My newborn fanfiction book collection

I recently decided to start a collection of fanfiction books.

This may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, especially nowadays when most fanfic is published online and most fans aren’t even aware it exists in book form.  When you say ‘print fanfic’, most people think you mean fanzines.  But I’m talking about books, actual fanfic printed in book format. I can’t say exactly what spurred on my sudden decision to collect fanfic books, especially when a good portion of its contents already exist online, and free.  Maybe it’s just the bibliophile in me.  Maybe it’s just the librarian in me.  Maybe it’s just the collector in me.  Maybe it’s just the fan. Most likely it’s all of the above.

I was first introduced to the idea of fanfic in book form in the mid-2000’s when my sister’s friend sent her a beautiful illustrated book of her fanfic (which I briefly mentioned a long time ago in a previous blog post). It looked so gorgeous, so professional, that the concept stuck in my mind, and a few years later I published my own fic in book form. This was more for my own benefit than anyone else’s.  I just really wanted to hold my own words in my hands, to leaf through them, to annotate them, to put them on my book shelves just like the other treasured tomes I possess. It turned out that there were a small number of fans who also wanted copies, and so I opened up access to the books on Lulu.com

The first few books of my new collection…

It wasn’t until I started research on my Ph.D. that I discovered that the fanfiction book was more common than I first thought it was.  I was doing a random search for my ship on Amazon when I discovered a certain book that I may also have mentioned in a previous blog post. I bought a copy (for research purposes initially), mainly because I was intrigued that this book of fanfic was being sold (presumably for money) on a major online bookstore, and had an ISBN (Lulu.com will make these books available at major bricks-and-mortar bookstores, such as Borders, in this case). I haven’t linked to this particular book, since I don’t want to risk drawing the attention of rights-holders to the author, due to the work’s legally grey area.

At the Fan Studies Network Conference last year, I was shown some gorgeous fanfic books, also printed by Lulu, by an acquaintance, and this again reminded me that ‘this was a thing’. At this point, I actually did a little bit of digging into the phenomena and discovered the notorious case of Lori Jareo’s Another Hope, a Star Wars fanfic book that was sold in major bookstores, and was finally shut down by Lucasfilm in 2006. At the time, it caused significant ripples in the fan community, who were afraid that the furore would cause a backlash from the Powers That Be against fanfic itself.  Taking a look around the net, I was able to find that there was quite a sizeable amount of fanfic books out there, and since this seems to be a little-known area of fandom (and fandom research), I thought I would start up a collection of my own – for both research and entertainment purposes.

From a research perspective, there are three strands to my interest in collection fanfic books. The first centres around changing modes of publication.  In the digital era, print-on-demand (POD) has meant that self-publishing has become an affordable reality for many, and there is no longer the stigma of publishing through a ‘vanity press’.  This suggests that the internet has afforded yet more ways for fans to publish their work, apart from digital or amateur press avenues.

On the shelf…

The second area of interest revolves around the materiality of the book, and the fact that some fans still like to have their work presented in a physical format; and that others still like to buy physical written works, despite the free/gift culture that exists within the fan community.  I suspect that this may have something to do with idea of collectability – that there exists in the fan the desire to possess physical tokens of their fandom, the collective size of which may bestow fan capital.  This interest in owning physical works is especially interesting considering the recent decline in e-book sales. Could the phenomenon of fanfic books tell us something about why print books sales are once more increasing?

The last strand of interest for me is that old chestnut – copyright. Needless to say fanfic books occupy a grey area legally, and even if they are not being sold for profit (i.e. sales only going towards the cost of production and/or shipping), does this let them off the hook?  Do they still constitute fair use? And what drives fans to sell print versions of their fanfiction despite the legal nightmare experienced by Another Hope over a decade ago?

I’m not expecting my collection to answer any of these questions.  What it does make me think about however, is that fanfiction books occupy a unique place in the long history of print.  One day, I hope, my collection will be the basis of a public institutional collection that can be enjoyed by all.

* I’m currently taking donations to my collection.  If you’re interested in donating, please reply to this post, DM me at @ludiprice on Twitter, or email me at Ludovica.Price.1 (at) city.ac.uk. Thanks! 🙂 

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The future of documents and immersive literacy

On Tuesday 21st October  I went to the Internet Librarian International ’14 conference, and in between talking to everyone’s favourite information scientist superheroine (Batgirl, in case you’re wondering), I was proud to have a front row seat during the keynote speech my PhD supervisor, Lyn Robinson, gave for the Content Innovation track.

As some of you who read this blog may know, I am interested in the myriad ways in which documents can be instantiated, and the changing face of what we call ‘documents’ today.  We are living in an era where the document, and what it is, is becoming increasingly blurred.  Not everyone defines documents in the same way, but the so-called Information Age has made that task of defining a decidedly slippery thing – more so than usual, perhaps.  With our e-books, iTunes playlists, Tumblr reclists, Wiki databases, Powerpoint slides, Twitter feeds and so on – we are inundated by documents on all sides, much of it merely the detritus of the mundane routine of our everyday lives.  You might think your Tweets are unimportant and throw-away – but they’re important enough for the Library of Congress to archive, and you can request your archive if you’re desperate to read back on the minutiae of your life in the Tweetosphere.

My point is, the fluid, dynamic, sometimes ephemeral digital document is here to stay, and in the last 2 decades or so it has completely radicalised the way we view documents themselves.  In many ways, the library and information profession is only just beginning to feel its way round actually dealing with the issues presented by digital documents.  Many of these issues are driven by the rapid progress of technology itself, which requires a constant race with Moore’s Law, and a never-ending battle with thorny problems such as migration and emulation.

