Jessica Renfro: bringing people together through video gaming
Online games often have a negative connotation: gaming is associated with isolating people from each other and hindering real life contact. But Jessica Renfro proves this notion to be quite wrong. In fact, as a last year student at the Master Performance Practices, she brings people closer together by letting them play a video game. How does that work? And how did she end up developing videogames while she started out as an opera singer?
“The Master Performance Practices is a kind of intensive residential programme. The participants come from all kinds of backgrounds: people who have completed their Bachelor’s work, people who have experience in the performing world, and who now want to take a more de-disciplined approach to art, becoming makers and creators of art. We all work towards our individual research and thesis – it is about performance as research the whole time. I myself come from opera – though it does not show. I developed further in participatory art, partly because of the pandemic primarily in the digital sphere.”
It is valuable to think about identity issues, social norms. At the same time, we decide what we want to see as similar and different. Sometimes it is good to make a conscious choice to find a bigger similarity.
This is where gaming comes into the picture. Jessica is graduating with a collective participatory game project under the name We Called It Earth. It is a participatory, digital platformer game that simultaneously creates the world it explores. Rejecting the myth of self-authorship, the avatar of this game is a black hole with a profusion of unruly limbs controlled by multiple players. Participation also occurs online, where a new planetary mythology is co-authored, and appears on a projected screen to fill in the barren landscape and help the avatar on its way. In this messy, playful, and often deadly quest to bind the wounds of a shattered planet, a formless and emancipated collective writes the story of a new world forged by relationships rather than individuals (source: voicetellsastory.com).
From opera singing to game design – how did that happen?
“When I was making opera and music, I already was interested in bringing communities together, in starting dialogues. That did not change – and so my research has not changed that much either. I wanted to continue in that vein, and make my artwork relevant to society in a direct way. I did not know participatory art before I came to ArtEZ and I did not know yet how I wanted to engage with people. In the Performance Practices programme we are continually encouraged to try new things, outside our known discipline. I really dove in and I had no idea what I would encounter.”
That would turn out to be participatory art. “There are no guidelines to making participatory art – and that became my research. Reaching an audience, creating instructions that are understandable, giving freedom that allows people to experience something specific. I am not back to opera yet, but I would like to, some time, see in what ways I can integrate this kind of engagement in live performance. How would that be experienced by an audience?”
I want to put the people that come to visit inside an experience, in a different context, so they can be both themselves and a ‘new’ person.
What does an ‘audience’ mean to you?
“In my research and games, I think of players. ‘Audience’ is a bit of a dirty word in some contexts, so I prefer not to use it too much. When you have any kind of performance, there is either a subliminal or an experienced set of rules of how to be a spectator or participant – a certain mode of subjectivity. Take, for example, a video game: the person playing it is partly the one he/she is in the outside world, but also the person with the controller, interacting with the code – and also the character on the screen– so actually one is three different people at the same time. I see that in participatory art as well: I want to put the people that come to visit inside an experience, in a different context, so they can be both themselves and a ‘new’ person. You could call it a simulation, designed for participants.”
Why do you want to let people experience being both themselves and someone else?
“There is a bigger thought behind it: I want to bring people together, in order for them to create together, to see what emerges. Coming from the US, I have seen big social issues, and the impossibility of having a dialogue. I started to think: what kind of subjectivity do I want the people that come visit my art to have? The answer: to be one entity! In order to do that, there are several things of importance: getting rid of any public identity that drives divisions, causes fractures. In the digital sphere there are problems with access: not everyone knows how to use a controller, how to enter the programme. So I try to be very clear about the basic instructions. In my latest work, participants took turns in being one limb of an entity: a leg, the wings, the mind, etc. The mind could produce text and emotions – and the roles shifted. As a member of a group, you never know exactly when you will make a difference; but at some point, you do! Everyone joins in. Think of it as a social movement: you don't know when the thing you are doing might become big.”
How did you experience the Master Performance Practices?
“For me, it really changed my life. I came in because it was about the de-disciplined aspect: I wanted that multimediality, different forms. I was already doing different kinds of stuff, and I wanted to bring that all together. I had no idea of what I was in for. The programme is built around the concept of the body – in a very general, broad way. What is a body in performance, a body in dissent, a body being absent? This gave me a new way of looking at things. It provided me a toolkit to translate more philosophical and theoretical things into actual design, concrete things. I did not know how to do that at all! Before, things just seemed like the right thing to do – now I am consciously steering my work toward specific values like disidentification. For example, in the game, I am not letting people identify themselves by their names, but only by using colors, or emojis.”
