Posts Tagged ‘situational design’

What was “The Latitude”? Part Three: In Bright Axiom

June 8th, 2019

I’ve been meaning to conclude my first two blog posts about Nonchalance’s The Latitude (part one, part two) with a final wrap up since 2016, and yet somehow I never quite knew what I wanted to say. Tonight, I finally have an excuse to get all my thoughts written down once and for all — because there’s now a film about The Latitude.

Earlier tonight I went to the first public screening of In Bright Axiom, a documentary(ish) film chronicling the rise and fall of The Latitude. The film is directed by Spencer McCall, who was also the director of The Institute — a similar “documentary” about Nonchalance’s previous project, The Jejune Institute.

Watch the trailer for In Bright Axiom here:

 

In Bright Axiom – Trailer from Spencer McCall on Vimeo.

 

The Film

I went to the theater not quite knowing if it would be ex-members, or just people interested in watching documentaries since it was presented as part of SF DocFest. It turned out to be a mix of both, a suspicion confirmed right away when I saw a guy sitting a few seats down from me wearing a Jejune Institute t-shirt.

Before the film started, a DocFest presenter came to the stage and introduced The Professor (Geordie Aitken) who came up to the front and warmed up the crowd with some jokes. He’s remarkably good at working crowds.

Unlike The Institute, McCall went with a more straightforward documentary style for In Bright Axiom. Even though it takes an artistic license here and there for the most part it presents (as far as I know) events as they really happened. The major exception is a pretty obvious one, which finally gives the story of The Latitude a proper ending.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away as it’s a wonderful film, but here’s a few key insights:

  • The Latitude initially held retreat(s?) in Mendocino out in the woods with a series of rituals, artists, and characters.
  • Nonchalance head honcho Jeff Hull confirms a number of aspects that were widely rumored — he’s independently wealthy and (if you do some basic multiplication) was spending about a million dollars a year to run The Latitude.
  • Much of the screen time goes into why The Latitude fell apart. The relationship between the creators and the participants deteriorated pretty rapidly, particularly when members were asked to pay to support it.

The question on my mind is who should see the film. Certainly anyone who took the time to read about it — whether on my blog or anywhere else — should give it a watch. The videos of The Latitude’s incredibly well designed spaces do them much more justice than static photos and descriptions ever could.

I also think creative types who are interested in immersive design should give it a watch. It’s a cautionary tale about how this type of art can become a victim of its own success when the boundaries are ill-defined. The irony of this failure when The Latitude’s internal story was all about breaking down boundaries was not lost on anyone, at least in retrospect.

The film ends with a mysterious logo appearing on the screen. What does it mean? Well, The Institute ended with the logo for The Latitude… wink, wink.

 
In Bright Axiom premier
 

After the film there was a Q&A session with three of the people behind it, seen in the photo above. On stage from left to right there’s Geordie Aitken who played Professor Walter Kinley, director Spencer McCall, and Jeff Hull.

I had a few questions, though I never got to ask them because others beat me to the punch. I did sort of want to make an in-joke and ask Geordie if he was going to force us all to make tea, but I worried that would be too obscure. (For the record, Geordie played the poorly received Antoine Logan of the Jejune Institute in its final seminar, and he wanted us to make tea.)

One question aimed at Geordie was how he became involved in Nonchalance in the first place. He said he read about The Jejune Institute on a blog, and became so fascinated he talked Jeff into letting him take part.

Looking back, I remember after The Jejune Institute ended a bunch of us went up to Jeff, sort of ganged up on him really, and asked questions about what was next. He sheepishly mentioned he was working on an “automated house” of sorts, and that it “came to him in a dream.” In retrospect it’s obvious the “automated house” was The Latitude’s Book One, and his dream ultimately became a waking nightmare.

Though I don’t remember the question, in the Q&A it was brought up that The Jejune Institute’s designer Sara Thacher is now an Imagineer at Disney, and was most recently involved in creating the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land at both Disneyland and Disney World.
 

The Latitude’s Online Presence

Getting in to some other aspects of The Latitude I haven’t covered yet in previous posts, let’s talk about the user-facing interactions. Despite the somewhat anti-technology bent to the whole endeavor, the primary way to interact with The Latitude was online.