But what happens when the digital becomes passée?  When it becomes to us what books are now, or codices and papyri to the ancients?  What happens when the next big revolution in documentation comes along?

Lyn Robinson’s talk might give us some pause for thought, because it implied that that ‘next big thing’ was already here – or at least, it is lurking round the next corner.  What is this next big thing?  It’s the immersive document, and whilst it doesn’t exist yet – not entirely – in her talk Lyn gave examples in her talk of technologies that are already being developed to allow us to smell, taste and touch through wearable digital devices which are, as yet, far from perfect, but which may in future change how we experience reality and fill our leisure time.

Now this is interesting to me because as humans we are perennially attracted to this idea of unreality.  According to Lyn’s presentation, there are three aspects of our lives that we as humans feel drawn to document: our dreams, our fantasies, our memories.  From our ancient myths and legends, to folklore, to the fiction we read and the movies we watch, our innate desire to be drawn into the unreal has always existed, tied unequivocally to our need for escapism, for wonderment, for ways in which to creatively make sense of our inner and outer worlds.  In a couple of previous posts, I talked about the immersive Punchdrunk production The Drowned Man (here and here; third part still forthcoming).  This show interested me because it seemed to me to be as close to an immersive ‘virtual world’ as we could get to in an analogue, non-digital format.  Its set was literally the stage for ‘another world’ where audience members strove to discover the stories of that world’s inhabitants – an impossible task since these characters lived lives whose strands could not be followed in their entirety, just as we are unable to experience the lives of those around us.  What interested me was the documentation of The Drowned Man (or lack of it), and that the fans of the show would congregate online to try and fill in the gaps by providing documentation of their own.  They tried to rebuild the lives of the characters by collaboratively piecing together their knowledge through what they had seen in the show.

But what if you could create an immersive record of a show?  What if you could relive the life of a character by putting on the proverbial 3D headset and experiencing all the sensations they experience, thinking all their thoughts and feeling all their emotions?  What if you could experience the lives of the real life people around you, not just the lives of a character in a play or a book?

This is nothing new, of course.  Popular and literary culture have been playing with this idea for at least a century.  More recent entertainment media have not only exploited the trope of immersive documentation, but have looked at it in ways that might become more relevant in the future, when and if such technology comes into being.  For example, the Dennis Potter TV play, Cold Lazarus (1996), analyses the ethical dilemmas associated with the recording and sharing of ones own memories.  Set in a dystopian Britain of the 2300’s, a media corporation seeks to televise the memories of a 20th century writer, Daniel Feeld, whose head was preserved at death.  The moral dilemma is made even more acute by the revival of the writer’s consciousness, and his awareness of the predicament he now finds himself in.  There is also an interesting play on the fact that the viewer can never be quite sure how true Feeld’s memories really are, as he was in life a temperamental, creative artiste.

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Still from Cold Lazarus (1996). Source: Deeper Into Movies

Then, in 2001, the first fully computer-generated movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was released.  Based on a popular series of videogames, the film kept true to its fantastical roots with its convoluted and unbelievable plot.  But what is interesting about the story is that much of it hinges upon the dreams of the main protagonist, Aki Ross, who appears to have been ‘infected’ by an alien species that is threatening the planet.  Thinking that her dreams might give her a clue to beating the aliens, Aki records her dreams every night, but when those recordings find their way into the wrong hands, Aki finds herself on the run.

Then there’s Remember Me, a 2013 videogame that is set in a future where people upload their memories to the cloud via an implant called the Sensen, which means that essentially your memories are no longer owned exclusively by you, but by the corporation that owns Sensen, Memorize.  The game’s protagonist, Nilin, is one of a small number of people called ‘Errorists’ who are able to hack into the net and remix other people’s memories – distort, add to, or erase them.  In order to complete the game, the story involves Nilin having to remix the memories of certain people in order to restore her own lost memories and bring down Memorize.  The game cleverly tackles issues of privacy, intellectual property (should memories be ‘copyrighted’ like ideas?) and whether we should have the right to erase the memories we don’t like and to augment the ones we do. (We do with our bodies – should our minds be treated any differently?)

Now this may all seem far-fetched, but what all these examples (and many more besides) highlight is a need for immersive literacy.  We are already facing the challenges of information and digital literacy in an age where digital information glut is the norm and so much of our everyday lives revolves around navigating the web and the cloud.  When and if immersive technologies develop, we will need to consider the ethical knots they present, and, on a practical level, we will need to consider how immersive experiences are to be documented, organised, classified, indexed, catalogued and disseminated.  What will the legal ramifications be?  How will the role of the library and information professional have to change in order to manage such ‘documents’?

The digital leap has already caught many of us in the LIS profession unawares.  Perhaps we ought to look a little further into this ‘far-fetched’ future, and think about what it might mean to deal with these potential new types of media – immersive media.

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A trip to the Infinite Library exhibition at the Colosseum, Rome

Every so often a happy coincidence will come the way of every lucky librarian.  Mine just happened to come last month, when, having booked a trip to Italy, I discovered that the Colosseum was hosting an exhibition on ancient libraries.  This double whammy of ‘relevant to my interests’ (ancient monuments + libraries) was enough to make me feel that somehow the clouds had temporarily parted on my life, and a mighty hand had pointed at me from the heavens, simultaneously declaring “Thou shalt have thy cake and eat it too.”

And so I managed to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, and visit “The Infinite Library: Sites of Knowledge in the Ancient World” exhibition at the same time.

