Larp as art

One thing that really satisfied me at this year’s Knudepunkt was how the discourse had moved. From geeks demanding that their games were art, to artists discussing the practical premises of larp as an artform.

We’re not entirely there, the How To Communicate Larp to a Mainstream Audience debate still took a lot of time agreeing that larp is actually a medium. We have an awful lot of opinions on what larp is, but I think the term has almost congealed into a consensual entity of it’s own. At least as far as the KP crowd is concerned. And having a stable platform to look at ourselves from gives us a chance to start picking the thing itself apart.

Not all larps have to conform to the same set of identities, just as not everything shown on a movie screen is the same. We’ll start to learn more once we accept the differences inherent in the medium and accept both sides of the divide as equally valid. A larp is not lesser because it has no artistic intentions, nor is it better. What is interesting is looking at how the artistic angle affects the larp and how it being a larp makes a statement about art.

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Every medium has it’s own spectrum of content that it does well, from pure clichéfille entertainment value to artistic explorations of the form itself. Both sides feed into each other. Images, themes and techniques move back and forth across the medium. Creators learn from each other. And every medium can be deconstructed, removing bits and pieces that seem essential to defining it, as an artistic excercise. We’ve had plenty of larps without characters, immersion, suspension of disbelief, setting, narrative, etc. Pretty much every aspect that we have as a central element in larp. So it’s hard to pin down exactly where each medium lies, especially when it comes to the artistic side of things.

But! Johanna MacDonald’s contribution to Nordic Larp Talks did a great job of laying down the differences between larp and the closest artistic relatives in performance art and theatre. It’s really about the perspective of the aesthetics, the observer being part of the work or there is no work. That you have to create it to consume it, there is no observer position from which you can merely consume. Even the most advanced performance art struggles to actually include the audience in the work on any level close to larping.

It is the special position of the larping audience that Mike Pohjola explores as well, digging up a lost tradition of theatre that echoes what we have in larp, the participatory audience. The priviledged position of being immersed into the experience as a part of it, rather than outside it.

This special position of having to be part of the work in order to experience it can be a barrier of understanding, when it comes to the broader world. It has been interesting to see the swedish cultural debate regarding Just A Little Lovin’ in which an art critic questions whether a larp can deal with sensitive issues, when there is no clear author and it is framed as a game. It showed some deep problems with larp being treated as art. Read Tore  article documenting the debate in this year’s book.

There is the legitimacy issue, how can something that is traditionally a game take on hard subjects and deal properly with issues? Leaving much of the creative input in the hands of an undirected group of participants, how do you even begin to have artistic integrity of the work?

The ethics of participating in larp is another issue that comes up when we have to look at it as art that deals with real issues. What are the implications of taking on a role that mirrors real tragedy? How do we relate to the issue afterwards, when confronted with the real thing?

It is very hard to discuss a larp from the outside, since you can’t look at the actual work, only the stage directions and second hand stories. And if you choose to participate it becomes very hard to be objective of the experience as you yourself was part of creating it. In order to understand it, you must surrender to it’s point of view and build on it. This is a high barrier to the usual art discourse, in which the commentators and critics can consume the works from afar. So don’t expect anyone to understand it as art out of hand.

You can’t force a thing to be art by demanding it (Marcel Duchamp excepted.) Only by a serious and continual creative effort, will that elusive label be a natural part of  the thing itself. This effort requires that the works have actual artistic merit and frame of reference, which have been sadly lacking in the amateur community so far. But we have everything we need to both create and attract working artists, within the larp community.

And let the controversies roll! Every major addition to the definition of art has started out being declared non-art or just plain wrong. We won’t get anything out of rolling over on our backs and waiting for the art discourse to take us in. We have to stake a claim and hold it long enough to convert the heathens if we want larp to be art on it’s own terms.

In general this Solmukohta was for me a wonderful change of tone. From the previous situation of academics making studies and declarations on the nature of larp, we’re now seeing more artistic and cultural perspectives and experiments with the form. Being culturally angled myself, I felt a lot more comfortable participating in serious discussion without having read Habermas. Let’s open up the field of how we look at and discuss larp and keep the artistic endeavours coming.

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