Sara Fowler, Ben Moren and Tyler Stefanich, Collective Action, in conversation
“More than anything, we felt it was really important to make real connections with people face-to-face, rather than just wandering around the festival having an individual experience, but figuring out how to activate this collective experience where people are really doing things together in physical space.”
Assistant Curator Elle Thoni sat down with Sara Fowler, Ben Moren and Tyler Stefanich, the artist team behind Collective Action!, Northern Spark 2017’s festival-wide game.
ELLE: So, to begin, your team is coming to the game designing table from a variety of artistic backgrounds. What are they?
BEN: Well, I come from visual arts and multimedia art, combining filmmaking, performance, software development… so kind of all the pieces you would need. I do lots of work that centers on interaction, but not necessarily with the classic parameters that make a game a game.
SARA: I’m trained and work professionally as a graphic designer and an illustrator. I’m a freelancer and do most of my work within the arts in some capacity. I also like to give some of my practice to activism, supporting environmental efforts with my professional background.
TYLER: And I come from visual arts as well, doing installation as well as performance. I’ve worked for awhile in design and more technical web design for nonprofits. Now I manage an experimental game lab in Los Angeles.
ELLE: So when you came together to design a game, what was important to you? What kind of experience did you want people to have?
SARA: So awhile ago, Ben and I stumbled upon these amazing books, an encyclopedia of games from the New Games Foundation. They are group games, essentially, but a lot of them are non-competitive and have a strange performativity to them. Thematically, they’re very geared towards anti-war, because that was a major cultural sentiment at the time of publication, but overall the focus of these games is problem solving together. These game encyclopedias were a major influence for us in thinking about a Northern Spark festival-wide game.
ELLE: So with that, describe the game, Collective Action!
SARA: (Laughing) We need an elevator pitch!
BEN: I’ve got it. So the game, Collective Action!, invites you to visit one of the six game stations around the festival. When you arrive, you login to the Collective Action! website on your smartphone, which puts you into a digital queue with other potential players at a game location. When you get to the front of the queue, you and other audience members will be called up into the play area to perform some kind of action together, which will give you, your team and your festival neighborhood points.
There’s lots of different actions for each location, some of them might relate to water rights, some of them may relate to environmental justice or other Climate Chaos | People Rising topics. For example, you and others from the audience might be invited up to be a rainstorm or imagine what a future water filtration system might look like. Be a glacier that’s calving off into the sea and become icebergs and drifting away from each other. So the actions are meant to be thematic but open, so that you and other people can come together and figure out how you might embody them together.
ELLE: Sounds like fun! So, with how sophisticated digital platforms have become, why did you go back to old-school collaborative improvisation games and have people create scenarios with their bodies as well as with each other, as opposed to interacting primarily with a web interface?
SARA: So that’s something that we talked about a lot in the beginning: the difference in those different approaches. When we were first proposing this project I think it was right smack in the middle of pre-election season, so everything that we were talking about felt very urgent in addressing these issues. More than anything, we felt that it was really important to make real connections with people face-to-face, rather than just wandering around the festival having an individual experience, but figuring out how to activate this collective experience where people are really doing things together in physical space. I think also one of the things that I’ve been grappling with post-election is this feeling of helplessless, how can I get involved in my community or take actions that seems overwhelming in some way. So I envision these actions that we’ve put together as being an entry point into community engagement, so giving people a window into that or – permission to act, in a way.
BEN: Yeah. Permission to act or permission to talk to your neighbor. Or talk to other people in a city that you might not necessarily engage with on a daily basis. Climate change is a big issue and one of the ways that we’re going to have to deal with it is by getting outside of our bubbles.
SARA: And climate change is huge, right? It’s everything, all over the world. We are not scientists, but we’ve done a lot of research around this project and it’s just infinite. Climate change can feel really large as an individual and finding your way into that space, I think can be really intimidating. And so we’ve sampled all of these like… bits from how climate change impacts different parts of the world. I really like that our project can be that sampling and that someone can say, “ah yes, I’m really interested in the way that fish and mangroves interact with the tide, that’s my entrypoint into learning more about climate change. Like making it less preachy. I think a lot of language around climate change is the same things that we’ve heard over and over again but this is taking a broader view.
TYLER: Yeah, I think this issue about language is also often a problem with climate change games. You usually don’t need to participate in these types of games to know what the messaging is or the lesson it is trying to teach you. I think our game diverges from this problem, the work we’ve done so uses strategies of embodiment and reenactment of these ideas down to an individual level. We also decided against a purely digital experience, avoiding any “techno-optimism” or “solutionism” and really bringing it to a personal level.
ELLE: You’re processing it through your body in real time –
BEN: With each other.
ELLE: Yeah. We’re bombarded with so much information these days, and you’ve named your game Collective Action! for a reason and you’re asking people to do these small actions together. But what does collective action look like for you?
SARA: I think, for me it means looking at the big picture. I think, speaking from personal experience, it’s really easy to get bogged down in individual experience and not see very far into the future. And I think what our game is asking people to do is really consider the implications of our daily actions on the entire world and the future of our planet, which is huge, but I hope that the way we’ve presented this game will give you a step into that consideration.
TYLER: It’s about the small daily activities that might not have short-term gain, but a long-term benefit. I’ve been living in California during the time of a multi-year drought and during that time, everybody has started conserving water. I don’t know the percentages, but we actually hit the extreme goal of water saved. People put in desert cactuses instead of grass. In a place like Los Angeles that is big and sprawling with varying degrees of wealth, everybody still delivered on their promise – collectively. And… it wasn’t a burden for people. Really. To just use a little bit less water.
BEN: Yeah. And along with that, I think there’s a big difference for me trying to get out there and do an action and not having a feedback loop vs. a city trying to do that entire thing together. When you’re neighbor is also ripping up their yard or turning off their water – doing whatever they can do to chip in – it helps you do it too. And feel like you’re a part of something. Like, we’re all in it together. Cause we are.
ELLE: Yeah. And Tyler I like how you say it wasn’t a burden, because the same action done individually might feel like a burden. But collectively you’re a part of a team and that has its own gratification and reward.
BEN: And with the game, that’s something we’ve been hoping for, is bringing that same kind of gesture into it. Maybe it’s intimidating to get up there and be a heat wave by yourself but if you get 10 other people from the audience to try it with you this act becomes really fun.
ELLE: So how do people play the game? What should do to be ready to play the game?
BEN: Come to one of the six Collective Action! locations: The Commons, West Bank, Little Africa, Rondo, Little Mekong or Lowertown. Once you get to one of those locations, look for our project, on that project there will be a url to go to and click SIGN UP. And then show up to one of those locations and you’ll be ready to go!
For a sneak preview of Collective Action!
, visit http://www.collectiveaction.info.