Tag Archives: materiality

Gone Home: Materiality & the Enchantment of the Mundane

I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.

The rest of this post will give spoilers for the game. Download it. Play it. Come back when you are finished.
http://www.gonehomegame.com/

Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.

There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.

The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.

x-files

Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.

There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company,  Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.

The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.

As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?

Mount Everest and Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake

romneys_mint_cake_2_

It was probably the old-timey packaging that attracted my attention. Nestled in-between the CLIF and LUNA energy bars was a slim, indigo blue wrapper that would not have been out of place on old money, or a commemorative plate. On the back was this legend:

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake was the first Mint Cake to be successfully carried to the top of MOUNT EVEREST on 29th May 1953 this being the first successful expedition to the summit.
Romney’s were approached by the 1953 expedition to Everest, to see whether they could supply Mint Cake to them within 7 days. Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing ate this Mint Cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside far below them. Since then Kendal Mint Cake has become a firm favourite with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District.
A member of the successful Everest Expedition wrote- “It was easily the most popular item on our high altitude ration – our only criticism was that we did not have enough of it.”

The sixtieth anniversary of Hilary and Tenzing’s successful ascent passed last May, with the requisite press flurry. I am not a mountain climber, much beyond the easiest of the 14ers in Colorado, but Mount Everest has held my interest for years. It is a site of difficult, controversial heritage, and the assemblage that is left on the mountain each year is a fascinating array of technical multicultural detritus and human remains. The narrative around Mount Everest has changed from fearless mountaineering with a heavy overlay of nostalgia to that of egotism, recklessness, and exploitation of the sherpas and the environment.

Each summer there are stories of crowded summits and vainglory; from the 1996 disaster wherein 15 people died while summiting to 2006 when dozens of people passed David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying beside the trail and the previously deceased who had become trail markers, dictated by their distinguishing features. The cold, dry clime of Mt. Everest preserves all of the garbage and corpses, and at one point there were over 200 bodies on the mountain.

Mount Everest has been steeped in colonial overtones since the British access to the mountain was secured in 1904 by Francis Younghusband’s attack on Tibetan peasants, clearing the way. Younghusband was then put in charge of the early mountaineering expeditions, who situated climbing Everest as an extravagantly useless activity. He remarked, “If I am asked what is the use of climbing this highest mountain, I reply, No use at all: no more use than kicking a football about, or dancing, or playing the piano, or writing a poem or painting a picture.” Mountaineering was a patriotic mission to improve British morale.

As Mazzolini writes, an important part of maintaining Britishness at Mount Everest was choosing identity-affirming foods. In the 1920s, meals eaten at high altitudes included quails packed with truffles and champagne, marking the expeditions as a gentlemen’s pursuit. On his 1922 reconnaissance, Mallory noted that there was an abundance of cheese, tinned food of all sorts, and they were “never short of jam and chocolate.”

The shift from luxury to efficacy came between the 1920s and 1930s, when expeditions led by Tilman dined on pemmican (dried beef and fat) with sugar and dried fruit. The climbing body was reconceptualized, says Elizabeth Mazzolini, from an expression of imperialist aesthetics to a machine without excessive concern for pleasure or comfort. This was problematic though, as at altitudes over 22,000 feet eating becomes an unpleasant assignment–diminished appetite, nausea and vomiting are common. Food that was merely monotonous before becomes unimaginable.

In this context, Hilary and Tensing brought Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake along for their successful summit in 1953. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes are a mixture of glucose, sugar, peppermint oil and water and were issued as rations on several expeditions. I bit off a small corner of the one that I bought and suffered from near immediate sugar-shock. A bit like a hard York peppermint patty, it was easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.

The packaging of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake explicitly ties the summiting of Mount Everest to Britishness, equating eating the sweet on the summit with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District in the quote on the back of the package. On the front is an interesting hierarchy that provides the context for Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake–the outer two images feature English natural heritage in the form of Windermere and Derwentwater, the former is the largest natural lake in England and the latter is on of the principal bodies of water in the Lake District. The next two images feature cultural heritage–Romney House Kendal, a listed building that was build in the early to mid 18th century and the Kendal Castle Ruins, a 12th century castle that was the home of the Lancaster family. Finally, in the center, George Romney, a popular English portrait painter (who is indeed related to Mitt Romney). The mint cake came from a company founded by Sam T. Clarke, who merely named his wholesale business after George Romney; the painter did not invent the mint cake.

The Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake website offers an interesting additional note–according to them, Tenzing Norgay left one of the cakes up on top of the summit “to appease his gods.” If true, Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake also has the honor of being one of the first bits of garbage left on the summit. Food of the gods, indeed.

There are efforts to clean up Mount Everest every year, with an average of 50 tons of discarded climbing gear, human excrement, oxygen tanks, and dead bodies coming off the mountain. As Mazzolini notes, the news always lumps the categories together, corpses and discarded mountaineering gear. The failures, the people who did not make it down the mountain, are unimportant–their bodies could not match their hubris.

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake packaging provides an ideological link to climbing Mount Everest and portrays it as a quintessentially British triumph, one that can be cited on perhaps lesser adventures around the Lake District. Mount Everest remains a contentious place, where dead bodies are discarded like garbage, where $65,000 buys you a place in line to the roof of the world, and crass individualism is indistinguishable from sublime achievement.

ResearchBlogging.org
Elizabeth Mazzolini (2010). Food, Waste, and Judgment on Mount Everest Cultural Critique, 76, 1-27 : 10.1353/cul.2010.0013

Course Description: Materiality and Ethnographic Film

When it comes to UC Berkeley, these days I feel more like a politically-minded voyeur than grad student. I’ve been following the Occupy movements in both Oakland and Berkeley online, but I’m half a world away, working and writing my dissertation out in the desert.

Still, I’m going to be teaching a Reading and Composition course next summer, and I used part of my weekend to come up with a course description:

Materiality and Ethnographic Film

Ethnographic film has a long and ambivalent tradition within anthropology. The theory, technology, and methodology behind making ethnographic films has changed radically during the last century, but often this historic context has been ignored. In this course we will critically examine a wide range of ethnographic films through the lens of materiality. Materiality, or the study of the relationship between people and things, allows us to think about technology and social interactions in new and compelling ways. What were people wearing and using in the film? How was the film made and how does this effect the scenes that were filmed? What can these films tell us as artifacts in themselves? In our “archaeological” examination of ethnographic film, we will read the current interdisciplinary literature regarding materiality and excavate the context of these anthropological artifacts. This course satisfies the second half of the University’s Reading and Composition requirement.

The Reading and Composition requirement is a two-part writing skills class that all undergraduates have to take to graduate. The first class is the basics of writing and the second class, which is what this course description is for, is for intensive reading and writing on a particular topic. The only prerequisite is that the student has taken the first class–no Anthro or Media Studies is required to take the class.

Anyway, it is my first course description and I have no idea if it sounds of any interest at all to undergraduates. Any thoughts? Too boring, complex, or obscure?

Entanglements: materials, practices and design

I don’t usually post symposium notices, but I’d love to attend this one:

Entanglements: materials, practices and design
Symposium: 5th/ 6th May 2011, Nottingham Trent University, UK.
‘Entanglements’ brings art, craft and design together with the human sciences to explore theoretical, creative, empirical and curatorial aspects of our relationships to the material world.

Symposium Themes

  • What are materials? Between raw stuff and human effort
  • The effects of stabilisations, closures and re-configuration of materials.
  • Materials, objects, experience and playful/ sensual engagement
  • Design’s role in practices; making strange/ new materials
  • Materials and everyday life, sustainability and transitions

Confirmed speakers:

Tim Ingold, University of Aberdeen (Stone); Elizabeth Shove, University of Lancaster (heat); Tim Dant, Lancaster (carbon fibre); Peter Wright, Newcastle (electricity); Yolande Strengers, RMIT (houses); Eiluned Edwards, ntu (cloth); Sophie Woodward, University of Manchester (denim); Tom Fisher, NTU (air); Zoe Laughlin, KCL (‘strange’); Sabine Hielscher, SPRU (shampoo); Sarah Kettley, ntu (metal); Susan Lambert, MoDiP (plastic); Andy Jackson, UCA (wood);

http://www.designresearchsociety.org/joomla/index.php/sig2/opensig.html

Hopefully someone will write up a report–I’d really like to hear about it.

“The Lost Tribes of New York City”

I’m not sure I’d title the project the same way, but I love what London Squared did with this film. I wonder if the filmmakers showed the result to the people they interviewed for the project and how the people felt about seeing themselves as objects in the landscape.  The filmmakers call themselves urban anthropologists, but their webpage doesn’t mention any formal training.

Still, I’m always looking for inspiration.  Even if I don’t have that kind of animation skills.