Clownspiracy Theory is..

A) An Interactive Theater Production

B) A Mobile Phone & Media "Super" Game

C) A Generative Audio/Video Media Project

D) A Collaborative Community Initiative.

An Introduction

The way we have "fun" is undergoing big changes. Increasingly, we are expecting that our "entertainments" will also provide us with "experiences" that engage us at multiple levels. We can see evidence of this all around us, as broadcasters, media producers and concert promoters expand the range of their online and offline offerings to serve that more active audience that wants to have - at least part of the time, a more immersive game controller or "first person"- type experience. In the last ten years since Burning Man (with its "No Spectators" policy) took root in the desert, the number and size of U.S. music and "culture" festivals has grown significantly. Social networks have fundamentally changed how people play, work and flirt. It used to be that all "scenes" were local. The Internet, MySpace, IM, Second Life and Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) did away with that limitation. The outer edge of at least "digital" interactivity today is determined by a control panel of constraints that each individual is largely free to set for themselves. This is not to say that people don't still roam close to home. They do, and here too there are various new tech options that support increased "localization" (Google maps mashups, Geo-Caching, Smart Mobs, GPS-triggered media, Critical Mass, etc.) The box we were supposed to think outside of gets crushed daily. Equivalencies are getting roughed up.. disorder is rampant.. insurgents from within have hijacked the OS. What we do and how we do it is moving with greater plasticity than our ability to contain it. Surrender is the only option left to us. Keeping ourselves surprised and alive is our new national pastime.

Once you develop a taste for this type of active participation, it's hard to return control of your time and choices to someone else, or even to step back to some less complex level of multi-tasking. Once you have your own YouTube channel, it's fairly impossible to go back to the way things were when all you had was the WB, MTV, and Nintendo 64. The whole entertainment "game" is changing, and so is the target audience that media and event producers, live performers, game designers and cellphone service providers are needing to serve.

In what follows, I am going to look at these changes rather specifically through the lens of "circus/theater" - but a circus/theater that is anything but a nostalgic throwback. The kind of circus/theater that makes sense now is one that has broken out from under the big top altogether. Armed with all sorts of mobile toys and technologies, this newly liberated clown posse, navigating by the LED lights of prankster constellations, will run pinball wild across the web and the world. The death-defying telecircular artists of tomorrow will be more than just performers of specialty - they will also be hackers of reality.

Clownspiracy Theory
is what I call this collaborative project idea intended to get artists and circusy performers thinking systematically, at the same time it encourages scientists and social architects to think acrobatically. To determine whether this species of direction might be of interest to you (or to someone you know), please explore some or all of what follows.

A) An Interactive Theater Production

Site-specific interactive theater pieces like "Tony and Tina's Wedding" and "Teatro Zinzanni" have found a permanent place in the conventional theater/entertainment landscape. As the general population grows more participatory in their leisure-time preferences, innovation in such productions is sure to expand and put more commercial pressure on "old-school" art forms. It is my not terribly original belief that real-world locations, existing simultaneously in both actual and virtual realms are a great next stage awaiting experimental development. Once a location is trackable on a GPS grid, and allows for easy and accessible wireless connectivity, the field is set for some new-fangled explorations. Cities like San Francisco are simply great stages screaming to be populated in this way. And who better to create just those kinds of next-level "immersive" theatrical experiences, than our extended alternative art/circus/theater community?

Here is a New York Times article from 4.22.07, on a new and successful interactive theater project called "Accomplice: NYC" that's been running in New York - six months so far.

"It begins with a mobster and ends with a moll; in between are an assortment of figures, giving a feel more of a series of random scenes than a unified whole. Unlike other interactive dramas, which create a contained world like a bar mitzvah celebration or a wedding, this unpredictable show never presents a consistent subculture, which may be part of its charm. It has a disorienting effect that makes you look at the city with skeptical eyes."

As you read it, picture if you will, a similar (but different) type of interactive experience - one that uses circus/carny/burlesque clowns, dancers, musicians, aerialists and acrobats woven into a mystery storyline all in the service of an evening's traveling entertainment which might take place in one large facility, in one neighborhood area, in a wide "game zone" or even in different parts of the city. (This last option facilitated by cable cars, buses, or other such vehicles.)

Imagine the shifting narrative is populated with ghost buffoons, idiot savants, dark magicians and a chorus line of lethally beautiful burlesque dancers. Add music - good music; live and pre-recorded - great costumes - dramatic lighting, large video projections. Throw in some phone calls offering clues, both internal and external to your current location. Imagine that audience members are assigned certain secret roles that help turn the game board of the city into a mysterious circus sideshow for audience exploration. Make it a mystery - a race to uncover the Clownspiracy Theory before it discovers and eliminates you from the competition for top prizes.

B) A Mobile Phone & Media "Super" Game

Once you have grasped the notion of next generation interactive theater, then I'd like to introduce you to the closely related notion of "Supergaming" or "Alternate Reality Gaming" (ARG). A really good introduction to "ARG" can be found in a 4.14.07 SF Weekly cover story on local supergame designer, Jane McGonigal.