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“The Infinite Library”

What was fortuitous about the whole thing was that I only managed to catch the exhibition by the skin of my teeth, it having been opened in March and closed on 5th October (yesterday, as it happens).  Set in the magnificent and awe-inspiring Colosseum itself (on the 2nd floor), it was the perfect backdrop for an exhibition about ancient libraries, writing and knowledge.  Its title – “The Infinite Library” (an allusion to “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges) – reminds us of the timelessness of the human quest to analyse, organise and disseminate knowledge.  We cannot say for sure when libraries truly began – but we can be certain that as soon as humanity began to analyse their surroundings, their world, and what they knew – they attempted to capture it and encapsulate it in some form (Rock paintings?  Cave art?).  By transporting us directly into the ancient world via a monumental and ruinous setting, the exhibition brought us that one step closer to a time that is far removed from our own, but that is, perhaps fundamentally as well as intellectually, closer than we might think.

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Rules of the library, ancient style.

For anyone interested in the history of the library, this exhibition (which was helpfully in both Italian and English) was a beautiful visual counterpart to the many books that have tackled this rich and vibrant subject (Libraries in the Ancient World, The Library at Night, Library: An Unquiet History and The Story of Libraries, to name but a few).  Its visual immediacy helped to put flesh on the bones of these texts, to bring the ancient and venerable into the periphery of our vision.  Through the exhibits the audience was able to see first hand what actually constituted a book or a document to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Books themselves were a late addition to the ancestral lineage of instantiated documents, and “The Infinite Library” was careful to remind us of this fact.  For the ancients, texts were inscriptions, funerary epitaphs, stele, ostracon and scrolls – actual reconstructions of Roman library shelves served to highlight the physical differences between what we might term a library today.  Roman book shelves were similar yet strangely unalike – more like niches than shelves, scrolls were stacked inside them horizontally and one could imagine that they weren’t as easily retrievable from their housings as sliding a book out might be.

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Fragments of a catalogue of Greek and Roman authors.

Holding the exhibition in Rome was fitting in more than one aspect – the Roman world was in itself the birthplace of what we might recognise as the public library (public libraries existed before in ancient Greece, though were restricted to scholars and the literati).  Some of these first public libraries were originally part of the bath houses, which may perhaps seem strange to us these days – is a book and bathwater ever a good mixture?  But for the Romans, the baths served as the ancient equivalent of the early modern coffee houses – a place where the populous could congregate, gossip, and conduct their business affairs.  In this respect, the library was perfectly situated to serve the community.

But it was the similarities to our own libraries of today that gave the visitor cause to smile.  Ancient librarians, it appears, had the same concerns our modern libraries do.  Amongst the exhibits were included some ancient rules of the library, no doubt exhorting users to silence or threatening reprimands for stealing from the collection; and the human drive to organise was represented, for example, in fragments of a catalogue listing Greek and Roman authors.  In this way the exhibition served to bridge the gap between the then and the now, to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present, and to highlight the ways in which the lives of librarians and information professionals has, in the most basic and fundamental ways, remained the same.

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A 16th century herbal depicting mandrakes.

What made the exhibition exceptional, however, was its focus not only on the library, but also on the cultural milieu that informed the growth of the library and literacy in the Roman period.  For example, it provided a valuable insight into the how the Romans read and wrote.  On display were writing implements – styluses, ink pots, tablets, and other writing paraphernalia that we would find strange to look at.  There were also helpful instructions on how to read a scroll, which also brought to mind just how cumbersome and time-consuming holding, rolling and unrolling one really is, and definitely spelled out to me just how much we should appreciate the invention of the book (or codex, as it was in antiquity)!  Last but not least, “The Infinite Library” featured several beautiful frescos reminiscent of the famous ‘couple from Pompeii’, which depicted their subjects as both writers and readers, one of which showed a very lovely young lady reading what appeared to be a love letter.  These gorgeous works of art give us a striking picture of how (wealthy) Romans wanted themselves to be seen – as literate and erudite.  The fact that so many of these portraits exist is testament to just how highly literacy was prized in the ancient world.

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A Roman writing tablet. Wax would be poured into the niches to serve as a writing surface, and would be replaced whenever it had been used up.

It is a shame that the exhibition is now closed, although English-speaking visitors might have found it difficult to access unless they, like myself, were heading to Rome on holiday.  Nevertheless, I’d recommend a similar exhibition to anyone who’s interested in librarianship, particular ancient libraries and the history of documents.  It would be lovely if the British Library could host a similar exhibition, as, in many ways, “The Infinite Library” was not just the story of books or art or culture, but the story of who we are.

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Woodrow Phoenix’s “She Lives” – a (fan) experience

On 23rd May 2014, during my second, unplanned visit to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, I happened upon the very talented Mr Woodrow Phoenix getting ready to give a live presentation of his monster-sized work, She Lives.   I had no idea these ‘short’ talks were going on, so the whole thing was doubly serendipitous.  All the more so for the fact that what I was treated to was an amazingly tactile and visceral experience.

