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In Beautiful Dreams – Nurturing narratives and the forgotten potentials of digital culture

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“Might we contrive one of those opportune falsehoods … so as by one noble lie to persuade if possible the rulers themselves, but failing that the rest of the city.”

– Plato in The Republic

“If you read it, you will be infected. If you are infected you will be InFicted. If you are InFicted, you will get UnFucted. “

– Joseph Matheny

Those who entered the digital world in the late 80’s and early 90’s were introduced to a nearly unfathomable host of possibilities for media and creativity. DVD’s offered the potential for integrative experiences that tracked user preferences and allowed for multiple story formats which changed with each viewing based on previous use, virtual reality models held the possibility for turning these experiences fully immersive, cell phones and wireless technology promised an unthought of openness to it all, and the internet allowed everyone to dream of a fully connected, creative global conversation that synchronized each aspect into a beautifully coordinated whole. Looking back on the hopes held for digital culture in light of growing concerns over surveillance, advertising, neuromarketing and the like one might wonder what happened to turn the dream into a lousy cold war sitcom. 

It was a note from my friend Joseph Matheny that shuffled the dust around in my memory and made me realize that my current experience with technology isn’t quite as conducive to creativity as promised. Matheny was organizing a series of classes for University of California – Santa Barbara that covered the basics of multimedia and transmedia production, and I was glad to hear that his insights were going to be available to creatives coming into the field at a serious level. Hopefully efforts like this will bring some focus back to what these tools were intended for originally in the minds of their creators.

As one of the early pioneers in multimedia, his alternate reality game Ong’s Hat has become a reminder of what is possible with today’s technology, and a kick in the ass to today’s creatives that are allowing this potential to be misused, abused and denigrated by marketers and media corporations. Matheny’s vision of transmedia production doesn’t end with a shiny bit of intellectual property, it ends with reformatting the mytho-poetic infrastructure of consensus reality.

“Legend-telling online operates slightly differently than when performed in face-to-face situations, since computer-mediated communication permits tellers to instantly present various kinds of “evidence” and to hypertextually connect their accounts to other legends to form vast legend complexes. And when people become immersed in these legend complexes, they may participate in an online form of legend-tripping.”

– from Legend Tripping Online – Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat, by Michael Kinsella (University Press of Mississippi)

In an article that he just posted, titled Transmedia: Who Invited the Lobsters Anyway? (CLICK HERE for the article,) Matheny gets even more direct with the point that what we are experiencing today is a gross digression from the original intentions of digital media as a whole, and transmedia in particular:

“I have a strong opinion regarding the present state of Transmedia versus its original intent and potential. Honestly, it has become a bit of a sensitive issue for me personally. As I recently commented to my friend, Martin Olsen, ” . . . you know Hollywood. Five minutes after they discover something, they invented it.” This is true, not just in the case of Transmedia, but also a few other developing technologies I had a hand in. PDF, HTML, DVD, Web 2.0 and the short-lived Semantic Web. All media technologies I was intimately involved in developing and evangelizing in their infancy. Each in turn was never allowed to mature and develop into its potential as rich media environments before the marketing vultures descended and turned it all into another sewer pipe used to sell us shit that we don’t need, necessitating working jobs that we hate, etc. “

He continues: 

“As one of the developers of the literary style now referred to as Transmedia, and it was started as a LITERARY style, regardless of how Johnny-come-latelys and interlopers may attempt to spin it these days, I am here to tell you that it was NEVER intended as yet another marketing gimmick. Hands down, no exceptions, NOT PART OF THE PLAN. Transmedia and its immediate predecessor, Alternate Reality Gaming are hybrids of traditional literary narrative, video game story arc, web enabled interactivity and real-life role playing games like LARPs. The original intention was to broaden and open up the storytelling process to mediums outside of the traditional publishing platforms, i.e. text/images. It was part Borges, part George Coates, part The Game (the move with Michael Douglas) and part other things.

Yes, when I started all this, I was a naive, avant-garde artist from the pre-dotcom SF Bay Area, which at least in the 1980s and early 90s was a reservation for wacky, offbeat, anti-commercial artists from all over the world. When I go there now, I am saddened by the amazing paucity of the edgy energy that runs through that area. Much in the same way I am saddened when I survey The Transmedia landscape and see how a new storytelling form has largely become another Hollywood marketing gimmick. So much potential, so unused, so unrealized. The commercialization and commodification of the bay area is but a physical reflection of what has happened to the spirit of art and innovation that once inhabited the bay area tech-art scene. I am of course refering to the days when Burning Man was free and actually FUN.”

