I just heard that the improvisation guru Keith Johnstone (1933 – 2023) passed away. He visited Stockholm occasionally and worked with Susan Osten and others, which also meant that his work was translated and published in Swedish. I think his work was absolutely fundamental to bridge the world of games and theater and thereby making what we now know as nordic live action roleplay possible. The book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1989) helped me and many other larp organizers and participants in late 90ths to understand social status in play, masks and physical improvisation, as well as basic ideas about what kind of improvisation that enables collective storytelling in a group of participants.
I had the pleasure of giving a workshop with Thom Kiraly at Portal10 in Krakow on the midsummer weekend. Among other things I tried out the prototype for mobile phones created with Nea Landin.
The material draws inspiration from Baudrillard’s Ecstasy of Communication:
The body as a stage, the landscape as a stage, and time as a stage are slowly disappearing. The same holds true for the public space: the theatre of the social and of politics are progressively being reduced to a shapeless, multiheaded body.
Workshop at Portal 10 LARP Conference
The 10th Portal celebrates diversity and invites all larpers from North, East, South, West, to share their approaches, styles, cultures, and cardinal directions of larping. We don’t strive to be a compass that shows the right direction but a wind rose that showcases all the directions at the same time. There are no rights or wrongs in larping – only aspects we enjoy more or less and already know, and aspects that are a mystery.
I will give a workshop at this conference together with Thom Kiraly under the title:
Prototypes for post-dramatic roleplaying
Improvisation is hard. Roleplaying is even harder. Thresholds are high. In this workshop we will propose a couple of scenarios that gives participants less preparation and possibly more freedom to enjoy the situation. One scenario is based on cards, another one is based on mobile phone web technologies. We will test these prototypes and talk about how they could be developed. We are looking for formats and scenarios that could be proposed to an audience rather than a dedicated subculture of larpers. We move along a path located somewhere between larp, play and performance art.
Gabriel Widing, is a writer and theatre director with a long background in Nordic larp. He is based in Stockholm and member of performing arts collective Nyxxx.
Thom Kiraly, is a poet and a teacher in game design, based in Malmö. He has a special interest in play and social games.
Where and When
24-26 June 2022 | Cracow, Poland
Another body is possible / There is no body B.
Matilda Tjäder, curator at Minibar in Stockholm, invited the artist Susan Ploetz, Patricia Reed and me to talk in relation to Susan’s somatic larp The Guild. Here is my take.
I decided to talk under the title “Another body is possible / There is no body B.” This title paraphrases two slogans from the globalisation movement. I guess I set out to think about how these movements has influenced live action roleplaying.
The first one of these phrases – ”Another world is possible”, is connected to the late 90:ths and early millennial anti-capitalist, social movements that haunted the international meetings of financial capitalism – the World bank, World economic forum, European Union, G8 et c.
The second one ”There is no planet B” is connected to the climate justice movement and has been a mobilizing rhetoric in relation to the climate meetings such as COP 15 in Copenhagen, COP21 in Paris et c.
My speculative thesis is that we can understand or explore the role of the body through the imaginary structures of these political movements. And I will talk specifically about the role of the body within the context of Nordic live action role-playing, also known as larp.
The relationship to these social movements influenced the formation and development of Nordic larp. Larp was embedded in the counter-culture of late 90:ths. Many of the writers and organizers of larp were involved in anarchist and feminist organizations and initiatives, but also in occult circles.
So what did it mean that ”Another world is (or was?) possible”? I propose to go back to 1999 to answer that question. Someone has claimed that it was our generations 1968 and to me that makes sense. It was the year when The Battle of Seattle happened – a massive protest against the World trade organization. The feeling that capitalism had won on walk over against any other kind of political system was challenged. There was actually conflict again over where to go next. Everybody did not agree that free market global capitalism was the shit. And now post-2008 financial crisis it is pretty clear that the critique of these institutions was quite accurate.
