I’m delighted to announce that I’m starting a project in collaboration with Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer, as part of “New Conversations”, a programme funded and delivered by the British Council, Canada Council for the Arts, Farnham Maltings, and the High Commission of Canada in the UK. I’m excited to be part of a cohort of participants thinking about critical issues such as disability, land, gender, and racial justice.
Squinky is one of my favourite artists, and also someone I feel incredibly lucky to be able to call a friend. If you’re not familiar with their work, it’s difficult to know where to start, but we first connected when I was crowdfunding for Dreamcast Worlds, and they were crowdfunding for Dominique Pomplemoose, a stop-motion animated musical adventure game with a non-binary person of colour protagonist – all of this was a significant breath of fresh air in 2012. They were kind enough to agree to a bit of mutual cross-promotion, so some Dom Pam backers supported Dreamcast Worlds and vice versa. We’ve been friends since then, attending games events together and occasionally collaborating on organising or curating things for indie and queer games.
Among the many projects they’ve made over the past nine years, two in particular have had a major impact on me. One is you used to be someone – if you’ve seen me give a presentation about queer games, you already know that I’m deeply fascinated by this game’s portrayal of affect, temporality, urban space, and identity. The other is Coffee: A Misunderstanding, an interactive play that was performed in real-life settings, including on stage, in tents at festivals, and in actual real-life coffee shops. It was facilitated by network-connected mobile phones that allow two people to perform as “puppets” by performing a script shown on their phones, and two others to control their actions and dialogue by selecting options, video-game style, from two other phones. Seven years later, I still think and talk about this play pretty frequently, particularly when considering what the structuring of dialogue choices is doing to a story: one of Squinky’s remarkable insights that comes through in Coffee is how the awkwardness of digital interfaces can be integrated into the tone and pacing of their writing. The project we’re creating together on the New Conversations programme will draw heavily on Coffee: A Misunderstanding, but we’re writing new content that reflects our personal and collective experiences understanding gender and neurodiversity, and designing a digital staging environment that messes with the awkwardness of video calls.
One of my tentative hopes for this project is to learn something about how artists can mess with video calling to create environments that actually suit the creative outputs that they want to achieve. When artists run workshops in physical space, they often think carefully about how the space is going to be set up and used, perhaps bringing with them a lot of tools and materials required to inspire people and get them in the right frame of mind. When running activities on something like Zoom, you have very little ability to exert similar control over the space. I’ve used a few other platforms over the past year that have been very effective at getting people creative in some ways: itch.io is great for inspiring people to make things and giving them a place to share them together, PubPub is a lovely way for strangers to make written publications together in a relatively ad-hoc manner, and Discord has been a great way to host a video call within an environment where longer-term asynchronous conversations are also going on. But even when bringing one of these into play, you still have almost no ability to directly author the environment you’re working within, modify it, and use its aesthetic qualities in an intentional manner.
As always, I feel like what’s needed is an open-source, community-owned option that allows us to be autonomous and experimental, even if that means tolerating glitches and unexpected outcomes. The goal of this project isn’t to create a video calling platform for general use, but I’m looking forward to learning about what interventions into video calling are possible on a low budget and at a small scale.