“I feel enabled by a bigger knowledge of performance literature and philosophy and a variety of disciplines. The faculty is amazing: they are very in touch with you, and, being from different artistic backgrounds, employ all they know to help you with your interest. This is an eclectic feedback system. The final performances of my cohort were all completely different: in terms of media, of approaches – but still all related to the core of the programme. It was amazing to see these eleven performances, going in all different directions.”
Jessica's biggest eye-openers
“Very early in the course, during the Bodies in Dissent course, we were exploring transgressing rules and abjection in practice – things people feel revulsion towards. I did really poorly: it was a big stretch for me... But by doing it anyway, I clarified my own goals: I learned that my practice is a hopeful practice, that is just who I am, something I have to do! I found that an interesting reaction to the course.”
“We were very much encouraged to take risks. My idea of taking a risk used to be trying something new – but I found out that this is not really taking a risk, not unless you really don't know how it is going to turn out. Risking actual failure: that is the way to learn.”
“More recently, I delved into post-humanism, which talks about people as things that defy definitions and exist on the borders, rejecting single identities and empowering marginal identity groups.”
Another way to find meaning
Part of the game is being the mind and heart of the avatar. People have to create stories to proceed in the game. And in doing so, people are not just responding to the screen, but also to each other, and to the room. That does create a story that wasn't written by anyone in particular – it is abstract, but a new form of a story all the same! This part is very important to my work. Something is emerging; a commonality or theme or feeling – this is another way to find meaning.”
What reactions did people have to that? “People had a lot of fun! That is one of my main goals: to be playful, to get people to play: that brings out a collaborative spirit. During the audio performance, people got very invested, they were freaking out when the character died. It was a very good experiment. I got a lot of positive feedback, leading to ways in which I could take this forward in a balanced way.”
Everything means something different to everyone. And that is all true, but sometimes this makes it hard to have a conversation about something.
Are you planning to take this project to the future?
“I am going to keep working on this project, moving it to festivals.” And not only that: Jessica also wants to examine other ways in which people can be together. “What if the game was more of a horizon, with no end and no beginning? Would different forms of collectivity emerge? How would it work in a live context, without the digital aspect – would that be possible? Having this kind of surreal gaze, is that hard to recreate?”
So there are many questions that have not been answered yet. In fact, so many that Jessica is considering a PhD application. “My thesis is about participatory art in general, and about how to influence the quality of engagement. I aim to research that academically as well, and use it in my performances. To forward that knowledge, and do case studies, designing for different qualities of participation.”
There is one big question in her mind now: one that is very relevant to artists and also in general: the idea of translation. “For a long time, there has been this idea that art is somehow only about self-expression, so there would be no duty to translate it: everything means something different to everyone. And that is all true, but sometimes this makes it hard to have a conversation about something. The big question I ask is: how do you translate these abstract concepts into experiences? What are the elements of that? Designing agency of people, immersive seeing and hearing, instructing them on how to interact – is the combination important? Is there more, or is this everything? My question is; what are the elements that translate these things? And is it at all useful to explore, or would it be better to just let people be free to express what they want? Should there be any trajectory of this kind at all? Would it be better to leave it as ‘we all explore in our own way’.”
That especially goes for kids. “For my game, age 12 seems perfect. I'd like to try that out. In one of my other projects, Dream City, especially kids enjoyed it – were really able to enjoy it. We Called It Earth involves acceptance of the rules before you enter. One of the rules is that it is hard to figure out how the game works, so if you can help others, you should! Be supportive! And if you can't help, still be kind! It would be an interesting experiment to examine if children would be able to sustain that helping attitude. In the game, you can't turn on each other. Well, you can – but that won't work. You'd get bored and frustrated; you have to work together.”
What does being an artist mean to you?
“The role of the artist in participatory art is not only about aesthetic goals and responses, but also about designing a structure for experience, about facilitating that experience, creating gaps that other people can fill in. For me, to be an artist is about finding new ways to experience things, ways that maybe are not in the norm for people, new ways to invite others in – to make the ‘not normal’ normal for a short period of time. To take as many different things as people in the room, and have conversations about them. Being an artist to me means learning to experience new ways of being human.”
“I think that in society, there has been too much of an emphasis on individual achievement, on self-authorship: I (have to) make it on my own, be busy all the time, that makes me a good person... I'd like to see this sentiment move towards more collaboration. We don't have to kill ourselves to express ourselves. We can come together in a non-comparative, non-competitive way: it does not have to be about winning!”
This continuous balance between individuals and groups forms the golden thread in Jessica's work. “It is valuable to think about identity issues, social norms. At the same time, we decide what we want to see as similar and different. Sometimes it is good to make a conscious choice to find a bigger similarity.”