In the cultural field of ’99 the movie The Matrix came out and proposed a radical constructivist view on reality. Reality was seen as a collective illusion, controlled by artificial intelligence, but this system could be challenged. In Denmark von Trier did The Idiots, in which a group of anti-bourgeois adults move into a house to seek their “inner idiot”, and thereby get over their social inhibitions. They basically form a larp where they act as if they were developmentally disabled, then they take their new selves to the public sphere to see what happens. These are two very different movies, but together they touch on some kind of zeitgeist. There are other movies that could be mentioned here, such as Cameron’s Strange days, Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Fincher’s Fight Club.
At the same time, in the Nordic countries, the experimental larp scene had just formed. And by experimental I mean that it didn’t follow the genre conventions of fantasy literature. So if the cry of the global left was ”Another world is possible”. The response from larpers was – Yes! And we can show you how it is done. We can construct new worlds, new realities, new social modes of being. It was not that important exactly what these new worlds consisted of. It was the fact that they could be created. This mode was, in the radical larp scene, formulated as ”War on Reality”, making escapism into a kind of tool for resistance.
It might have to do with that I was 15 years of old at the time but I really had the sense that we could travel into other, parallel realities. This fantasy about creating other worlds defined the aesthetics of Nordic larp. And in order to create that other space we sought autonomy. Not autonomy in the Kantian sense really but in a social, spatial, timely sense. A sociological way of understanding this was that we created strong ”magic circles” or liminal spaces – social state of exception where the alienation of everyday life was challenged.
At this time there were actually fears among ”the grown-ups”, teachers, good Christians, et cetera that role-playing would work in the sense that you could role-play yourself into another state of being and not be able to find your way back. That would have been pretty cool. What we found out I guess is that role-playing works a lot more like a rubber band. You have to stretch it out to become someone you are not, but as soon as you release or relax you will be back to your normal self and not much seems to have changed. There are counter-examples of this though. Transformation can happen.
The body was not so much at stake during this time. It was just seen as the ticket or vehicle to bring us to the other worlds. I think we had this idea that we could take ourselves out of ”the system”, the matrix, and thus be liberated. We just had to break apart from this social world. We didn’t realize that well how much crap we brought along with us into the fantasy spaces. Both in social and mental terms. We also didn’t realize the tactical or political potentiality in the fact that we brought our bodies back to real life.
Things changed though. For me personally it happened because I started to dance contact improvisation. And as soon as I started that practice I realized that some of the most profoundly transformative experiences I had in larps were connected to the body. By then, in 2006, I wrote an article together with Tova Gerge titled ”The Character, the Player and Their Shared Body.” This idea of a shared body might seem obvious to anyone, but at that time it felt like a revelation: it is actually our real, social body that we put into play, that we put at risk, that we charge with fantasies or desires tied to fictional frameworks. Here is an example from that article on how it could work:
”Mellan himmel och hav [Between heaven and sea] deconstructed sexuality and gender during several preparatory workshops. Individual expression was consciously disguised behind turbans and wide clothing. Hands and arms were recoded into erogenous zones; sexually neutral parts of the body became the only allowed tools for intimate interaction. The players were trained to look at what all people had in common and to find a beauty in every single person through concentrating on bodily aspects less occupied by media images then tits and ass. When a hand touches another hand it does not matter how it looks; when gazes meet, faces blur.
The participants were suddenly thrown into situations where they had physical contact with people they would normally, for one reason or another, never touch. As a consequence, very many of the participants were smitten with a poly-sexual analysis of human relations—and they took it into practise, because they had experienced that these ideas functioned. A big number of break-ups, amorous adventures, and attempts to establish new norms followed among the players.”
So if there is no alternate, second body then it can also be no alternate reality. Actually, another world is impossible, there is no other world, no other planet. There is only one, material reality and we have to take care of ourselves and each other across the borders that magic circles make up.
The strategies of autonomy and separation in larp has partly been replaced by other ideals. The Nordic larp community has started to affirm the fact that there is constant leakage or bleed as some would call it, between the fantasies of roleplaying and everyday life. So instead of asking ourselves: how can we get out of this world, we started asking ourselves how things can travel from the realms of fantasy into reality.