Being at the front helped.  It meant I was one of the few in the audience that had the distinct privilege of helping to turn the pages, to feel the handmade, embossed cover, to run my fingers over the smooth, shiny expanses of black ink and the knobbly ridges of corrector fluid.  All too often reading comics involves solely visual ingestion of the material – you pick up the comic, you open it, you look at it, read it – its pages are either smooth and glossy or matt and slightly rough – as a printed artefact it is uniformly homogeneous, a processed piece of finished product wherein the story of its production is, if you will, a closed book.  She Lives reminds us – like the illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press – that comic books have a double life: on the one hand, a life as a commodity; on the other, a life as a work of art.  It is all the more interesting that Phoenix does not plan to print the book – in an industry that is known (whether rightly or wrongly) to churn out the throw-away and the ephemeral, She Lives will remain a one-of-a-kind, a real work of art – an artefact that refuses to suffer from the losses of reproduction.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

What is also apparent with She Lives is the vast amount of real blood, sweat and tears that went into its making.  It’s physical size is staggering (it’s just under a square metre, it’s width double that when opened).  When you consider that it was hand-bound, embossed, and went through at least 3 previous iterations (as dummy books), the work involved in its creation is all the more impressive.  Stitching together such a large book was a feat in itself (involving much self-puncturing with the needle); and none of the repetitive sequences (totalling about 60 individual panels in a single round) are mechanically reproduced.  All are hand-drawn.  Ink spillages (of which a few were substantial) were painstakingly whited out.  The physical processes involved in bookbinding and embossing demanded much research.  So too did the environments and acts of a 1940’s circus and its performers, which make up the setting of She Lives.

Seeing the comic in its display case is impressive in itself.  But having the chance to read it is something else.  There is no narrative text, no captions or speech bubbles – yet still there is a sense that it is read.  Phoenix’s talk-through focuses mainly on the making-of the piece, which does not interrupt the flow of that reading, but instead augments it with a sense of wonder that such an endeavour was possible at all.  The sheer size of it demands a more leisurely pace in the reading of it, and this affords the chance to appreciate the artistic details of the comic.  Turning the large, heavy pages makes the reading a tactile experience, a communing with a piece of art that made me wonder what it must have felt like for the kings, princes and nobles of yesteryear to leaf through their priceless manuscripts.

This act of reading was carefully crafted by Phoenix himself.  As a document, She Lives plays with concepts of reading a book or comic when there are no words to read.  The physical size and weightiness were intentional experiments in resolving this question, as Phoenix explains:

Because silent comics can paradoxically be very difficult for readers to engage with (many people interpret a silent panel as having no important story content) a comics creator must make readers understand that the pictures do not just support the captions and speech balloons but contain and deliver as much or more information in their own right.

Back in 2002, Marvel tried a silent comic campaign with their ‘Nuff Said event.  My enduring impression of the event was how confusing some sequences were – how you sometimes really had to think what on earth was going on.  She Lives doesn’t suffer from that.  There is an elegant flow to the panels and action, no doubt thanks to the meticulous thought, effort and time that went into its making (time that the Marvel guys probably didn’t have the luxury of).  Size and weight prove to be brilliant strategies in pacing the reader, in guiding their journey through the book. “In order to hold the reader’s attention,” Phoenix says, “and to direct their gaze, my strategy was to present them with a large surface and heavy paper that would  have the effect of slowing the reader down and making them stay on the page longer, to look more closely at what the page contains.” It was clear, from the reactions of those at the page-turning event, that the strategy also increased readers’ sense of immersion and wonder.

On a more personal level, what struck me about She Lives is that it is a fan work.  I’m aware that the term has derogatory connotations attached to it; words such as derivative and even intertextual, which have been applied to concepts of fan work, imply a somehow subordinate role to the original material that a fan work may be based on (Derecho, 2006).  The point is that She Lives proves that such works can be both original and of high quality.  Set in the late 1940’s, it takes up the story of the Bride of Frankenstein, giving one of those continuations of a closed off plot that fans so enjoy playing with (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Derecho, 2006; Jenkins, 2013 [1992]).  Everything about the comic – from the lavish attention to detail, to the sense of motion in its panels, to its visceral physicality – pays testament to the love Phoenix has for his subject matter, to his desire to explore beyond the boundaries the 1935 movie presents.

Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Phoenix himself does not see his piece as fan work, or even as a tribute.  “This story was inspired by the ending of Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think of it as a fan tribute,” he says in an email conversation with me. “It’s more like I’m using something that was discarded. The titular character only appears in the film for two minutes and she dies without speaking, having barely done anything… There’s nothing to her as a character apart from a fabulous visual design.” And, according to Phoenix, it was that visual design that prompted him to continue her story:

I would occasionally wonder about what could have happened with her had she lived. And then one day an image occurred to me of her sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. I thought it might make a good short story: the bride of Frankenstein had survived the explosion but had no function, no purpose or place to be, and was living in a trailer or a motel somewhere in Glendale, California.

This thought led him to the backdrop of She Lives – to “the idea [of] a freak or outcast who hides amongst other freaks”.  The circus seemed to be a natural extension of that; and once the idea had started rolling, the Bride character was no longer strictly needed.  Nevertheless, Phoenix kept her as a sort of ‘anchor’ for the reader, not simply as a striking visual motif, but as an “extra resonance” to those who would recognise who she was.  To other viewers or fans of The Bride of Frankenstein, the story would be enriched, as the Bride brings with her a cultural and narrative baggage that adds a dimension to her character (and the story) that a non-viewer or non-fan might be bereft of.  Her presence is not necessary, but for those in the know it provides a powerful story in its own right.

Even though Phoenix doesn’t self-identify as a fan artist per se, She Lives encapsulates several of the aspects that drive fans to create – the closed or unfulfilled plot that is rich for further development; the attraction to a certain character; the persistence of an image, plot point, or character trait that demands further exploration (Derecho, 2006).

As a piece of art, She Lives is an immensely satisfying work, beautiful, tactile, absorbing.  As a comic, it is compelling, perfectly paced, painstakingly plotted, wonderful to look at.  As a fan work, it is one of the best examples, even if Woodrow Phoenix did not intend it to be so.  As a fan of the original film, one must certainly feel a thrill when such an iconic and beloved character reveals herself and demonstrates a continuing life beyond the four walls of the movie that once enmeshed her.

And that is what fan works are really all about – feeling a character, and bringing that character once more to life.

