Outback adventures with Tammy & Matt

I spent last week on the road with the State Library of Queensland’s Tammy Joynson, delivering professional development with a twist & consulting with librarians & local government on future policies, strategies, plans and schemes.

You can see a 2-minute recap of our adventures here.

Sunday Read: Beyond Secret Cinema

My belated Sunday morning read is this piece from the Guardian on London’s Secret Cinema, which blends movie screenings with theatrical experiences and themed activities:

I’m a big fan of participatory live-action storytelling and I’m fascinated by opportunities to blur the line between fiction and “real” experience, creating events where attendees shape the outcome of a story.

I went to a Secret Cinema event a few years back and was pretty disappointed – the set design and costumes were fancy, but the opportunities to get involved in the storytelling were minimal. I’d gone to see Casablanca and while it was cool to sing La Marseillaise at a bunch of actors in Nazi uniform, the rest of the “immersive experience” consisted of overpriced snacks and a “casino” barely worthy of a student union’s James Bond night. The Guardian piece captures the extent to which Secret Cinema events are now more about taking your money than letting you step into the world of a story.

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Bermondsey Street Festival with Dulwich Picture Gallery and The Challenge

This Saturday you’ll find me at the Bermondsey Street Festival alongside volunteers from NCS The Challenge and the staff of Dulwich Picture Gallery, the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery.

We’ll be running hands-on art events for visitors to the festival, exploring what arts outreach looks like beyond the gallery walls and getting our young volunteers to work as mentors, workshop leaders, and creators in their own right. All very Fun Palaces – can you sense a recurring theme this autumn?

There’ll be more from me at Dulwich later this year, with an M.C. Escher-inspired play session in December. Stay tuned.

“At last, something I can talk about!” – Fun Palaces at Lambeth Libraries

After a stint carrying out research for publishers and media productions – projects which I’ll look forward to talking about when I’m allowed to! – I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be working as a creative producer with the London Borough of Lambeth, helping their library staff to devise and deliver ten Fun Palaces with local communities on Saturday 3rd October 2015.

Fun Palaces are the international movement creating pop-up venues for communities to try their hands at science and the arts. Last year, I worked with Parkes Library on Australia’s first Fun Palace which incorporated tabletop games and supervillainous challenges alongside creative play for all ages.

I’m looking forward to taking things further with Lambeth in 2015. Our events will tie in to Black History Month and feature a range of stargazing, cybernetic, all-embracing, all-ages art and adventure. Watch this space for more news.

In the meantime you can read my article “Pushing the Limits: Play, Explore, Experiment” for British librarians’ in-house magazine CILIP Update, which looks at Fun Palaces alongside other arts and community adventures from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand:

CILIP Update Finch Article Cover Image

Sign up to create your own Fun Palace at the Fun Palaces website.

Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

Choose what you want to do … dance, talk, or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

– Fun Palace draft design, 1961

It’s been satisfying to watch the message of play spread across museums, libraries, and other public institutions over the last few years.  It’s timely, as the entertainment industry, too, begins to explore participatory and immersive forms of engagement. Events like Fun Palaces remind us that play is a vital element of learning and exploration. Play in cultural spaces, public or private, can promote self-directed learning, creative development, or simply the joy of using your imagination.

Now I’m wondering if play could get even wilder.

Bode Miller, American slalom skier

I guess structured or programmed play is great, insofar as it reminds people working in museums, galleries, and libraries to offer more than just colouring-in when they provide kids’ activities. But what that programming mustn’t do is mistake itself for schooling. Play belongs to all ages, and institutions should avoid controlling play to such an extent that it just becomes formal education all over again.

Scott Eberle of America’s National Musuem of Play has blogged brilliantly about going beyond structured play, using the example of “riotous” champion skier Bode Miller:

Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts.[…] Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”

Eberle’s piece resonates well with a blog post written last year by Anna Cutler, director of learning at London’s Tate Gallery. Cutler argues that cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, and I would add libraries, should not “replace or mimic school’s curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers.”