One of the amazing features of a properly run bit of transmedia is the ability for it to open up different ways of seeing the common factors that control what we normally accept as mundane. Speaking of cold war sitcoms, most of us remain unaware of just how apt that idea is for explaining the influence of artists like Roy Orbison, and other perpetuators of the ‘Nashville Sound’ that came to dominate popular music during the 60’s and 70’s. Orbison’s dream based lyrics and soothing melodic musings provided the perfect popular anesthesia for a time period of political transition and tensions. When you’re balancing a populace between the hopes of progress and the threat of nuclear annihilation, you need figures like Orbison to sing them to sleep while inviting them into that hazy dream state necessary for consumer culture to grow fat and strong. 

This isn’t conspiracy – it’s brilliant marketing and it is a savvy way to play society as a game. The music producers get paid on the candy loving consumptive quality of the masses, an artist and craftsperson gets an opportunity to work at the very cutting edge of their art and craft, while everyone playing behind the scenes gets a convenient cover of pleasant pastoralism oozing out over the airwaves. Take a look at the header image of St. Roy de Cold War Hypnosis sending out those viral vibrations to sooth your aching psyche. Pull back the covers on the whole charade and you get William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – or the surreal explorations of sub-urban ennui later expressed by David Lynch as he revealed the eerie depths of Orbison’s crooning in Blue Velvet.  

We see the same seductive production in contemporary studio creations like Lana Del Rey, whose lyrics, sound and image harken back to the good ol’ days of music media manipulation with the added insights of today’s production wizardry.  With lyrics that tie common phrases with narratives that hint at the strange temptations of the social elite, and production that encapsulates ever aspect of  image and sound, we’re delivered a prepackaged, addictive assemblage by a blank eyed singer that sells millions. There is no arguing with the effective potential, and it’s not so different from the way that Orbison was packaged and presented to society in the 1960’s. We’ve got to ask ourselves, however, are we born to die? Or born to live in beautiful dreams? Or perhaps we’d better get a hold of the games we’re suckered into? In any case, we’d better be careful whose narrative lines we pick up and run with.

Another familiar example of the fruit of these reality bending narratives is found in popular fiction such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which gains social relevance by providing a doorway into an intricate matrix of contemporary myth. The central plot point focusing on Jesus’ bloodline, a revisionist role for Mary Magdalene and the many mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau has its base in a long running alternate reality game that emerged around the site thanks to the efforts of another transmedia pioneer, Pierre Plantard.

As Mariano Tomatis, a mathematician, magician and one of the people responsible for creating the Rennes-le-Chateau museum reflects:

In the game of Rennes-le-Château, to  “participate” is to narrate its story, add details, publish articles, discuss on web forums, create maps, suggest new links, propose extensions into new disciplines, write books, organize meetings.

Finite and infinite games share many similarities. Just as in the popular game Risk, the game of Rennes-le-Château offers a variety of maps, and even a real-life setting that is in scale 1:1 with the story. As in role-playing games, Rennes-le-Château offers a multitude of books full of clues, paintings, inscriptions, characters and historical backgrounds, offering a rich background of information and a powerful immersive experience. As with Sudoku, not all combinations are allowed: the characters may intertwine in space and time with relative ease, there could be any type of relationship, but it is difficult to directly connect an individual who lived in the XX century with another born two centuries earlier. But freedom of action can transform a singer into the lover of a priest, a housekeeper into his daughter, a brother into the victim of a homicide.

Both types of game are governed by rules, but in a finite game those rules cannot change; on the other hand, the rules of an infinite game must be changed continually throughout the game.”

Further, Tomatis points out how, “the whole mythology condensed around the village is having a “measurable” effect on some people “immersed” in it, despite being made up of immaterial information. (This) reflection emerged from my studies about stage magic. A good magician should be able to induce — through stories and appropriate stimuli — weird magical experiences, in which reality and illusion blur. Collecting comments from the visitors of the church of Rennes-le-Château, I have read incredible descriptions of what happens in that building – at least in their perception.” The cultivation of these experiences is a key point in true transmedia work, but it can be perverted if these techniques are used in conjunction with corrupt intention.