* Future She Lives page-turning events with artist Woodrow Phoenix take place on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 at 6pm, and Tuesday 12th August at 3pm, at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

References

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In: Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., ed. 2006. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland.  Ch 1.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
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Excerpts from “The Drowned Man” Pre-show Talk, December 1st 2013: Meet the Directors

Last December I had the opportunity to attend a pre-show talk with the directors of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man.  During this talk I managed to ask a question about the participatory nature of the production, and there were some other interesting tidbits related to documentation that were drawn out during the Q&A.  I had been meaning to transcribe the event, but, as is always the way, RL (“real life”) got in the way, until I was directed to a full transcript already posted on Tumblr.

Below I have posted some excerpts from the talk that touch upon LIS matters specifically.  The questions asked are by myself and other audience members, and are put to Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, the director and director/choreographer respectively.  The session was moderated by academic and immersive specialist, Josephine Machon.  Please note that this post will contain spoilers for those who are sensitive about the show being spoiled for them.

Many thanks to Ami from At the gates guarded by horses for getting round to doing what I didn’t.  To read the full transcript, go here.

 


 

[I ask about the participatory aspects of the show, and how much the fan activity around The Drowned Man was planned from the outset].

“To ask about the audience, because they’re very much an actor or actors in itself, and the participation and the performance and the kind of agency that they have – I wanted to ask how much that was intended? Because also the audience is a participant away from the performance as well, I mean they carry on world-building, on Facebook and Tumblr and they really become attached to the characters, and I was wondering how much that’s caught your attention?”

Felix: We’re trying to empower the audience, we’re trying to give them control. The whole thing’s to make them active so it’s theirs. So it’s incredible, we’re overjoyed when we see the Tumblr thing and just the ideas and response that people have to the work. And it actually provokes us to think of more ways that we could infiltrate the real world and we can give back to people who – I think the grand plan is ‘how can you break out of walls? how can you free yourself from going to the theatre for three hours in one space?’ All of this stuff that’s happening is all part of a dialogue that’s going to lead to something new and exciting.

Then within the show…

Maxine: It’s what I was saying earlier, they fuel the dynamic of the narrative. So, in the show, when William and Wendy start having episodes then the audience which was invisible to them then become visible. They see ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred apparitions and they become their demons, so the reality of that dialogue is really present. And also it’s exciting seeing an audience flying down the corridor chasing a character. That sort of sense of commitment and desire to be part of that story and be part of that world is kind of weird but sort of wonderful at the same time.

Felix: It’s sort of like a modern-day Greek chorus. They’re judging, they’re the Furies, they’re watching over, they’re casting their vote. My favourite bits in the show are when they slip from being invisible, safe, protected behind their mask, and suddenly be exposed because a character has reached a state of frenzy whereby they’re suddenly – imagine I mean sometimes it feels like we’re having a conversation, the three of us. And then you realise there are eighty of you… And it’s empowering as well.

Josephine: So why do you choose the white mask as well as the black mask, is there any point to these? [Audience members wear white masks.  Ushers wear black masks].

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Maxine: Well the point of the characters, well they’re not characters, they’re our stewards and ushers, that wear the black masks, and they’re there for your safety and the safety and protection of the cast. They wear black masks and can just disappear really into a dark corner. And they’re just there so people feel secure, because I think when they’re – one of the things that makes this work really exciting and allows us to take risks is that we know it’s safe, we know that there’s order and structure and rigor in the chaos of it. And then the white masks, well they offer a very different function…

Felix: The white mask comes from back when I did the experiment with the Woyzeck text for my finals. We didn’t have the mask and we were in rehearsals and it really didn’t work because all you’re going to do is see other audience’s responses to the action. By the way I hate a theatre-in-the-round, because all you’re doing is having other audience inform your reading of the situation. And obviously then the performers have their status, because if you get a colourful character watching then suddenly who are you going to follow? So suddenly the idea of a mask and removing them from the picture and adding them to the scenography was a useful device. Initially it was a neutral mask, sort of plastic blasé style, you know a physical theatre-empowering device, which makes the body into any character you give it, because it completely removes any emotion from the face. That would be the dream mask – the problem is it’s not wearable. And over the first five years we had people sort of drenched in sweat –

Josephine: We still have some problems with that now…

Felix: Sorry about that… So they’ve gradually – the neutral mask is white because that’s what it was historically and it’s just a blank face, genderless and emotionless. And what we’ve done is just gradually bring out the bridge of the chin and the nose so that it’s wearable and the actual detail, it looks like bone structures, is actually to try and make it comfortable. So it’s actually not an aesthetic decision as much as to enable audience to forget they put it on.

[An audience member asks about the essentially ephemeral nature of the performance and whether it will ever be formally documented].

“Have you ever thought about the posterity of Punchdrunk’s work? About how in twenty-five years, when people talk about The Drowned Man, how can you explain to someone what it was and how it was done and what the script was? You’ve put it all together in such a fragmented way…”

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Felix: No we’re not really very good at documenting… As a company we always look forward rather than…. But there are so many projects we’ve done we don’t even have images from, which is a real shame. And so, no we haven’t thought of that at all. Although we do have a big chart on the wall upstairs in the green room which explains what scenes happen in the show, where people will be, but we’ve yet to come up with an articulate way to really put that on paper. We don’t have the visual data representation. You know I wish we had some sort of omnibus…

Maxine: In this show actually, we do have a script. We do have all of the dialogue, but that’s probably fifteen percent of the show. Most of the show is physical so that brings up the whole debate about how do you document choreography… So we’ve got an abundance of images and we have our planning notes, but we often talk about if we can make little films of all of these stories. And at least start the document process that way. Felix won’t let me do that.

