Whispering Worlds Into Being

Maja Kuzmanovic & Nik Gaffney

On alternate reality narratives, partial knowledge, and the fertile edges between realms.

Excerpts gleaned from “Borrowed Scenery: Cultivating a World into Being”, published in the Physical and Alternate Reality Narratives book and online. Drawing on FoAM’s collaboration with Adrian Hon on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)

An alternate reality narrative (ARN) ARN is extroverted, nimble sister of the physical narrative (PN) borrows from familiar situations and surroundings to lure us into its storyworld. A seasonal festival becomes a portal to a place where seasons behave differently. Neighbourhood gardens speak to each other in online games. Elusive characters hide in social media feeds and camouflage their traces as street art. An ARN makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, imbued with fresh meaning.

We’re all apprentice shamans in the magical art of worldbuilding.

Stuart Candy

Experiencing an ARN is more akin to travelling to a foreign land than watching a movie. Upon arrival, its reality looks superficially similar to ours. It’s governed by the same laws of physics, warmed by the same sun. There are humans around. And yet, there are so many subtle and less subtle differences, warning us not to take anything for granted. Scents, foods, language, small gestures, and vast landscapes become invitations to explore, learn, and relate with the world anew.

ARNs unfold through the habitual spaces of the everyday, through the cracks between the physical and digital realms. An ARN is never told in its entirety. It has to be pieced together from story-fragments found in physical objects, digital media, improvised gestures, and live events. The fragments can be embedded in memes and messages, arrive in the mail, and hide in a crossword puzzle. They can exist as an invisible layer in train stations and supermarkets, speaking in atmospheres, hints, and suggestions. Latent, seen only by those who wish to engage.

The gaps between the fragments are deliberately left incomplete. This is where consensus reality and alternate reality meet. The gaps become the fertile edges where collective improvisation and sensemaking happen. Although an ARN has a backstory, it has no fixed scenario. It can therefore have as many stories as there are participants. An ARN evolves through its participants’ interactions and responds to changes in the current affairs and popular culture. It adapts to the places and people involved. It whispers possible worlds into being.

Some examples:

A Study Room in the Desert, an ARN embedded in a university library, as a proposition proposition for re-alignment of urban and desert ecosystems.

Food Futures, ARNs disguised as tasting menus.

Borrowed Scenery, an ARN about a parallel present or possible future where plants are a central aspect of human culture.