Pride, queer haunting, and Geralt of Rivia’s itchy doublet

I’ve realised recently that a surprisingly large number of things are both gay and homophobic at the same time. There are things that only make sense to me in the context of queer life, but that are also compelled to disavow their participation in queerness. The result is that they feel haunted by the lives that they refuse to animate. A lot of these uncomfortable politics can be encapsulated by an item of clothing worn by Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, usually at the behest of one of his girlfriends.

Content warning: discussion of homophobia, queerphobia, and ableism; portrayal of transmisogynistic images and tropes.

Doublets came to prominence in Europe in the 15th to 17th centuries, and incorporated a number of different technologies at different times to shape the male body and signal one’s belonging to a collective identity. Some doublets used whale bone to flatten the torso and straighten the posture, and they were often worn with heeled boots to further modify the gait. Other trends represented in the doublets available in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt include the ornamental use of metal buttons and leather to subtly signal elite status without standing out by wearing anything too garish (Hayeur-Smith et al. 2018), and the “skimpy doublet”, which was intentionally worn short to reveal the undershirt layer, a subject of some scandal from moralists at the time.

The specifics of how doublets signalled both group belonging and elevated status in different contexts at different times are not important to The Witcher 3, but the cultural politics of dress, masculinity, and austerity are noticeable. There are certain events in the game where clothing is associated with social feelings, such as shame and pride, and this association stands out in particular in those moments where Geralt is asked to wear a doublet.

We recognise shame as the opposite of pride. But the goal or outcome of Pride as a public event is not the same as the personal feeling of pride; the collective outcome is more like visibility, truth, and having space in society. Similarly, the public, collective result of a society that treats our identities with shame is not reducible only to the subjective feeling of shame; it is invisibility, speculation, and having to haunt the spaces that we would have otherwise had.

In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher writes “What should haunt us is not the no-longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not-yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised.” In Time Binds, Elizabeth Freeman writes about “queer hauntology” in relation to artworks that project the present into the past, or Derrida’s hauntology as the sense that the present is haunted by the past’s unfulfilled promise. I understand this hauntology as a grief for the worlds we didn’t get to create, and the selves that we didn’t get to be. On top of that meaning of the term, works like The Witcher 3 make me feel personally alien or ghost-like, as though it were me and my actually-existing community that was haunting the worlds that dare not imagine us into being.

When I think about how The Witcher 3 makes me feel, as though I were a ghost lurking in the background of other people’s stories, I think about Sarah the Godling, one of the many beings in the Witcher universe who is misunderstood as a monster until Geralt pays closer attention to them. Sarah has been intentionally giving people the impression that a house is haunted, in part because she enjoys the mischief, and in part because it is one of the few strategies available that allow her to ensure a place to live. Haunting is how she is able to have space in a world that disavows her kind.

Lurking in the background of The Witcher 3 is the fact that Geralt, as a witcher, does not fit in or belong to mainstream society. People yell insults at him, including “freak” and even “gray boy”??? The not-very-hidden subtext is that Geralt too is misread as a monster, and his kind are now almost gone from this hostile world. Witchers were produced out of the attempt to rid the world of things that people considered “other”, and then they themselves became part of the “other” that people fear and do not understand. Sometimes what I want to say about this game is that it refuses to understand what it’s really like to live on the margins, but sometimes I think that it actually shows a disturbing level of insight into that marginalisation by turning diversities of gender and sexuality into little more than half-remembered daydreams.

To move between the highest levels of society and its haunted corners, Geralt needs to mask, and doublets are a key tool in doing this. Mages also mask, but the affective imaginaries attached to masking differ along gendered lines. Changing your appearance to fit in with beauty norms is seen as a desirable perk of being a mage, one for which they are willing to suffer terribly. Geralt, however, could hardly be less enthusiastic about wearing a single slightly-uncomfortable garment in order to look appropriate in a formal setting. He is usually cajoled into it by his mage girlfriends. Both boundary-crossing identities use personal presentation in order to create a way of conditionally fitting in, just for a little while, despite the widespread threats against them from normative society. Geralt complains that doublets make him uncomfortable, which seems in slightly poor taste when talking to someone literally wearing a corset and heels, but as mentioned above, doublets were a similar technology for straightening the body. On the surface, this begrudging attitude looks like an expression of a certain kind of rugged masculinity, even though by making him more attractive to the women in his life the doublet might be expected to enhance his performance of desirable manliness.

