Paper on livecoding and collaboration

Through a strange turn of events, I’m one of the authors on a collaborative paper about collaboration in livecoding performances that was made public this week. I’m a total novice in this field, and my main role in this paper was assisting the discussion and organising the information in the Google doc – the really cool thing about the paper is that it synthesises (haha) ideas from a very large number of people who are at the forefront of an incredibly exciting live digital art scene.

Aside from being someone who enjoys noodling around with livecoding music, I’m also a person who is doing a PhD in STS (Science and Technology Studies; this is when humanities people study scientists in a similar way to how anthropologists study groups of people. My PhD more or less applies this lens to game developers). So what was interesting to me about this paper was the discussion of how things and people connect to one another. How are hierarchies enacted through technology and through social arrangements? It was particularly gratifying to see the discussion include not just technical implementations, but also issues around venue spaces and event organising.

There was also something brilliant about this little project from the perspective of art practice. Just this week, I was chatting with people about how the formalised practice of “critique” in the art world can be really quite harsh and violent, as though some people become Simon Cowell for a moment in the name of being “critical”. I think this paper does something quite interesting, where a group of artists critique their own scene, habits, and practices – the very same event that hosted the discussion is the main target of criticism in this paper, which is co-written by the event organiser. Criticism in this paper involves looking for both problems and opportunities, and most crucially, it is about figuring out how best to achieve a set of shared goals, rather than about listing all the reasons the object of criticism is “bad, actually”.

So yeah! This paper is a thing that exists, and it’s quite rough and flawed in some ways, but I’m excited in many ways about what it gestures towards. It’s open access, so you can read it here.

Montez Press Radio

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I kind of threw together an hour-long audio documentary over the past couple of weeks. It turns out this is very difficult! You can listen to it at radio.montezpress.com tomorrow at 6pm New York time (that’s 11pm here in the UK). It’s about VR and emotions, and also the body, and there’s a bit about the ethics of mindfulness technologies, and another bit about being inside of a dollhouse that your friends can furnish… it’s pretty unprofessionally-made, but I think it’s a good time.

Cis Penance first preview

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I’ve put out the first little bit of work on Cis Penance, which will eventually be a massive collection of interactive portraits of trans people in the UK. I’ aim to release new portraits on a regular basis for a while until the full thing is complete.

The first portrait I’m sharing is of Rainbow, a non-binary person in Northern Ireland who talks about living a non-normative life with joy, creativity, and self-expression after experiencing homelessness, human trafficking, and systemic racism.

Play Cis Penance on itch.io

If you would like to support the project, there’s space on there for you to buy a downloadable copy – if you do that, you’ll also be subscribed to updates as the project grows!

 

Cis Penance work-in-progress update

A quick update on Cis Penance, my project that involves interviewing lots of trans people in the UK about our experiences of waiting…

Things are coming along really nicely. Here’s a video of the work-in-progress:

There is also an itch.io page for it! I haven’t published anything playable on there yet, but small demos of specific conversations are coming soon. It’ll be playable in-browser for free, but if you like, you can use the “pre-order” button to donate to the project.

I’m still doing interviews, by the way, mainly with BAME trans folks. So please check out the call for participants if you’d like to contribute that way.

Indie Games Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan is in itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.

This is a remarkable initiative involving over 740 projects. Over $3,400 of paid works are available Pay-what-you-want with a minimum donation amount of $5. All proceeds will donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund split 50/50. They’ve already raised $380,000 at the time that I’m writing this, and the bundle includes some games that have been really important to me, such as Oxenfree, Night in the Woods, and Strawberry Cubes. I struggle to think of a good reason not to get in on this – go buy this bundle, and please donate as generously as you can!

Neo cab and the materiality of emotion

Spoilers for the ending of Neo cab start immediately!

Early on in Neo Cab, the protagonist Lina is given a “Feelgrid”, a wearable device that changes colour based on her mood, as a gift from her new roommate and childhood best friend Savy. This speculative technology seems simple at first, but the more closely I looked at how emotion is represented and simulated in Neo Cab, the more deliciously ambiguous it appeared. The selling point, Savy tells you, is authenticity – having a wearable device that makes visible your true feelings, based on material readings such as your hormone levels, should reduce insincere or false communication. Ironically, Savy is a serial liar and emotional manipulator, and is giving you the device for multiple hidden reasons, most of them not good.

A question that the game skilfully leaves unanswered is whether the kind of emotional authenticity that Savy talks about is really possible. Yes, a device might be able to read physical indicators such as hormones, but this brings to mind an oft-quoted passage from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Fisher is talking about mental illness, so I’ll be a little cheeky and paraphrase to refer to emotion in general: it stands to reason that emotions are biochemically instantiated, but observing that still doesn’t explain how those biochemical changes occur. What still needs to be examined is how emotions are themselves shaped by things like systemic injustices, cultural patterns, and performative embodiment.

