Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling

May 23rd, 2012 by Seb Chan

If you’ve run into me in New York City since I moved here six months ago I’ve probably badgered you about Sleep No More.

It was something I saw in my first weeks after moving here after two aborted attempts on previous trips to New York. Best described as an immersive theatrical experience, it has deeply affected the way I think about theatre, theme parks, exhibitions and museum experiences in general. And, coupled with my experiences at the Museum of Old & New Art before I left Australia, it has challenged my thinking around ‘participation’ and ‘openness’.

Loosely based on Macbeth, inspired by film noir, and transforming 100,000 square feet of a 5 storey warehouse in Chelsea, Sleep No More is about immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative. Everything is touchable, openable, operable. It is a world of cinematic detail – shelves, drawers and cabinets are full of papers and objects that are purposefully selected and layered with information from and about the story world – and sound and smell are turned up to 11. With the audience masked, silent, and anonymised, the experience becomes highly individualised and for three hours you explore, following performers if they take your fancy, or chancing upon happenings and scenes.

Apart from the choreography of the performers themselves, there is a sense of the audience being choreographed as they spread out and move loosely through the space, yet always managed to be ‘nudged’ subtly to climactic moments in the larger congregational spaces. Friends have remarked how game-like it is in the way it does this nudging – and on my first viewing I made connections to the ways in which good 3D sandbox games manage to maintain a core narrative whilst encouraging players to ‘freely explore’.

Despite this subtle nudging your experience will be different to mine. Couples are advised to purposefully split up for the duration of the adventure to have a more individualised experience (and a lot more to talk about afterwards).

If you haven’t been and you are visiting New York in the next little while, then I do urge you to go. And try not to read to much about it beforehand.

So tonight at Storycode – a periodic transmedia & storytelling meetup – I was excited to hear Pete Higgin and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk talk about the development of Sleep No More in its current incarnation and their approach to storytelling. (You can watch the video of the whole talk on Livestream).

Punchdrunk have been working with MIT Media Lab to explore ways in which a complementary experience of the environment could work online. Last week, in some trials, several audience members were selected to wear special masks with sensors and cameras and joined their fellow patrons in the regular Sleep No More performance. Connected to them were selected online participants who experienced a version of the performance through an interface that recalled the classic text adventure, but with ambient sound and some intermittent vision.

The selected audience members were drawn to specific parts of the set where a communications portal between the online and onsite opened so that they could communicate with each other – mediated by actors in a control room. This is going on in realtime in the same physical environment as the regular performance – so it is a strange kind of ‘third story’ in the same world. These ‘portals’ were subtly disguised in the fabric of the set so as to be unnoticeable by others.

Obviously there were some issues – the additional layers of the 3rd story secret world were not obvious – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the locational technology (Bluetooth) and content delivery/transmission over wifi didn;t always work satisfactorily. There’s a New York Times piece on the experiment from the point of view of an participant that is worth a read.

What really impressed me was the deep consideration that had gone into making the online experience for the remote participant as immersive as possible by using sound and the limitations of text descriptors rather than relying on inadequate video or worse, the uncanny valley of 3D simulations.

The online experience wasn’t meant to be a ‘replica’ of the Sleep No More experience, but a parallel to it.

This parallelism is something I’d love to see museums do more with. Online/digital as a parallel experience. This is what so much discussion in the museum (Rodley) blogosphere (Cairns) has recently been about.

Take a look at Punchdrunk’s recent outreach and literacy program ‘Under The Eiderdown’.

Hit play. Watch the seven minutes. Then come back. It is worth it.


Towards the close of their talk Pete Higgin had a nice line – “explanation is the killer of wonderment”.

It reminded me of a recent article from Salon on the effect of YouTube on the traditions and social practices of magicians.

“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” [magician Jamy Ian Swiss] said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your couch and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”

Magic, like theatre, isn’t about the technicalities of the tricks – it is about performance and the moment.

Higgin told an anecdote about a run-in with a overzealous ‘fan’ who had created an article deconstructing the timings of scenes in Sleep No More – under the strange assumption that by giving the ‘factual information’ would actually be useful. It is a tension that plays out in all media now – the plot summaries and spoilers that are immediately posted to Wikipedia for popular TV series after an episode airs – but for immersive, purposefully opaque narrative experiences the stakes might just be higher.

Museums, especially those of the scientific and historical persuasion, have been hesitant to embrace theatricality – “there be charlatans”, or worse “there be theme parks” – yet all good storytelling is all about performance. (Something public librarians at Reading Time know all too well).

Yet consider the mass popularity of the early commercial museums in the late 19th century when scientific phenomena were akin to magic and Coney Island had premature babies in cribs showing the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and freak shows, and electricity! Wonderment!

These are not things we generally think of as desirable in a modern museum – however there may still be much to learn about their appeal that still applies today.

What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all? (The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is wonderfully designed with some spaces and passages that are only accessible by small children that lead to experiences that only children can have separate from their parents.)

What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?

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