Hivemind: In the Backend’s Labyrinth
Can video games dispel the commodity fetish? Hivemind, a recent project in collaboration between Trust and Serpentine Digital, leads the way.
Calum Bowden, Joanna Pope, and Will Freudenheim of Berlin-based “utopian conspiracy” Trust recently launched Hivemind, a Serpentine Digital commission that explores game-world navigation as a practice of knowledge sharing. Taking the metaphor of a “backend” from computing and extending it across their research, they use games as a way of reframing work and acknowledging under-appreciated artistic labor. They spoke with Spike Editor-at-Large Adina Glickstein about lore, solidarity, and the nature of (un)certainty.
Adina Glickstein: What’s Hivemind, and where did it come from?
Calum Bowden, Joanna Pope, and Will Freudenheim: Hivemind emerged from two years of research and development work with Serpentine, right when the nascent R&D Platform was launching. They were interested in how Trust — a space in Berlin that expanded into a wide-reaching online community through its Discord server — had developed participatory event formats. We began researching how to make legible and thinkable the backend infrastructures that artists working with advanced technology develop.
After our initial research phase of looking at “skill trees” in video games and the Operation Chain methodology used in anthropology and archaeology, we developed a strategy that started with pre-recorded videos of artists showing their backend infrastructures — whatever they consider those to be — and playing through their working processes to glimpse the interfaces they use. We wanted to move to a live and real-time format, and Twitch was where Trust increasingly located its events, for the culture of participation that existed around the platform. Then we looked into how to build a repeatable format that could be used to reveal the backend infrastructures and processes used to make art, and maybe even anything else in the world. So we created Hivemind, a game in which players categorize and archive an inventory containing documentation of their process in a way that becomes narrativized.
Let’s dwell, for a second, on the “backend.” The term comes from software engineering — it describes the technical workings behind-the-scenes that uphold the public-facing pieces that we all interact with (often without thinking, or thanking). Where does the idea of a “backend” figure into artistic production?
Anybody who's created something could play Hivemind and unpack it to reveal and make visible parts of the backend of their production process.
The argument that we're trying to make with Hivemind is that everything has a backend, or hidden social and infrastructural and technological components. And that these structures that are possibly even more important than the “frontend” interfaces through which we most often interact with the world. In the idea of the world being made up of objects, there's a purification of the production processes that go into creating any thing. This could also be called the fetish of the commodity, where production is no longer seen as a social endeavor and commodities themselves compete against each other. Production processes, and the ways in which people are involved in creating something, are rendered invisible and are no longer pertinent into the circulation of the thing itself.
Why did it take the form of a game?
We use the term game loosely. The intent is to enter a world with a playful approach. It’s different from a game in the sense that there aren’t strict winning conditions or obstacles. But we use the format of a labyrinth to bring a game-like approach.
This is also about breaking away from traditional archival practices, and working with game formats as a way to share and document art (especially art made with technology) in a way that embraces the nonlinearity and knotted threads of creative process. We also wanted to experiment with experiential and hybrid modes of articulating the collective and collaborative nature of many artistic endeavors — through knowledge, inspiration, specialized technical labor, software or hardware tools, or open source libraries — even when those endeavors might usually be presented as individual.
Part of the intent was also to create a format that was meant to be streamed. Thinking about it as something to be shared with an audience, prompted us to asking how we could make it feel like a game, and to think about traditional streaming formats from the world of online gaming culture. We asked: what are people’s expectations of streaming, having someone talking while playing through something? Then we linked this to the archival practices we were exploring.
What’s the basic structure and narrative?
You play as the Librarian — an inhabitant of the Labyrinth who diligently cares for its life — and bring materials with you in your inventory, which are contained in your companion, the Orb, a sort of guide through the narrative. As you walk through the labyrinth, you encounter a number of hives. Each hive prompts you to show different materials you have brought and place them within the hive, and in doing so, answer a question about your artistic process, your practice.
So Hivemind is a game that allows artists, or anyone really, to reflect on a completed project or artwork, to break down the process they went through to create some and retrace their steps. You contribute a range of media files to the inventory, such as text scraps, research clippings, 3D objects, work in progress images or videos, screen recordings, sound files, details about your collaborators or code documentation. In the Labyrinth, you search for hives. When one is discovered, its branches illuminate and grow larger, which helps you see which hives you have passed through, so you can see where you’ve been and where you haven’t.
“Knowing is always a dance with the unknowable.”
