#4 High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese

This week it is my turn to present one piece of Elit to my #elitclass. I spent quite some time figuring out which of the pieces from the ELC I should present – but I always found my way back to one piece I checked out at the beginning of my journey: High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese.
I’m not sure why I always got back to this specific piece; maybe because I liked the aesthetic of it, maybe because I liked the theme(s) of the piece, or maybe just because I had the feeling that there was more to be discovered than I already had? Anyway, I decided to go for it.

But before we dive into the piece, let’s start with some basics.
High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese is an interactive poem consisting of a website, 8 videos and an interactive gallery installation. The piece is an interdisciplinary collaboration of 9 different Canadian artists, writers, designers and digital developers who shared and transformed each other’s work over 3 years, starting in 2011.  The project was first presented in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada in 2014 and was even exhibited at the 2015 ELO Conference in our beautiful Bergen. Oh and by the way – the project has won the 2014 Spark Creativity Award from BC Creates as well as the 2015 New Media Writing Prize – need any more reasons to check it out? 

No? So let’s start 🙂
The first page of the piece welcomes us with the request to „take a gamble and enter through the Pak Ah Pu lottery card.“ According to Wikipedia Pakapoo (or Pak Ah Pu) „is a Chinese lottery game poplar in Oceania in the 19th Century, including on the Victorian Goldfields. A pakapoo ticket is bought which contains rows of characters from the Thousand Character Classic (an ancient poem in which no two words are repeated). The master ticket is kept hidden and is marked by the organiser of the game. The player marks a number of characters on their ticket. The ticket closest to the master ticket wins.“

High Muck a Muck
Source: High Muck a Muck. Playing Chinese

When we enter the piece we get confronted with the first of many poems…interpretation anyone?  (Oh and could we just take a moment to appreciate the pretty font?)

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Up next we find the „main page“ of the piece, a human torso with several blue droplets. Five of the seven darker and bigger ones signify Pacific Rim, Victoria, Vancouver, Richmond and Nelson, while the other two are called „Canada“ and „Everywhere and Nowhere“.

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Brittainy Newman points out that „[i]n Chinese medicine it is said that vital energies flow along the human body’s natural pathways, specifically linked to human organs. The cities within British Columbia are labeled on top of a drawing combined with watercolor of a human body, essentially personifying these various links with specific themes, thoughts, writings and their corresponding characters.“  (And again, could we just stop for a second and admire the pretty drawing? Or am I the only one appreciating this kind of hand-painted style?)

What is it about?
Maybe the name as well as the Chinese symbols at the beginning of the piece already gave it away, but the main topic of High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese is the historical and contemporary Chinese immigration to the west coast of Canada. According to Nicola Harwood, the curator and one of the artists, „the project approaches immigration as ‚a journey towards a new identity‘ fraught with tensions: between the old way and the new way, between races, cultures, neighborhoods, and also between different groups of Chinese immigrants such as the old laborers struggling to save money to bring their families to Canada and the new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong that come with cash and invest in property“ (Surrey.ca).
According to the authors‘ statement on the ELC web-page, „High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese troubles the cliché of historical tales of Chinese immigration to North America’s ‚Gold Mountain‘ by juxtaposing this classic narrative of struggle against one of mobility driven by the exigencies of contemporary global capitalism“ – but more on that later in class.

Because we’re gonna explore the different parts of the piece together, I just want to show you one of my favorite parts of High Muck a Muck:

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If we start discovering the Vancouver-part from left to right, the first thing we’re gonna find is a video called  „Diaspora“ by Nicola Harwood . The term Diaspora is one of great importance to the whole piece and refers to „a scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographical locale. Diaspora can also refer to the movement of the population from its original homeland“ (thank you Wikipedia). Up next is a text which is hidden behind two men – „All dressed up and clean-shaven with no where to go, a troublemaker, that one, a yellow peril, … an Asiatic Exclusion League problem,“ –  in my opinion, this quote underlines how High Muck a Muck   „challenges the racist paradigm of an all white Canada into which Asian immigrants enter but are never fully allowed to arrive“ (Nicola Harwood) as it presents several (old-fashioned) stereotypes, such as an Asian being a „troublemaker“ and a „yellow peril“.
(As I would like for us to discuss the theme and the literary value of High Muck a Muck in class, I will not provide you with a in-depth literary analysis of the poems here.)


