This is the first of 5 posts about the #artctrl project. Part 1 serves as an introduction to the project and sets the scene for more detailed discussion in subsequent posts.
It’s been just over a month since #artctrl finished; the alternative reality game (ARG)/transmedia storytelling experiment that I ran as part of the You Are Here 2014 festival (YAH) in Canberra, Australia.
I’ve been putting off writing this post in order to give myself some critical distance after the year-long period in which #artctrl was produced. I hope my thoughts about the project will continue to evolve into new ideas and projects as time goes by, but here is something of where I am right now.
Let’s tackle the obvious question first (ok not so obvious if you have no idea about #artctrl – if so the FAQ is here): Was it a success? By the number of active players alone; no. The more accurate but frustratingly vague answer is it depends. We had 1 very happy winner at the end, a handful of other engaged players and a passive audience of possibly 250 (that number still seems to be growing via the Facebook group, interestingly).
Ok, so if the project wasn’t an outright success, does that make it a failure? In some ways yes, but only good ones For most of the project runtime I kept thinking about it wrongly. I kept seeing #artctrl as a single unified experimental project. Then David Finig reminded me it was more accurately a series of experiments. And it turns out that the experiments that flopped the most were also the most interesting and most rewarding.
I don’t think any of #artctrl completely failed, but the rough parts forced (is forcing) me to learn hard lessons – about compromise, simplification and finding your audience – that I might have learned earlier had I simply been able to produce more stuff before this. I am a part-time artist, creating in and around a new baby, a full-time job, and university study. Experiences such as this remind me I have a way to go to reach the level of insight of my own practice that many of my peers appear to possess. Certainly I still feel like I’m bouncing around between different kinds of projects, without a clear artistic direction. There are connections there between all of my projects, of course, but often I feel a little of what some people refer to as the multipotentiality experience: of jumping from one project in one area to a drastically different one in another.
Psychology aside, for your insight as much as mine, I present some key lessons learnt from #artctrl, abstracted to the best of my ability. I’ll explore each one in a bit further detail in the following posts.
1. Failure is good.
I’ve had the same wallpaper on my laptop for the last two years. It has a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I think I’m finally starting to get it.
2. Don’t have a baby just as the production design on your ARG is just starting to ramp up.
That said, the biggest things that I thought would make #artctrl impossible were the ones that made it most interesting and, oddly, in some cases more manageable. When you start a huge project like this and you pass whatever exit ramps you set for yourself you make a psychological commitment that is subconsciously working to get you through whatever problems arise. #artctrl was absolutely the hardest project I’ve embarked on so far, but I think once I passed the final commitment point every setback that arose either eventually improved the project or myself as an artist.
3. The key strength and weakness of this project was the same thing: eclecticism.
The ARG/transmedia format enabled me to constantly cross boundaries of medium and genre. That freedom was exhilarating, but it also posed some degree of barrier to entry to all but a very niche audience. There are management and design approaches to deal with this sort of problem, but even carefully employed they can hurt the project’s overall vision. Eclecticism also extends to your own skills and experience and that of everyone else who makes the project happen. Some of the parts of #artctrl I love the most came from the most strange and unexpected directions.
4. Using multiple platforms to tell a connected story will help to reach a wider audience, but the connection between the content on each platform needs to become clear early on in the game/story.
A “general” audience member will instinctively search for an external real world source that will bring disparate parts together into context; to explain it for them. Of course, audiences also fill this void for themselves in the forms of explanatory posts, wikis, fan communities, etc. For some this process of meaning finding is a source of great fun; for others great frustration. (See 3 again about niche audiences).
5. Decide your base “win” criteria way before you make any binding decisions.
We agreed an engaged audience of at least 5 people would be acceptable, but obviously aimed for above that. We basically achieved the base goal, with some caveats. Looking back I think the original estimation was pretty astute given the population of Canberra, and the numbers and the range of people who attended YAH 14 events. It is sad but the truth is it is hard to find an audience who enjoys the unexpected. Most audiences crave fresh and interesting storytelling, but when this requires investment on their part – particularly of an uncertain nature and duration – that creates a significant barrier that even the best design and content may be unable to remove.
As noted I’ll go into detail on these points in the subsequent posts but up front I’d like to put out another big thanks to the team that made this project possible:
- The cast: Nick Byrne, Cameron Thomas, Tamina Koehne-Drube, Alison McGregor, Joel Barcham and Michelle Cooper
- The designers and writers: Jack Lloyd, Michael ‘Mickey Two-Bones’ Bailey, Richard Lagarto, Emma Gibson, Joel Barcham and Alison McGregor (again), Adam Thomas, Ryan Schipper and Chris Brain.
- Nick Delatovic and Vanessa Wright and the whole You Are Here team; in particular Shane Parsons, Karmin and Jacinda @ New Best Friend, George Rose, Andrew Galan, Adam Thomas (again), David Smith, Luke McGrath and Nikki Kennedy
- The ACT Writers Centre
- Maria Klinger for the incredible prize
- Neil Stork-Brett and The Hundred Swords; David Caffery; The Cashews; In Canberra Tonight; and Smith’s Alternative Bookshop.