This image of reality resembles the idea that There is no planet B. We are stuck in that sense. At this point I think my talk could go in many directions and it will also do that. I have many questions around this subject. It also makes me wonder about the relation between larp and somatic practices, but also artistic practices. I will throw out a few different ideas and problems in relation to this.
Last autumn I was in Berlin for the Body IQ festival at the Somatic academy. One of the main topics of this week-end was ”How do we experience the formation and dissolution of a social body?” but they also posed the question ”How do our survival fears and external pressures, such as war, climate change, immigration, and economy, impact the development of collectives?” This is questions that are very relevant to take back into larp context. One of the teachers, Thomas Kampe, said something along the lines of that: ”It would make no sense to me to give you exercises that only work in the studio but not in everyday life”.
So in that, more or less therapeutic context there were ambitions that I would describe as anti-autonomous. Aesthetic ideals forming that are exactly about the continuity between real life and obscure practice. For example – do not change into training clothes! Don’t make yourself more comfortable than you are in your regular life. Just do the practice with the conditions that you have and that you are used to.
This new orientation in larp towards the body also contest a rather long lasting liaison to theatre and film as point of reference for the benefit of performance art, choreography and dance. I find that very exciting. If we compare a practice like contact improvisation with larp we find a lot of similarities: shared space, social agreements, collective improvisation, personal expression and some kind of immersion. But there are also massive differences. Dance happens in the body, role-playing has a lot of the time happened in the face, talking heads. The dance is silent, role-playing verbal, but maybe more importantly: dance focus on the moment while role-playing has been very occupied with the continuity of story. In contact improvisation there is a constant play between discontinuity and continuity. In larp I generally get the feeling that discontinuity is a threat. Everyone get together to fight the entropy that happens when different story lines develop simultaneously in different parts of the larp. In contact improvisation, or in a larp informed by dance or somatics we don’t need to struggle with that. The workings of theatre: dramaturgy, escalation of conflict, tropes and representation can be replaced with other aesthetic possibilities: presence, intensities, flow, scores and so on.
Another question: If there is no body b, if we are always here in this very world with ourselves – how does change happen? Is there any social, physical or psychological effects to be gained from larping? How can it sometimes be so hard to change? Both in terms of changing oneself, changing who we are, but also in terms of political change.
What could be liberating with larp from a somatic point of view is that it doesn’t have to deal with therapeutic challenges. We don’t necessarily need to heal anything or be healthy. In that sense larp is clearly rooted in the aesthetic domain. We can make larps that utilize the body and somatic practices for artistic purposes. Scenarios that makes life not more bearable but more complicated or challenging. On the other hand, maybe we also want to heal? Maybe we need it? If history always has been a history of trauma then the storytelling of larp has followed the same logic.
This is a challenge. It seems that it is so easy to get hurt, but it takes so much effort to heal. I met some philosophers recently that talked about toast. It is so easy to make toast out of bread, but it is so hard to make a fresh bread out of toast. How can this thought be applied to political change? And I think about this question two-ways: Can we make collective acts that is impossible reverse? And also, can we undo the traumas, the stories, the history that has constituted our bodies?
Talk on bodies, politics & nordic larp at Minibar, Stockholm
PROTOCOLS #2 & #3 extra_sensory
A THREEFOLD PUBLIC LECTURE
❢❢ SUNDAY APRIL 30, 2017
‶Maybe perceiving would be a better word,” he said. “There’s much more involved than sight. It knows everything that can be learned about you from your genes. And by now, it knows your medical history and a great deal about the way you think. It has taken part in testing you.″
– ‘Dawn’, Octavia Butler
Minibar would like to invite you to an afternoon of presentations in relation to topics outlined in Susan Ploetz’ larp The Guild. Following an open call the larp will be a closed event taking place during 9 hours on Saturday. On Sunday discussion will be opened up publicly and extended from via presentations from Susan Ploetz, Gabriel Widing, and Patricia Reed (Skype).