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The Navigation
Navigating High Muck a Muck is rather easy, even though sometimes it can be tricky – some texts disappear after a certain time and if you were just busy with something else chances are you might miss something. Basically every building, person, and icon in this piece is clickable or hides something; sometimes it’s a part of a poem, sometimes it’s a video and sometimes it’s an audio-piece. The reader can click on one of the blue droplets on the torso and can read the poem either by discovering its pieces through specific characters or simply read it entirely by clicking on the red book in the left corner. Even after I have now spent several hours working on this piece, I still feel like I haven’t found everything there is.

Random thoughts
I think High Muck a Muck is the prettiest Elit I have discovered so far. Its design was the first thing that drew my attention to this piece and I still enjoy the handwritten poems, the watercolored drawings and the way the colors are rather simple and calm.
At first, I also really liked the traditional Chinese music in the background; but after I spent a few minutes exploring the piece I had to mute it.  In her Directory Entry, Brittainy Newman states that „[t]he music is shown with purpose, supplementing the despair in Fred Wah’s writings and the repetition of the music on loop forces this upon the viewer“ and I get the point  but still, the repetition of the music started to kind of annoy me after a while.
Another thing I enjoyed was the multimediality of the piece. Especially the oral histories one can find as an addition to some of the poems were nice to listen to whereas I found some of the videos hard to follow. Their length of 4-6 minutes sometimes made it tiring forme to watch them if I couldn’t grasp their context right from the beginning.

And what’s up with the name anyway?
The term „High Muck a Muck“ refers to „a Chinook jargon for somebody in a position of authority who thinks he is more important than he actually is“ (Surrey.ca). Why does it relate to the topic of this Elit? Great question! That is something to talk about in class as well.

I’m gonna update this post after class with the things we had to say about it – so stay tuned 😉


Konsoll 2017 and Jake Elliott

Last week I volunteered at Konsoll Bergen, which is a videogame developer conference, the conference is a yearly event, and it was my first time attending. Now I wanted to look at a lot of different things at the conference, but one of the talks, really resonated with me in a e-lit way. That was the talk on playful text, by Jake Elliott.



Jake Elliott.

Jake Elliott makes games, music and artware, he is part of the team that makes Kentucky route zero, a game that has won several awards, among them best narrative from Game developers choice in 2015. Kentucky route zero is a point and click narrative driven game, it is set in Kentucky and the focus is debt and the people in debt, in a quote in vice the team states:  “Our experience is pretty typical: student loans, medical bills, confusing credit cards, stuff like that.”

The interesting bits of his talk is the part about generating dialog, and using generated dialog to change the story, he talked about a random drink generator they made for the game. They made tables filled with different types of alcohol, and other tables for ingredients, and by random generation you get a, pretty much, unique drink. But that is just an example of what they are doing in playful writing. At one point they have the player choose answers in a phone call, but the other side is scrambled, and you must select the answer without hearing the other end. This sets the player in charge of what they think the conversation was about.

Changing the narrative with dialog choices.

All the dialogue choices you make does not change the story in a huge way, but small things are remembered, and will come back in later dialog or text, it’s something they could not do easily if they had voice acting for the entire game. But the small things are remembered, and sometimes used later, but not always. Jake talked about creating things that not many people get to see, or not get the complexity of. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, another speaker, Ryan Duffin, from dice, talked about how much time they put into animations, and how he felt that if they spent much time on something it was a shame is not everyone would see it. On the other side of that fence is Kentucky route zero, they have a musical piece that only plays if you walk far enough out on a balcony, and that music was specially written and recorded in a church, but still they put it in a place where many people could miss it.

The writing.

Jake Elliott talked about other forms of playful writing, and it was then I noticed how much it was like electronic literature, he showed examples of hypertext, and working with twine. He mentioned Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, which is something we have looked at as inspiration for random generation of poems.


I am really intrigued by randomizing and using that in text, making it work, I will add the link to Jake`s talk as soon as it is online.

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