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Games of Nonchalance

A strange institute has turned SF into a giant playground right under our noses
By - posted 4/8/2011

Jenna Kitchell finds a clue in a downtown San Francisco parking garage.

It’s nearly impossible to describe the Games of Nonchalance without giving it all away. And that, in itself, says something about the kind of experience it offers: a chance to see the city as a pervasive playground.

Players show up at a downtown San Francisco office and the game begins in the middle of it all, past hallways in which real people are working. Conspicuously, the clues manifest themselves, whether on landmarks or in parking lots. You end up in the street, hunting through Chinatown (or, in other episodes, the Mission) becoming aware of a thread that passerbys and tourists know nothing about. You have an edge.

Street Art Takes You Down the Rabbit Hole

The genesis of Nonchalance is a simple concept founder Jeff Hull shared with Sherry Wan, one of the only four regular employees of the group. There are plenty of scattershot expressions of art in the Bay Area, from the more tasteful spray painted walls & murals to stencils messages on sidewalks. For awhile, there was an artist making simple collages on cardboard chunks waterproofed with tape and attached to bus shelters with duck tape–cheap, free art you could take with you. But they were dead-ends, single art pieces that failed to take advantage of the freedom of public space. Hull was thinking about this and she said he told her, “I really wish that when you found a really great piece of street art that there was more.”

How will you find where the key goes?

Sara Thacher, the team’s lead producer and designer, made a similar point: you can go to a gallery and look at art and you know where to find it because it’s the colorful bits within wooden frames or on pedestals. With Nonchalance you don’t really know where the frame is.

“When you don’t know where the edge is, that’s when my interests really starts,” Thacher said.

The Nonchalance experimentation with what the academic world might dub “social practice” art started with signs Hull put up around Oakland warning of the Lake Merritt Monster and then floated a make-shift green serpent on the lake itself. There were public service announcement orange plates made up affixed to fences, declaring sites to be “Soon Obsolete.” These were products of a sham “Elsewhere Public Works” company, complete with a phone number you can call with a very funny recording on the other end. That’s when they really started breaking down the fourth wall.

Often times, the public doesn’t even know how to respond. When Nonchalance spread fliers around San Francisco about a Hip-Hop Shoe Repair service, they got calls from Yelp.com trying to sell them ad space.

Waiting for the game to start... or has it already started?

Missing The Finish Line

Their work is not without precedent. The late Allan Krapow conducted over 200 audience-participation “Happenings” in the late 50’s and 60’s. One famous piece involved spectators moving, on cue, to experience elements such as a woman squeezing an orange, a concerto played on toy instruments or an artist painting. Other events were as simple as piling huge ice cubes and letting people touch them, causing them to melt. And if something didn’t happen according to plan, so much the better. “For when something goes ‘wrong’,” Krapow once said, “something far more ‘right,’ more revelatory, has many times emerged.”

Though Nonchalance offers paths to follow, participants can miss, skip or misinterpret clues and still go on with the game. You can take breaks for lunch or individualized exploration.

“We placed a premium on not dictating the boundaries of what the experience is,” said Wan, the team’s business developer. “It’s a different concept if you think about entertainment as just going to the movies or the theater or to a show. That type of entertainment is pretty straight forward.”

Games of Nonchalance
JeJune Institute, San Francisco

How to start: Drop in the Jejune Institute at 580 California Street, Suite 1607 between 12-5pm on Tuesday-Sunday. To make an appointment ahead of time (which is recommended on weekends) call (415) 325-4014.

What to bring: A friend, partner or group of people, preferably with curiosity and know-how. About two hours of free time, preferably during the weekdays. Comfortable yet fashionable walking shoes.

Cost: For the first episode, $1.50 plus tax.

For more information (however cryptic): http://www.nonchalance.com

Photos by Perry Shirley


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