Los Angeles imagined in L.A.T.B.D., a project by writer Geoff Manaugh in collaboration with the London-based studio Smout Allen – comprised of Mark Smout and Laura Allen – and Jeff Watson, the Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games at the University of Southern California, with input from a host of other experts including historian Nathan Masters and filmmaker John Carpenter. Primarily installed in the Doheny Memorial Library at the University of Southern California, L.A.T.B.D. is “a nonlinear look at the future of Los Angeles, told through endlessly branching narrative chains.”
It’s part game and part research project – the fruits of Manaugh’s work as the recipient of the 2015 USC Libraries’ Discovery Fellowship, a program established in 2011 to activate the archives as a space for creative exploration and interdisciplinary collaboration. The game-aspect takes form primarily in a “choose your own adventure”-style guide, printed as an accordion pamphlet and available at the entrance. Meanwhile, the spoils of Manaugh’s adventures in the USC archives (his “Raiders of the Lost Ark experience,” as he described it during a panel preceding the opening) are laid out in vitrines and primarily include books and ephemera, both new and old. Excerpts of interviews conducted by Manaugh line the walls.
But this division hardly holds – some of the objects displayed as artifacts are in fact artifice, and the game extends into the exhibit design, notably in a series of dashing architecture models crafted by Smout Allen in wood, plastic and glass. One such model imagines a massive “seismic lighthouse” buried beneath the city, measuring the movements of tectonic plates. Another envisions power plants that harness this seismic activity. Shared interests as well as narrative elements weave together the fictional and nonfictional elements – an infrastructural invention is both imagined as a model and figures into the guide – but they also seem relatively capable of working as stand-alone elements. ...
Manaugh took the opportunity to suggest that futurism, despite its name, can be a “reenactment of something that’s 1,000 years old.” After all, he stated, “augmented reality was the logic of haunted or sacred spaces in the city.” It’s a lovely idea, and helps illuminate the apparent anachronisms of Manaugh’s brand of futurism, as well as the slippages between fiction and reality that so heavily factor into L.A.T.B.D. Manaugh, alongside his team of collaborators, offer a futurism more literary than technocentric, and therefore with recourse to less rigid and linear temporalities, as well as the powerful strategies of metaphor and metonymy (among others). Here infrastructure is not merely utilitarian (or standing reserve), but also a potent site of mystery and play.
For Manaugh, Los Angeles is “more like a force field than a city – you throw things in there and they change.” His game operates according to a similar, bricoleur logic: taking all these different ideas of the city, pushing them together, and seeing what comes out. Ideally, this also works in reverse, with the sense of playful urban interpretation suggested by L.A.T.B.D. continuing past the confines of the USC Library. That, however, seems to be up to the player.