The website was kind of like a social network with a unique focus on sharing blog posts and earning badges for completing tasks. Here’s a screenshot of my profile page during the final stages of the site before it was taken down.

My username was “The Mister,” a reference to both the name “MrEricSir” and a humble riff on Doctor Who character “The Master.” The URL to my profile page was https://thelatitude.com/HEXA-AZURE-4280, with HEXA-AZURE-4280 being the “index code” on the back of my invitation card.

Emails from The Latitude always had a unique design as though they were a confidential telegram sent on special paper. Here are couple examples:

 


 

Praxes

The Latitude’s website had a calendar with many events throughout the week known as “Praxes” (plural of Praxis) which ranged from the introductory Greenhorn Praxis, members gathering for brunch, watching Saturday morning cartoons, etc.

My favorite of the praxes I attended was a workshop to build your own terrarium. Cosmic Amanda, best known as the creator of local online radio station BFF.fm, hosted the workshop. I’m proud to say one of the terrariums I built is still intact.

There never seemed to be much direct connection between The Latitude and most praxis events; it was more of a loosely connected social club where members could meet one another. Some were held in private spaces, others in public.
 

Closing Thoughts

If it’s not obvious enjoyed The Latitude and was sad to see it go. For my part I only joined months before the end so I was largely unaware of the internal drama that came before my time.

That said, the entire project seemed insanely ambitious. Nonchalance was renting numerous spaces in one of the most expensive cities in the world, telling a complex story, all while trying to keep a veil between themselves and the members of the (fake?) secret society they created.

The tipping point seemed to be asking for money. On one hand the membership fee wasn’t a lot for most people, on the other some members were obviously contributing a great deal of time and energy already. Perhaps there should have been a sliding scale aspect to the membership fees.

It’s also worth remembering this all took place in a part of the world where the economy is weirdly distorted: people spend $1,000 a month to live with roommates, yet eat food or take Uber rides that are heavily subsidized by venture capital — often without realizing it. Point is in the Bay Area we’ve all been conditioned to have very unrealistic ideas about cost.

On the flip side The Latitude “competed” in a way with a similar immersive experience run entirely by volunteers: Elsewhere Philatelic Society (EPS.) It wasn’t uncommon to see members of The Latitude with EPS patches sewn onto their jackets. Ironically, EPS was initially a fan-made offshoot of The Jejune Institute. With significantly lower overhead, EPS outlasted both The Jejune Institute and The Latitude, and is still around today. I think there’s a lesson here about creating these types of immersive art projects that can have a similar impact on the audience while spending far, far less money.

As what’s next for Nonchalance, they are once again working on a new project — what is it? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until next time, in bright axiom; compeers and dark horses alike.

What was “The Latitude”? Part Two

January 13th, 2016

In the previous entry I discussed The Latitude’s Book One experience. We’ve already met Professor Kinley, been scolded by Quas, and joined The Latitude Society. This post concerns the second and final experience in The Latitude before it closed.

Unlike the first part where your ascendant paid your way in, you had to buy Book Two on your own. When I went the cost was $35.

 

Book Two

When scheduling Book 2 you were told to ask a question, though it was noted that no answer would be provided. Mine was “How do I know this isn’t all a dream?” Once again you made an appointment at an address in the Mission District with a five minute window. You head to the address and once there, you text a certain phone number with the ID code on the back of your white invite card. Suddenly the door buzzes open and you enter.

From the entrance hall you head upstairs to find the suite number you’ve been provided via text message. Again, you find a door with a card key entry system. You swipe your card and push the door open.

Inside is a small room. On the floor there’s a big pedestal in the middle with a bust of Quas on top. A hidden projector above you is projecting a video of a mouth on the bust.

On the ground there’s two black orbs suspended on stilts in front of you, and on both sides there’s v-shaped boards on the floor holding back a thick layer of sand on either side.

Quas immediately starts talking to you. He mumbles a lot and you’re not quite sure what he’s saying except that he seems grumpy. He tells you to put your hands on the orbs so he can learn more about you.

As soon as you do that, the lighting gets brighter. Quas becomes very animated and tells you that he has some kind of adventure for you to complete. He stops talking and the lights fade out in the room. A sound effect plays as a small opening in the pedestal lights up. You walk up to it and see a small magic wand lying in black sand.