Broadly, for something in a videogame to be considered materially significant, I think it should impact the affordances available to the player. In real life, we know something is made of solid material if we can touch it and feel that it resists our movement. Neo Cab makes emotions material not just through this fiction of the Feelgrid, but by directly connecting emotions to which actions are possible. You cannot perform an emotion too far from what Lina is experiencing – she cannot pretend to be happy if she is devastated, but she can choose to perform an emotion slightly on the happier side of her current mood. This builds on the system in Depression Quest, which accounts for healthy or preferable actions that the player cannot take, because the protagonist’s mood is too low to allow it. Similarly, Lina cannot speak up for herself if she is feeling too deflated. She cannot be congenial if she feels too angry. Emotions are consequential, more material to the game world than the concrete on which she drives.

On my first playthrough I tried to keep Lina happy and resilient, which led eventually to an “emotional victory” ending. This meant acting as counsellor to a lot of pax, trying to empathise with their problems while also reframing those problems in a more empowering way – this keeps the general vibe positive and avoids conflict. I was, in Sara Ahmed’s terms “going along with happiness scripts”.

I wasn’t aware in this playthrough that my choices were affecting Lina’s mood as well. So much of her work involves trying as far as possible, within the options made possible by her current mood, to be the person that others need her to be. Lina is so well-practised at this, the work is often invisible. When “playing along” with the needs and wants of other characters, I felt separated from Lina’s internal reality. It seemed on the surface as though Lina’s emotions were just happening to her in response to the world. This is not the case. In Neo Cab, emotions seem to be part of a reciprocal loop of cause and effect, or action and affect.

Neo Cab is an emotional labour simulator – you enact the emotions needed for the moment, and in so doing, you produce them. This is not just an insincere performance, as the opening dialogue might have you believe – Lina’s mood as detected by the Feelgrid actually changes based on the vibe you choose to build. This ambiguous position of emotion in Neocab reflects key feminist writing on emotional labour. In The Managed Heart, Hochschild argues for a view of emotion that combines the embodied nature of feeling with the cultural structures that shape it.

If we conceive of feeling not as a periodic abdication to biology but as something we do by attending to inner sensation in a given way, by defining situations in a given way, by managing in given ways, then it becomes plainer just how plastic and susceptible to reshaping techniques a feeling can be. The very act of managing emotion can be seen as part of what the emotion becomes.

So, being true to one’s feelings is not as simple as just reacting to whatever biochemical state is present at a given moment – behaviour is not separate to feeling, but part of the shape and path of an emotional experience. Savy’s demand for transparency seems to reflect Hochschild’s “abdication to biology”, but within minutes she demands that Lina put aside inconvenient emotions, in order to cheerfully go along with what she wants to do. Her gift is presented as a self-help tool, but it is an instrument of surveillance and manipulation. “In the course ofgetting in touch with our feelings,'” observes Hochschild,we make feelings more subject to command“.

If Lina feels good as a side effect of her own compliance, is that feeling authentic, just because the Feelgrid confirms that it has a biochemical basis? According to Hochschild, this is a question about our own identification with our feelings, rather than their qualities. “The actual content of feelings—or wishes, or fantasies, or actions—is not what distinguishes the false self from the true self; the difference lies in whether we claim them asour own.’” This “false self” is the self that we create in order to perform emotions authentically, without claiming them as our peresonal truth. Hochschild identifies two particular false selves that became an iconic dyad under the conditions of late capitalism: the narcissist and the altruist. Savy and Lina fit these archetypes very closely – the “emotional victory” is the one where the altruist finds the autonomy to resist narcissistic manipulation.

“For some, the earth is unyielding, unable to provide the soil in which life can flourish … To see racism, you have to un‑see the world as you learned to see it, the world that covers unhappiness, by covering over its cause. [… covering over what resists …] You have to be willing to venture into secret places of pain.” (Sara Ahmed, Feminist Killjoys)

The fascinating edges of Neo Cab’s emotion system became more visible when I tried an apocalypse run. A pax called Agonon is in an emotional deathcult – he believes that a chthonic creature living deep below the earth will rise up and destroy the city if he and his fellow adherents can nourish enough sadness. This “pain worm” is known by the name Metawopian. Another pax who is a multidimensional planeswalker type mentions that there is a parallel universe where such an event occurs. So I set out to bring about this result – I tried to feed Metawopian by drawing Lina towards the most misery possible.

On the one hand, this was the playthrough where I saw clearly the amount of agency you have over Lina’s moods – bringing down the vibe with customers will pull Lina towards anger and sadness, making an “emotional victory” against Savy impossible. On the other hand, it was impossible to completely resist the pull of positive affective states. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to be miserable. Happiness, as Sara Ahmed writes, is normatively constructed as a goal, positioned as an object that one obtains by performing correctly. To fail at happiness is a shameful deviance – this is why it can feel liberating and exciting to be a feminist killjoy, as Ahmed states: “There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not inhabit the same place (as we do not). There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy we must.”

