Ideas Digital Forum 2018: Alison Humphrey

Ideas Digital Forum 2018: Alison Humphrey


– Thank you so much, Sylvie, I’m sure, will you be around afterwards to answer any questions
that people might have? Awesome, all I picture now is Sylvie with little buckets of money everywhere, love that.
(audience laughing) Our final speaker of the
day is Alison Humphrey. Alison plays with
stories across the fields of drama, digital media, and education. After starting out as an
intern at Marvel Comics, which seems so cool to me,
she produced one of the first-ever, online
alternative reality games for Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic, initiated one of the earliest
transmedia, in-fiction blogs in a TV series, and co-created interactive live animated theater projects, the projects Faster Than
Night and The Augmentalists. A Vanier scholar at York University, her doctoral research
explores how a science fiction transmedia story world,
co-created with theater students on four continents, can
empower youth civic engagement and public health problem-solving. Alison’s work is also part of
the exhibition Public Notice, that was curated by the RMG’s Sonya Jones, so you can check that out after and speak to her about that. We had talked about the
fact that maybe we could actually have her talk
about her work in her space, but this group just won’t allow it. We’re in the great position
that we have too many people, so she can engage you
with that work afterwards, so I would like to invite up
Alison and please welcome her. (audience applauds) – Another stretch. How many people on this
room have one of these somewhere on your body? Okay, are you raising
the arm that it’s on? – Yes.
– Yes, okay. So all of the other people
are probably too young to have known smallpox. So that was a smallpox vaccination scar. It’s basically the first human disease
to have been eradicated from the face of the earth. And so far, it’s the only one, although we are getting close on polio. The process of vaccination was started 220 years ago, when the world’s
first vaccine was invented. In 18th-century Europe, the risk of death if you caught smallpox was about 30%, and another third of those
infected suffered blindness. The rate was worse for
indigenous people in the Americas who encountered this
and many other diseases for the first time when
the Europeans arrived. Ruth Cuthand’s Trading Series
in the exhibition downstairs speaks to this invisible exchange. Before vaccination many
cultures tried to induce smallpox immunity through inoculation, which evoked to the
gardener’s grafting technique of opening an eye or an
oculus in a rootstock plant and inserting a bud from
another plant into that eye. And in 1796, Edward Jenner
published a technique for inducing smallpox immunity
by inoculating a patient with the related but
milder virus, cowpox or Variola vaccinae, which means cow. This 1802 satirical cartoon
appeared just a few years later with the best side effect ever. (audience laughs) So, who here was vaccinated
for other diseases as a child? Now, who would vaccinate
your own child now, if you had one? Now, imagine your child had
a compromised immune system and couldn’t be vaccinated,
who would want everybody else in this room to be
vaccinated to prevent them from spreading disease to your child? Yep. So, Eula Biss in On
Immunity, an Inoculation, says, imagine the action of
a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single
body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective
body of a community. That’s the basis of herd immunity, also called community immunity,
although I’d prefer the term co-immunity ’cause it’s just shorter, and it doesn’t evoke a
feeling of being a sheeple. Co-immunity is created
when enough individuals in a community are vaccinated
to make it difficult for disease to travel
from person to person. Co-immunity is threatened by
growing vaccine hesitancy. Only a small fraction of
those who are hesitant about vaccines are what’s called
anti-vaccination, or anti-vaxxers, or vaccine denialists. Most are just people who
have heard conflicting advice and rumors from friends
or from the internet and who are just not sure
who to trust about this. Usually they’re not young enough
to have witnessed firsthand the vaccine-preventable
diseases, like rubella, or polio, and therefore, they’re not as
scared of the actual disease as their grandparents were. Shawdowpox: The Antibody
Politic is an interactive installation designed to
visualize the invisible effects of our seemingly private
vaccination choices on the public health of those around us. This is what the installation looks like, down the stairs in the
exhibition Public Notice, currently on here at The
Robert McLaughlin Gallery. And, let’s see if this works, no, but that’s okay because
I’m going to skip the video in order to shorten to time. So, the visual language of the game is inspired by the design
