Art or ARG

Pub date July 1, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

ALTERNATE REALITY GAMES It starts, as most quests do, with a question. "What the hell?" A flyer advertising the Aquatic Thought Foundation, a division of the Jejune Institute devoted to Human-Dolphin interaction. And even though you’re probably the type to resist even the perverse pleasure of sitting through a bullshit Scientologist e-meter reading, something about the prospect of communing with dolphins is absurdly compelling. You call the number. A recondite family awaits.

So begins stage one of an ongoing self-paced scavenger hunt/walking tour/alternate reality game devised by a pseudonymous cabal of Bay Area artists and pranksters. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the clumsy graphics and overblown hyperbole of cultist media will recognize, the shadowy overlords behind the Jejune Institute have done their homework well. Their office digs on California Street are pure cult cliché — from the op art adorning the walls to the shelves of new age esoterica and obsolete radio equipment to the videotaped welcome message from Institute founder Octavio Coleman, Esq. Upon completion of the "induction," the inductee embarks on a clue-finding expedition through Chinatown, armed with a treasure map and an official Jejune Institute pencil. The mysterious trail wends lo and hi, from the St. Mary’s parking garage to the back balcony of a shabby-retro edifice on Grant Street, places not exactly on even the most well-honed urban explorer’s radar.

Level two, hosted by rival branch the Elsewhere Public Works Agency, takes place in the Mission District, hitting a series of beloved independent institutions — Faye’s, Force of Habit, Adobe, Paxton Gate — as well as the site of a former Native American cemetery, a spate of interdimensional hopscotch, and a visit to what might be the district’s smallest micro-neighborhood. If the Jejune Institute is a picture-perfect façade of cult imagery, the EPWA is an even more fully realized vision on both the physical plane and that bastion of obfuscation, the interwebs. Clues as well as false leads can be gathered online from phony Wikipedia pages, faked Chronicle archives, and bogus blogs as well as out in the real world via micro-transmission radio broadcast, CDs, custom-printed books, teeny-tiny letters and a charmingly illustrated map. Piecing together the puzzle is the least part of the game’s ultimate value — the stealthy introduction to an underlying artist’s philosophy, to resist "false nonchalance" yet cultivate a sense of wonder and discovery in even the most familiar places is compelling and apt — and the revelation of secret locations hidden in plain view a welcome prize.