❢❢ 2.15: SUSAN PLOETZ – Imaginary phenomenologies, movement as cognition and speculative body-beings
❢❢ 3.00: PATRICIA REED (from Skype) – Mobile Alienation
❢❢ 3.45: GABRIEL WIDING – Another body is possible / There is no body B
Notes on the black box scenario Inside myself, outside myself
This is a short talk on a black box larp that I gave at Larpwriter Summer School in Lithuania. The text is more precise than the video…
I will present a scenario played at the festival Black Box Copenhagen in 2014. The project was initiated by Nina Runa Essendrop and Marie Holm-Andersen under the poetic but generic title Inside myself, outside myself. This larp is not presented because it had a fancy location or visual appeal, quite the opposite. It was just people in a black box. So I have no pictures from the larp.
Nina and Marie gathered a dozen of larp writers and performance artists to create a new and playable scenario for the black box festival audience among who most were larpers, but some were not. There were many challenges in this venture, like how to come up with ideas, share them and weed out stuff? The biggest problem might have been this: how to conceive a scenario to a random number of participants, making them ready to play it and letting them play it, within a 2 hour time frame.
A general rule of participation design is that the audience, the participants, must know the rules and the premiss of the scenario in order to engage with it. Otherwise you run the risk that they default to passive observers. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. Now, there are obviously other approaches. Some of them apparent in computer game design. When you start playing Super Mario there is no explanation for where to go and how survive. You learn the rules of the game by playing it and exploring the boundaries and the possibilities of interacting with the game is a part of the enjoyment and possibly also a key part of the aesthetic experience.
One participant in Inside myself, outside myself, Simon James Pettitt, later wrote in a game report that he had expected an introduction or a workshop starting things off, but there were none. So how did it start? Well when the participants entered the black box the designers, now performers, were spread out in the room frozen in different sculptural positions. The participants roamed around in the room and looked at the ”sculptures”.
I think there are two things to learn from the design of the scenario. The first thing being the game design concept ”call for action” the second thing would be the idea of emergence – how patterns, movements, situations can emerge from some simple rules.
To simplify we set up 3 acts for the scenario. In the first act the sculptures functioned as ”calls for action”. Every sculpture worked as a kind of puzzle. The participants soon realized that the sculptures could come alive, become animated, if you approached it in the right way. So for example my position was kneeling, holding an invisible object in front of me. I could only be activated if someone put their shoe between my hands. Then I would untie the shoe and take it off. This was the only thing I could do in act 1. So eventually all the sculptures were unlocked by the participants and some of the simple tasks they carried out created chain reactions, so all the shoes ended up in a proper line and so on. The mixing desk communication style fader was definitely physical rather than verbal.
I don’t know if a less game oriented audience would have unlocked the sculptures. They might have. I think only play testing can answer such uncertainties.
The second and third act of the scenario worked through emergence. Emergence is something that happens when a collective of actors or objects follow a small set of rules from which a complicated or unforeseen situation or pattern appears. In the second act the sculptures turned into something closer to machines or robots and they could learn from the participants by copying their actions, what they said, how they behaved. That created some bizarre feedback loops where everything that happened echoed around the room. In the third act the intelligence of the machines were updated a second time and they could start to teach the participants what they knew. These small guidelines generated a lot of interaction and produced some kind of aesthetic consistency although the scenario turned out generally chaotic. Simon describes it as a ”strange living machine” in his game report.
Hopefully this case study of Inside myself, outside myself can give some hints on what is possible to do with small means on a short notice. To sum it up the scenario used calls for action as a means to teach an unknowing, uninformed audience about how to engage with the scenario. It continued to create interaction by simple rules – such as ”you can repeat what you see or hear”. Different situations emerged from these rules.
An infinite scenario
I put together a short experimental scenario for my workshop at this year’s annual nordic larp (live role-playing) conference Knutepunkt, which I’m happy to share. It’s easy to brief and could probably be played in 15 minutes.
Rules / tips
- Each participant get a set of 9 cards (One sheet makes one character, and yes they are ordered).