and spirit of isotype, which is the international
system of typographic picture education developed
by the Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath to make
statistical data legible and accessible to
non-specialized mass audiences and to encourage people
to think of themselves and the world around them,
in terms of patterns, relationships, and
systems of organization. The game is also inspired
by Pokemon trading cards, which gives it much less
street cred. in an art crowd, but also gives us a chance to do this. I just really love bad puns. (audience laughs) The game is based around a choice. Get the vaccine or risk the virus. Before you make that choice, though, you have to choose where
you’re making that choice. You select a region from the world map, and then a country. We used real-world statistical data to make the game easier or
harder based on three factors for the country that you choose: its wealth, its GDP, its level of education, and its government spending on health. The game shows you the
immunization rate in that country, and we base this again on real-life data. Measles vaccination rates from 1997, which is the latest date that
we actually had access to all 197 countries in the
world, divided in half because Shadowpox is a
newer disease than measles. My grandmother insisted
that I reassure everybody that Shadowpox is in fact fictitious, and you can’t catch it. I have had a little kid ask me that. He was looking a little bit worried. So, only then, after you’ve
made all those choices, do you get to make your individual choice within that wider public health context. Your choice will raise
or lower your country’s vaccination rate for the next player who chooses that country. Here’s the starting
spreadsheet of real-world data that the game uses,
compiled by Steven Hoffman and Susan Rogers Van
Katwyk, epidemiologist and scientific director. The game begins, and your avatar
is infected with Shadowpox. To fight the disease, you move your hands to push the pox off your body. The dying virus particles,
as they leave your body, shrivel up, fall and eventually shrink to nothing, but before they disappear, they can infect the people around you. When one of your neighbors is infected, they go from jauntily healthy on the left to sluggish and sick, and a small percentage of
those infected will die. So I move now to just
talking a little bit about the actual technology that we used. Technical director LaLaine Ulit-Destajo coded the game in openFrameworks, which is an open source
toolkit designed for creative coding, written in C++. Rulr, R-U-L-R, is a toolkit for calibrating spatial media devices. For example, to get a
projector and a Kinect to know how to work together. The Kinect motion sensor bounces structured infrared
light off of the player, then it determines the position of 20 skeleton tracking points, and then Rulr uses this data to calibrate
what the Kinect sees to where the projector projects. So in this case, it’s to project onto
the body of the player. This is LaLaine’s openFrameworks code to draw the character,
the player’s avatar. The code chooses two of those
skeleton tracking points, say the left shoulder and the elbow. It draws circles around
them and then it fills out the line between them to make a limb. This is what the avatar in progress, as we were designing it, looked like before the limbs were filled
in between the circles. And then, the final avatar. So that’s how we use digital
technology on purpose. I’m now gonna talk a little
bit about how we’ve realized we were using it to say something that we didn’t mean to say. Janet Murray, in Hamlet on
the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, I’m
just gonna say for a moment, I come from a theater background, so I was so excited
when this book came out. I had fairly recently finished
an M.A. in interactive melding media at the Royal College of Art and thought that I wasn’t
going to be able to put my technology hat and
my theater hat together, and then someone published
something with a title like that, and everything was all
right with the world. So, she came up with the
term, procedural authorship, which is writing the rules for
the interactor’s involvement, that is the conditions under
which things will happen in response to the participant’s actions. Ian Bogost, in Persuasive
Games, picked up on this and expanded it with the
concept of procedural rhetoric, which is the practice
of authoring arguments through processes. In the early stage of
development, our original idea for the Shadowpox game was
simply that you fight the disease by moving the pox off
your body with your hands. Fighting the disease
would be easier or harder depending on whether or not you had decided to be vaccinated. However, what we eventually realized was that we had coded a blindness into the game’s procedural rhetoric. When the pox left your body, it broke in half, shriveled