She goes on to write:

I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

The wild ride Eberle describes on the ski slopes, the sense that you can have “the greatest time making mistakes, crashing”, can happen in cultural institutions too. Sport, art, and games all offer opportunities to go off the currricular piste, pursuing instead the dizzying pleasure “at the limits of performance.”

Fun Palaces showed how this feeling of playful exploration could flourish in communities of all kinds around the world, using partnerships to extend the reach and capacities of individual institutions. 2013’s zombie siege in Parkes, Australia – a pretty wild ride in itself – was a library event run together with local schools, cops, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. This chimes nicely with R. David Lankes’ call for public libraries to “unleash” their communities, rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

So – can we trade control for fun in arts and culture? That might be scary: when we acknowledge that everyone has some creative contribution to make in life, we surrender the old privileges of authorship and prestige along with the old constraints. But even when budgets are tight – especially when budgets are tight – we must take opportunities to innovate, whether that’s  in publishing, universities, galleries, or museums.

What would happen if these institutions went off-piste? What lies at the limits of performance?

Beangrowers, Big Brothers, Time Travel, and Play

I’ve got a few blog posts lined up over the coming weeks. I’ve just met a number of deadlines, and the break allows me to turn some of my notes into text fit for human consumption.

Big Brother Timebomb logo

Raiding TV for inspiration

Late last year, I wrote about using action-adventure stories from TV, movies, and comics to inspire new play activities. I’m a geek for old telly: the shows of the past offer great inspiration for today. The technical constraints and different pace of television from fifty years ago means that heroes often faced perils which are easy to mimic in a setting like a library or museum.

There’s no shame in plundering the past, either. Present-day TV producers do it all the time. Robert Thirkell’s excellent book on reality TV, C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T., tells us how Jane Root, an executive producer with a stellar career at Discovery Network and the BBC, drew on her own nostalgia to create compelling new formats:

You know how we came up with I Love The 1980s[?…We rewatched] The Rock and Roll Years. David Mortimer and I got Rock and Roll Years out of the BBC archive because I’d remembered it from when I was a child. A lot of the younger BBC team had never seen it and I showed it to them in my office and said, “What could we do that could bring this show back?” I Love The 1980s, the hit the team went on to create, turned out to be even bigger in America, where it ran on VH1 for years.

Get Real

I’m also a sucker for reality TV, although these days I find I’m usually too busy to keep up with it. Big Brother, with its cast of housemates trying to complete challenges, avoid eviction, and not go bonkers over ten weeks, was always one of my student favourites. I still remember characters like the drama queen Makosi from BB6 or the kilted rebel Sandy from BB3, a personal shopper who managed to escape from the house over a wall.

People get sniffy about reality TV, but it’s really no different to drama or comedy: you create a format which offers exciting situations, and then set it loose like a shark in the sea, moving forward, consuming new contestants, new scenarios. Great formats like Doctor Who, Family Feud (Family Fortunes in the UK), or Big Brother, run and run.

What’s more, reality puts people who aren’t entertainment professionals in front of the camera. For all that we might deride reality show participants as wannabes, and for all that they’re at the mercy of production teams, those contestants are also an example of the barrier breaking down between audiences and artists.

Bean Brother

When I was an infant school teacher, I worked with a class of thirty kids, most of whom didn’t speak English at home. One term, we had to grow a bean from a seed on a wad of damp cotton wool in a plastic cup. I remember doing the same when I was a pupil. It’s one of those rites of passage every British kid goes through, the foundation of natural science: infants starting to practice taking measurements and observing living things carefully.

I wanted my class’ bean experiment to be lively and fun, so we reimagined our science project as “Bean Brother”. Each day, we’d play Paul Oakenfold’s iconic Big Brother theme tune before bringing our plants out before the class.

My long-suffering teaching assistant would put on a Geordie accent to mimic Marcus Bentley, the famed narrator of UK Big Brother. Our kids would use a video camera to report on their bean’s growth in a “televised update from the Bean Brother house” before drawing, writing observations, and completing their other science tasks. They were engaging with elements of the pop culture that surrounded us, doing serious learning about science, using audiovisual equipment to record their own stories, and best of all, they were playing while they did it. Bean Brother made the daily routine exciting, incorporated modern media both as something to consume and create…and each anonymous bean took on its own life as a contestant for our class to cheer on.

