In Profile: Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Christy Dena

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Chris Howlett was recently awarded the 2013 Jeremy Hynes Award (given out every two years through IMA to a Queensland experimental artist), with a particular nod given to ARGARMENIA (ARG). This alternate reality game, taking place in both real and virtual spaces, was the result of a three-month series of digital, writing and performance workshops the artist held with students in Tumo, a centre for creative technologies located in the city of Yerevan, Armenia.

Guided by Howlett, the students co-designed, wrote, and produced an ARG split into three parts. The first storyline is a murder mystery featuring a character searching for her father. She reaches out to the players through letters, online messages and through real world street performers—a mime and an accordion player. In the second part, a drama quest, booksellers confront the players to decide between wealth and knowledge. The third part is an action adventure, where players follow clues leading them on a subterranean adventure through a metro system. iPads, mini iPads, smart phones, letter writing, html emails, Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier Pro and the augmented reality developer software Wikitude were the tools of creation for this once-off fiction. The project evolved out of Chris Howlett’s past Performance Art pieces and Machinima video works, and continues his interest in exploring play.

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Play has an important role in Howlett’s works and life. Through it Howlett started to make sense of reality. I asked him just how this operates for him and he likened it to the experience of any artist: “we have to play with culture in order to understand it or take control of it.” Play functions, he continues, “much like a mask does in that we agree upon a certain role or accepted set of rules as a way towards moral truth. It’s close to what Žižek says: ‘there is more truth in a mask than in what is hidden beneath it’ (I think that was in Enjoy Your Symptom).”

For Howlett, play is most effective outside the home and even outside the studio. “[I]t has to happen in public space where different forms of pressure and constraints are either self-imposed or directly affected by institutional power, or at least in my case, the symbolic signs that represent these forces.” Videogames, often boring for Howlett, involve sitting on a couch where activity is relegated to another world beyond a screen, one where his “actual location during the gameplay is not part of the equation—the immersiveness of the virtual space keeps getting in the way of the lounge room or the computer room.”

ARGs on the other hand are “in real time and in real space and combine interactivity with real-world objects.” They involve performance events in the streets, the use of everyday technologies such as portable devices and social media. To Howlett, they are a relative of Situational Art and are imbued with characteristics he also explores such as cross-collaborative approaches and relational aesthetics. “This part of my practice is about expanding my own ideas on authorship, subjectivity, the role of the artist and where they are located within the work of art using a post-studio model.”

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA

The students who participated in the creation of the ARG were straight out of school. Howlett’s collaborations with them involved the use of translators to explain tasks and ideas. The day-to-day experience oscillated between philosophical discussions and herding teens in a playground. “Our main backup answer to any question which the students had about the purpose of the project was that we were making art. Once they understood that it was not design, theatre or a video game they were making, and that they had to use a different part of their brain to overcome certain obstacles, it made our lives easier.”

Chris Howlett and ARGARMENIA  participants

Chris Howlett and ARGARMENIA participants

Howlett designed both the ARG creation and end experience to pose questions. When writing the narrative of the ARG, students thought about how we determine good from bad? Right from wrong? Equality from inequality? Are ideas innate in human nature or [the result of] learned behaviour? And this is of course all in the context of Armenia, where there is fighting over disputed territory with Azerbaijan. The project was not granted permission to take videos or photos in Yerevan because of the sensitivities of it being a strategic militarily site. During the ARG however, the players were permitted to take photos and shoot video because they were just “teenagers playing a game.” Chris Howlett concludes, “Sometimes I like to think idealistically, especially when something like this happens and you can see how easily a rule can be bent or distorted to your own ends. But I also have to acknowledge that the reverse can happen, where decades of fighting against prejudice and racism can be wound back over night.”

26 March 2014
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