Trapped in the bunker

The debrief session after the experience. Photo taken by Adam.

Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.

People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.

The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.

Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)

The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.

The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.

I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker (which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.

Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.

Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.

Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:

11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.

11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.

11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.

11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.

11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.

11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.

11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.

And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.

Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.

Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.

I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.

Shine On: New Perspectives on Museum Lighting

Yesterday I attended a workshop organised by the museums association and hosted by Stephen Cannon-Brookes, of UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and lighting consultant. I was there for work, but found it useful for my studies too.

To be honest, it wasn’t all about “New Perspectives” as such, it covered a lot of the the established ground too. But for a non expert like me, that was incredibly useful. It was also an opportunity to showcase the Society for Light and Lighting (SLL)’s Lighting Guide 8: Lighting for Museums and Art Galleries, though at £80 (£72 for the PDF) I won’t be rushing out to buy it. More of an institutional purchase I think. The first speaker, Paul Ruffles, talked us through that guide.

Beautiful objects in beautiful buildings deserve beautiful lighting.

It covers lighting principles, and stuff like visual adaptation, contrast ratio, colour appearance, colour rendering, glare, lighting the interior or display area, day light, electric lighting, access and security and emergency lighting (he explained that one unnamed city museum experienced a spike in consumption they couldn’t explain until they worked out  a security guard afraid of the dark was turning all the lights on at night). The book its just for white box galleries, it also talks about historic interiors; temporary galleries; events and corporate entertaining; the shop and of course the cafe.

He explained that since the pulication of the previous version, LED lighting has become a useful tool in historic interiors, citing an example of Chatsworth’s great stair. Historic interiors need some obvious light sources, standing lamps and the like, but hidden ones -tiny LED spots in to the historic lighting can bring out fascinating details.  However, he warned that when lighting historic places, the LED unit might only cost £28, but the wiring costs hundreds.

His talk was littered with useful tips and anecdotes. Things like keeping track of the spare parts your supplier gives you – I can well believe that when they are needed, no one can remember who put them where. He points out that when you are planning what goes on the floor in your exhibition, you want to think not just about access for wheelchairs, but also access fro whatever cherry-picker or quickup tower you need to replace the lightbulb. Lightbulb replacement is getting less of a need as LED takes over from tungsten, but LED lights can still occasionally fail. And, if you need a five tonne cherry picker to get to the lights, make sure the floor can take five tonnes (and remember it’s turning circle).
Manchester City museum, wall of paintings all lit individually between 50 lux to 150 lux.
material degradation,

Next up was David Saunders of the  International Institute for Conservation talking about The Balancing Act: Light, Conservation, and Access. He started off asking how much light to visitors need to see objects, there is evidently a rule of thumb that the minimum is 50 Lux. But he showed us a  a Durer woodcut and a Turner Watercolour. The Durer needs just a few lux, it’s black and white, and high contrast. Reduced contrast such as in the Turner, increases light needs by factors of 10.

Gary Thomspon’s The Museum Environment was a very influential book, but most of the research that informed it was experiments done in university’s , with populations of students with (being generally younger) better eyesight than the average museum visitor. So a sixty five year ol needs 300 lux for the same performance as a 25 year old at 10 lux. Similarly Colour matching ability peaks in 20s. The ability degrades as you get older. The colour differentiation you can discern as a 20 year old at 10 lux, requires 1000 lux in 75 year old. There are other factors too, which may be less relevant in museum environments, like visual task difficulty (it takes less time to see things in brighter environments).So he points out that a object that we might think needs just 50 lux to see properly might actually need three times as much for older views. Another three times if it’s a low contrast item, which means as much as 500 lux. Ifs it’s a darker object, or a difficult visual task it might need even more.

He went to to explore the history of the research that has led to those squares of blue wool you might have seen dotted around museums and National Trust places. The “blue wool” number has now become an international standard, where 1 fades quickest, and 8 shows the least discernible fading in the same period of time. It turns out that the same amount of damage occurs if you expose something to twice the light for half the time, so, we can think in terms of exposure doses, or lux/hours. The key learning from all this research is to limit the overall exposure to light. He swings by considering the differing levels of damaged caused by different wavelengths of light, mentioning the red/green skylights installed in the roof of the V&A’s Raphael gallery, before concluding that the key learning is to exclude UV radiation.

Then he addresses an interesting question. How long should an object remain unchanged In fact, there’s remarkably little research in this area, and it doesn’t seem that wide-ranging. I drifted off into thinking about an exhibition that explains these issues, and then gives some options asks the visitor how long a selection of items should last “unchanged” (of course what that really means is little or no visible change). What work has been done, David says, broadly concludes a desired lifetime before change of something like 100-150 years.

All this, he concluded, means that when thinking about this, there are very few variables that we have control over. The amount of “acceptable” damage from light is set by the objects desired lifetime, the light dose is set by the object’s sensitivity, and the level of light is set by human need – therefore length (time) of exposure is the only variable we have that’s really under out control as heritage professionals

Then Jo Padfield, conservation scientist at National Gallery, gave us a great talk on all the research work going on there. He started off questioning our arbitrary decisions on lifetime by showing us Paolo Veronese’s The Dream of St Helena, wherein she looks out on a sky that, in his words resembles:

a dull grey afternoon in Glasgow

But closer examination shows it was painted with Smalt, which was Mediterranean blue, and padfield showed us what that might look like. similary, the grey/blue bedsheet of the Rokeby Venus was once royal purple.

he talked a little bit about the change from tungsten bulbs (adjustable in increments of 60, then 30 lux to LEDs to have more control, dimming in 10 lux increments, as well as energy/CO2 reduction. There was an issue with colour quality and consistency of the new LED lamps, so they created an internal website to monitor and research the change to LED lighting. This website is now open to everyone, and some of the audience explained how useful it is.

He also mentioned the Making Colour exhibition in 2014. At the end, he said “we experimented on visitors. Human perception experiments are normally done in the lab with a sample of about 6 people. Our sample was 20,000.” He showed us how unter different bulbs, people saw the same painting differently, in one still life the same fruit could be orange or  yellow,

Jo Beggs, Head of Development for Manchester Museums Partnership, finished the morning with an explaination of where they got funding for improved lighting for the recent, £15 million redevelopment of of the Whitworth museum, especially when the lighting costs went 25% over budget.

There was lots more to talk about after lunch, but that will have to be another post tomorrow.

If there’s one thing you do in September…

…  visit Lightscape at Houghton Hall (Norfolk)

Why? Houghton Hall is a place like many of those the National Trust looks after, but still family-owned and managed. David, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley, is, like generations before him, a patron of the arts. Houghton Hall gives us a glimpse of some National Trust places might look like, if patronage and collecting had continued up to the present day. The gardens are a place of surprise and delight, with contemporary sculptures including a Richard Long (above) and, from Jeppe Hein, Waterflame, a burning fountain. But of special interest this year is a retrospective of works by James Turrell, including two permanent commissions for the Houghton Hall landscape. Turrell’s deceptively simple works are incredibly powerful, and you’ll likely never again have a chance to see so many together in the same place.

But it’s not just the art, the service is exemplary. And for the late night openings on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a pop-up café, in keeping with spirit of place, that we can all learn from.

Yes it’s a little bit out of the way for those of us who don’t live in Norfolk, but make a weekend of it, it is worth it.