The reading of these moments through disability studies takes this into a different direction. Disability consultant for tabletop games Sara Thompson has argued that Geralt is disabled, because the novels repeatedly state that he is living with a chronic pain condition. This should make us read his expressions of physical discomfort differently. In addition to this, Geralt is repeatedly called out for being affectively different to humans, who perceive him as not experiencing emotion at all. It is clear that this is not true – he clearly responds emotionally to events around him, and extends empathy to creatures that do not receive it from human society. In our own world, this “double empathy problem” (others cannot empathise with him, and thus he is read as lacking empathy) is closely connected to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is also connected to diversity in sensory processing, which is easy to read onto witchers given that they are literally able to sense things that others cannot.

As one counts the various taxes that the body-mind pays for admission into these spaces, the act of masking seems to bind queerness and disability together. In Authoring Autism, Neuroqueer scholar Remi Yergeau makes a strong case for such a connection.

What [the clinical construction of] autism provides is a backdoor pathologization of queerness, one in which clinicians and lay publics alike seek out deviant behaviors and affectations and attempt to straighten them […] in its past and present clinical formations, autism is contextually situated within societal responses to and of gay panic.

Remi Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 2017

Queerness haunts The Witcher 3 because it is not able to rise above the conditions of its production. It is a conservative product made to generate capital for bosses in a country with escalating restrictions on expressions of LGBTQ+ identity. At the same time, every sufficiently large AAA studio has queer developers, often finding ways to allow queerness to hide out in the shadows of its narrative. AAA games overwhelmingly keep it subtextual, while piling on enough normativity to allow them to pass as nonthreatening – there is a lot of masking happening on all levels. The fact that, according to a teleological view of “progress”, LGBTQ+ representation in one of the largest media franchises of recent years probably should not be such a difficult act of threading the needle, makes it all the more haunting. Queerness is not fully absent, but present to those who can sense it, as the ghost of the future that did not happen.

Like every ghost story, divergence is explained away with a more palatable narrative. Geralt’s discomfort in doublets is easily explained away as a masculine displeasure at being pushed into unmasculine activities such as dressing up and being diplomatic. Dandelion’s queerness is disavowed in a way that reads as particularly homophobic, as his queer-coded dress sense seems primarily used to signal ineptitude and weakness. When shopping for a doublet, Geralt ends up in an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation, in which even the most polite dialogue options involve clarifying that Dandelion had not had sex with a gender-non-conforming person who Geralt seems to consider as a man, and tersely rejecting the opportunity to share in the joy this person gets from wearing a dress. It is difficult to read the tone here as anything other than a homophobic concern that Dandelion might have deviated from heterosexuality, and a transmisogynistic discomfort around someone who presents themself in a genderfluid way.

The awkward effort put into this disavowal is a serious weakness of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling. This is a game that constantly shows you alternative families made up of ragtag groups of outsiders, and yet it always has to reaffirm that these alternative families are not queer. Geralt is a father-by-destiny with his nonreproductive non-exclusive partner, and his child has two other parents, plus a number of close family-like relationships with Geralt’s extended chosen family. And yet, we must be reminded before the game wraps up that Geralt’s family is still heterosexual and monogamous. Non-monogamy is not considered possible except by deception. So, despite the gameplay actively encouraging you to have Geralt get emotionally and physically entangled with multiple partners, with no indication that there might be friction or misgivings from Geralt’s side about having a polyfocal romantic life, he will still be punished if you have him pursue multiple relationships. Megan Blythe-Adams and Nathan Rambukkhana have argued that “in The Witcher series, the player cannot make this fruitful transgression into queer discovery […] the game’s array of sexual partners acts as a kind of buffer against queer possibility,” going on to point out that such narratives “force players to be either monogamous, cheaters, or creeps because they deny them alternative choices.”

