Crouched in front of her computer screen, the Shapeshifter, in her current role as the Head Exobiologist was shuffling through the sketches sent to her by a distant member of the crew, known as the Delightmaker. Her gaze moved from the formulas containing the predicted evolution of the playSpace, to the sparse lines of the Delightmaker's drawings. Other sketches arrived and unrolled into her lap. The voice of the red-haired Material Modeller guided her through their contents. 'I worked on some of the material you sent last week' she said, 'I should be ready in a few days“. The envelopes for the seeds were difficult to construct, but there were ongoing experiments with dozens of materials. The Exobiologist again attempted to compare the sketches and sighed - they were so different! It was an almost impossible task to come up with a coherent logic for this eco-system, grown by so many different people, in so many different places, each with their own ideas about what reality is, what play is, and what the goal of the whole endeavour should be. She looked at the map stuck to the wall, as if expecting it to fold itself into a more familiar shape.
She walked towards the recycling bin and absentmindedly threw away the empty cans of Energy Drink. She returned to the sketches and flipped through them. She looked at the evolution dynamics surface diagram. She looked at her collaborators, all absorbed in their ambitious tasks. Suddenly, she exclaimed: 'I think I've got it… ' they looked quite puzzled ' you know… the principle that can glue all the different components together into one coherent, playful whole!'. No one appeared particularly excited, but she ran back to her desk and started scribbling a layout of an evolutionary pattern. She took a red marker and wrote a bold title on the top of the page: 'txOom. Ecologies of the Irreal'
On the train, on the way to the chosen host system, she was demonstrating her hypothesis to the rest of the crew, gesturing in excitement.
'The Machinery Preceptor and I drew up a design and a technical specification of the playSpace evolution'. The whole principle was straight forward '…the ecology of the space is based on recycling the experience to form the eco-system and everything living in it.' she began 'The seeds that we need to spawn should have both symbiotic and parasitic properties, so that they can grow upon the host system, taking over some of its forms, but simultaneously feeding the host with recycled memories of itself, making it aware of its emerging capabilities. The blooming of the space will occur when enough playful behaviour is apparent in the host environment. The interesting movements and actions will grow into sprouts, whose life cycle and characteristics are based on the behaviour which inspired them to come out of the seed. Although the components that each of you has worked on are quite distinct from each other, the recycling principle should be able to blur their boundaries by letting the substances flow and become something else in the next part of their life-cycle. However, we have to move fast. The playSpace needs enough time to pass through several stages of its evolution attempts, and the first travellers seeking a pliable zone for their possible world, will be arriving in a few months. We are on our way to visit the host system, and the seeds must be ready to plant in two days, so we have a lot of work to do!'
The two days and two nights passed in frantic experiments, using three hotel-room bathrooms to grow the cultures. When it was time to go, they filled two plastic bags with the most robust seeds. The seeds were gleaming in the sunlight, their amorphous blob-shaped bodies still uncertain of their ability to exist. The two bags looked as if they were filled with transparent hair gel. Odorless. They stuffed the seed bags into their backpacks, and left.
They put on their smiles and casual mannerisms, as they turned into the street where the host system had been rooted since 1903. The Hippodrome.
'Roll up, roll up! You will experience things you have never experienced before!' the Ring Master gathered the masses, with wide eyes and beach-sand still stuck under their shoes. The crowd surged in, with their pink, blue or yellow tickets, flowing to their assigned seats, steered by a current of arrows and apprentice circus divas.
The velvet swells with laughter and the occasional screams of the ecstatic audience.
The house lights were dimmed, and the show lights flashed towards the ring. The place exploded in yellows and blues and reds and golds and silvers and rainbow coloured mould; filling their mouths with the bitter-sweet taste of disintegrating candy-floss and sugar-pop. As the show began, forbidden childish pleasures emerged in a parade of imaginary freaks, clowns and contortionists. The spiraling rhythm of the show picks up the pace. The clowns and jugglers, followed by 'The Amazing Wheel of Death' and tightrope-balancing brothers…
Underneath their chairs, they shuffled with the slippery contents of their glistening plastic bags. They had to laugh at their actions, but it still felt somehow wrong, as if they were about to commit a sacrilege, or drop nerve-gas in the middle of a crowded airport. They waited until the finale. During the first notes of the 'Space Odyssey 2001', while the several ton floor was being sunk under thousands of liters of warm water, the first seed was slipped through the cracks of a squeaky chair.
