Thursday, 11 September 2014

Bringing the Nordic LARP to Stoke-on-Trent

Adam James: A Nordic LARP, The Checkerboard Crew, Saturday 6th September 2014 

A participant's response

The night owls had a run for their money last Saturday night : Stoke-on-Trent's The Checkerboard Crew were out scampering the depths of one of Hanley's finest brownfield sites attempting an exploratory and slightly strange take on a Nordic Live Action Role Play (LARP). Led by London-based artist Adam James, the LARP will form part of James' response for The Artists and The City collaborative exhibition project organised by Airspace Gallery and The Potteries Museum.

Image courtesy of Adam James

Having little knowledge of what a LARP was, James and members of the group offered an interpretation of a LARP as a 'social contract' : a game with set rules that are introduced in order to explore an alternative culture and/ or character. Straying away from the well-known video-gamer's and fantasy LARPs played worldwide, James' artistic background appeared to steer Saturday's activities towards an abstracted and perhaps less heavily contextualised performance; our vague mission being to set out into the night as a group of strange travellers with the gift of foresight, unlocking the potential of a future city. Aiming to document a Nordic-style LARP, James highlighted that compared to other LARPs, there were no winners in the game. The intent of the Nordic LARP is to play in collaboration, enacting a thrilling and emotionally poignant story together.

Commencing an insightful and slightly sweaty workshop in a dusty room of the old Telephone Buildings, a group of 10 eager experienced and bewildered novice LARPers were taken through a warm-up and relaxation session of ninja fighting, mock fire drills and several rounds of penguin vs zombie flamingo. As odd as chirping around the top floor of a busy city centre bar sounds, these exercises were intended to unburden our concerns of acting out of place with each other and in a public space. Having had a few preconceptions shaken from us, we were introduced to the communication tools we would use and the abstract characters we would become once let loose in the brownfield compound.
A series of spirals, swirls, circles, geometric boxes, lines, arrows and waves were placed infront of us – symbols that made reference to the American Hobo culture written about in “The American Hoboes” (Riders of the Rails) by Fran DeLorenzo. Without having the knowledge of the past or future intentions of these symbols, we were asked to choose one at random. These were later paired with a hobo name (examples include: Deep Sea Chef, Juble Joo, Grub Box and Dingbat), which gave us the foundations of our imaginary characters. This exercise was followed by instructions on how to understand our new identities through the movement, sound and attitude of each new individual. We were gradually forming the foundations of our collective community, and after sadly loosing two of our members, the workshop was completed by a collective letter-writing exercise and a non-verbal negotiation on how we were going to physically express our six vital commands : Yes, No, Potential, This Way, Look At This and Come to Me.

With the workshop over, we were cast out as futuristic hoboes searching for potential in a barren landscape. We, who started as strangers to both each other and the game, learnt to use the rules of play and acted through the laws of the LARP 'social contract'. Clambering into the dark wasteland (dimly lit by the distant Tesco Extra sign), we began the 1.5 hour experience into our shared derelict theatre-esque space. Counting down from 30 we tried to re-envisage ourselves into our generated characters, before dispersing out from a group huddle. An odd collective incentive to build from discarded objects offered safe initial steps, playing with cast-off tiles, containers and bottles as though they were your everyday building blocks. Later a flower sprung out from a plant pot, a broken 'Madness' record sparked a literal expression of madness, the moon was observed through a makeshift viewfinder, a rickety model home was built and a bathtub was united with a set of traffic cones in an attempt to create a rhythmic band. Without the use of conventional verbal language, it was challenging to understand each other and also perhaps to fully express our characters. Left to use our elected commands (Yes being a slap on an elevated forearm, No being a slap on the thigh and This Way being indicated by pointed elbows), the group collectively began to communicate and share with one another the potentials of decoding and re-assembling the surrounding landscape.

Overall, the moments that were the most exhilarating were those that expressed human emotion. Whilst the concept of the LARP was to find new possibilities in a desolate and abandoned place, it turns out the major players and potential of the event were us as human LARPers. As the evening developed, the group collectively began to care and look-out for each other, seeking comfort from fellow players whilst still remaining inquisitive towards their environment. Fun games were played through copying and mirroring each others suggestive actions, and we began relying progressively more on each other than on the environment around us to generate change. Whilst admittedly we did sound like a choir of space androids beeping away at the moon and there was a severe disagreement on whether to smash open a tape-measure or honour it in a pedestal-like manner, there was some sort of human-like consensus for a bunch of strangers who couldn't speak or act altogether freely. Individual thoughts and ideas became shared through actions or collectively voiced through intermittent one-word storytelling huddles. Strings of words sometimes verbalised observations and at other times shifted into a word repetition or word association game: there were definite attempts to empower the words 'potential' and 'together'.

Although I'm a little unsure whether dancing around a Buddleia shrub or simply finding comfort in holding someone's ankle really count as ground-breaking potential seeking, the LARP we played out on Saturday invited an engaged consideration of how to utilise our shared theatrical playground and newly learnt tools of communication to find a collective consensus on the elements most valued for a brighter future city. The experience offered a willing few the chance to exist beyond customary methods of communication and to observe beyond conventional intepretations of 'place'. Our participation in this new reality opened up an alternative perception of the barren wasteland, and through intuitively responding to situational components and fellow participant's actions, those who were convinced by this radical reality were able to engage with the transformative qualities of collective potential and imagine a new future in a desolate landscape. A highly immersive and exploratory experience of instinct, playfulness, collaboration, communication and physicality.

Adam James will be exhibiting his documented LARP as part of The Artists and The City, a collaborative exhibition between The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery: (Public Preview 3rd Oct 6pm-8pm), 4th October 2014 - 22nd February, 2015 and AirSpace Gallery: (Public Preview 31st Oct, 6pm-9pm), 31st October - 13th December, 2014

Selina Oakes.

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