"Supergames slowly reveal a fantasy universe that sends tendrils through both the virtual and real worlds — mysterious clues and puzzles are revealed through Web sites, blogs, message boards, voice mails, text messages, newspaper classified ads, and with strange objects that show up in the darnedest places. Because the clues are scattered so widely, and because many of the puzzles and codes are hard to crack, players work together, setting up forums and wikis to pool their resources and coordinate their efforts. With thousands of brains linked by new technology, players become one collective detective, and accomplish remarkable feats."

Imagine now how the boundaries around such alternative type interactive performance/experiences as I described above might be expanded to include the use of blogs, cellphones, GPS, Google map mashups, barcode location tagging, mobile video combined with a host of analog options like classified ads, signage and real world clues. As activities of this sort begin to filter up and into people's entertainment, there seems little doubt that demand for such experiences will grow, at least to the degree that they can be orchestrated in ways that engages and recruits participants in "co-creating" these experiences.

FYI, there's also an interesting company in NYC called "area/code" that has had success developing large-scale "commercial" real-world games as well. An earlier company called Dodgeball, which offers a location-based mobile app for finding friends, is now owned by Google. There is also a European group called Reality Hacking, that has been for 11 years now been executing sophisticated pranks and provovcations.

C) A Generative Audio/Video Media Project

Putting the two above ideas together, there is little to prevent the extension of the "event" in a variety of other media & performance directions. Once you add audio and music (live, pre-recorded, car stereos, radio broadcasts) as well as still and moving visuals that both document the action within the show, or let the audience themselves upload stills or video, the result is a rapidly growing pool of media assets. Release the music to the show as a CD, create a DVD, or even drop it into a game shell that re-purposes online media resources and allows people to re-enact the game/performance on-demand. Build out a website that engages the audience before and after the event, and that also offers
special identifying ringtones, GPS instructions, mobile blogs to help carry the game back into ordinary reality. The online networking and compositional tools that enable such self-generating development are readily available and largely free of cost. It is lack of imagination really that is the biggest obstacle. Pound out new variations. Assign the audience a set of interlocking secret roles and watch as the neighborhood game zone becomes a circus ring and sideshow for audience exploration. Google maps is there for the using to turn your city into a interactive directional game-map. Along the way, keep the experience tight and action-driven.. throw constant challenges at the audience. Keep it all a mystery though - a race to unmask the perpetrators, to find the critical keys that unlock the identity of the mad demigods behind this Clownspiracy Theory, before they unmask you.

D) A Collaborative Community Initiative.

Clownspiracy Theory
follows from a longer-standing agenda on my part to explore the ways of collective action and improvisation as they apply to artist, audience and community interactions. Those of us who have spent our lives working collaboratively (as I did for 20 years in the theater) know that few things are more satisfying for both performers and audience than an effective and well-balanced "ensemble experience."

What improvisors and artist collaborators have known for years is now being experienced by an increasingly participatory general culture caught up by "Web 2.0"-type technology advances (cell phones, mobile computing, social networks, multi-player gaming), all of which serve to raise their collective and interactive quotient to where it is today, sliding right up and over several proverbial "tipping points" and into a whole new world of "gaming" and "social play."

As I see it, it is time to blast some of the more phenomenal talent "emerging" from our own local San Fran-freako eco-system out and into the larger art, network, business and technology spheres. Sustainability for the future of our mad web of interconnected dreams rests largely in our own hands.

The immediate challenge as I see it, is to move towards the drafting of any relevant set of stronger and more production-ready collaborative game scenarios. At the least, these might well be usable and fundable within the Anon Salon frame of Sea of Dreams NYE. But beyond that, why not useable by an idea-hungry mobile technology and multiplayer gaming industry? Why not usable by loosely conjoined teams of artists in pursuit of multiple media-driven agendas? Why not useable as the nimble basis for a whole series of alternate reality games?

Look around. Changes are happening at a dizzying pace. Second Life is off to the races with its internal streaming audio and video capacities. Massive and less warlike collaborative online game-worlds like Will Wright's Spore are nearing launch. Social networks are beginning to spill over their garden walls and into web-based virtual worlds. GPS cellphones, equipped with motion-sensitive controllers, will allow audio and video to be streamed to you based on your location and willingness to receive it. Or upload your own cellphone audio, stills or video to your own channel for instant playback by other remote "players" Simply put, the real world and the virtual world are fusing into monumental real-world mashups. It won't be long before you too will be using Google maps or street views to zoom into some real-world "gameboard." Such technology may serve to further abstract your world on one hand, but isn't that what technology in art have always done? Isn't it really all about play and pushing for greater transparency with our tools, and about extending the reach of our physical actions so that they lend greater meaning, complexity and pleasure to our lives?

As "circus" people, we know something about physical life - about facing off with gravity, about the inescapable pulse of energy and the giving over to acts of daring. The laws of the circus teach us that art is sustained by teams of people, who reliant upon talent and trust, work together to build the kinds of energetic short-term collaboration models that make brilliant and practical long-term sense.

*** One of Spoon's Numerous (and Numinous) Trigrammatical Models

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- spoon

415-381-5622/ 415-608-8455 (c)

"Example is not the main thing in influencing people, it is the only thing." - Albert Schweitzer

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