critical making

the sewer transnationalists (2021)

The Sewer Transnationalists models the cross-border issue of sewer infrastructure repair as a cooperative board game.

The goal of the game is to repair all the sewers in the border region, a goal that can only be accomplished if the players work together. Each character represents a stakeholder in the issue: the IBWC (bureaucrat), the security state (border agent), the border resident (maintainer), and techno-solutionists who can only provide short-term solutions (engineer). If games are models of a real-world scenario, critical games emphasize the issues central to that scenario. The practice of critical making implies that the process of creating this model (building the game) is itself knowledge production. Creating the game has proven to be a generative form of research-creation; it has helped me analyze and synthesize the key issues within this border problem and find ways to intervene in these issues with a playable model. 

The Sewer Transnationalists sets cooperation as the starting point – a fact that is not the case in real life. This is the game’s first point of critique. We have arrived at the current dire situation for waste disposal across the border because of the lack of cooperation between various stakeholders. The game makes the case from the start that cooperation is essential. Its second point of critique is to model through gameplay the barriers to cooperation imposed by geopolitical divisions: the lack of funding for transnational agencies such as the IBWC and the mobility restrictions imposed by the border itself. The limited funds in the game and the restrictions of the characters’ mobility across the dividing line are the two main impediments to the players achieving their goal before it is too late. These procedural features confront players with logistical hurdles inherited from a non-cooperative form of border thinking.

For this critical game, I “re-skinned” the cooperative game Forbidden Island. Mary Flanagan calls “reskinning” the practice of taking the same mechanics of a game but changing its “skin”, i.e. the aesthetics and symbols, to convey a critical message. The basic game mechanics from Forbidden Island are also present here: every turn, the possibility of water rising is an imminent threat and players must work together to complete their goal before the board is flooded. However, in this reskinning, I inverted one of the key ideological underpinnings of Forbidden Island to emphasize the sustainability concerns of The Sewer Transnationalists. In the former game, players need not worry about the island flooding as long as they collect all the treasures and escape on time. The game follows a colonialist mentality of resource extraction and general disregard for native lands. In the critical re-skinning put forth by The Sewer Transnationalists, the main goal of the game is in fact to prevent the flooding from happening. This shift demands an ecological reorientation: it asks players to think about the setting as necessary for their own survival. There is no way to escape and let the environment deteriorate. Winning is impossible if the vitality of the environment where players interact is compromised.

The first version of the game has been published in the “Making Games for and about Social Justice” issue of OneShot: A Journal of Critical Games and Play. Development of the ideas for this game took place during the “Patching Default Settings: Radical Feminist Gameplay” workshop series organized by The Studio for Mediating Play.

B-O-R-D-E-R (2019)

As a member of the Fashioning Circuits Lab, I was a part of the first iteration of the “Words Matter” initiative, which built participatory artworks that commented on hotly contested terms. My contribution, titled B-O-R-D-E-R (2019), takes the simple yet powerful idea that borders are made at the expense of people and turns it into an interactive installation. The installation consists of an acrylic sandbox full of clay people and remains, a set of instructions, a series of claymation videos showcasing these instructions, and a cutting board. Asking participants to cut up clay people mobilizes playful interaction as a way to cast a shadow of culpability on those who encounter and contribute to the creation of a border. B-O-R-D-E-R ultimately asks participants to reflect on how building borders impacts communities around them. The first iteration of the “Words Matter” initiative was exhibited at the HASTAC 2019 conference at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Stitch n’ Glitch (2018)

At the School of ATEC, I was also the Pedagogical Director for Stitch n’ Glitch (2018), a monstrous embroidery event that invited participants to stitch collaboratively on a 12-foot long collage of images of feminist media art. The multi-lab project reflected on and mobilized analog and digital making strategies inspired by the work of ATEC’s inaugural artist-in-residence, Lynn Hershman Leeson. The performative embroidery event that moved between two staging areas, the kitchen table and the studio. Held in Ada Lovelace Day in 2018, the central premise of the event was a celebration of feminist media artists enacted through communal creativity. Participants were invited to contribute stitches to a monstrous embroidery project that reflected on the ways in which feminist media artists glitch dominant systems. An interactive description and critical reflection of this project was published in the journal Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures.