About the Project
What is this about?
The project AlterPieces is an investigation into value, fantasy, neat objects, geek culture, and psychology (in no particular order) through the exchange of objects and personal narratives. In plainer terms, I am making jewelry depicting fantasy characters for the people who invent and portray them.
Specifically, I am addressing the communities involved in what I like to call "participatory fantasy," in which those consuming the narratives they enjoy are creating them at the same time. Reading a book or watching a television show creates a certain level of engagement, but when people actually get involve in the shaping of a story through role-playing or appropriating characters into their own stories, something different is happening. These communal forms of narrative are also distinct from modern single-source authorship, and begin to resemble the sort of accumulating oral histories that form myths and legends.
Now, while sociological studies of gaming and fan fiction are great, they require a certain level of detachment which is fundamentally at odds with the collaborative nature of the subject. Fortunately for me, I am not an anthropologist and thus get to muck around via the wholly subjective approach of art.
So...what are you doing, exactly?
I start by finding people who enjoy participatory fantasy. My first efforts have been focused on folks who do old fashioned pencil-and-paper tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Vampire the Masquerade, Dark Heresy, and so forth, due to the inherent collaboration required and relative openness of character design. For the uninitiated, TRPGs function a little bit like improvisational theater. Typically, one person is designated "game master" and takes on the task of creating the setting and basic story elements; the rest of the players portray characters within the story and attempt to find their way through the plot. Each player has a single character who develops over the course of multiple games, and it is not uncommon for players to use the same character for years of weekly play. The specific game chosen sets up the rules for interactions, and is primarily a framework for allowing the narrative to emerge from the interactions of the players and the story teller. As with any form of narrative entertainment, the content can vary tremendously, from simply letting off steam through rambunctious action sequences all the way to nuanced examinations of morality and mortality.
I'm really interested in expanding the work to include other subcultures, such as historical reenactment societies, online gamers, furries, and so forth. I am looking for anyone with some sort of fully fledged alternate identity used to create a participatory narrative, preferably one whose physical representation is determined by the user and not a third party.
Within the group of people interested in the subject, I look for those who have invested enough time and thought into their character to become personally attached, and get their description of the character. The nature of the player/character relationship is unique to the person, and runs the spectrum from power fantasy to curious exploration to evil twin, so I will not attempt to generalize. However, I find it pretty uniformly fascinating and much of this project is an attempt to observe how that relationship translates into physical space when tokens of the character are brought into the real world.
Armed with the players' descriptions of their characters, I create small, jewel-like depictions of the characters. The imagery may be a full-blown portrait or something more fragmentary like a single eye or fleeting gesture. I have dedicated myself to the arcane art of enameling, the specifics of which will be covered in numbing detail in the Process Blog, but which can be summed up briefly as the art of applying thin layers of powdered glass to metal and heating it until the glass melts. Due to the optical properties of the layered glass, enamel offers a range of vivid reflective and refractive properties depending on the lighting conditions. While a huge number of technical variations on the process exist, I focus mainly on miniature painting, once highly favored by European aristocracy in the days before photography. Composed mostly of copper and glass, the material value of my work is quite low; it is only the investment of time, effort, and knowledge that renders them into something precious.
Once the enamel is complete, the piece is set into a magnetic backing which can be used a number of ways. The portrait can be used as a fridge magnet, necklace, medal, brooch, lapel pin, game piece, or whatever else suits the user's fancy. I am guessing that the relationship between the player and their character will somehow manifest in the interaction between jewelry and wearer, which is why....
I send the completed piece to the player whose character it depicts and see what they do with it. At that point, it is theirs. All I ask is for feedback on how they use it, or if they use it at all. This interaction between art object and end-user is what I'm really interested in, and THAT is where an art project has the power to yield information straightforward academic research cannot. I am making intensely personalized, potentially valuable pieces of property which valorize something generally seen as marginal, and I want to see where that leads.
Why are you doing this?
Participatory fantasy is really interesting as a cultural phenomenon, with its strange mix of collaboration, individualism, strict rules, rampant imagination, psychology, sociology, identity, performativity, and more. However, despite its complexity, it still suffers from a certain amount of social stigma and lack of respect even as so-called "geek culture" has spilled into the mainstream through books and movies. Jewelry objects have a traditional association with value, power, and prestige, so they are an ideal way to poke at these notions. I personally find that objects meant to be used are more capable of connecting with people than something simply made to be looked at, which is much of why I'm making pendants rather than paintings.