As I write this, I imagine that my very blurry framing of queerness as neurodivergent and non-monogamous might meet objections from people whose queerness is not non-monogamous, or whose neurodivergence is not queer. But what I hope is that by following events connected to Geralt’s discomfort with doublets, it’s possible to see that despite the myriad specifities of our own individual experiences, The Witcher 3‘s discomfort with queerness cannot be separated from its discomfort with disability or non-monogamy. And of course, I haven’t even touched on the bizarre whiteness of this game’s imagined society. Given that these axes of oppression are bound together in the cultural production of difference, we have every reason to treat the issues themselves as intrinsically connected to one another.

The Witcher 3 feels to me like a conservative game haunted by disavowed queer possibility, because it cannot imagine difference and vulnerability as something that connects people. Instead, it is invested in always mitigating one axis of difference with several other axes of aggressive normativity. Homonormativity does this too of course. Corporate Pride often fails to recognise the axes of difference that all bind together in common the acts of haunting and masking. The easy-mode version of Pride is making visible that which can mask up effectively – not the nonmonogamous families, or the neuroqueer resistance to capitalist production, or the kinky or the otherwise strange and estranged. It is too easy for Pride to only recognise the pragmatic version of queerness that shows up to a polite occasion in order to do necessary work with people in power. The rest of queerness and its intersections haunts Pride as the ghost of futures deferred.

I think it is a mistake to reduce affect to a single rhetorical meaning, as though our discomforts only had one cause. It is a mistake to think that emotions such as pride or shame are the big thing at stake in the politics of representation and visiblity. Metaphors of masking and haunting reveal the strategies that we use to navigate a hostile world, and provide an alternative to either rejecting something like The Witcher 3 entirely for its obvious homophobia and misogyny, or inadvertently showering it with false praise in the course of reclaiming it as “feminist and queer, actually”. The masking and haunting that surround Geralt are at work in the production of this kind of high-budget media commodity, and in the day-to-day strategies of queer visibility.

References

Other writing about The Witcher:

Megan Blythe-Adams, Nathan Rambukkana (2018) “’Why do I have to make a choice? Maybe the three of us could, uh…’: Non-Monogamy in Videogame Narratives” http://gamestudies.org/1802/articles/adams_rambukkana

Elizabeth Ballou (2018) “Where The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Goes Wrong in Depicting Women (and Why it Matters)” http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=17486

Khee Hoon Chan (2018) “Geralt of Rivia, Anthropologist” https://unwinnable.com/2018/05/08/geralt-of-rivia-anthropologist/

Tauriq Moosa (2015) “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem” https://www.polygon.com/2015/6/3/8719389/colorblind-on-witcher-3-rust-and-gamings-race-problem

Megan Patterson (2016) “How Inconsistent, Sexist Fashion Hurts Worldbuilding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunthttps://www.themarysue.com/pixelthreads-worldbuilding-witcher-3-wild-hunt/

Sara Thompson (2020), “Geralt of Rivia: A Disabled Protagonist” https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-11-24-geralt-of-rivia-a-disabled-protagonist

Theory

Ben Berman Ghan (2020) “Queer Time Machines: Hauntologies of Literature” Terse Journal https://tersejournal.com/2020/01/01/queer-time-machines-hauntologies-of-literature-by-ben-berman-ghan/

Mark Fisher (2013) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures Zero Books

Elizabeth Freeman (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories Duke University Press

Hayeur-Smith, M., Lucas, G., & Mould, Q. (2019). Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. Journal of Social Archaeology, 19(2), 229–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605318793798

Sam MacBean (2016) “The Gal Pal Epidemic” Celebrity Studies 7(2) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19392397.2016.1165005?journalCode=rcel20&

Mitchell et al. (2021) Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health Developmental Psychology 39:1 https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjdp.12350

Eve Ng (2017), “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape” Transformative Works 24 https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/917

Remi Yergeau (2017) Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness Duke University Press

Cis Penance first preview

itch embed background

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!