Felix: Only because… We probably will do for this. If we can squeeze more time in the space, we will film more of it, but we always have the battle of do we try and film it, for posterity’s sake, or in doing some sort of low-res video recording does that undermine that which we’re aiming for, which is something that feels cinematic. And feels so richly textured. And sepia, and tungsten, and tactile in a way that video feels disposable. And I suppose I’m loathe to – well cheapen is the wrong word – undermine everyone’s hard work by putting it into that kind of box. And yeah, we don’t have the time to do that. If we had the money, we’d film it properly, but then it would be like why not just do a film?

[An audience member asks about the authentic set and its props, and where they’ll all end up… Important because the set itself incorporates innumerable documents, from books to letters, to vintage magazines, postcards and even parking permits…]

“So the set is absolutely incredible, and it’s one of the things that is most enjoyable, how immersive it is and how it engages every sense of your body. So two questions: What happens after the show? What happens to all of this, are you going to keep it, are you going to sell it or are you going to throw it away? And another question, like in a room like this, how do you arrive at the decisions of what gets put where? How do you select from the found objects and objects that are made, etc”

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Felix: You should definitely come to the talk with Livi here, she’s one of the brilliant brains behind the aesthetic, and will tell you everything about their process. But, for now… we collect props for five months, everything’s sourced. Up until this show, everything you see and touch is real. In New York we have an outdoor walled garden which is made of real brick, and the floor bends about four inches down from the weight of the tonnage.

But part of the reason why this had to be a film set is because we knew we were building from scratch and because the walls would be fake we were allowed to have a level of façade. So quite a lot of the detail here is actually plastic because it’s a film set and it’s allowed to be.

In terms of what we do with it afterwards, that’s a really good question. And I don’t know. We have a really big store down in the docklands, but it’s smaller than this building. There might be a sort of massive car boot sale? I’m getting the neons.

[So in other words, if any information professional wants to take on the truly daunting task of collecting, indexing, classifying and organising everything to do with The Drowned Man, they’ll need to get down to that boot sale with a hefty wad of cash…]

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The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part II

Continued from Part I.

Part Two: The Drowned Man as a participatory culture.

Further to my previous discussion of The Drowned Man as a universe encapsulating its own internal logic and narrative structure, it is perhaps unsurprising that some members of the ‘audience’ choose to take that universe and give it a life of its own in the ‘real world’.

Immersion, is after all, is “the complete involvement in some activity or interest” (Miriam-Webster, 2013).  Why should immersion take place only in or at the point of initial engagement?  Why should it not follow us into our everyday lives (and thus extend and perhaps complete that sense of involvement into what might be called ‘total immersion’)?

For some who participate in The Drowned Man experience, the original site of immersion is not enough.  They wish to extend this sense of total engagement outside of that site and create an extended sense of immersion in their everyday lives.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that that is all fans are doing – extending the sense of immersion in a particular text, narrative or cultural artefact into the ‘real world’.

I’m not sure whether followers of The Drowned Man would call themselves fans, but there are some points of intersection with what I will call fans of popular culture.  Not the least of which is the object of their fannish activities, which is the performance itself.  The Drowned Man remediates and appropriates the narrative and cultural language of other media that attracts fan cohesion, participation and behaviour.  Its visual and textual structure harkens to other forms of entertainment, most notably film, television and the videogame, which marry images (in particular motion pictures), narrative, and sensations of immediacy.  It is also related to other textual (though perhaps less immediate) forms (both analogue or digital), such as books, comics, plays, musicals, cartoons, concerts and other narrative-driven, immersive or storytelling devices.  Such qualities invite an audience to immerse themselves in an alternate world or universe, or to project ourselves (or, indeed, a narrative) onto that world.  In so doing it also invites us to immerse ourselves fully outside the point of initial contact.  Those passionate enough about a text will seek extended immersion through the further remediation of the source text; through the perceived improvement of that text; through networking with other fans/remediators; and through the building of social/cultural/knowledge capital via such networks.

In short – cultural texts, artefacts or phenomena such as The Drowned Man (or The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Les Miserables, The Simpsons, Lost, One Direction, to name but a very few) invite an audience; and through remediation, the audience seeks in some way to become a performer of that text.

As Daniel Cavicchi (2008) explains:

I tend to think of it [fandom] as a degree of audiencing, a realm of marked cultural participation that is always relative to, and defined against “normal” or unmarked cultural participation […] [I]nstances of audiencing has mostly to do with the commodification of culture, which depends on a radical – and sometimes playfully manipulative – reworking of the relationships between performer and audience.

In this and the next part of the review, I’d like to focus on the ‘fannish’ activities of followers of The Drowned Man – on the building of their community, their commodification/remediation of The Drowned Man text, and the recasting of themselves as performers within that cultural text.

A small disclaimer: as a relative outsider to the community (or someone who has one foot in the proverbial door), it was left to my friend to open my eyes to its activities and behaviours – I cannot claim to accurately represent The Drowned Man fan community or any of its individual members.  My thoughts are based solely on my own experiences of the genre (with a little help from my friend); and on what I have gleaned from the online fan groups available on the Web.

The Knowledge Gatekeepers

One of the great things about participatory culture is that there is no gatekeeper.

Everyone owns a little piece of knowledge that they can share if they so wish.

The Drowned Man is vast in scale – so vast, in fact, and so chock full of cultural references that it is well nigh impossible to unravel or document them all as a single individual.  One stands a much better chance of comprehending the whole if one pools resources, knowledge and information.  It’s the reason why sites like Wikipedia work so well.  It’s because no one single person holds the keys to all the knowledge contained therein.  It’s because everyone holds a key and can throw the door open onto their own insights and expertise.

