The main event for me in this weekend’s NYPL centennial celebrations, was Shuffle, a performance piece staged in the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room. A collaboration between theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service, statistician Mark Hansen, and artist Ben Rubin, the work lived up to its name on multiple levels: it shuffled texts, temporalities, spatialities, genres, etc.
The script was generated algorithmically, in real-time, by pulling from the scripts of three previous ERS productions — Gatz, The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), and The Select (The Sun Also Rises) – and the literary texts that inspired them. The performers accessed the ever-evolving script via iPhones tucked into print copies of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway’s books. All the while, the group, dressed in their librarians’ best, shuffled throughout the periodicals room, champagne flutes in hand. The pace and placement of their actions seemed to vary in relation to the speed of the script: small groups might congregate and chat leisurely at the circulation desk, while a colleague would bolt from one end of the room to the other, in response to some apparent reference emergency. Others performed the signature actions of librarians: one might rifle through a card catalogue, extracting and organizing slips of paper with no apparent rhyme or reason; another might peck away at a typewriter; while still another might scramble up and down the stairs as her colleagues amble or dart through the stacks. The audience, meanwhile, was free to wander around the room, watch the script unfurl on monitors positioned at each of the library tables, peruse print-outs listing a selection of the text snippets fed through the algorithm, and come and go at will. While I was there, the algorithm “selected” a long string of phrases comparing two male figures — “he was [a], while he was [b]”; two babies in strollers, who happened to be conveniently located next to the actor algorithmically chosen to read this section, filled in for the aforementioned “he’s,” and were subject to a prolonged cataloguing of their virtues and vices.
In short, the multiple overlapping contexts of this performance were constantly shuffled. “The text – arranged into new strings of sentences and phrases – creates a compelling look at literature that we thought we knew,” explained director John Collins. What’s more, “Shuffle [blurs] the boundaries of performance space, private, and public space,” Collins adds, “and [is] an exciting way to experience the beautiful and majestic building.” By removing and remixing familiar codes and contexts, Shuffle shifted our engagement with these classic texts and spaces and genres of performance. This was a productive decontextualization.
Find the Future: The Game, meanwhile, encourages decontextualization of a different sort. This game, commissioned for the centennial and created by Jane McGonigal, Natron Baxter and Playmatics, “brings visitors to the Library together with players around the world to tap into the creative power of the Library’s collections” (via About). The game began on May 20, when 500 gamers (aged 18 and up) were invited to an all-night “lock-in” during which they “explore[d] the building’s 70 miles of stacks, and, using laptops and smartphones, follow[ed] clues to such treasures as the Library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand” (via NYPL). Upon finding each object, players were prompted to write an “artifact story,” a “short-personal essay inspired by their quest.” These essays were then gathered into a book — “a collection of 100 ways to make history and change the future” — that will be added to the library’s collection.
[Added June 26, 2011]
The next day, the game was opened up to the rest of the world. Anyone could access Find the Future: The Game online to pursue their own “quests” for library artifacts, write their own narratives, and collect “artifact powers.”
If only real-world research were this exciting! If only one could “find the wisdom to teach and inspire others — and the perspective to understand the world around you” by simply clicking a link!
I tried it myself. My first “artifact” choice was “Writing on the Wall,” a John Milton quotation inscribed above the doorway to the Rose Reading Room: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Through an automatically advancing slideshow, I learned that Milton “made history by turning the fall of man into an epic poem,” that he is “one of the great poets of the English language,” that he is most famous for writing (while blind) “Paradise Lost,” and that the quotation is drawn from Areopagitica, which Milton write in 1644, “opposing censorship.” Armed with this insight, I’m then prompted to write my own artifact story:
The quote above the entrance to the Rose Reading Room has inspired many generations of visitors with words that are impossible to forget once you’ve read them. These people went on to become famous inventors, artists and leaders who changed the world. What would you say to inspire the next hundred years’ visitors? Imagine The NYPL has asked YOU to update this quote. They will put YOUR new saying over the entrance for the next 100 years. Write your own quote that you want to plant in the minds of millions of people.
That’s it? Armed with a few superficial facts about Milton I’m now prepared to inspire “the next hundred years’ visitors”? Do I really have enough context to be charged with such a tremendous responsibility?
My choice of inscription: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards” – Huxley
The game, McGonigal says, is “designed to empower players to find inspiration for their own extraordinary futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and personal objects of people who made an extraordinary difference in the past.” What does it mean to come “face-to-face” with these artifacts? The lucky 500 who played on-site on May 20 were able to encounter the original artifacts (although I imagine they were more busy photographing QR codes than inspecting the artifacts they marked) — but are those brief, superficial encounters sufficient to convey the “extraordinary difference[s]” these people made in the past? Is it enough for me to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed on a movable type printing press; that “its publication in 1455 is considered by many to be the single most important innovation of the last millennium” (why?); that before the press, books were copied by hand or by using woodcut letters; that Gutenberg devised a system using metal letters that could be quickly rearranged and printed using specially-mixed inks; that there are fewer than 50 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence, and that the NYPL has two of them? Do these facts then qualify me to write something that “everyone on Earth” can read?
The Gutenberg Bible marked the start of the printing revolution, in which messages could be spread to millions worldwide through the mass production of printed books. Now modern technology allows us to message thousands of people instantaneously. New advances could bring even more widespread communication. If you could write something that everyone on the planet could read, what would it be? Write a message that could be read by everyone on Earth.
The game shifts abruptly from an historical to a contemporary context, without explaining how to responsibly make that temporal transition. It shifts equally abruptly from a focus on the artifact to an egocentric focus. “How would you like to shape the future?” The prompts for these “artifact stories” barely reference the artifacts’ historical context. They barely address the social responsibilities inherent in, or methods required for, making such consequential decisions.
“Like every game I make,” McGonigal says,” Find the Future: The Game” has one goal: to turn players into superempowered, hopeful individuals with real skills and ideas to help them change the world.” I can see how this game cultivates hope and empowerment: it’s fun, you win points, you acquire super-human cognitive powers and affective capacities by simply clicking on links, your opinion is sought on matters of grave importance, etc. But in what context is this play taking place? What skills are being developed? What ideas, aside from cursory factual information (how can you claim that the Gutenberg Bible is the “single most important innovation of the last millennium” without explaining why?), are being circulated here?
If gaming is the future of education, as many have claimed, I have yet to be convinced that gaming provides sufficient “context” for all those skills and ideas it’s purporting to cultivate. I’m still not sure that gaming is the appropriate model for “help[ing] people change the world” — when so much world-changing work isn’t fun, doesn’t win you any points or super-powers, and carries responsibilities that a game simply can’t simulate.