The synchronised swimmers appeared in their glow-in-the-dark costumes, with pegs on their noses and a toothpaste-add smiles on their lips. During their disappearance under the surface of the newly born swimming pool, that was now covered by ping-pong balls, they noticed the first sprout pushing its way through the act. Hastily, they emptied the remaining seeds from the slimy plastic bag and watched their jelly-like substance glide towards the centre of the ring. They looked around… No one had noticed anything. Their job was done. Now they only had to observe and wait several months for the sprouts to grow into an irreal, exobiological eco-system. The fairy floss was passed between them, together with a camera that recorded the first twining of a sprout, around the Spiderman trapeze artist. The airflows it materialised were stunning. Spiraling in several dimensions, sprouting extremely high in no time…. the artist must have been a true master…
They said their good-byes and left a quickly emptying circus behind. A last look revealed more of their symbiotic seeds sprouting through the cracks. They were still completely transparent, gaseous gels, that only a trained eye would see, and even then only when something moved. They knew, from previous missions, that very soon the sprouts would slowly solidify into a semi permeable shell of a responsive environment. The more circus shows, the more skilled the artists, the more intricate this shell would become. The sprouts were designed to follow the flows whirling through the space during a circus show: the wild flirting, swinging motion of the trapezes, the pulsating swirls of the sensuous silk-rope climbers, the sparking spinning of the fire-twirlers, the stretching and extending of the acrobats bodies across the circus ring…. As symbiotic creatures, the sprouts avoided strong force fields - bodies and machines that danced around the circus - they fed on air-flows generated by the actions, but kept away from direct physical contact with the show. When touched by an event, rather than merely by an effect of the event - (such as an air-current) the sprouts solidified into a semi-permeable membrane, still retaining some of the gel-like pliability, but also assuming some of the characteristics of their host system - during this mission, the host system was the circus. Inside the membrane, a wild growth evolved, the seeds sprouting high, touching the roof, melting the shape of the circus into memories of events captured in the materialised air-flows of long forgotten tricks…
In their absence, the forms grew, influenced by the dynamic of the circus shows, using it to guide their own life cycle, playing with it, overgrowing the edges of the acts and the breaks, making time flow slower, spiraling around itself….
When they returned, months later, the sea and the sky had changed from colour, to shades of grey. The 'Golden Mile' was still shining fluorescent lights and bleeping sounds from the many arcade games. Inviting invisible tourists to spend their money in their abundant slot-machines. The ambience was bizarre - from the 'Bourbon Street Dancing' to the 'Cake Hole', there was no one to be seen. It looked like an abandoned set for a ghost town that would never be filmed. They drove along, smelling fish-and-chips, mixed with Indian curry and Chinese noodles. They turned off the sea-front and entered St George's street. The majestic Circus building was still a breathtaking sight. The pink circus key-holder greeted them with a bitter smile. By now, she was well aware of the weirding that she suspected they planted in the circus several months before. When they entered the building, with a plethora of strangely shaped gardening tools, she was sure it was all their doing. They entered the ring and gasped. The gel-like membrane had hardened enough to become visible even by very low light. What once was a lush circus ring, had now become a wild bloom, containing the suggestion of a world within its petals. What this bloom needed was weeks of cultivating, taming and shaping, before it would be safe enough for the travelers to approach. The first travelers were expected to arrive within a week.
Would they be expecting to experience an irreal adventure, to be transported into a different reality for a brief moment, to change their perception for many days after they would depart on another draining phase of their life-long journey?
They took a deep breath and set to work. Soon after, they realised how much of a contamination between the circus and the bloom had occurred; most of their knowledge about the bloom was useless. In order to tame the growth, they needed the help of the circus experts - the riggers, the trapeze artists, the 'strongest man in the universe'. The key-holder first laughed at their request for collaboration - although it was a bit of a desperate laughter… She had hoped that they would know how to release the circus from the thorns of the botanically unknown efflorescence. She prudently answered that she and the circus crew would weigh the risks and get back to them the next day.