In terms of inspiration, we talked about the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, which is a story about an “Area X,” suffused with some unknowable phenomenon that takes over a patch of land and swallows researchers who enter it in strange and horrifying ways. The story is a journey into the unknown, and foregrounds humans’ inability to ever understand the world fully.
When building Hivemind as a knowledge game, we thought about the uncomfortable territory between knowing and not knowing, and about how knowing is always a dance with the unknowable. The journey to develop knowledge takes labyrinthine paths through dead ends such that when you finally arrive somewhere recognizable, the thread that brought you there has been lost.
We created an origin myth for Hivemind to draft its lore and articulate its mysterious world. We wrote:
It is not clear where the Labyrinth is located, who created it or where it came from. Legend says that in the separation of the known from the unknowable, a maze with no beginning took shape in the void. Its thread has been lost. And the labyrinth has been lost as well.
What at first appears as a weaving and meandering structure made of a solid material, unravels into something fleshy and irregular composed of organic cells. Light does not reflect but diffuses through it. It seems more like a living creature than something inanimate. Its walls seem to contain stars and celestial fungi…
How did you build this wonky pastel world?
The game was built with Unreal Engine and the elements were modeled with Blender. We started with a needs-mapping phase where we tried to work out what would make Hivemind useful to artists, and what would make it useful to the audience. From that we started experimenting with different mechanics in Unreal and prototyping the frameworks.
We had a series of different prototypes over the 8 weeks of building this project. We wanted to make a system so it would be easy for people to drag their own assets into the game before beginning to play. A lot of work that went into honing the worldbuilding and the feel of the world — the plants, sound, and visual immersive qualities — came towards the end.
Focusing on process over final products may be one life lesson from gaming — because, duh, when you finish a game, it’s over and it’s sad. But are there any others?
As a game-maker you want to create a complex experience — the best games are the ones that are not easily determined. You have to think about the right amount of structure to allow for things to emerge and to create inertia towards end points or narrative moments that you hope to bring forth while, at the same time, creating enough space for the player to, well, play around. In this sense, games provide useful frameworks for thinking about any type of creation in the world, tying into the relation between micromanagement and facilitation. The best games facilitate new types of social interaction or encourage the players to go on a journey themselves, rather than telling people what to think or what to do. Making a game becomes an exercise in worlding, finding enough structure and detail to create the vibe and the atmosphere without overdetermining people's interactions.
During the first Serpentine livestream, some people in the chat asked about a (not-yet-existing) location in the game called the Energy Hive. This speculative zone would be a space for navigating dead ends, burnout, and stress, all of which are sadly familiar in the tech and art worlds. Does framing our knowledge-exchanges in game form help us find a way out of those?
There have been interesting analyses of gaming through the lens of labor (also called ‘playbour’), finding the ways in which many popular games actually mimic labor processes and the behaviors of work, as Paul Butler has described. In the game Death Stranding, you play a courier delivering supplies. In Axie Infinity, you collect and mint NFTs by battling others in a “play-to-earn” game that has provided a real-world income stream to working-class people affected by COVID in the Philippines, Brazil, and Venezuela. In others like Starcraft, you are rewarded for your ability to click the fastest, with players investing in special mouses to achieve the quickest clicks and most clicks per second.
With Hivemind, we’re trying to propose knowledge games as an alternative ontology of gaming that is philosophical, theoretical, and collective. We play these games together in a social context and as tools to explore and learn about each other's thinking and methods.
“Maybe by having a more transparent conversation about the energies that are expended or wasted in art-making (and labor in general), there could be more solidarity and the ability to demand better working conditions, because nobody should be stressed, burnt out or at a dead end.”
What's also interesting about the proposal for an Energy Hive that emerged during the live stream is that energy is a key component of the operational chain, the methodology we're kind of using as the backbone for Hivemind. One of the key components in thinking about heterogeneous processes, knowledges, techniques, and gestures is also energy, but in the operational chain, energy refers to power, resources and fuel. Does it use fire to turn water into steam, for example, does it rely on coal? The operational chain tries to grasp the supply chain that provides any technical phenomenon in the world with energy.
As was suggested during the stream, it's also interesting to think of energy expenditure in terms of psychosocial energies like stress or care. These energies are a key part of any creation process. Maybe by having a more transparent conversation about the energies that are expended or wasted in art-making (and labor in general), there could be more solidarity and the ability to demand better working conditions, because nobody should be stressed, burnt out or at a dead end.
ADINA GLICKSTEIN is a writer living in Berlin, and an Editor-at-Large for Spike.
You can download Hivemind at https://github.com/Trust-Support/Hivemind