 

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

 

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. (Update July 2020) Most interviews have been done, but I am still trying to get a few more. I’ve been doing more interviews with BAME people lately, and I’m keen to continue to make sure this project reflects the concerns and needs of intersectionally marginalised trans people. If you are interested in participating, please contact me at zoyander@gmail.com.

SHEFFIELD call for interviews for transgender interactive documentary

In one week, I’ll be part of a show at Site Gallery in Sheffield with other artists on the Freelands programme. The show will run until the end of the month, and while I’m there, I hope to carry out interviews with local transgender people, for a forthcoming project with a working title of “Cis Penance”. I’m very keen to hear from anyone who might be interested in being interviewed – please check out the details below!

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. The Sheffield interviews will be carried out in a comfy part of the Site Gallery show, which will be made a bit secluded using some curtains. 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 interview around 15 transgender people in Sheffield, ideally before August 25th. There is also time available after October 28th until the end of the year. Anyone interested in being interviewed can contact me using zoyander@gmail.com.

Arts Council Project Grant for “Empty Carriage: An Interactive Self-Portrait”

coach pram.jpg
Coach-built pram in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I’ve been awarded an Arts Council Project Grant to turn a vintage coach-built pram into a games console. I’m making a game for it that uses my interactive portraits approach to portray myself. Whereas my other interactive portraits are based on interviews, this one is based instead on a guided inquiry to see through the illusion of self.

Using multiple-choice dialogue options, players will ask the mini-me a series of questions that prompt an examination of every aspect of consciousness, turning over every phenomenological stone to try and find any sign that there is really a “me”. If I can make it work, the interface is probably going to use some interactive textiles, so that the player chooses questions by stroking a blanket. I’m also going to try to build it using a mini-projector, so that the whole thing feels soft and tactile.

I’ll be displaying this at the Platform exhibition at Site Gallery in August, and I’m hoping to take the pram out for a couple of walks this summer as well. This week I’m going on a bit of an adventure to a remote village in North Yorkshire to buy a pram from the 1930s that actually looks a lot like the one from Rosemary’s Baby.

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BELFAST call for interviews for transgender interactive documentary

I’m going to Belfast between 24th June and 11th July to spend some time at the PS2 art space. While I’m there, I hope to carry out interviews with local transgender people, for a forthcoming project with a working title of “Cis Penance”. I’m very keen to hear from anyone who might be interested in being interviewed – please check out the details below!

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. The Belfast interviews will be carried out in the Paragon Studios space. 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 interview around 15 transgender people while I am in Belfast between 24th June and 11th July. Anyone interested in being interviewed can contact me using zoyander@gmail.com.

AMAZE Berlin events, including talk with Squinky!

I’ll be in Berlin next week for some cool events connected to the Rainbow Arcade exhibition at the Schwules Museum, as part of AMAZE festival. Come along and/or let me know if you want to hang out!

Rainbow Arcade meetup

Monday, April 8 • 14:00 – 18:00

Not sure I can get to this with my flight, but thought I would list it here anyway as it looks nice – details are on the Games Week Berlin website.

Something on Wednesday

To be announced, I guess?

Queer Gaming History chat

Thursday, April 11 • 19:00 – 20:00 (curator tour at 18:00)

I’m having an informal public talk thing with one of my favourite people, Squinky! Details on the AMAZE schedule page. Right before this is the curator tour, which they do every week – Details on the Schwules Museum website.

 

Mozilla Festival

My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.

The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery (https://foundation.mozilla.org/opportunity/artists-open-web) and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.

They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.

artdata.png

You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/opportunity/artists-open-web/

 

Festival of the Mind

Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.

An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.

That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!

There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.

There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!