Neither Here Nor There: ‘The Institute’, the Game, and the Thread to Elsewhere

The trend in alternate reality gaming fits a traditional definition of hyperreality; the condition where fiction and the real become indistinguishably blended together.

Spencer McCall received a cryptic assignment in his inbox. The email included descriptions, a creepy voice over, and an FTP login to download some odd video footage. McCall, a videographer, had worked strange assignments before — his first job after graduating was to shoot promotional videos for a biotech firm specializing in dog cloning — but this was different. He didn’t know his employers. He didn’t speak with them directly. They had no interaction together. For his effort, he made $100, paid out in 100 $1 cashiers checks.

Though he didn’t know it yet, this was his initiation into the world of Nonchalance, an alternate reality where things were not as they appeared. A world part Situationist, part Merry Prankster sans drugs, part ’70s style new age-y occultism. More assignments followed. From 2008-2011, more ambiguous emails arrived, often accompanied by strange packages in the mail: letters, creepy photos, weird assets, and weirder footage. The video work was easy enough to do, each lasting usually 2-3 minutes, and McCall needed the money. The jobs didn’t pay well, but they did pay. Over the course of a couple years, McCall did about six months of work for them.

Then in 2011, McCall received an email saying that everything was shutting down. One last job, a video for the final event, would be the end of it. He received a hard drive with hundreds of hours of footage. There were fragments of a scavenger hunt, mass protests, and a complex, convoluted story pitting the Scientology-like Jejune Institute against a ragtag, quasi-anarcho resistance called the Elsewhere Public Works Agency. There were clips of people crawling through sewers, a man dancing with a Sasquatch on a crowded city street, people in protest, alternative histories, Timothy Leary-esque mind expansion lectures.

And somewhere between the opposing factions, as if lifted from a Neil Gaiman novel, there was a mysterious disappearance of a young philosophically inclined punk girl named Eva.

When the final assignment was complete McCall’s employers vanished completely.

“I edited the video for them and they just dropped off the face of the earth. After they shut down, they shut down. Disappeared. It was all gone. Everything.” McCall explains by phone from San Francisco.

“They left almost no trace, except for this hard drive, that was now in my possession.”

Though the job was over, McCall still felt there was an itch to scratch. He had more questions than answers: Who had he been working for all that time? What was it all about? A cult? An extended practical joke? Who was behind it? And, why?

He began to go through the footage and organize it chronologically. “I started going through the hard drive, assembling the footage, organizing it,” McCall recollects, “but that wasn’t giving me any answers. I still didn’t know what this thing was or what it was about.”

McCall became something of an archeologist for the alternate reality. He reconstructed the story of what happened by piecing together disparate images and surreal impressions. He returned to the scene of some of the pivotal locations in the story, now void of most traces of the events, to tease out threads of the experience.

“As I watched the footage, I kept noticing recurring people. The same participants kept popping up, so I went on Facebook and I started tracking them down. I asked if I could interview them on camera and I did 20 interviews and I kept thinking it was something really cool.”

The result was The Institute, a 2013 documentary that presents the narrative of the “Jejune Institute”, an alternate reality game, through interviews with the participants and the creators. Over the course of three years, the game enrolled more than 10,000 players. They had responded to weird flyers throughout the city, receiving an “induction” at the fake headquarters of the Institute, located in an office building in San Francisco’s Financial District that brought them into the game.

The film is unobtrusive, it doesn’t draw conclusions for you or connect dots, it presents the experiences without voice over exposition or theoretical explanations. For audiences, the payoff is to experience the confusion, curiosity, and chaos of the mystery in the same way both the players and McCall had.

“I have respect for the audience and I have respect for the process. I wanted people to reach their own conclusions.”

I phoned McCall because I have been interested in how contemporary hyperreality—the condition where fiction and the Real become indistinguishably blended together—has transformed since the term was first coined. In the early ’80s, the concept, initially introduced by Jean Baudrillard with the publication of his philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation and later popularized by novelist Umberto Eco in his collection of essays Travels in Hyperreality, proposed that a “more real than real” veneer of enhanced experiences masks an underlying consumerism.

