Urban Spaces Reflected in Interactive Art

Julia Tinneny / Media Response

Part of the excitement surrounding interactivity is its capacity to augment one’s experience of the media with which they interact. This is achieved in multiple ways, including but not limited to granting viewsers participatory control through voting on avatar actions, permitting voyeuristic agency to explore virtual spaces, and allowing reorientation of one’s self with current surroundings.

The focus of this paper is to look at the ways in which interactive games and art reflect and inform the urban experience as depicted in Killer.Berlin.doc and Late Shift. Tobias Weber’s Late Shift is an interactive film developed CtrlMovie (of which Weber is a founding partner). Through downloading and using an app or remote control, viewsers dictate how the protagonist, Matthew Thompson, will proceed within a series of marginal and significant moral dilemmas. Killer.Berlin.doc is a documentary that follows a group of strangers who sign up “turn their lives to fiction,” by participating in a two-week game to kill an assigned target in Berlin. Both of these pieces, Late Shift and Killer.Berlin.doc are immersed and informed by urban conditions of individual and collective positionality, specifically the starting positions of class which locate the avatars and characters of these films.
I will first consider the ways in which Killer.Berlin.doc relates to Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza’s exploration of social networks and games, and I will also consider how players of the game are positioned within the urban setting. I will then go on to consider Late Shift, a different category project, but one that I argue is important because of urban conditions of class that pre-disposes the protagonist to his limitations, which, to borrow the term from Toni Dove, the viewser becomes “attached” to, and through which, an element of urban social position is taken on by the avatar.
Killer.Berlin.doc reflects a paradigm of urban landscapes as they relate to interactivity. The group “turn their lives to fiction,” suspending their routines to participate in a game quest to outlive their fictional killer, all the while hunting their target. Participants are not only tasked with killing their target but to “conceive the perfect murder,” something that they decide through observing the habits and routine of their target.
In Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva’s discussion of net localities, they describe that social media and network games influence participants’ mobility in the city because they are engaging in it “through the lens of a fictitious narrative” (68). Observing the documentary reveals that the players’ lives change in relation to the spaces they occupy as they go through the city hunting their targets.
Killer.Berlin.doc is a particular case of dedicated strangers who are not using the geo-technology that Gordon and de Souza e Silva describe. However, their discussion of network games remains relevant because of the ways in which network games can affect social engagement and movement through the city. It is especially interesting in their mention of these location-specific games as a means catalyst to a sub-culture (65). With this said, it’s important to note that the documentary Killer.Berlin.doc does not necessarily emphasize social interactions among the group as an outcome, but instead appears to focus on the isolation of individuals. This seems to be attributed to the nature of the game itself, which emphasizes the pursuit of killing through learning about the intimacies of a target through observation of a target in real-time, while not centered around location-aware devices, as described in Gordon and de Souza e Silva’s exploration (65).
There is an obvious component of investment among the players — a sense of emotional attachment to the game — where the film viewer may surmise that the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred. This is revealed through the video and written diary entries of the players. One player describes that she feels embarrassed to follow her target because she is afraid it implies an actual pursuit, she ends saying: “Game or not, the emotions feel very real.” The nature of this game, as it is documented and played, becomes specific to the experience of Berlin as a city that is a vehicle to the player’s relationships to themselves. This is is articulated by the characters as they play the game. For example, players discuss the architecture of the city, the changes in neighborhoods, and the city’s history in the 20th century. The game (and players’ diaries/documentary which they narrate) allow space for these players to become reflexive about their positions in the city, which can reveal existential experiences on the part of the players, because they are the literal figures reorienting themselves to it, and in some ways, authoring it as opposed to navigating it through an avatar.
I now will consider Late Shift as an interactive film that reflects urban experience through avatar navigation, and one that is informed by class subjectivity. Matthew’s narration and actions in the first few cuts hint at his social position and ideologies that drive him through his life and world. In his opening voiceover, he states: “Some people say we’re all connected, all part of a bigger picture” as the camera pans over broad aerial shots of London’s modern architecture and reflective metal areas at night. These opening cuts layout the landscape of the city to reflect a hyper-modern, cosmopolitan city in which a super culture of money dominates the city scape. This is evidenced both because Matthew describes the very notion of cosmopolitanism in those first noted words of his voiceover (that is, the ideology that all humans, regardless of their geographic location are citizens of one global community), but also shows the wealth of a city that could be any city through the use of aerial shots; London itself is indistinguishable from other “modern cities.”
Professor Marina Hassapopoulou noted that his narration implies his undertaking of a nihilistic interpretation of the world (a philosophical viewpoint that rejects belief in meaningful aspects of life), which is related to his class subjectivity (Hassapopoulou). An example of this is implied when he arrives at work as a parking garage attendant, and he suggests that the most meaningful relationship in his life is with the cars. This statement could indicate the car as an emblem of his labor to be the most important relationship in his life, or alternatively, it could imply the literal motor vehicle is the relationship he cares about most in his life.
In her discussion of telepresence, Toni Dove describes interface cinematic storytelling which allows for an experience of doubling or extending the body. Dove writes “characters are inhibited like digital puppets and when a viewer feels their own presence in the screen through the character, it can produce an uncanny experience” (209). Matthew is the viewser’s avatar position in this film game, one that is unfortunately positioned and entrapped because of his lower-middle-class positionality.
By including to Dove’s character embodiment as it relates to Late Shift, my hope is to consider these differences from Killer.berlin.doc. Because Late Shift is not an engagement of passive viewership, the parameters of social segregation within the city become part of the challenge of the viewser. Throughout the film, the narrative is such that Matthew interacts with different figures and socio-economic positions recognizable from around the world, but he often remains debilitated from the start, by electing choices which he may not even had recognized as choices. As viewsers are voting and immersed in the experience as Matthew, the viewser is limited from the get-go because of his positionality or class subjectivity in the urban setting.
In considering these two cognitively interactive pieces, I’m reminded of the promises and hype of interactivity as a democratic medium. These two projects reflect and engage with urban positionality as it relates to class. Killer.berlin.doc does it by depicting a game that real people played in documentary. Because of this game and through the notion of play, they are able to re-orient themselves to the city. Here, in the context of urban interactivity, is a democratized approach to a city through play and urban hacking, while showing the conditions of class and urbanization as preventative barriers to the avatar of Late Shift. In Late Shift, the protagonist’s class position prompts him to consider ideologies of the ways in which world works, and ultimately take on certain nihilistic views, which turn out to be predispositions to the issues of class segregation observable within the film. Both of these films narrate something about the urban experience, and each ultimately projects a somewhat dark, interactive urban environment.

Jason Vincent A. Cabañes (2014) Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World, by Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, Popular Communication, 12:1, 69-71, DOI: 10.1080/15405702.2013.838468

Dove, Toni. “The Space Between: Telepresence, Re-animation, and the Re-casting of the Invisible”

Hassapopoulou, Marina. Interactive Cinema and New Media. 21 Oct. 2019, New York University. Class lecture.

Late Shift. Tobias Weber, 2016.

Killer.Berlin.doc. Bettina Ellerkamp & Jorg Heitmann, 1999.