When they awoke the next morning, a whole troop of circus people were waiting for them in front of the gate. They sat together and discussed the strategy. A part of the crew was to tie up the growth from the roof, the other part hold it bound to the floor. The buds whose shape resembled circus winches were to be attacked by the Flying Man, and his wife. the Ring Master would take care of tying the knots and bundling the lengthy sprouts through an intricate system of pullies and ropes. Several others cut through the thick growth that blocked the entrances. Once the most dangerous parts of the bloom were restrained, the group began to assemble their machines. They implanted them into the bloom, spraying it continually with luminescent and sonic anesthetics that burst from their media diffusers. Much of the original bloom unfortunately died in the process.
They were unprepared for so much contamination.
In the evenings and at nights, they would strategise the salvaging of the sprouts, knowing that the circus would have to accommodate many travellers within a couple of weeks, which could mean that either the bloom dies off completely, trapped under many uncaring feet, or that it would not allow them to tame it, which would pose a great danger to the travellers…. The outcome was unpredictable, and the best they could do is keep working….. planting new seeds, carefully tending to them, domesticating them at the same time.
Several days passed, and the surviving sprouts began responding to the training, growing and moving from the circus into the new machinery and back again. The threats seemed to lessen. Right on time, when the first travellers arrived…. These travellers were just a passing caravan, interested in carrying the seeds of the bloom further with them, possibly exchanging them for other goods on their way. They were somewhat experienced with other blooms that they encountered on their journeys, but a new one is always a challenge. The crew watched them struggle with the uncultivated sprouts. Different crowds passed through the circus ring. One-dimensional children who grew up to live in a parallel, curved reality, that seemed flat to the passers by, who never understood their conversations. The children were twining in the sprouts without effort, finding the curves and the flows of their reality in between the twists. Dancers, whose beautiful movements were captured and mimicked by the sprouts, but who felt restricted in their freedom. Wild, feral youth in long hooded robes, violently squeezing the sonic pollen out of the new buds, so the whole circus building trembled. Weavers, who looked for patterns in the entangled fibres of the space, and secretly took samples of its tissue for growing their own cultures. And finally, the artists who operated similar machinery to crew, peeking through the transparent stalks into the control-tower. All had their own opinions about the future of the bloom, all of them offered their advice, and left, empty handed, as the crew didn't dare spreading such unbridled growth.
When the first caravan departed, the alchemists opened the large chests filled with organic and inorganic samples, together with a bounty of tools. They analysed the bloom and found the properties that they could recreate in their flasks and dishes. Days were passing and the abstract terms that the scientists used to describe the environment, were transformed into organic matter, whose structure resembled the bloom. The crew was fed entangled, transparent, leafy, slippery and spiky substances, before they would perform experiments within the membrane of the bloom. The space seemed to respond differently, adapting itself to the experimenters, rather than trying to extract them no matter what they did. The procedure was improving each day. On the day before the new wave of travellers was announced, the crew decided to risk its survival by dining inside the bloom. The banquet consisted only of the substances that met the alchemists' approval. Steaming, flowery and fresh, weedy dishes were brought inside the ring. The sprouts entwined around them, forming funny looking furniture. The circus crew brought pink, sugary candy floss, in a baby-blue synthetic bath. The long responsive twigs slurped on it. Everyone present walked slowly into the diffused environment, carefully avoiding the fragile sprouts. Their voices softened, their movements decelerated, as if the air inside the membranes was thicker, made out of liquid foam, whose invisible bubbles provided enough air for breathing, but changed the rhythms of the space, that felt dense, as if under water.
The last to arrive was a woman, the Coffee Lady who was known to be an expert in preparing the potent black liquid that stimulated the humans, but was also found in the essence of the jelly seeds from which the bloom sprouted. She was able to read fortunes hidden inside the mixture of the black liquid and the saliva of its drinkers. The sprouts seemed to take particular interest in her actions. The space responded adeptly to the humans who drank her liquid, allowing them to dwell in its many folds, luring the creatures living in them to come out and play. The whole milieu became more amiable. After some hours, the humans and the space were engaged in a whirly dance, responding to each other's actions, shaping each other's moods, falling and rising, and flying through the air, competing with each other for the most skillful trick.
Around the same time, we were driving through the mist, quite tired and slightly lost, listening to the reports from the circus through the vibrating fibres in our hats. It took us many more hours than we originally planned. We were close to the Circus, but couldn't see it through the meringue of mist, rising like clotted cream patches from the depths of the Great Yar. Eventually, we stopped at a road-side motel and spent the night there. The next morning, we continued our journey that appeared to be just a few kilometres long. We drove over a wind-blown sign saying 'Hippodrome Circus 200 metres'. A local kid showed us the way, as we couldn't figure out the direction in which the broken arrow should be pointing. Just a minute away, behind an all-shining, all-blinking Pink Flamenco game-salon, the Hippodrome showed its face.