The trend in alternate reality gaming, in vogue over the past ten years, comfortably fits this description. Interactive, experiential marketing strategies engage audiences as active participants in the narrative of a product — movies (The Dark Knight), video games (Halo), and albums (Nine Inch Nails, Year Zero) — as a way to promote the product.

In other words, play the game, but exit through the gift shop.

In the decades since Baudrillard and Eco, consumerism has only continued to accelerate—spanning globally, expanding digitally—while the fantasies of virtual realities that dominated hyperreal theory in the ’90s have been transposed by cyber stamps in the physical realm (consider: geo-hashtagging, 3D printing, or Google glass), enhancing this process even further. The Institute seemed different precisely because there was no ask. It seemed like a perfect example of the contemporary variety. It engaged via interactive media, drew audiences into the physical realm recreated by the perceptions of an alternate reality, but without a product tie-in.

What makes Nonchalance different from the outset is that it is implicitly anti-consumerist. In an almost Hegelian fashion, the absurdist flyers prompting passersby to induction, are intended to jar them into awareness. Adrift in a sea of billboards and adverts so ubiquitous they not only become part of the landscape, but the landscape itself. For the participants, at least a portion of the 10,000 San Fran residents who played, Nonchalance provided a window to slip out of accepted reality.

“If Nonchalance had a marketing aim,” McCall explains, “I think it would have made people more comfortable with it.” There was an anxiety from the participants because of the lack of consumer motives. “As it was, one of the tensions participants experienced was feeling like, “when are they going to ask us for money?’”

When McCall set out to explore the story his initial impulse was to follow the money. In the same way the participants looked for a product hidden behind the mystery, McCall was bent on tracking where the funding originated and who he’d been working for all this time. If he could find how it was bankrolled, perhaps that would provide some resolution.

There are more than a few elements of Nonchalance reminiscent of David Fincher’s 1997 mystery-thriller, The Game. In the film, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy investment banker, who is given a voucher for an interactive, life-altering, game offered through a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) by his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) for his 48th birthday, with the promise it will change his life. The “game” rattles Van Orton’s grip on reality as he is drawn deeper into a dangerous conspiracy, stripped of his wealth, pursued, trapped, attacked, and ultimately brought into confrontation with his own death. Think: John Grisham channeling Philip K. Dick.

Nonchalance, like The Game, is set in the San Francisco Financial District, running a thematic parallel on challenging perception and experience as panacea for existential anxiety. They diverge, however, in that the participants in Nonchalance actively sought the experience, becoming agents in the random chaos that altered their reality, incorporating it into their lives, while Van Orton had the experience thrust upon him. It’s unlikely that anyone would opt for the kind of deconstruction of life that Van Orton undergoes, and Nonchalance certainly doesn’t render the same level of destruction issued by its fictional counterpart, but the difference in motive and motivation on the parts of the participants seems as emblematic of their respective times.

The Game was at the fore of a spate late ’90s reality-bending films released back-to-back: The Truman Show (1998), Dark City (1998), The Matrix(1999), and David Fincher’s film adaptation of Fight Club, among others. They spanned genres — sci-fi, drama, comedy, action, mystery — but revolved around a central theme that all-isn’t-what-it-seems. At the tail-end of the decade, the pixelated Elysian Fields of the world wide web, with its global promises of democracy, were beginning to appear fallow.

The dot com bubble at the start of the decade ushered in an unprecedented affluence that had begun to burst by the time The Game was released. Within this context, it seems no coincidence that Gordon Gekko’s reality unravels in the film. Exactly a decade after he epitomized Wall Street greed, we find him from the start of The Game in existential crisis. Van Orton paying the price of Gekko’s greed-is-good mentality. As the dot com bubble went bust, the world it had supposedly flattened clashed in the streets of Seattle with mass anti-WTO protests. CNN-led mainstream media representations recharacterized the demonstrations as riots. Deftly edited from from the mainstream simulation — tear gas, rubber bullet, live ammo of State aggression — the motivations for the protest obscured in coverage. Sleight of hand modified footage showed one-sided clashes with militant activists as aggressors.

