Taking Back Transmedia

From the Eyeless Owl


“Might we contrive one of those opportune falsehoods … so as by one noble lie to persuade if possible the rulers themselves, but failing that the rest of the city.”

– Plato in The Republic

“If you read it, you will be infected. If you are infected you will be InFicted. If you are InFicted, you will get UnFucted. “

– Joseph Matheny

Those who entered the digital world in the late 80’s and early 90’s were introduced to a nearly unfathomable host of possibilities for media and creativity. DVD’s offered the potential for integrative experiences that tracked user preferences and allowed for multiple story formats which changed with each viewing based on previous use, virtual reality models held the possibility for turning these experiences fully immersive, cell phones and wireless technology promised an unthought of openness to it all, and the internet allowed everyone to dream of a fully connected, creative global conversation that synchronized each aspect into a beautifully coordinated whole. Looking back on those dreams in light of growing concerns over surveillance, advertising, neuromarketing and the like one might wonder what happened to turn the dream into a lousy cold war sitcom.

It was a recent note from my friend Joseph Matheny that shuffled the dust around in my memory and made me realize that my current experience with technology isn’t quite as conducive to creativity as promised. Matheny is about to begin a series of classes for University of California – Santa Barbara (Click Here for More Information) that will cover the basics of multimedia and transmedia production, and I was glad to hear that his insights were going to be available to creatives coming into the field at a serious level. Hopefully it will bring some focus back to what these tools were intended for originally in the minds of their creators.

As one of the early pioneers in multimedia, his alternate reality game Ong’s Hat has become a reminder of what is possible with today’s technology, and a kick in the ass to today’s creatives that are allowing this potential to be misused, abused and denigrated by marketers and media corporations. Matheny’s vision of transmedia production doesn’t end with a shiny bit of intellectual property, it ends with reformatting the mytho-poetic infrastructure of consensus reality.

“Legend-telling online operates slightly differently than when performed in face-to-face situations, since computer-mediated communication permits tellers to instantly present various kinds of “evidence” and to hypertextually connect their accounts to other legends to form vast legend complexes. And when people become immersed in these legend complexes, they may participate in an online form of legend-tripping.”

– from Legend Tripping Online – Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat, by Michael Kinsella (University Press of Mississippi)

We are familiar with the fruit of these initiatives though popular fiction such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which gains social relevance by providing a doorway into an intricate matrix of contemporary myth. The central plot point focusing on Jesus’ bloodline, a revisionist role for Mary Magdalene and the many mysteries of Rennes-le-Chateau has its base in a long running alternate reality game that emerged around the site thanks to the efforts of another transmedia pioneer, Pierre Plantard.

As Mariano Tomatis, a mathematician, magician and one of the people responsible for creating the Rennes-le-Chateau museum reflects, “In the game of Rennes-le-Château, to  “participate” is to narrate its story, add details, publish articles, discuss on web forums, create maps, suggest new links, propose extensions into new disciplines, write books, organize meetings.

Finite and infinite games share many similarities. Just as in the popular game Risk, the game of Rennes-le-Château offers a variety of maps, and even a real-life setting that is in scale 1:1 with the story. As in role-playing games, Rennes-le-Château offers a multitude of books full of clues, paintings, inscriptions, characters and historical backgrounds, offering a rich background of information and a powerful immersive experience. As with Sudoku, not all combinations are allowed: the characters may intertwine in space and time with relative ease, there could be any type of relationship, but it is difficult to directly connect an individual who lived in the XX century with another born two centuries earlier. But freedom of action can transform a singer into the lover of a priest, a housekeeper into his daughter, a brother into the victim of a homicide.

Both types of game are governed by rules, but in a finite game those rules cannot change; on the other hand, the rules of an infinite game must be changed continually throughout the game.”

Further, Tomatis points out how, “the whole mythology condensed around the village is having a “measurable” effect on some people “immersed” in it, despite being made up of immaterial information. (This) reflection emerged from my studies about stage magic. A good magician should be able to induce — through stories and appropriate stimuli — weird magical experiences, in which reality and illusion blur. Collecting comments from the visitors of the church of Rennes-le-Château, I have read incredible descriptions of what happens in that building – at least in their perception.” The cultivation of these experiences is a key point in true transmedia work, but it can be perverted if these techniques are used in conjunction with corrupt intention.

Transmedia artists are responsible for the games they create. With Rennes-le-Chateau, “the esotericist (Pierre Plantard) laid the foundations for a “game” that would have never come to an end, to which anyone could participate, feeling free to add something and to act as a protagonist. A very serious game, from his point of view, rich in deep spiritual implications.” Yet the inclusion of elements such as the Priory of Zion mythos has lent support to the thinly veiled anti-semitism of conspiracy evangelists such as Alex Jones and David Icke.

Both Jones and Icke are themselves transmedia artists, playing the game of myth-maker, but theirs is a perverse and self gratifying game, whose trajectory leads players further and further down a spiral of irrationality, social disengagement and paranoia. Just as corporations have discovered the power of Alternate Reality Games to create complex and invasive choice architecture into the lives of consumers, the inane adventure story sculpted by media figures like Jones and Icke merely serves to drive alternate agendas that offer no meaningful development for the players joining the game.

“The Secret Army? I won’t say “we lost,” because some of what’s left of us is still in there.”

– from Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs

Some of the most effective early digital media was produced by friends of Robert Anton Wilson, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, and other bastions of non-conformity, but one is hard pressed to find this influence today outside of aesthetics and simulation. You can rattle off a myriad of interesting projects that are currently in the works, but by and large the cohesion, vision, proficiency and passion that were there in the early days has gone to ground beneath the weight of corporate influence, self promotion and mediocrity. Unfortunately at some point effectiveness must be weighed as much as intent, and those most effective in mobilizing mass audiences are irresponsible and abrasive Limbaugh clones like Jones, who spew potent and pathetic propaganda to people ready for any answers in a rapidly changing world. Another place to look for precisely crafted transmedia is the New Apostolic Reformation movement, which has been creating one of the most complex, integral and expansive reality games through the development of an imaginal world of “supernatural living.”

What was once the playful domain of passionate professionals and amateurs has become a carefully crafted hunting ground for corporate marketers, propagandists, academics and media interests. Burroughs pirate state has become a wasteland of empty advertising, with its pioneering spirit set aside for profiteers and ego driven pundits.

The field is open for a more mature and creative approach to transmedia initiatives, but it will take the audacity of someone like Plantard, who turned a local legend into a transcendent Gnostic drama, to truly utilize today’s technology in building “legend-complexes” that can help bring understanding and union, rather than aid in further fracturing of our cultural heritage. To be trusted with the creation of a “noble lie” is to be given access to the very prima materia of cultural creation, and poor use of such responsibility can have far reaching effects.

Matheny was one of the first to recognize the power inherent in the interconnected culture that is developing through the rapid technological progress driving globalization. His insights and accomplishments help us to understand the intricacies of transmedia arts and provides a valuable tool in becoming a co-creator in the world wide game already in progress called the “21st Century.”

For those who are interested in more information on the upcoming Transmedia and Digital Media courses that Matheny is hosting in collaboration with University of California – Santa Barabara click here. If you choose to sign up for classes, use the promotional code: DAVID for an added bonus!

For those interested in learning more about Matheny’s other projects visit his website by clicking here.

Joseph Matheny is an American writer and transmedia artist who has created works using alternate reality gaming and transmedia storytelling methods. He holds patents for prediction, recommendation and behavioral analysis algorithms and software design.  He is a published author of screenplays, white papers, technology, sci-fi, marketing and gaming books. He currently resides in Los Angeles, CA.

David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.

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