The first piece of documentation all audience members are handed before going into the performance – a summary of the two main storylines. Image courtesy of Mild Concern.

There are a couple of digital Drowned Man communities that I am aware of on Facebook.  One of them is a closed group (though is by no means stringent about who they let in), which is gradually aggregating information about the production.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group is a prime example of a participatory culture, as it acts as a hub for people to exchange thoughts, ideas and knowledge on the object of their interest; it is also a place to hang out; and it also a growing archive of material related to that object of interest.

For example, looking into their Files section, you’ll find cast lists; cast galleries; maps of the set; soundtrack playlists; and so-called ‘cheat sheets’.  There are also scans of documents from the set that aid in fan’s world-building activities, and shed light on the world itself.

Playlists can also be found on YouTube and Spotify, depending on your preference; and then there are tumblr blogs that share recaps of individual shows, and the thoughts and reactions of ‘audience’ members.  Again, because experiences of the show are very subjective there are intersections in fan narratives of the text, but also wildly divergent documentations of those experiences.  It is important to note that fans do not only put out their own views on the production; they also take the time to read and remark on other people’s observations.  This can lead to the serendipitous discovery of many aspects of the show that were previously hidden.  It can also lead to connections between participants who share common opinions, interests, or attachments to certain characters.  As yet, however, there does not seem to be a cohesive, centralised fan community for The Drowned Man.  This may be because the community is still in the nascent stage; it may also be because the fandom itself is relatively ‘niche’.  The Temple Studios tumblr blog has attempted to draw together a resource of online sites about The Drowned Man, but it is difficult to say how comprehensive or current this list actually is.

Another factor which may also be affecting cohesion of the TDM fan community is the fact that sharing information about your experiences appears to be highly contentious.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group qualifies itself by adding a “Contains SPOILERS” warning to its title, warding off those who might not want their experience of the show contaminated.  Some amateur reviews of the production have been marked with the spoiler warning; or have been encouraged by other fans (whether politely or not-so-politely) to carry a spoiler warning.  The visceral nature of the show, and its hyper-stylised, highly-symbolised themes, in turn invite visceral reactions to the show and its characters.  Consequently, many audience members invest themselves emotionally in The Drowned Man, and thus develop a protective relationship with it.  Other members may find a thrill in uncovering one of the show’s many mysteries and having ownership of that knowledge.  In sharing that knowledge they are able to develop their own knowledge/social/cultural capital, and because of this many feel the need to share what may be considered spoilers in order capitalise on that knowledge and/or add to the community as a whole.  This tension between the potential spoiler and the anti-spoiler fans is certainly apparent in the TDM community, and is testament to the high emotional investment of its members in the world of Temple Studios.

It is interesting, then, to compare the TDM fan community with other, spoiler-based groups such as the Survivor fans studied by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006).  With the Survivor fans, the legitimacy and veracity of those fans who apparently knew too much was always questioned.  Can the information be relied on?  What is the ulterior motive of the person who provided the information?  Are the rumours true, or are they misinformation?

With fans of TDM, however, veracity appears always to be assumed in the quest to unravel a mystery to which there are no YES or NO answers, no right or wrong, no winner or loser.  Instead the questions are – Do I want to know this piece of information?  Is this going to ruin my experience?  Is it simply too much information?  This is similar to the conundrum faced by fans in many fandoms, although TDM fans can also add another dimension to that list of questions.  Namely: Will this ruin the projected relationship I can build with a character?  And will it ruin the projected relationship I can build with the story itself (bearing in mind that the story is, essentially, fluid, non-linear, discontinuous, and malleable to the imprint of audience members)?

The TDM community treads a precarious line between knowledge as potential ally in fan world-building, and as potential destroyer of the world they have already built for (and by) the production itself.

Knowledge of the text makes TDM fans owners and performers of the text – but how one chooses to perform the text may take on a wide variety of forms.

There are those who perform at the initial site of engagement, as potential actors and agents on the set.

There are those who act as information brokers and resource builders within the fan community.

Some perform the text through documenting and reliving their experience of it.

Others perform it via creative re-interpretation in a variety of different media.

Continued in Part III

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The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part I

Part One: The Experience

Poster for ‘The Drowned Man’. Courtesy of PunchDrunk and The National Theatre.

As far as participatory culture goes, there’s quite a bit of literature out there in relation to videogames, TV shows, movies, cartoons, comics, and other so-called fandoms.  People become part of a world; they immerse themselves in it; they absorb it, remediate it, regurgitate it.  They expand on these worlds, banding together to create communities that pool information and resources, thus facilitating the creation of their own texts and cultural artefacts.  In essence they create their own (digital?) information cultures.

But what about when the world we build our fantasies and participatory cultures on actually exists in “physical reality”?

Last Friday I got the chance to witness a participatory culture outside of the internet.  And what I found enthralled and surprised me.

The Drowned Man is a production by theatre company, Punchdrunk, who are known for their challenging, interactive shows.  I had heard rave reviews from a friend, who has since become a fan of the production, and who described it as “an alternate universe that you can just slide into whenever you like”.  Now I’m generally not a theatre-goer – I like the odd musical now and then, but I can count the plays I’ve seen on one hand.  Nevertheless, my friend’s description of The Drowned Man had me intrigued.  When I finally took the time to go and see it, what I knew was only what he had told me: that it’s immersive theatre, that it takes place in a four-storey disused industrial warehouse; that there are two storylines which loop three times; that you can do whatever or go wherever you want in the show (bar talking); that you should wear comfortable shoes (lots of walking!); and that you have to wear a mask.