The wind was howling through the big doors of the circus, and there was no laughter, no swarms of sun-burnt people bolting through the doors. The smell of fresh coffee lured us inside. The entrance hall was turned into a bizarre living room, where a dozen people chatted away on a red velvet couch and various chairs. Two small electric heaters were having a hopeless duel with the freezing wind gusts. Despite the chill, the atmosphere was warm, cozy, familiar. The pop-corn machine was used as a stand for a tiny CCTV camera, observing the actions in this waiting room, transmitting the information somewhere beyond our sight. Around it - lots of coffee cups turned upside down, plates full of loukumia, little brochures, and colourful jelly-cups that a few kids were busy reducing to a mountain of empty plastic.
Suddenly, we heard deep feminine laughter and the sound of tiny wheels rolling on the tiled floor. From the far corridor, the Coffee Lady, our hostess emerged, dressed in a fur hat, several layers of woolen wrappings and a metal skirt on wheels. She rolled around, greeting the people, offering them coffee and sweets, chatting away, and warming up the room just by being present. A girl knelt next to her and commenced writing something on one of the many translucent layers, screwed onto the metal frame of theCoffee Lady's skirt. As she lifted one of the upside-down cups, a thin man sitting on the couch eagerly arose and listened to the Coffee Lady's reading of his fortune from the drawings made by the dripping coffee-grounds. 'Very soon' she says 'You will meet someone that might change your life. I don't think this someone is human, it looks more like an octopus or a jelly fish… Or do you know someone with such wild hair? Look!' A few girls start giggling, and the fortune-told blushes. The Coffee Lady takes advantage of the short break to put some more coffee to boil on a little gas stove. Then she turns back to the fortune while kissing goodbye the girl who just wrote her interpretation of 'play' and 'circus' onto the dress.
A group of sweaty people gush from another dark corridor, talking loudly about circus tricks they had just performed inside the bloom. The rest of the room falls silent listening to their stories….. [insert user research interview snippets]
Two girls take the next group away, into the darkness of the corridor, into the circus in which there are no circus performers, where the space absorbs their bodies, their actions becoming a landscape of light, sound and matter. A supposed balm for the cramped bodies of travellers…. The stories make us curious, nervous - what are we supposed to do inside there? Can the space hurt us? Can we hurt the space?
As if she heard our thoughts, the Coffee Lady approaches us with steaming coffee in her hands, saying 'Sit down, make yourselves comfortable'. We follow her to the red sofa and drop into it. She asks us where we came from, what we're up to in this desolated part of the world and whether we have tried the lovely Greek restaurant just a few streets away. We loosen up, forgetting the worries about 'what would become of our inevitable destiny' inside the bloom. These places were known to have powers to change people's paths…. the Coffee Lady reads our fortunes, one by one, attentive to our body language and seemingly meaningless comments passing between us. She turns every little event into a story, a story about the circus, about life, about the beautiful things growing inside the circus ring, putting us more and more at ease. She asks one of us to write a letter we had never written before, on one of the plastic sheets of her dress. 'Remember what I just told you! In your cup, I have seen that you need to deal with a big burden from your past, and once you did, your future will unfold in front of your eyes, as long as you allow yourself to play….' This all sounded quite cryptic, but the Coffee Lady ensured us it would all make sense…. soon…
A tall, red haired girl interrupted our chat by asking whether any of us was - by any chance - afraid of heights. We looked at each other puzzled. Two of us admitted that they were more comfortable with their both feet on the ground. She told the rest of us to follow her, and yelled at the two ground people that she'd come for them in a few minutes. We walked through the darkness, punctured only by the girl's tiny head-lamp. In the middle of the corridor, we encountered the group returning from the bloom. They were strangely silent. Quite the opposite to the previous group, still in the waiting room, briskly describing their experiences to the newcomers. The silent lot sympathetically nodded to us, as if saying, 'we're glad it's over, and sorry you still have to go through this, do take care'. The red haired girl ushered us into a low lit dressing room and showed us where to leave our belongings, helping us into our new uniforms. She explained that we need the uniforms to be recognised by the entities in the ring as a fragment of the same environment. She instructed us to explore the space through all our senses, moving carefully and being aware that we are the ones responsible for the evolution of the events in the space. She warned us not to be too violent with each other or any of the entities inside. Although we asked her for more instruction, she told us - 'just go in and play, and the space will unfold with you'. Uncertain of our actions, slightly irritated by the lack of direction as to what we were expected to do, we commenced our adventure into txOom - as the circus bloom was doped by its gardeners.