All isn’t what it seems, indeed, or perhaps, it is just that there is no spoon.

In a sense the disillusionments that escalated the clash, where technology failed as egalitarian equalizer, were undermined in Seattle when the Independent Media Center, now a stalwart of Lefty activist communications, had its dramatic debut countering the party line airing live footage from the demonstrations. This represents the true divergence between Van Orton and the players of Nonchalance. Where the former was emblematic of the disillusionment of the decade, Van Orton’s journey down the rabbit hole was a total deconstruction, while the latter were hungry for a kind of authentic experience that could only be achieved through a sort of illusionment. Contemporary audiences are no longer content to be passive consumers of media; they have become engaged not only in how they process, analyze and share the information, but even more so, how they experience it.

“I wanted to do the documentary, but more than that I wanted to just understand what it was about”, McCall explains, “I would start going to the locations and doing a walk-thru filming them. I interviewed about 20 people, only nine of which ended up in the film. I just had them tell their stories about what it meant to them and how they got involved.”

Ultimately, the motive that prompted 10,000 people to embark on a fantasy journey, the same impetus also driving McCall, was motive itself. The journey provides a sense of wonder and mystery seemingly absent in the everyday that serves its own purpose. It’s a sort of circuit — not quite a Mobius strip because it has an end — where seeking a sense of meaning becomes the meaning itself and the manufacturing of illusion delivers a kind of truth. As the old Buddhist koan goes: “what’s the purpose of the dance?” / “To dance.”

“As I was interviewing subjects, word of got back to the creators of the game (his former employers) and they were like: “Okay, you can do this, but you have to talk to us, too.”

The mind behind the game was Oakland-based conceptual artist Jeff Hull. He had been a troubled youth growing up. He’d met a runaway, Eva, during that time and was moved by her Elsewhere perspective on life. Then she’d gone missing.

“In part, this whole thing was to elegize this girl. She had a profound influence on Jeff, and he wanted to share that influence. Ultimately, that was a good enough reason for me. It may have been a proof of concept for a company. It may have been a lot of things, but at the end of I don’t know that it matters. I wasn’t interested in chasing the money anymore.”

To bring the game to closure, Jeff recruited a corporate workshop trainer to host a “Socio-Re Engineering Seminar” that objectively seemed to give its ultimate victory to the System (embodied by Jejune). Early on conceptualizing the conclusion, it aimed for a dramatic sci-fi end that would have reversed this victory, with an appearance from the actress who portrayed Eva, or allowing Public Works radicals to overrun the seminar, perhaps clashing directly with Jejune — a firefight, an assassination — but the ideas seemed contrived.

The narrative climax of the conclusion is as simply complex as Zen itself. Leading into the “Socio-Re Engineering Seminar”, participants had an opportunity to steal a bioforce globe (a strange seed pod of some sort) at the urging of the Public Works Agency (the opposition), which would serve some significance in the events of that final day. When the moment presented itself for participants to use the bioforce globe, they were asked to place it into a cup of hot water, thereby seemingly submitting to the will of Jejune, which some overtly resist. There was a tension for those hundred some people who journeyed to the final phase of the game, that by conceding to the Jejune request, they had lost the game. They had somehow failed.

“Why should we [place the bioforce globe in the hot water]?” a participant demanded.

“Because that is how we make tea,” replied the facilitator.

The tension was resolved with laughter. Everything seemed to rubberband into perspective that this was a game. But there was something more significant in the exercise, as well. It was something that was at once absurd and transcendent, represented by the alchemical process of making tea, extending beyond a simple win/lose equation that made Jejune the victor. For the circuit itself, the not quite a Mobius strip, to simultaneously be complete and yet ongoing, the simplistic, superficial, mundane of the ordinary Jejune world must be transformed by the Nonchalant perceptions free of anxiety.

“If it hadn’t ended the way it did it wouldn’t have worked. It might have just been a fun activity, but it would have been concluded. It would have just ended.” McCall speculates, “A tidy conclusion like that would have just provided a tidy conclusion to the experience, but ending it as they did left things as a sort of mystery. It let people re-evaluate their life within the context of the game.”