I felt drawn to Metawopian because the idea of destroying a whole world by refusing happiness was very appealing. Sara Ahmed writes that “Happiness shapes what coheres as a world.” In a normative view of emotion, misery would be the fail state, the default that you fall into if you simply do not play the game well, a downward force pulling you into depression like gravity in a platform game. But in Neo Cab, any valuing of some emotions over others will result in disappointment. This is a problem that Agonon talks about in his scenes with Lina – how does a worshipper of Metawopian tolerate the inevitability of moments of joy, which rob the great one of sustenance? Whoever you serve, whether they are a tech executive or a giant worm that feeds on pain, you cannot give all of yourself to that service.

I didn’t manage to awaken Metawopian. I think it might not actually be possible, but I’m not certain – I still enjoy the idea that there is a Lina in a parallel universe that gets deep enough into her sadness that it swallows the whole city. In my experience though, I couldn’t simply choose not to allow Lina to feel happy. Not only were other clients different, bringing her into different states, but her inner monologues were also changing her moods. It was as though my agency as a player only concerned Lina’s false self, an emotional performance that she internalises enough to experience it physically, but not enough to give herself to it fully and eliminate any other influences on her emotions. I get to control Lina’s actions, but not her identity. There was a true Lina outside of my control, and that Lina remained a joyful infidel. As a result, this Lina would not sustain a performance of devout darkness for long.

Getting started with LED embroidery

As part of the Art + Tech residency with Space Studios, London (which they have kindly allowed me to do while continuing to “reside” in lockdown in Sheffield) I’m getting my head around LED embroidery at the moment, with the view to creating a very large piece this year for the Cis Penance interactive portraits project. I feel like I’ve got my head around the very basics now – what can electroconductive thread do as a material that both makes attractive shapes and also forms part of a system? How do some different ways of fixing traditional LEDs to fabric compare to one another? I learned quickly that improvising a circuit on-the-fly doesn’t work very well for me – even with this very simple circuit, things end up not working, and I don’t really understand why, so I do have to spend a couple of minutes sketching a design first so that I have set up a nice, clean path from power to ground. I always feel tickled when I end up filling a small sketchbook with ideas on a single theme. I’m not a trained artist, and when I do this exercise it feels like I’m temporarilty role-playing as one. I like the way ideas end up iterating on each other, getting more complex in a way that emerges from simplicity, rather than just getting really big in my head before I have any idea how to materialise them.
I started getting very excited about these simple graphical representations with thread that are just enhanced or enlivened by LEDs. It’s a very easy thing to do, and the results are quite dramatic. Meanwhile, I kind of fell out of love with one particular thing I did with the cosmonaut and the leaf, where the leg of the LED stays long and just loops back on itself enough to be secured in place. Although it’s nice to use the LED legs as part of the image, it’s very annoying to have them flapping about while you finish sewing the circuit in place, and they don’t always stay upright even after they’ve been sewn down. Curling them into tight loops is much more practical, though it can get in the way of the image as you see around the iris of the eye, so sometimes a compromise is probably best. Resistor values might be another thing to consider in the future. Using different resistors to deliberately vary the intensity of different LEDs could introduce some depth – or going the other way, LEDs of different colours or types do kind of need different resistor values in order to be as bright as one another. The next things I’ll be playing with are:
  • Beadwork embroidery techniques that best incorporate LEDs
  • Sewing solar light circuits to create embroidered LED nightlights
  • How to have multiple light circuits in one piece, so that different sets of lights can be switched on or off.

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan, release for International Transgender Day of Visibility

It’s International Transgender Day of Visibility, and you’re socially isolated. I just published a game that allows you to have interactive dialogues with 12 characters, based on real interviews with transgender people in Japan. Hang out, explore, get to know some folks!

Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan by Zoyander Street

 

International Transgender Day of Visibility March 31st launch of Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan

(Update: launched! Check it out at https://zoy.itch.io/iportraits.)

This Tuesday March 31st will be International Transgender Day of Visibility. I’ve been planning to launch a downloadable version of the Interactive Portraits from Japan for this year’s IDOV, and though it feels a little out of step with what’s on everybody’s minds right now, I’m still going ahead with it.

If you’ve played this before, either at an event or because you got access to the link where the works in progress were available to try out, then you know there’s a lot of wisdom shared by the trans people I interviewed – thoughts about how to build resilience, how to take care of your community, and how to deal with the massive scale of human suffering.

The joy of making work based on interviews, particuilarly the open-ended and reflective interviews that I have found myself doing, is that you quickly find this bedrock of compassion and insight that underpins the human experience. I hope the full release of this project will bring some much-needed solace to someone, somewhere.

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I’m going to spend the weekend making some final changes, and then I’ll post here on Tuesday with an itch.io link where you can download Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan.

(Update: launched! Check it out at https://zoy.itch.io/iportraits.)

During this time of webinars, Zoom rooms, and Discord discourses, I’d love to get together with any folks and chat about this project, and about my work-in-progress that applies a similar idea to trans people in the UK, so please get in touch! My email address is zoyander at gmail.