Instinctively you pick up the magic wand. It’s a plastic cylinder with an area carved out on one end with some symbols carved into it. The symbols seem to correspond with the logos for The Latitude’s “books.” One end is rounded and the other end is flat.

You leave the building and get another text message.

 

BART Ride

The text message indicates that in about 45 minutes you have an appointment downtown at something called the “Alluvium Chamber.” The instructions say to take BART and link you to a podcast called a “Mantis Track” which you should listen to on the way there.

The podcast is similar in format to an All Things Considered interview, and the subject of the episode is a woman who claims to perform some type of magic. She says she uses a device that sounds strangely familiar to your new magic wand. She refers to it as an “Abraxis Stone.”

She goes on to describe BART as a “third space” where it’s neither work nor home but something in between, a place anything can happen. Like a public park.

As the interview continues she describes what she calls the “shoe game.” The game works like this: as you’re in the train station and on the train, look at the shoes that other people are wearing. Those wearing formal, uncomfortable shoes are likely on the way to work and thus in a state she calls “Prime.”

After getting off BART and mulling around for a bit, you enter the building. It’s a historic downtown high rise with a small but beautiful lobby and rickety old elevators. As the text message suggests, you simply tell the doorman you have an appointment at a certain suite number.

 

Alluvium Chamber

The floor you end up on has a very film noir feel to it. You find the door, which is clearly labeled “The Latitude Society.” There’s a hexagon on the frosted glass door. You hold the curved end of your Abraxis Stone up to it, and the door clicks open.

Inside you step on to a small series of planks just inside the door, which are rested on a thick layer of sand which covers the floor of the entire room.

 

I want to step back for a minute here: this is the fourth commercial space that Nonchalance has rented for this incredible project. This one’s got to be expensive because it’s in such a nice location downtown, and they’ve covered the entire floor of an office in sand.

Bold? Crazy? Insane? It’s a difficult call.

 

Standing on the planks, on your left is a framed photo of a naked footprint in sand. On your right there’s a canvas sail functioning as a curtain, and a wood box with shoe prints painted inside.

So you abide the suggestion and take your shoes off and put them in the box.

You walk into the sand and take a look around. In the middle of the room is a hexagonal table with a sandbox built in to the top. Near the entrance is another set of doors that’s locked. On all other sides of the room there’s various toys and knick-knacks on various shelves. The lighting is very playful with different colors fading in and out.

But in the corner facing the entry is another book. You head to the book and open it.

First, the book tells you to take the hourglass in front of you and flip it over. You do that.

Then, the book tells you that you have the next 30 minutes or so to find items in the room and arrange them in the sandbox however you see fit. The book instructs you to come back and turn the page once you hear a foghorn.

You walk around the room, find some objects that you like, and arrange them in the sandbox. You may move the sand around here and there, and add and remove objects. Perhaps the plastic dinosaurs would look better than the LEGO bricks? Try whatever you like.

Finally the foghorn blows, and you head back to the book and turn the page.

Now it’s time to make some decisions, the book says, and you have a couple more minutes to arrange things how you like.

So you go back and move some things around. Maybe the crystal ball would make a good centerpiece? Or should you try to squeeze the plastic flowers in somehow? It’s up to you.

After another 10 minutes the foghorn goes off again and you check back in with the book, turning the page again.

Now the book tells you it’s time to put everything back where you found it like a responsible adult, and take the brush and make the sandbox nice and level again. So you heed the book, destroying your creation and setting everything up for the next person. On the way out you turn the book back to the first page, put your shoes back on, and leave the building.

 

When you get back to your “glowing boxes” you open The Latitude website. Now Professor Kinley had some updates for you on his sea voyage. He explains to you in an exposition-heavy monologue about the concepts of Flux, Flow, and Prime. According to him, Prime is the every day state we’re in for our job, taking care of our families, etc. Flow is the psychological concept of the same name, also known as being “in the zone.” Finally, Flux is the state that bridges the two. Presumably the “Flux chamber” back in Book One was intended to jar you into the state of Flux, although this is never explicitly stated.