- Every card state a line to be read out loud or a simple action to be performed.
- When one is through the 9 cards, one starts over.
- There is no hurry. Listen and try to be aware of the space.
- The scenario should preferably be played in a big open space, blackbox or similar.
- I there are more than 14 players you can just double the characters. If there are less than 5 you can take 18 cards each.
Downloadable characters (and cut it in 9 separate cards/sheet)
The idea is to put emphasis on composition, space and timing in the improvisation, rather than coming up with smart things to say. Role-playing tends to be very facial-verbal. This set-up promotes other qualities. The role-playing community is by now pretty sophisticated in narrative methodology so I think it’s time to start experimenting a bit more with post-dramatic scenarios.
Some of the lines in this scenario is stolen or rewritten phrases from french emo-author Blanchot’s sort-of-kind-of-novel The Infinite Conversation. I also put a key line from The Coming Insurrection.
States of Play is out (the 2012 edition of the annual nordic larp anthology)
The Nordic live role-playing (larp) anthology of the year has arrived. For once prior to the Knutpunkt/Solmukohta conference, which is excellent, so that the participants can read up before they go there. This time it’s edited by art-house larp writer and critique Juhana Pettersson. It’s called States of Play – Nordic Larp around the World (Full PDF), which is a good sign of a movement with confidence. Recent years the writings and documentations of Nordic freeform and larp has been spread in the international larp community and definitely influenced a few groups here and there. We are almost reaching a point where Nordic Larp can be considered a genre of live role-playing rather than a geographic specificity. The Nordic style of games are probably marked out by game mechanics being exchanged for either hard-core simulationism or meta techniques (involving player-player interactions to benefit the telling). The Nordic larps has also been noticed for their “grown-up” themes such as social and political issues, gender and identity et c.
I have contributed with an article which dates a few years back (Möjligheternas Labyrint, 2007, swe), generously translated by Thom Kiraly (who run the only Swedish speaking podcast on roleplaying, Märklighetstroget). It’s a very hands on walk-through on how to make a small and simple “pervasive” reality game, based on our experiences with Scen 3 and Maskspel. The article is psycho-geographic in the sense that I try to define which public and non-public places and spaces that could come in handy when you write a story set in everyday life. I will publish it here later.
I have not read through the whole anthology, the contents is a mixed bag of stuff, exploring role-playing as an expanded field, which I think is great.
Playground – New mag on roleplaying
There is a new magazine on indie roleplaying and experimental live roleplaying. The first issue was released at the Knudepunkt conference and the editorial team is pan-nordic. They aim for to publish it on a quarterly basis and are interested in new, strange and obscure stuff related to role-playing in any form. If you are interested in supporting this project please subscribe! Here is an interview made by Juhana with the editor in chief Matthijs Holter, previously known for the Norwegian style blog and The Society of Dreamers:
I had a contribution about what performance can learn from live roleplaying, a kind of rewrite on this review (in swedish), but directed to a roleplaying reader:
Bumping into the walls
When performance and role-playing mix in an intimate site-specific piece, the role of the audience is challenged. Do we lean back and enjoy the piece, or try to respond to the situation as participants?
Visiting the duo Heine Avdal & Yukiko Shinozaki’s latest piece Field Works – Office at the Gothenburg dance and theater festival was a pleasure. During the festival several performances approached participatory aesthetics that resembled live role-playing. The invitation to the piece evoked a scenario set in a corporate world of generic office architecture. Only two spectators were admitted at a time, and the program folder offered ”an intimate performance where every spectator will have a different experience”.
The performance takes place in the business district close to the Gothenburg train station. An elevator takes us to a ”virtual office” maintained by Regus, a facility where companies can rent a fancy address or a short term lease. The company is happy to admit that they have similar locations all over the world which makes it possible to ”Think differently about your workplace.” With Regus, you can surf the waves of the volatile global market, set up business anywhere in the world, but still feel comfortable in a workspace which is always the same.
