Noah J Nelson on Friday, May. 25th
A new film, The Institute, about one of the most talked about immersive art projects in years could be the next Exit Through The Gift Shop.
For three years a most peculiar game played out on the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Responding to a series of strange fliers players entered into a world of New Age gnostic technology and missing persons, questing to understand a philosophy of Nonchalance and unravel the mystery of the Jejune Institute.
In the small but fervent Alternate Reality Game and transmedia communities, the “Games of Nonchalance” that the Jejune Institute was a component of have taken on a somewhat legendary status. While many of the most ambitious ARGs are still produced under the auspices of marketing campaigns Jejune was brought into the world by artist Jeff Hull and his team at the artist consultancy Nonchalance (1).
Last month in Oakland I had the opportunity to screen a semi-documentary (I’ll explain that in a second) that lays out the story of the Jejune Institute and talk to the film’s director. While Spencer McCall’s The Institute is still a work in progress, it already stands as a thoroughly engaging and immersive introduction to the world of ARGs and the strange narrative that centered around Jejune. Like Exit Through The Gift Shop before it, this film has a complicated relationship with reality.
“This is a documentray about a fictional narrative, said McCall when we spoke a few days after the screening, “and if I didn’t approach it in the way that it was presented I would be doing it a disservice.”
McCall came to the material through word of mouth.
“I ended up going through the first act the way that a lot of other people did,” said McCall. “A friend of a friend told me aout it and I went down there and chekced it out. I was really confused and weirded out and kind of upset at what I had just expereicned, becasue I didn’t know what it was I had experieneced and nobody one would tell me anything.”
The director admits that he did not even complete the first act of the story on his initial attempt. However that first encounter stuck with him.
“It just started really resonating and playing in my brain and I just kept batting back and forth. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ended up becoming obssesed and going back a whole bunch of times.”
Within a few months of that first encounter the dog cloning company that McCall was making videos went out of business (2) and the director saw a listing on Craigslist that he thought might be for work with the creators of Jejune.
“I just sort of went down there and they wanted to know my story. What I could bring to the table.”
For over a year McCall was Nonchalance’s go-to video guy. That gig came to an end in April of 2011 when the game was brought to an end.
“When [Jejune] shut down I found myself sitting with a whole bunch of hard drives with what seemed like hundreds of hours of footage. I just started thinking about about it and realized that I could put this all together into a feature length story; which is something I always wanted to do, and hoped I would do before I got into my 30′s. So I just went for it.”
McCall assembled the material, and after considering doing a full behind-the-scenes version of the story that would lay out how Hull and Nonchalance pulled off the game, decided instead to tell the story of the game from the player’s perspective. Of the twenty or so people that McCall interviewed for the film only eight made it into the telling.
Like its spiritual fore-bearers Exit Through The Gift Shop and Orson Welles’s F for Fake, The Institute puts part of the burden of discerning truth from fiction on the audience. McCall intimated that the reason for this approach was to honor the source material.
“Jeff and the makers of this went so far out of their to disguise the fiction and to do everything they could to make people really think there might be a hidden history to this whole world,” said McCall. So I wanted that kind of experience to be in the movie, where people had to just decide for themselves what was real and what wasn’t. We don’t spell it out for anyone.”
The technique is used for more than just narrative effect. The is a theme embedded into the structure of the alternate reality genre– one that forces the audience to question the nature of everything they see around them. There is a reason, after all, that the Chinese government has banned movies that involve alternate realities (3). McCall chose to play with that theme directly.
“I think that’s an awesome message for media and for a transmedia experience. We see so many messages presented to us all the time and usually we just blindly believe we understand what’s real and what’s not. The news is real and a television program is not real. I just wanted people to question what they’re told. I think that’s something that’s really important and that’s forgotten with media.”
Spencer McCall’s The Institute is undergoing a few tweaks thanks to the friend and family screening held in Oakland, and is on track to make a debut on the festival circuit this Fall. In the meantime, Nonchalance has staked out the a URL for The Latitude as the frontispiece of their next experience. At the moment just a placard, fans of the Jejune Institute are eager to see what the puppet masters have planned.
(1) Nonchalance is also behind the Oakland based arts collaboration/gift shop known as Oaklandish.
(2) Not kidding. These kinds of weird details just flourish around Nonchalance somehow.
(3) Considering how important the Chinese market is becoming to Hollywood in terms of box office, we are likely to see a chilling effect on this kind of material here in the States as well.