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.

Panel talk at The Artist’s Journey #3

I’m excited to be speaking on a panel with Manish Harijan (artist) and Lady Kitt (artist, researcher and drag king) on 13th February as part of a two-day event about art careers at Sheffield Institute of Arts. The theme is “improfessionalism”, which feels fortuitously positioned alongside the “indisciplinarity” theme of the event at King’s College that I got to speak at last year.

While ‘professionalisation’ suggests the positive, necessary steps to becoming an artist, there are ‘improfessional’ practices that exist at an off-kilter relation to this imperative. Outside of the professional / unprofessional binary, what else do artists do, feel, or think as they build their portfolio, write their grants, or get on with these obvious tasks? And as both a direct or dissonant response to our art-making lives, what modalities of survival and thriving do we develop? How do we – or don’t we – maintain the balance, health, and motivation necessary to keep going as supposed art professionals?

I’m going to expand the talk I gave for the “indisciplinarity” event into something that delves even more into queer theories about time and life paths. There will probably be some Buddhist philosophy in there too, and I’m going to glance a little at the void by offering some thoughts on how to role-play as though there will be a future even though the world as we know it seems so fragile.

The whole two-day event schedule looks excellent, seems like the event will involve blending pragmatic questions with critical theory. Please check it out:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-artists-journey-3-tickets-88845377917

Call for participants: UK interviews with transgender people for interactive documentary installation about experiences of waiting

I am looking to interview more transgender people across the UK for my next art project. Details are below, but if you need any more information please do not hesitate to reach out. Please share this with anyone who you think might be interested!

Project information

Overview

“Cis Penance” aims to use videogame-like installations to draw attention to issues affecting transgender people in the UK, with a particular focus on how institutional and social structures alter our relationship to time and our life paths, through lengthy waiting processes. Interviews with 60 transgender people from around the UK will be represented as interactive text, projected onto a long, embroidered e-textile portraying people waiting in a queue. Kind of a queer cybertwee Bayeux tapestry. Anyone interested in being interviewed is welcome to contact me: zoyander@gmail.com

Background

This project builds on my previous work, “Interactive portraits: trans people in Japan 2018“, which has toured exhibitions and festivals, including Docfest, Now Play This, and the Rainbow Arcade exhibition at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. Whereas that project featured 12 interviews carried out in Japan, this new project aims to incorporate 60 interviews carried out in different locations in the UK.

Participant information

The format I use makes anonymity very easy to achieve, as I do not use interview audio in the final piece and I do not record video footage. Interviewees’ physical appearances will not be portrayed in the installation piece, instead represented by one of 60 abstract embroidered figures. Interviewees can choose to use their real name, an existing pseudonym that they might use online, or a randomly-assigned pseudonym. My interview method focuses on allowing participants to set the agenda, to reflect the kinds of topics that actually come out in conversations between trans people, rather than directing the conversation to serve cisgender curiosity.

Interview information

Interviews will last about 45 minutes. I aim to carry them out in person where possible, but Skype interviews will be carried out when travel is not feasible. They will be recorded as audio only, and transcribed into text extracts for the interactive work. Audio recordings will not be used in the final installation piece, but interviewees can opt in to allowing the audio to be used in accompanying multimedia materials. The recordings might be archived in a museum or library collection at some point, to preserve them for the historical record.

Interviewees are welcome to participate without talking about their transition. I use an open-ended format that gives the interviewee autonomy over the topics of discussion, but questions I might ask to help things along could include:

  • How do you see yourself?
  • What brings you satisfaction in life?
  • What aspects of your life would you like to be different?
  • What challenges do you face in making this happen?
  • How have things changed for you in the past few years?

Dates and contact

I hope to complete most interviews by 15th March 2020. If you are interested in participating, please contact me at zoyander@gmail.com.

SPACE Ilford grand opening

The lovely folks at SPACE studios in London have opened a new space in Ilford, and have kindly let me come and do a residency with them in Spring of next year, as part of their Art + Tech programme.

iths-01a

In the mean time, events are already happening, as other artists-in-residence get started exploring and playing in this new location. This Saturday there will be a Grand Opening event at the Ilford location:

  • Sat 7 Dec 12-4pm
  • SPACE Ilford
  • 10 Oakfield Rd., Ilford IG1 1ZJ

I’ll be there with the other Art + Tech folks showing some small pieces of work, and it’s also the opening of a remarkable exhibition of colourful, gothic, cute-grotesque work by Lindsey Mendick:

the-spectre-at-the-feastsmall

The following Tuesday evening, Art + Tech artist in residence Minna Långström is running The Prime Directive, which looks to me like a sort of LARP inspired by utopian science fiction? Seems very cool.

I’ll be in London for my artist-in-residence period from 7th April until 29th June. Give me a shout if you know of anywhere weird I can live, or any fancy parties you want me to attend – worth asking, right?