Level 5

Brody Condon: "Level Five" (excerpts), 2016 from Berlin Biennale on Vimeo.

"Level Five" (excerpts), 2016
Performance Interaction Design: Bjarke Pedersen
Seminar Leader: Jamie MacDonald
Directory of Photography: Paul Shin
Camera Assistant: Keren Chernizon
Workshop Assistant: Nina Runa Essendrop
Player Coordination: Mark Durkan and Adam Saville James
Stylist: Gabor Szabo
Video Editing: Frerk Jón Lintz
Special thanks to the players
Courtesy Brody Condon
Commissioned and produced by Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

Level 5

In September 2016 I kicked off my PhD by taking part in the American artist and Berlin resident Brody Condon's Level 5 Larp (2010 - ongoing) set within the glass walls of the Plenarsaal at Akadamie der Kunst in 9th Berlin Bienalle. As a graduate of the Landmark Forum and a starry eyed child of Skelmersdale's Transcendental Meditation commune my compulsion to take part in this larp far exceeded my none the less valid research interests.  As a disclaimer, I've known Brody for a couple of years having met previously at the annual Nordic Larp convention Knutpunkt and subsequently worked alongside him in Sweden as part of a educational project for artists and games designers.

Level 5 is a larp that explores the idealogical legacy of controversial large group self actualisation seminars from the 1970’s in America. In a manner not dissimilar to the spirit of its primary reference material, Erhard Seminars Training or as its more commonly known EST the content that made up the structure this larp was cherry picked from various self actualisation courses and seminars, Landmark forum being a key one. The term self-actualisation was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein when talking about the motivation to realise ones full potential, be this through creativity, spiritual enlightenment or whatever other means might positively change an individual or society. The EST training seminars took place over a 60hr weekend course, the central purpose being to transform ones ability to live, through intense discussion and workshops around ideas of transformation, accountability and personal responsibility.

Larp as a form presents itself as a new and interesting voice in the field of performance and participatory arts, and arguably has wider implications to art in general in the way it challenges the structural relationship between audience and performer / artwork. Instead of relying on the artistic excellence of actors / performers or artwork to convey content to a seated audience, the audience and performer / artwork are one and the same. As such larping hinges on participants, not audiences, very presence. Larps are not reality, but instead are instead superimposed on top of whatever reality the larp is played within. They are in effect temporary spaces or zones, in which a social contract is agreed and rules are set. Within larps the subjectivities of character and player can freely mix.

Currently the number of artist working with Larp are few and far between. As one such artist, some of the parallel interests in working with Larp as a form include co-authorship, inter-subjectivity, immersion and embodiment. Larp is a medium, just like any other tool an artist choses to work with. Its appropriateness is dependent on whatever it is that the designer / artist is trying to convey. Participating in Larps are just the same as viewing a painting for the first time, namely it is an entirely subjective experience and what floats one mans boat might sink another.

As is common with Nordic Larps, the larp is often preceded by a workshop. Level 5 ran over a weekend, Saturday being a character creation and relationship building workshop, and Sunday being the larp itself which in this case lasted 10hrs. The larp began the moment players turned up in the morning to collect their name badge, and extended through the seminars, breaks and lunch right through to late that evening.

Make no mistake, this was intense and was without a doubt the most emotionally demanding Larp I've yet to take part in. Whilst on the surface being a seemingly rigorous workshop, on reflection I’d say there was too much emphasis on contextualising and explaining the artists rationale, and  not enough time developing solid characters. It left me feeling a little wanting, and somewhat unprotected knowing what might be in store in the ensuing larp. Within larp, characters are commonly talked about in terms of their relational proximity to the player, I.e. playing a performance artist called Adam from Margate would be a very thin character, but playing Conan the Barbarian would be thick. With that said, my character felt wafer thin. Quite whose fault that is, is up for contention. It is after all my responsibility to choose a character I feel safe playing, but I do feel that the process of creating a character was considerably hurried leading me to make shorthand choices about what material I would base my character on, in this case myself.  I've thought, talked and ranted a lot about this aspect of the larp with other players and the co-organisers about this aspect of the larp. My grievance does not lay in thge design or sensibility of the larp, in that sense it was to my mind pretty faultless. Instead, to my mind it lies partly with the the organisers who as self confessed uninitiated members of Landmark were perhaps blindsided in their lack of communicating a greater need than normal for players to be aware of their own safety in designing thicker than usual characters.