and fell to the floor, end of story. The game completely ignored the idea that there might
be other people around you whom you might infect. It made everyone aside from you into what economists call an externality, out of sight, out of mind. This is how many of us make
our vaccination decisions. We say, well, I’m healthy,
and I never get the flu, so I’m just not gonna get the flu shot, and we don’t think about how
we might pass the virus along to babies, who are too
young to be vaccinated, or to an elderly person, for whom the flu can be life-threatening. So to bring co-immunity into
the game’s procedural rhetoric, we added 99 neighbor
sprites, or characters. Your score was then, how
many of them you infected as you fought the disease
or protected by having got the vaccine and therefore,
you would have infected them. It’s a very convoluted thing
if you choose the vaccine. It’s like a alternate future,
people you have protected. As a result, we went
from presenting an image of the individual in
isolation, one person, alone, against a blank white field, to a portrait of the
individual in context, one person within a
community of 99 family, friends, neighbors,
co-workers, and strangers. The game had finally found its heart. Turning now from how
the piece was created, I thought I’d talk a little bit
about a few practical issues that we experienced when
Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic came to be exhibited. Some are obvious, the
electronic equipment we use is worth a few thousand dollars, and it is expressly
designed to be portable. We were lucky enough
to borrow one of these expensive standing desk units
when we exhibited in Geneva during the World Health
Assembly last summer, but for the current exhibition, we had to go through a number of different ideas before we settled on our
current configuration of bolting and locking the laptop
on top of the aluminum truss. Another only slightly less obvious issue, software never sleeps. I don’t know if I really even
have to explain this one. We started developing in 2016, then we exhibited in 2017, we’ve revived it in 2018, and every time we had
to do this for Windows, we just held our breath. But some issues are less obvious. In 2014, there was an exhibition in Madrid titled Picasso in the Studio, which displayed various
elements from Picasso’s studio, including 10 of the artist’s palettes. Now, normally an artist
does not need to hand over all of the tools of their trade when they give you a work
to put up in a gallery. But when the work is
digital, this can change. Each time we showed Shadowpox,
we had to down tools. We had to give up the use of
a high-speed gaming laptop, a motion sensor that Microsoft
stopped manufacturing in the middle of this
process, and a specialized short throw, high definition projector. We could only work on it when
it wasn’t in the gallery, unless we had access to another set of the exact same equipment. The original six-week exhibition in Geneva had two identical
projectors on either side, facing in opposite directions, enabling projection of pox
on the body of the player, as well as on the screen opposite them. But, unfortunately for public notice here, it was impossible for me
to lose both projectors in four months in the
middle of my PhD research, which I’m in the middle of. So we had to sacrifice the
one that projects the pox onto the player’s own body
and we lost this effect, and I’m still a little bit sad about that. Next issue is light sensitivity. Obviously this is an issue
that’s common to many artworks, paint, paper, textiles, et
cetera, must be shielded from ultraviolet light,
but our installation had a problem with the
other end of the spectrum. Last year’s exhibition, Immune Nations, took place in two galleries. The first in Trondheim, Norway,
had an ideal room for us. It was painted completely
black, the black box, and had boarded over windows, and then we moved to this place. (audience laughs) UNAIDS building in Geneva,
which has the kind of soaring, light-filled atrium that architecture magazines
love and infrared sensors hate. So to protect the
sensor’s ability to track and the strength of the
projections that resulted, we built a tent by entirely covering the aluminum truss structure
with curtains and a ceiling, leaving only a doorway so that passersby could look inside and work up
the courage to go in and play. And that’s a whole other
thing with interactive work. How do you get the person
to decide to interact? Audience participation
in theater is horrible. Everybody cringes back
in their seat, like, no, don’t pick me, please. So, how do you make it enticing? We had to make a gap in
our light protection. So I was worried that
even that amount of light entering the doorway might be a problem. Oh, this by the way, is
the First Lady of Namibia. It is really, really cool to exhibit at the U.N. because you just
