For day two of ARGFest-o-Con in Toronto last month, attendees were treated to a “sneak peek” of The Institute, a film by Spencer McCall about Nonchalance’s popular San Francisco ARG, The Jejune Institute.
The film focused on the player experience of Jejune and the effect that it had on those who followed its path through the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Nonchalance presented a case study at ARGFest in 2009, but little of the content from that early phase of the game made it into the film. Most of those elements, which were posted in public places, had been taken down by the time McCall began shooting, first as a video producer hired by Nonchalance and then for the film itself.
“It’d be generous to say that we did an ‘uneven’ job of documenting the things that we created,” said Sara Thacher, who was lead producer on Jejune for most of it’s run. “Video was especially thin on the ground. Because Spencer’s project got rolling after the main parts of the experience closed, he had to rely on our archives and the archives of the participants.”
Later events are more fully documented in the film, including the controversial day-long seminar that concluded the game. The film also documents a rally to protest the game’s apparent villain, Octavio S. Coleman, Esq., a trip through the game’s installation at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and one game mission that culminated with a player dancing in front of a payphone with bigfoot. The presentation also includes footage that was part of the game, with no markers to denote when the film moves between fact and fiction.
In a post-screening interview at the conference, McCall said he took inspiration from Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary widely known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Making a film of this kind without falling into the category of “mockumentary” is no small challenge, and with a room full of transmedia creators and some Jejune Institute players, ARGFest was a more demanding audience than most.
Clear your schedule. Cancel all of your appointments and hop on the next plane to San Francisco. Head straight from the airport to 580 California Street and tell the receptionist you need to go to the Jejune Institute on the 16th floor. You don’t have much time, as The Jejune Institute is closing its doors on April 10th.
Nonchalance, a hybrid arts consultancy, is the company behind The Jejune Institute. Their website describes the experience as “an urban interactive narrative set in San Francisco. Think of it as a way to discover a new side of the city, while being absorbed in an epic fantasy.” The experience is part alternate reality game, and part public art installment, with a dash of city tour thrown in for good measure.
For someone familiar with alternate reality games, it could probably be best described as an ARG occurring almost entirely in the real world. Almost all of the world-building details are found in the real world rather than on the internet. Instead of visiting a detective agency’s website, you visit the detective agency’s actual office. Instead of scouring a website’s source code for clues, you search through a parking garage. There are phone calls and websites, but they play a relatively minor role in the unfolding narrative, when compared to most other alternate reality games.