The entrance to the ring was overgrown, showing the sites of most movement, the flamboyant entrance of the circus artists into the ring. The place where the sprouts and the circus show touched most often. Once we squeezed our way past the entrance, the growth inside was thick and viscous. Like an overgrown leafy bloom, slowly opening , loosening up to allow us to explore it. One of the local kids, who signed up as the Delightmaker's apprentice came along. The reaction of the space to his presence was quite hostile, to our surprise. The convulsions of the sprouts resembled an allergic reaction of an immune system trying to get rid of an alien cell. 'The space sees the apprentice as an intruder!' someone yelled. We turned around seeing him under attack from the still barely visible sprouts, moving clumsily like a creature that could be best described as a hybrid between a sea-urchin and a tumble-weed. Behind him, from the air, long wiggly tentacles in the shape of a jelly-fish interbred with a weeping-willow swung to reach his hair and pull him up in the air. In the confusion of the moment, the Apprentice fell over another creature, translucent mould coloured, moving like a large octopus. We gasped and reached for him, but the creature sucked him in between its many feelers. We saw the Apprentice moving, at first uncomfortably, shyly and then more exuberantly, as if propelled by the movements of the creature. Then we heard him laugh….
- 'Hey, this is amazing! I feel like an acrobat!' - the Apprentice was twisting and turning his body, with the creature reacting to his slightest movement, growing around the movement and preventing his fall.
- 'The creature is behaving as predicted' - one of our more experienced travellers declared dryly. - 'Remember its original shape - it was much smaller, without much colour. After the initial aversion, it learned that it can use the movements to generate new air-flows, its food. At first, when his movements were cautious, the creature grew, but the sprouts were short, thin…. When he relaxed, and allowed his body to move in ways he never imagined possible, the creature mimicked some of the acts performed by the circus acrobats that formed the original sprout! Until this moment, the creature only reacted to the Apprentice, moved along, and around him. You all saw it swell, didn't you? I know you must think that it's preparing for a final attack. NO, DON'T TOUCH IT! Just watch…. With the Apprentice's courage and newly acquired skill, the creature is starting to sprout higher, moving off the ground and into the air…. Look at it almost touching the worm-like sea grass!!'
Now even our Token Scientist began moving like a fire twirler, herding the tumble-weed-sea-urchin and rolling around with it, on the floor of the ring. the Apprentice was ecstatic, moving from one sprouting creature to another, making them move, swell, pierce their way through soundscapes and fertilise the bloom's immaterial grounds. We saw new sprouts being born, creatures able to crawl the ring and wiggle through the air. We recognised the Apprentice's movements in them. The shapes of the new creatures, still only visible as traces of light, cradled by one of the jelly-willows, were the molds of his movement. They communicated with each other, through luminescent and vibrational pulses. The material and immaterial creatures actually talked to each other, expanding the circus into an infinite immaterial universe, that was only just visible, shimmering behind the newly born creatures. One of the luminescent twigs solidified through a gentle play with our fingers. We were able to hold light in our hands, watch it pulsate in different rhythms, adapting to our play….
The space was evolving, but the laws of its evolution were magical, freely merging and splicing plant and animal kingdoms, mutating them into cloth bound entities, with an ability to extend into the ethereal, immaterial worlds visible through the osmotic membrane, on the outskirts of the material space. The floors and the walls disappeared. We felt submerged in a dense, gel-like substance, that absorbed our actions and amplified them through its evolving creatures. In the beginning, the creatures appeared to be nothing more than diagrams of risks and opportunities: the elements that constitute their forms oscillated between death and existence. Our intrusions fed the glitchy logic of this world, causing several entities to die, and making us think that the whole place was falling into randomness. Slowly, we were absorbed into the substance of this world, and the glitches diminished. We adjusted our senses to experience the many layers of this slow, thick space. Our pace decelerated, and we began exploring this uncharted, indefinite territory that appeared to be formed from our actions.
We started playing….