvised and non-improvised parts of the event?
D:In the future, I’d like to do even more worldbuilding with the audience, giving them more decisions to shape the world so that they feel even more invested in the course of events. That might include incorporating 3D model elements into the world’s design; for instance the village’s chosen name or shape pops up in 3D so there’s more real-time incorporation and feedback from audience decisions. Or superimposing the audience on a green screen, things like that, in order to position both the audience and the people on stage within this world that we’re creating. I think when you’re working with audience participation, or audience-as-medium as I often say, the more you can embed them into this world, the more it feels like a game, the more free they can feel and be within it. I’d like to get to the point where the audience feels like it’s totally their space to control. I know I’ll make it if I get to halfway through the performance and I can leave. I want the performance to be able to finish without me. That’s really scary, but structuring it that way means that it can hold everyone’s thoughts, feelings and ways of acting, without having to be hosted by the person that originally designed it or set the game in motion, which essentially turns it more into something resembling these games that you mentioned like Mafia. When you know the rules, you know how to finish the game. I’d like to not be able to see the end point at all.
AZ: Could you tell us more about your approach to identity design? In previous works you’ve made, players have to choose a specific identity in order to enter the game.
D:This time around, identities were randomly distributed, with envelopes determining identities placed on the chairs. Usually, I’m so focused on who people are, them having to identify and then essentially categorise themselves. But I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted people to be able to do that to themselves and to each other, experiencing what it is to enter into that mindset of categorisation and suspicion. I think it’s really interesting when people are sitting in the room and they assume the gender of someone like me. Even though I was wearing a mask, my gential information was assumed. Basically, the play is all about supremacy and the ways that some of these systems live within us.
When you organise with a group of people, they raise their heads and the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things start coming out. I wanted to create a space that allowed this to happen without me having such a strong influence on what particular structures are. So for instance we got a group that wanted to elect someone to make a decision, and this group chose to vote to achieve this. I thought that was a really interesting decision that happened, the birth of a democratic system. But other groups that we do the play with may choose a completely different way of approaching things. I want to make space for all of those formations and decisions to take place, which is why I didn’t declare identities in the same way with this work.
For similar reasons in future, I’d want there to be a different system for choosing the players, more of a group consensus. This time I chose them by feel, as people were looking at me in the eyes, but I didn’t account for people feeling anxious and the kind of pressure it puts on someone when the main performer asks you to come on stage. So I’m thinking of ways to improve that in the future; such as players picked at random or allowing the first to choose the second and so on.
AZ: Yes, I agree with you. Besides, I also think that the circumstances are different when people play games in real life. For example, players may already know each other before entering the game. The different dynamics between the two would be very interesting to investigate. If players already formed a group before the game even started, the allies and rivals would significantly affect the game.
D:Right, exactly. It would be so interesting if we did this with groups like a school, a basketball team or complete strangers in a park. It’s so interesting what the different dynamics are and could be. So, for example, if you did this with a sports team, then they already have this kind of camaraderie. They’re on a team and know how to play as a team. They don’t have to work so hard to figure things out together, plan together. It would be really interesting to see how that dynamic works. And then at a school, they all know each other, but they don’t necessarily know how to work in a team, so when someone is betraying someone else in-game, they’ll feel it more. They’ll say, ‘I know you, why are you doing that?’ I think it’s really interesting to try to diversify the audience.
Just trying this with one audience isn’t enough. We need to make sure that the audience continues to be as diverse and different as the world needs them to be. It doesn’t work if the whole piece is about interaction, trying to avoid a ‘classic’ art world audience, trying to resist falling into the trap of creating work that is only consumed and doesn’t react back to its audience. We also have to make sure that the audience reflects that sentiment and go for a wider, more participatory, and likely less well-versed-in-art audience.
That’s why a lot of my work is online as well. A lot of it is based on game design. The space is very easily played and accessed and not just found in the gallery, because the type of audience that I’m going for is not the typical art audience. I want to mix up what it means to be making art now and what it means to be trying to accommodate a larger kind of audience.
AZ: Did you try and make the game as realistic as possible?
D:I’m not sure if I did that. Again, because there’s so much interactivity. It depends on the person. So for some people, their interaction within this space probably felt a lot more real than others, which is the point of the performance. Sometimes it brings up a lot of worries and concerns for individuals. For example, if you feel like you might be called a supremacist in real life, you might feel very differently about the idea that someone in the room is going to be called a supremacist or the idea that you have to play the role of a supremacist. Or if you have ever experienced racism, the idea of supremacy coming into this room is quite scary because you might experience it again at that moment. But others might just see it as a game, completely just enjoy the game part of it and not think too much about the theory until something happens.