The setting reminds me of a 2003 larp in Drammen, Norway, where Fatland/Tanke invited us to play PR-agents in Panopticorp – ”a post-geographical networked corporation”. But this time, the corporate line is real. Panopticorp turned out to have anticipated the evolution of a business culture where demands for flexibility and team work place people employed in the ”creative industries” in a precarious position.
We are welcomed by a receptionist, and after some time in the lobby she takes us to an office room, where we are seated. The program states that ”Every location generates a certain kind of expectation and preconception of how we act in that specific space.” This is a situation where two different preconceptions meet. The first one is the context of a performance art piece, where we are expected to stay seated and silent most of the time. The second one is the office, with its inherent social implications.
As roleplayers, we are trained to relate to, adapt and affirm a social setting, which predisposes us to interact.
The room is empty. An electric kettle is boiling water and ding! it has finished. I approach the kettle and find two notes in two empty cups next to it. I give one note to my audience friend and take the other one for myself. There are illustrations of the room on the papers. ”Ah, this is how it starts”, I think to myself.
There are four desks and windows in three directions. The phone is ringing. I pick it up, but it keeps ringing and no one answers. At this point I feel a little bit uncertain. Maybe I should just sit down and wait. A woman in suit enters the room. I ask her if she works here. She does not respond, closing her eyes, thinking. I realize too late that I have overstepped my bounds. ”Yes”, she says. She gives me a form to fill in.
During the performance I see so many calls for action and possibilities for interaction going to waste. The performers are struggling. They want to invite us to participate and fully experience the strange world of the office, but they don’t have the tools to do that, because their piece is composed as a dance with phrases and ques, not as a larp, where we use characters, roles, scenarios, and explicit interaction patterns.
The illustrated notes were left in the cups by chance, and I was not expected to say anything to the people working in the office. But the signals remained mixed throughout the performance – why could I speak freely to the receptionist, but not to the suit? Although I never intended to transgress the structure of their piece in any way, I kept bumping into its walls.
In a world of precarious immaterial workers, where artists try to merge art with life – artists spending most of the time in offices these days – the art world could make good use of role-playing consultants who knows how to handle participatory situations.
Co-writing a park, inhabiting it with role-playing
Nordic live role-playing conference Knudepunkt has started, Miriam has some photos. Yesterday I gave a workshop about writing “fictions and try different approaches to co-creation. Everyone write in the same document simultaneously.” I want to share an exercise developed with Ulf Staflund, that I’ve only done once before but enjoyed a lot both times. I’ve written a little bit about it in swedish earlier.
- You need a group of people in the same room, co-writing with each other. The room should be big enough to have a designated area for interaction, The Park.
- The group starts out writing about the park. The text have no characters, only milieu and atmosphere.
- When someone feel ready s/he can enter the Park and through role-playing, mime or dance inhabit it with a character. When someone is on “stage” the writing stops and the attention of the group is on the stage.
- When a character leaves the stage it can be introduced in the text and the writing continous untill someone else gets the impulse to go on stage.
Music can help the participants to enter the same mode.
What I like about this exercise is that the role-playing part can stay very low-key and still produce tension and precense. It’s also nice to be able to go in and out of character without the pressure to sustain an illusion which is almost always present in live role-playing.
Here is an excerpt from last night:
Sun. Always sun.The old oak had been here longer than the park itself. Standing as royalty in the middle, a place for thoughts. It was a warm, late afternoon, the sun shining on the paths of the park, on the leaves. Before, teenagers used to hide love letters to each others in holes in the tree. But these days they use internet instead.The shadow of the trees were slightly shaking with the wind. It was talking to the grass in a very soft language.
For the people of the city the park has always been their only green refuge amidst smoke, exhaust and dirt. For the homeless people in the city, the park also serves as a kind of hostel. But there are no benches. They took them away because the homeless used them for sleeping. People have to sleep in the cold grass, covered with leafs. During the summer months this is not too bad, but every winter the cold nights take away the lives of some of the park’s inhabitants. It’s called the share of the carnivourous trees.