This year’s UK Big Brother is called “Timebomb.” You can see the trailer here:

I’m excited, looking at the iconography lifted from Doctor Who, steampunk, and the Transformers movies. Earlier this year, Celebrity Big Brother drew on the imagery of dark fairytales, but this new series is even closer to my heart. Russell T. Davies’ superlative run on Who already featured a Big Brother episode and now I’ve started to think of the Big Brother house as a TARDIS control room.

I’m curious to see how the Big Brother production team apply the concept of “time distortion” to a reality show. It’s harder to mess with causality in a live production than a scripted, pre-recorded series. Whatever they get up to, and however well it works, I think that anyone who is interested in play, cultural programming, and community outreach should take a good look at what Big Brother producers Endemol are up to this year.

Read more about the new UK Big Brother at Digital Spy, and to see what a time travel themed play activity in a public institution might look like, go check out Auckland’s citywide 2013 heritage programme, TimeQuest.

Comic Book Dice: A Sequential Storytelling Game

Comic Book Dice is a playful 3D adaptation of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s “Panel Lottery”, a comic creation activity for all ages.

I first trialled this activity at a youth event for the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, Philippines, and subsequently ran it with high schoolers in Parkes, New South Wales, hosts of the Central West Comics Fest.

You’ll need cardboard cubes, drawing materials, and a picture featuring three character models. Abel and Madden use these figures:

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Always Blow On The Pea: Hanging Out, Problem Solving, and Action-Adventure

I’ve just finished working on a Fun Palace in Parkes, New South Wales – Australia’s first. Taking place in public venues like museums, theatres, and libraries, Fun Palaces invite people to explore art and science on their own terms. In Parkes, that meant letting the community try their hand at games devised by local kids and teens.

Much like our zombie, time travel, and giant monster events, all the effort was in the preparation. If you set up the activities right, participants don’t need much from you on the day. Their own fascination draws them in – and keeps them engaged.

Preparation for something like this includes obvious stuff – admin, logistics, testing the games. Last year, we even managed to boil down the process to six bullet points. What gets missed in that brief version is the inspiration and writing phase, which involves a lot of long walks, daydreams, and listening to music. As David Mamet once said, writing is to hanging out as tasting food is to cookery.

I’ve always cherished that line. It’s one reason why, alongside Fun Palaces, I recorded a podcast about Transformers with Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson this month. It let me hang out in the world of pop culture while planning for Parkes. That kind of thoughtful immersion is a vital underpinning of the events I run, because in many ways pop culture is the folk culture of this mediatized world. I think very hard and probably way too much about how to mine the media for ideas when creating events and opportunities to play in public spaces.

Today I want to talk about how action-adventure, that most popular and often least profound of genres, can be a fruitful source of inspiration. That’s not just because even the dumbest slam-bang narrative drips with messages about gender, society, power and culture. It’s because the very business of action-adventure is problem solving.

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Neill Cameron and Daisy Johnson – Transformers Podcast

Something different here at my website today. A podcast instead of a blog post. A podcast discussing that most profound of subjects… TRANSFORMERS!

What can giant fighting robots teach us about stories? What can they teach us about love? Are glorified toy commercials of interest to anyone other than kids, scholars, and nostalgics?

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Today’s discussion takes us from 1984 and the origins of the Transformers brand through cartoons, toys, and movies to the latest comics published by IDW. Daisy and Neill also discuss the mythic resonance of children’s television, the medium of comics, and the way pop culture shapes and is shaped by our own relationships with others. It runs for just under 30 minutes and you can find it below.

Daisy’s currently researching her doctorate in literary tourism and children’s literature at the University of York. She’s @chaletfan on Twitter, and you can also find her at Did You Ever Stop to Think.

Neill’s new book How To Make Awesome Comics is available now – you can find him on twitter as @neillcameron, and also at his own website, neillcameron.com.