I think there’s a big gap between how real it was for some people and how it really wasn’t for others, and I also think that’s a super interesting part of it. Again, some people are remembering and re-facing; surfacing emotions, worries, anxieties and memories, and others are just experiencing the game for what it is, for the room that was created and for the world that we’re building. So I think it’s really fascinating as we’re gathering feedback, to see who’s taken it really seriously because of the kind of experiences they have, and who could take it as just a game experience where their most immediate references might be other games, like Mafia for instance.
AZ: At the end of the game, the murderer was not revealed. Is this unrevealed narrative related to your upcoming works?
D:Well actually, half the crowd did know who the murderer was because their envelopes revealed the answer – they just weren’t allowed to tell anyone. The envelopes encouraged these players to deter truth from coming out and so although a lot of the audience were actually calling out the right decision, these other players were arguing against it. I’m sharing this to highlight that there are many more stories and complexities at work than just the question of who the murderer is. There are many more layers to what’s happening. The main work is about stopping supremacy and ending it. We didn’t complete the mission this time around, but it’s about the audience working together as a team to solve the mystery, creating a joint effort and needing everyone to be on the same page in order to try and enact this ending.
Playtesting continued through a live event, YOUR PRESENCE ALONE CHANGES HOW OTHERS BREATHE in May 2022, hosted by @serpentineUK on Twitch. The event played out as an interactive murder mystery directed by paticipants via the chatroom. Danielle, in conversation with Tamar Clarke-Brown (Serpentine Arts Technologies Curator), led this choose-your-own-adventure style event, stopping along the way to answer questions about the story and artist’s practice.
藝術家兼遊戲設計師Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley於2022年4月11日在倫敦南部舉辦了一場名為“WE CAN’T DO THIS ALONE”的親密式遊戲測試活動。在這次活動之前，Serpentine的藝術技術團隊進行了為期六個月的研發，她和開發者Rob Prouse使用了動作捕捉、面部識別和眼球追蹤等跟蹤技術來創建遊戲互動，使玩家的存在、動作和身份在遊戲控制器上發揮作用。
“WE CAN’T DO THIS ALONE”意味著我們有機會在新的遊戲體驗中向公眾測試這些原型。進入會場 — 一個綠色天幕工作室，觀眾就會在戴著巴拉克拉瓦帽的引座員(藝術家的代理人)的引導下到自己的座位上。他們發現這位藝術家在綠幕背景前的一艘充氣船上唱歌，並且工作室被分成左右兩側。幾個攝像機設置在周圍，而觀眾在到達之前就被告知，他們的每一個動作都會被記錄下來。舞台前的兩個顯示器向觀眾席播放遊戲中的動作，也就是通過綠色屏幕輸入遊戲引擎的實時視覺效果。Danielle戴著一個紅色的面具，在聲碼器(變聲器)的幫助下壓低了她的聲音。在觀眾的座位上，他們發現了一個信封，上面寫著他們在演出期間的角色和任務。並且警告說，這些信息應該絕對保密。
D:是，也不是。在疫情期間，一款名為《Among Us》的遊戲非常受歡迎。《Among Us》類似於《狼人》，但它是在線遊戲，包括必須完成任務並聲稱自己是無辜的元素。盡管有很多證據對你不利，但你還得聲稱自己是無辜的，這真的很有趣。但最初，當我計劃這個的時候，它根本不在我的腦海里。我只是寫了一個關於這六個先知的故事。他們就像一家人，其中一個背叛了其他五個，因此他們被殺了。
AZ:你把自己置身於觀眾的角度，試圖理解他們的經歷，以便使你的作品發揮最大的作用。你的一些作品讓人感到害怕，你之前的作品《SHE KEEPS ME DAME ALIVE》和BlackTransSea.com讓我們感到壓力和莊嚴，因為他們討論的是嚴肅的問題。這一次，這個項目聚焦於霸權和謀殺的問題，人物遭遇了致命的結局。然而，有趣的是，整個活動的氣氛是有趣和樂觀的。你是如何設計的?有沒有什麽意外或者發生了什麽超出你原計劃的事?
游遊戲測試通過直播活動繼續進行，YOUR PRESENCE ALONE CHANGES HOW OTHERS BREATHE將在2022年5月，由@serpentineUK在Twitch上主持。該事件作為一個互動的謀殺謎團，由參與者通過聊天室推導。Danielle在與Tamar Clarke-Brown(蛇行藝術技術策展人)的對話中，領導了這次“選擇你自己的冒險”風格的活動，在期間中停下來回答關於故事和藝術家實踐的問題。
Text by Xinde Ren 撰文 x 任心得