If you think this sounds demanding from a theatre production, you’d be right.  The physicality of the drama sounded rather daunting, to say the least.  By the day of the showing, whilst we queued outside waiting to be given admittance, I was excited yet nervous of what lay ahead of me.  Finally the doors opened into a ramshackle, dreary old warehouse; we off-loaded our possessions in the cloakroom, were handed a mask —

And so the experience commenced.

We were led into a lift, in which was waiting a ‘lift girl’ – one of the show’s 30 or so characters – and, whilst she was introducing the fictional world of Temple Studios (a movie studio set somewhere in the late 50’s/early 60’s) and its characters, something rather mundane but very strange happened – she reached out and touched the face of one of the ‘audience’.  You will notice that I put the word ‘audience’ in inverted commas, because I didn’t feel like I was part of an audience.  What I felt like was any of the following: a bystander, a witness, a participant, a spectator.  But not the passive sort of creature that the word ‘audience’ tends to conjure up.

And that was extremely unnerving.

My friend, who had come along with me, told me he was going to walk me through the first loop so that I could follow the ‘main storyline’ (or at least one of the main storylines – there are several depending on which character you follow).  Then the plan was to leave me to make my own way through the following two loops.  He led me through to the room where the first scene was playing out.  Cue crawling ambient soundtrack, the two leads dancing to a yearning Shangri-La’s number against an amazingly atmospheric (and HUGE) set.  A group of ‘audience’ members were gathered, watching silently behind their masks.  About five minutes later the scene was over and the female lead rushed past us, leading us to her dressing room.  A couple of the audience wandered off to follow the male lead; most of us followed the girl.

By this time I was beginning to realise that the actors were completely able to get up close and personal to us if they wanted to.  Some of them would touch you, hold your gaze, even speak to you, bringing you into the performance, making you a part of the story.  Ten minutes in, and I wasn’t sure I was liking this at all.  In short – it felt very uncomfortable.  For much of our modern culture we have been spoon-fed our entertainment, passive observers who have no control and who are eternally separated from the object of our observation by the so-called ‘fourth wall’.  In the massive, dream-like world of The Drowned Man, the only thing that is there to serve as the fourth wall – as your protection from letting this half-dream become a reality – is the mask each audience member has to wear.  The realisation that one has complete autonomy and independence in this world is a profound yet uneasy one; and for a while into the first act (or loop, I should say), I really didn’t want to leave my friend’s side.  I felt I needed something to ground me, to anchor me into some semblance of normalcy.

At some point, however, the immersive pull draws you in and curiosity gets the better of you.  There are so many threads, people, concepts, ideas and objects to follow.  You find yourself constantly making choices.  Should I follow this character instead of the one I’ve spent the past 15 minutes getting to know?  Do I skulk at the back and drink it all in, or get as up close and personal as possible and hope that the actor draws me into their performance?  Or do I abandon the ‘storyline’ all together and spend some time wandering through the set, reading letters and looking for visual points of reference?

And there is that choice.  If you so wished, you could spend 3 hours rummaging through the vast set.  There are many hidden objects that are there to catch the eye and expand on the story and/or the universe.  The backdrop is scattered with documents – books, magazines, letters, postcards, notebooks, scripts, bills, timetables, agendas, pamphlets, albums, memos, and so on – that are accessible for both actors and audience to interact with.  Not only do they add to the realism of the piece, but they also expand on plot points that are briefly alluded to in the narrative; some objects have a triple purpose, serving as both prop, plot device and historical artefact/document from the world of Temple Studios.  Spending your time avoiding the narrative to explore the set can really enrich the entire experience, and perhaps give you cause to thank the autonomy that was at first so unnerving.

And then there are the characters (about 30 in all), who act (and re-act) out this one pivotal hour of their lives.  There is certainly something voyeuristic about observing their actions in such a closed, personal space; but whilst the experience is immersive, it is also interactive.  At key points in each character’s story arc, they will take a member of the audience to share their narrative in a personal, one-on-one encounter.  In this way one becomes an actor in the world of Temple Studios; one’s actions are imbued with significance within that world, forever locked in one of the endless cycles the characters replay.  In a sense, each performance is unique – or each loop is unique – because, while the audience’s actions do not affect the overall story for each character, they leave a singular imprint upon each retelling of the story which is impossible to reproduce.

The more one engages with the performance, the more one feels less voyeuristic and more of an actor with a real sense of agency.  The audience is invited to invest themselves in the lives of the characters, in their environment, their belongings and possessions, their world.  It is impossible to take it all in in one 3 hour showing; indeed, many people have returned time and again to re-experience Temple Studio’s pocket universe; to discover new characters, follow unfinished threads from a previous showing, tie up loose ends, uncover hidden secrets, or simply just to forget the outside world for a while.  It’s not for everyone – the freedom to choose and be autonomous can be deeply unsettling – and The Drowned Man offers just that slightly off-kilter sensation.  Like a lucid dream where you find yourself in the middle of a nightmare that you can eerily control, yet of which you are unable to affect the final outcome, its experiential power is one of immediacy, something to be lived in but whose internal structure cannot be unmade or reformed.

So was it worth it?  Absolutely.  Enough for me to want to go back and dip my toe inside that moonlit pool again.  For the curious, the intrepid explorer, the participator, the immersive media junkie – this play is for you.  For others, the ephemeral nature of the performance may be unsettling, disorientating, disappointing, frustrating.  Be that as it may, it is certainly worth the ride, if only to say you’ve tried something new and different.

My only criticism?

The masks can be hellishly uncomfortable.  If the guys at PunchDrunk would like to consider a redesign, just give me a call… 😉

Continued in Part II

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