 

Additionally, there’s a new symbol under your profile indicating that you’ve completed Book Two. Clicking it leads to a second recap page (link goes to the new public version) (Update: here’s the Archive.org backup version) which mentions your question but doesn’t answer it.

Unbeknownst to you there were several hidden cameras in the Alluvium Chamber’s sandbox snapping random photos along the way. These images appeared on your private Book 2 recap page, which is no longer online. If you hadn’t saved these photos you’re out of luck.

I accidentally blocked the view of most of the cameras, but it managed to pick up two images of me playing in the sand. Click for larger versions of the images:

Next time: some thoughts on The Latitude, Nonchalance, and some inevitable comparisons to The Jejune Institute. I’ll also detail the “society” aspect of The Latitude Society and various other trivia that didn’t fit into the first two posts.

What was “The Latitude”? Part One

January 6th, 2016

Much has been written on the web about the closure of San Francisco’s The Latitude. But what was it, exactly?

Now that it’s over I’ll be posting a series on this blog that will include major spoilers for those who missed out. While I was sworn to secrecy at the time, I want to stress that these secrets had an expiration date. Yes, the website still claims that The Latitude is “temporarily closed,” but given the fact that they’ve posted an epilogue and started selling various pieces on eBay, the closure is clearly permanent.

Additionally, I recently confirmed with the creator of The Latitude via email that posting a walkthrough online would fine.

That said I’ve been informed that a third party now has a lease on some of the space(s?) and may be running The Latitude under another name and format. So if you want to avoid potential spoilers for this new endeavor, stop reading now.

For my part I was invited to The Latitude by a local artist — my “ascendant” in Latitude lingo — and I only experienced the final two and a half months of what was a multi-year endeavor. There were parts that I won’t cover because I never directly experienced them; some of this is documented in the official epilogue.

So, what exactly was The Latitude? Let’s start at the beginning of the experience.

 

The Invitation

A friend asks if you can keep a secret. You answer in the affirmative. They hand you a small black envelope with the words “Absolute Discretion” embossed in it. Inside is an all white credit card, the numbers printed on the front all zeros. On the back is a secret password just for you, along with instructions to visit thelatitude.com and enter your secret code.

Upon entering the website, you’re asked to schedule a visit to a certain Mission District address. You’re told that you only have a five minute window to enter after your scheduled time, and that your goal is to retrieve “the signal.”

 

Your Appointment

Eventually it’s time for your appointment. At that address is a door next to a small card swipe entry system. The card reader has The Latitude’s hexagonal logo printed on it so you know you’ve come to the right place. You swipe your card and push the door open.

Behind the door is a black curtain. After pulling back the black curtain, you’re greeted by this:

There’s a pleasant smell in the air. The two red lights on the walls are fading in and out, timed to a sound effect making a somewhat ominous “VOOM… VOOM…” sound.

Most curious is what’s inside the mantle in front of you. Where you might expect to find a fireplace is the entrance to wooden slide. It curves in the middle so you can’t see where it’s heading.

This is the entry to the “Flux Chamber.” Seeing no sense in turning back now, you decide to take the plunge and go down the slide.

 

Reality?

Let me stop for a moment and interject. Yes, everything I’m telling you really happened. In real life. It was part of a now-defunct project by a situational design studio called Nonchalance. If that name rings a bell it’s because it’s the same studio that was behind The Jejune Institute, which was also known as “Games of Nonchalance.”

At the end of The Institute, a pseudo-documentary film about The Jejune Institute, The Latitude’s URL and logo appear briefly on the screen.

I was one of the 250 or so attendees at the Socio-Rengineering Seminar in 2011, an event that officially marked the end of The Jejune Institute. After the seminar someone asked Nonchalance’s Jeff Hull the obvious question: what’s next? I don’t remember his exact words, but he sort of hesitated before answering that he was working on an “automated house.”

Back to that slide.

 

Down The Rabbit Hole

The slide curves down and around slowly taking you to a small basement room. On the right is a ticket window with frosted glass with a mannequin behind it. On the left there’s three doors, each with a small tablet computer next to it. And directly in front of you is another tablet, making a pinging sound and flashing a red oval.