Something which seems especially salient on reflection, is a comment made by Condon at the beginning of the larp about how this larp was a sort of in-joke to the larp community. The joke being the impossibility of self-actualising a fictional character. Surely peeling back the layers of a fictional character is going to eventually highlight what lies beneath, which in this case is a player?
I laughed at the time, but in the middle of the larp during a short break after an especially intense physical workshop, my character went over to Condon who was playing one of the seminar leaders, and I asked him how he thought the seminar was going? He explained that an architect character had just had a major breakthrough, he’d taken a round of intense repeat questioning about what he really wanted to which he said he wanted power over everyone and that he just wanted to fuck cos he was so pumped and horny. Condon seemed overjoyed at this, like he had really broken through this characters outer shell and exposed their true desire. I remember saying that I found this a little frightening, which gave Condon or Condon’s character cause for concern. It felt that for a moment, I might have just had a peek behind the green velvet curtain and perhaps caught a peek of a darker intentionality of the artist larp.
That said, all the participants in this larp were consenting adults. And I should now, and perhaps a little more back then, keep in mind that as graduate of Landmark forum (an experience which whilst not all bad, did seriously jeopardise many relationships with close friends and is something I would never go near again) I might be especially sensitive to the larp content. Larpers it would seem, are a glutton for punishment, Nordic Noir is equally a big thing within larps, none the less the analogy of lemmings queueing up to test parachutes comes to mind.

The tears players shed were real, the anxiety expressed player to player whilst on a much needed toilet break was real. The people who didn't return to participate in the Larp after the fist days workshop did so for a reason. And try as I must to believe that it was the characters that were crying and not the players, I fail to see how the wafer thin characters stood any chance of standing up to the hardcore deconstruction of their character. This is not to say people didn't have a good time, and yes I might come across as a nanny, but to my mind we crossed over into something which drew too much on the players real lives, leaving very little in the way of suitable amour to deflect the brainwashing. At times I simply wanted to get up and leave, and no I didn't, and yes were all given ample player safety talk about being able to do just this... but being told you can leave and actually leaving are two different things.

I for one found being subjected to a simulated EST session, over a gruelling 10hr period, with all the same jargon, pseudo psycho-babble and quasi holistic therapy in order to induce positive accountable transformation, just as head-messing an experience as participating in its close cousin, Landmark Forum. At the beginning of the larp, Condon casually mentioned that either Landmark or Scientology were currently chasing him with threats to sue on grounds of his use of copyright material. This might have been lost by anyone that hadn’t participated in Landmark, but I for one found the proximity of Level 5 to Landmark all too close and a little troubling as a result. The purists I’m sure would argue that this is what makes Level 5 such an accomplished larp. From the standpoint of an empathetic human being considerate to other players mental wellbeing I would argue that a greater degree of critical distance or abstraction from the cited source material would be a good thing. By creating some distance to the actual content, which Condon to his credit has obviously worked incredibly hard to obtain and collate over a long time, would have allowed some much needed criticality of EST.

I think its fair to say, that the Larps lengthy duration, provocative session leaders, demanding physicality and endless brainwashing seminars would have the same perturbing, demoralising, head fucking effect whether or not the content was a 100% accurate, and given that none of the organisers or artist himself have participated in Level 5 this shouldn't be a problem. To my mind a rubber shark is still scary, see Jaws for evidence of this.

So, what might help with my own and perhaps other players bruised mental health? For one, a greater focus on character creation. Secondly a significantly longer de-briefing would have been great. I understand the gallery was closing and people had to disappear, but this felt a bit hurried (as de-briefs unfortunately often do).
I for one, found the experience in the days and weeks that followed very hard to move past. I felt angry at Condon for his manipulation of players, and lack of a need for higher than usual player after care and well-being.

But with that harsh criticism said, it was a well put together larp. The organisers did a tremendous job in playing the hard ass slightly psychotic characters and the vibe throughout felt legit and my experience is just that, my own experience. The overwhelming majority of people I spoke to after the larp had a very different, albeit equally powerful experience.

So whose right? Everyone and no one. What is perhaps much more interesting and more useful to my research, is consideration of who owns this work? Who is the author, the artist or the players? What knowledge is gained from this work, and what should be done with this new knowledge? Who is this knowledge for? The players, the artist, the larp community, the audience (did I mention this Larp broke from the norm by the addition of an audience, who in this case were intermittently watching through glass walls) or the Berlin Bienalle? Somewhat unusually for Condon and unlike past runs of this larp, he relaxed his his artistic autonomy after the fact, by choosing to relinquish a large degree of control over the final edit of footage from the larp. And instead of seeking to produce a lengthy moving image work in its own right, he opted to produce a short trailer / excerpts from the Larp. I'm wondering whether or not Condon has or already is considering the larp as the work unto-itself, rather than the Larp being the means to achieve an aesthetic artifact for a secondary audience?