Transmedia artists are responsible for the games they create. With Rennes-le-Chateau, “the esotericist (Pierre Plantard) laid the foundations for a “game” that would have never come to an end, to which anyone could participate, feeling free to add something and to act as a protagonist. A very serious game, from his point of view, rich in deep spiritual implications.” Yet the inclusion of elements such as the Priory of Zion mythos has lent support to the thinly veiled anti-semitism of conspiracy evangelists such as Alex Jones and David Icke.

Both Jones and Icke are themselves transmedia artists, playing the game of myth-maker, but theirs is a perverse and self gratifying game, whose trajectory leads players further and further down a spiral of irrationality, social disengagement and paranoia. Just as corporations have discovered the power of Alternate Reality Games to create complex and invasive choice architecture into the lives of consumers, the inane adventure story sculpted by media figures like Jones and Icke merely serves to drive alternate agendas that offer no meaningful development for the players joining the game.

Mentioning that Orbison’s music is a hypnotic veil for political machinations does not imply conspiracy, it’s a systematic function of the consumerist society which veils reality via popular entrainment. Yet figures like Icke and Jones hijack these insights to sculpt perverse information vectors that hijack potential insights and turn them into delusional paranoid escapism which is almost more insidious than the candy colored clowns produced by the popular market. 

“The Secret Army? I won’t say “we lost,” because some of what’s left of us is still in there.”

– from Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs

Some of the most effective early digital media was produced by friends of Robert Anton Wilson, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, and other bastions of non-conformity, but one is hard pressed to find this influence today outside of aesthetics and simulation. You can rattle off a myriad of interesting projects that are currently in the works, but by and large the cohesion, vision, proficiency and passion that were there in the early days has gone to ground beneath the weight of corporate influence, self promotion and mediocrity. Unfortunately at some point effectiveness must be weighed as much as intent, and those most effective in mobilizing mass audiences are irresponsible and abrasive Limbaugh clones like Jones, who spew potent and pathetic propaganda to people ready for any answers in a rapidly changing world. Another place to look for precisely crafted transmedia is the New Apostolic Reformation movement (CLICK HERE for an article titled Satan’s Target: Your Mind which explores the New Apostolic Reformation’s use of choice architecture,) which has been creating one of the most complex, integral and expansive reality games through the development of an imaginal world of “supernatural living.”

What was once the playful domain of passionate professionals and amateurs has become a carefully crafted hunting ground for corporate marketers, propagandists, academics and media interests. Burroughs pirate state has become a wasteland of empty advertising, with its pioneering spirit set aside for profiteers and ego driven pundits.

The field is open for a more mature and creative approach to transmedia initiatives, but it will take the audacity of someone like Plantard, who turned a local legend into a transcendent Gnostic drama, to truly utilize today’s technology in building “legend-complexes” that can help bring understanding and union, rather than aid in further fracturing of our cultural heritage. To be trusted with the creation of a “noble lie” is to be given access to the very prima materia of cultural creation, and poor use of such responsibility can have far reaching effects.

Matheny was one of the first to recognize the power inherent in the interconnected culture that is developing through the rapid technological progress driving globalization. His insights and accomplishments help us to understand the intricacies of transmedia arts and provides a valuable tool in becoming a co-creator in the world wide game already in progress called the “21st Century.” 

For those interested in exploring the deeper aspects of transmedia he is currently running a series of articles on Nicholas Belardes’ website that will address these issues in more depth:

As experts in ‘magical experience design’ the performance magicians Mariano Tomatis and Ferdinando Buscema have also teamed up for a publication that will provide incredible insights into the potentials of combining culture and imagination in their upcoming Wunderkammer (CLICK HERE for more details)

Our social narratives don’t have to be nightmares, we can live in beautiful dreams if only the creative class would step up to the task and follow Matheny’s recommendations:

“Civilization is on the precipice. Culture has become a tool of control, to sell you more crap and to guarantee your compliance. Obey, work, consume, die. What ever happened to the artistic spirit of rebellion? Where are the Rimbauds, the Kerouacs, the Mailers, the Situationists, the Dadiast, The Fluxus, the Neoists of today? Rise up and say NO MORE. TAKE BACK YOUR ART AND YOUR ART FORMS. DO NOT SELL OUT TO THE PLANETARY WORK MACHINE. MAKE ART, NOT PRODUCTS. SAY NO TO TERMINAL EMPLOYMENT.” 

Take the leap folks – the world is waiting for a better plot line, and each of us is writting part of the script. 

Note: This article reworks material from a piece titled Taking Back Transmedia originally published on The Eyeless Owl. 


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    Section Editor of Limitless Mind, David is a researcher, writer and multimedia specialst focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness

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