Next to the tablet is a ticket sticking out of a slot. You take the claim ticket, which tells you to open the cabinet next to you. Inside the cabinet is a set of instructions: take your purse, backpack, and everything in your pockets and place them in the box inside the cabinet. A strange request (what is this, the TSA?) but as you’ll see next it’s for your own safety.

Now one of the tablets next to the three doors starts pinging and flashing. Sure enough, the door is unlocked. You open it and walk in, only to find (what else?) another curtain. So you close the door, walk behind the curtain and discover infinite blackness.

It’s completely dark.

 

You start patting the walls, feeling your way around. Everything is covered in a thick layer of carpet. As you move around through the darkness, the passageway gets smaller and smaller. You hear faint music playing. The tunnel becomes so small that you’re crawling around on your hands and knees, having flashbacks to your elementary school trip to the Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium.

Eventually you see a light at the end of the tunnel, obscured by another black curtain. Upon crawling inside this new space is a library of sorts, a small room where the walls are lined with books.

You sit down on the single cushion in the middle of the room and face a small podium. On the podium is a large book. You open it, flip through a couple of pages, and suddenly the book starts “reading itself” to you.

A hidden projector above displays an animation on the book and a woman’s voice reads you a story called “The Fable”. The story concerns a city that decided to fence itself off from the outside world, and a group of twelve citizens who made a tunnel through the wall for themselves.

After the fable you crawl out another opening opposite from where you came in. Now you’re in a lounge area with black leather sofas. Across from the sofas is a bar with several glasses along with a pitcher of water. You might chose to help yourself to a sip of water. But before doing so, you look at your ticket which instructs you to make a phone call.

The lounge — you’ll later come to find it’s known as the Rathskeller Lounge — has what looks like a typical 1980′s office phone but it only has one button where the keypad should be. You pick up the handset and push the button. A voice tells you what to do next. So you walk over to the cubbies next to the bar and open the one corresponding to the number on your claim ticket. Inside your belongings are there as promised. You take them and walk upstairs and exit the building.

There’s a small metal plaque embedded in the sidewalk just outside the front gate. It has four numbers on it. They’re the last four digits of a phone number written on the back of the claim ticket. You call the number and get instructions on where to go next, which is a couple blocks away. Once you’re there you find another hexagonal plaque in the sidewalk. You call the number from earlier with a new code and another recording tells you where to go once again.

Depending on the time of day you’ll either be sent to one of two bars, The Sycamore or Gestalt. Either way you give your claim ticket to the bartender who then hands you a special coin. You’ll later come to find that this coin is pronounced “kwan.” A text message tells you to head to another address in The Mission.

After walking a couple blocks you find the address, enter the door code (provided by another text message) and walk up a flight of stairs to find a second key card entry sporting The Latitude’s logo.

 

Den Arcadia

You swipe your card and walk into a small room with trippy lighting and beautiful murals on the walls. In the middle of the room there’s four old school arcade games. This room is known as “Den Arcadia.” One of the arcade machines — Atari’s Tempest — has an unusual looking coin slot which accepts your special coin.

You put in the coin and start playing the game. The game of Tempest plays normally at first, but after a moment the game glitches out and a mysterious blue face appears.

This figure is named Quas (also spelled Kwas or many other variations) a human mouth with rabbit-like ears, who speaks in a gruff robotic voice. He offers some vaguely scolding words before telling you the signal, then warns you to leave and go home to your “glowing boxes” to enter the code.

 

Glowing Boxes

Once you’re home at your computer you visit the website, enter the code (and have to wait 90 minutes for some reason) before you’re presented with a video from Professor Walter Kinley. In the video Kinley welcomes you as a “compeer” into The Latitude Society. Then in a montage he leaves his room at the Hyatt Regency, gets on a boat, and sails away.

From there you’re asked to come up with a moniker (or username) for yourself before entering a social network of sorts. The website had a dizzying array of options, including an online forum, a store where you could purchase merchandise, a calendar with meetings you could attend, and various small activities called “Jaunts.”

More photos and the video mentioned above can bee seen on the now publicly available Book One recap page. (Update: there’s a backup of this recap on Archive.org.)
 

Stay tuned for next time, where I’ll discuss “Book Two” of The Latitude.