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Flashmobs, Urinals, and the Meaning of Art

In the spring of 2007, a Nine Inch Nails fan at a concert in Lisbon found a flash drive on top of a urinal in the men’s room at the venue. After the show he took it home, put it in his computer, and discovered a previously unreleased NIN song, which he posted to the internet. When other fans viewed the digital song files as a spectrogram, they discovered a picture and a phone number embedded in the song.

When players called the number, they heard a recording of a disturbing phone call – apparently made by a young woman trapped at the scene of a massacre.

What happened next helped crystallize a lot of my thoughts about the ways art carries meaning – or better yet, energy, that can arc from the work to its audience like a jumping spark.

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About all I remember from middle school chemistry is the idea that certain elements form strong, stable bonds that hold a lot of energy, while others are more fragile or unstable. That seems to describe art pretty well. Whether you paint or write or compose music, there are certain building blocks that hold artistic energy. Paintings with the proportions of the Golden Mean look good; chord progressions that follow the circle of fifths sound awesome; a story about two men in love with the same woman is hard to screw up. (1)

When we say a piece of art is good, this is usually what we mean: something about the way it is put together holds truth or beauty or grief or comedy and can zap an audience with a big charge of that stuff. One of the pleasures of having teenagers around the house is watching them encounter some old dusty thing they don’t expect much from – a black and white movie, a copy of Wuthering Heights – and seeing it go off like a landmine in their hearts and minds – ancient ordnance still very much alive.

But this “intrinsic” artistic energy isn’t the only kind of charge a work of art can carry.

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In 1917 the Society for Independent Artists hosted an exhibition in New York. Marcel Duchamp (using a pseudonym) submitted a piece called Fountain; it was a porcelain urinal. This wasn’t an art object, but an art context – it was the fact that it was supposed to be in a gallery that gave Fountain an artistic kick.(2)

If art is a jumping spark, of course, much depends on where it jumps to – you, the audience. Because I’ve spent a lot of time mixing stories with games, I’m very interested in art that carries an experiential charge for the user. For example, we worked on an ARG project called Last Call Poker. It had a story, of course, with a damsel in distress and a narrator who was a ghost. There was a cemetery theme; Elan Lee and Jane McGonigal worked out the rules for Tombstone Poker, which you and your friends can still play at your local graveyard.

One of the most interesting parts of the project was a series of tasks the ghostly narrator set for players, called Small Favors. An example might be, Go to your local cemetery and find the grave of someone who died on the day you were born. Do something nice for them – leave flowers, clean the plot, write a poem – and post the result. Many players said that performing these actions had a more profoundly “artistic” impact on them than any book or movie ever had.

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Let’s go back to that other urinal, the one at the Nine Inch Nails concert in Lisbon. A lone fan encounters an object in a surprising context (a flash drive on a urinal). He takes it home and has an amazing individual experience (discovering a new NIN song!) The song itself has the intrinsic properties of a good work of art – but hits the internet simultaneously wrapped in the story of its discovery.(3)

What was initially an individual experience is now a collective one, as the audience following the Year Zero mystery examines the song for clues. (What are we at now – “second-hand experiential”?) The phone number leads to the audio file of the fictional massacre:  another work of art with intrinsic properties that also connects – like a scene in a film or a production number in a musical – to the larger story of the world of Year Zero.

The experience of calling that phone number goes viral, with more than two million downloads over the next couple of weeks. It would be an interesting exercise to try and make a flow chart – like an epidemiologist’s chart or a model of the Krebs cycle – trying to track the path of the artistic energy in that initial flash drive – intrinsic, contextual, experiential, individual, and collective.

One of the things we talk about all the time is how this feels like a revolutionary age in storytelling, like the first decades of the motion picture camera, when they were still trying to learn the fundamental grammar of the art form: how cuts, for example, could work as transitions from scene to scene.

The next decades will see art get steadily more and more participatory. This is partly a function of the increasing importance of games in our culture, and partly something more fundamental about the hardware on which entertainment is now distributed. A book doesn’t have an “enter” button on it; movie theaters aren’t equipped to receive voice commands. Phones and computers are different; they are built to take input from the audience.

In this increasingly participatory landscape, part of the grammar we are trying to work out – equivalents of the film cut – is learning to fluidly orchestrate different kinds of artistic energy; the scene or song that carries its own charge, the context in which it is consumed, and the ways that individuals and groups engage, amplify, and transmit it.

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