never know who’s gonna stop by. So, in order to make sure
that we weren’t going to have light interference, I found a website that tells you the direction
that the sun will be shining on depending on the date and the location, and then figured out where
the tent should be placed within the gallery and what
time of day it would expect to escape the worst of the direct sunlight. And I can tell you that
drawing this floor plan made me feel nerdier than
every other bit of technology in the project put together. (audience laughs) So the final issue that we
dealt with was internet access. We wanted the game to
save the players’ choices and final scores to a Google spreadsheet. This was kind of because
the Immune Nations Project was a collaboration between
artists, and scientists, and policymakers, and the
science and policymakers were really big into data and, you know, quantitative everything. And so, the artists were
sitting around and thinking, how do we track, how do we evaluate? You know, we were grappling
with things that lots of us had never really thought about before. And so, we figured, all right, you know, we have scores that are happening. Let’s just save those to a spreadsheet, then we will have data. But, what that meant was that the computer needed to
access the gallery’s wifi, and, of course, this is tricky
because for security reasons, most public wifi systems will kick you out after a certain amount of time. So we needed to have someone
log it back in every so often. We also needed them to
just shut down the computer and start it back up again every so often because that’s what tech
support tells you to do. But more important than all of that is the point at which the
game invites the player themselves to go online. At the end of the game, you’ll receive your final infection score,
if you risked the virus or protection score if
you chose the vaccine. So your screen will look
something like this. That is then translated in the next screen into a mysterious three-letter code. We came up with this
system because we wanted to leave players with
more than just statistics. We wanted each one of those
infected or protected neighbors to have their own story,
to make each one’s life feel less important in
its way, as your own. And thus the Poxemon cards were born. Caitlin Fisher wrote 99
of these nano stories, that we call them, which we paired with 99 pictograms by Leremy Gan. Speaking of digital and
collaborating with people on the internet, Leremy lives in Malaysia and I found him through stock art online, and emailed back and
forth because I needed a whole bunch of his work,
and that was a lot of fun. So, in the first version of the game, you would write your
final score on a card, take it to a computer or your smartphone, and then, you would be able to see on your unique Poxemon
collection in a website coded by Sean Solle. But when we had the
chance to upgrade the game for this exhibition, we
wanted to let players meet their collection
without having to go online because, understandably,
the percentage of people who take a card and then go
off and visit the website after they leave the game or
the gallery is pretty small. So, we added the cards in on
the last screen of the game. You could read them there
right there in the gallery without having to take your
web code somewhere else. Though, we still have the cards because it’s a Poxemon Pokemon card, and c’mon. Here’s the cheat code if you
want to read all 99 cards. Which brings us back to
Eula Biss, who writes, our bodies may belong to us, but we belong to a greater
body, composed of many bodies. My hope with this work is
to learn a little bit more about how those of us who
live in highly individualistic cultures, can visualize
ourselves within a greater body. Not just one composed of
other humans, but the bodies of all the entities that
share this world with us. How can we open an eye in the
rootstock of our imagination and graft the bud of a
new way to see ourselves in relationship? More and more, our
survival seems to depend on such an inoculation. Thank you very much for
imagining with me today, and I hope you will also
come downstairs and play. (audience applauds) Thanks. – Thank you so much Alison, it’s awesome. Please do take advantage of Alison, and play the game downstairs. We now are at the point of a reception. This first day has gone marvelously. Thank you so much for your
participation, for the speakers. So pleased, thank you Sylvie
and the Canada Council for making all of this possible. Behind your little name tags, you will see a little drink code thing, so please avail yourself of the bar. Anything after this first drink
is your problem, not mine. So, and then Jenny Laiwint
is a performance artist from Toronto, also a
DJ, so she’ll be playing while you mingle. Thanks very much, and I look
forward to seeing you tomorrow. (audience applauds)

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