Susie Neilson talks to the director of The Institute, a documentary about an alternate reality game that had San Franciscans wandering the city streets in search of heaven on earth.
Image from Flickr via roger4336.
The moment you hit play, fiction bleeds into reality. Signs shift and change; a man begins to wave out at you from the city streets.
Congratulations. You’ve officially been inducted into The Institute, a documentary film chronicling the three-year run of an alternate reality game in San Francisco. Conceptual artist Jeff Hull cloaked the game under the auspices of the “Jejune Institute,” a sham cult obsessed with transcendence of the ordinary. Those who called the Institute after being lured by its various advertisements found themselves listening to a cool female voice. “For all dark horses with the spirit to look up and see,” she announced, “a recondite spirit awaits.”
So what is an alternate reality game? It’s difficult to understand until you play, but the basic premise is straightforward enough: It’s an alternate means of navigating through reality, a playful, narrative-based way to transcend the mundane through urban scavenger hunts, special “missions,” and various mental and physical challenges. After drinking the metaphysical Kool-Aid, the punky inductees of this particular game—the Institute’s—would roam the streets of San Francisco in search of Elsewhere, a parallel plane of existence characterized by playful ethereality. But reaching Elsewhere meant going places most of these folks had never dreamed of, from urban spelunking through the city’s sewage system to engaging in “rigorous physical jamming”—i.e., Daft Punk-fueled dance parties with sasquatches—in an effort to stop an energy attack from another dimension. One inductee followed a set of taped instructions all the way to a battered bookstore (in The Mission?), in hopes of finding a text on interdimensional hopscotch.
Filmmaker Spencer McCall helped Hull document his zany project for several years. Throughout his film, he keeps a close lens on the action, guiding us through the strange inventions and allegations of cult activity that lent bite to the secret. He speaks to the bewildered San Franciscans that got swept up in the game. He probes deep into the darker side of the game, investigating its mysterious nonfictional motive and speaking with Organeil, the shadowy legend who wrapped himself deeper into the fold than anybody else.
Throughout it all, McCall purposefully leaves many of the mysteries intact, weaving us a yarn that’s as knotty and baffling as its subject. So we asked McCall to help us unravel it here.
—Susie Neilson for Guernica
Guernica: What’s the premise behind this Institute?
Spencer McCall: From the mid to the late ’90s, there have been these things called alternate reality games. Ninety-nine times out of 100, alternate reality games are a campaign to sell something, whether that’s a marketing ploy or a plan to sell Reese’s peanut butter cups. But for [artist] Jeff Hull—to this day I still don’t know where the money came from, the money’s always been the mystery to me. But I guess Jeff’s plan was to take this multimedia platform, this way of telling a story, and [use it] to commemorate an ex-girlfriend of his that went missing in the ’80s. He’s a street artist—he’s done a lot of graffiti and installations, weird, fringey stuff in the Bay Area. When he came into this mystery money, the way he approached it was—the inspiration was—this girl that went missing.
The film for me, at its core, is kind of like a love song, or love letters to this girl who went missing.
Everybody would say, “Hey, go to the 16th floor of this building in the Financial District. It’ll change your life.” But nobody would say anything else. You’d be like, what’s there, what happens?
Guernica: How did you hear about this crazy phenomenon?
Spencer McCall: Around late 2008-2011, there were these whispers all over San Francisco. Where everybody would say, “Hey, go to the 16th floor of this building in the Financial District. It’ll change your life.” But nobody would say anything else. You’d be like, what’s there, what happens?
Then you’d go to the building, and you’d see the induction room…and you’d get sent on this crazy adventure.
The clandestine nature of the experience was so vital. People did a great job of keeping that alive but still spreading the word, that this was an experiential piece of art. So I guess I just heard about it through my friend Gordo.
At the time, I worked for a company that did dog cloning.
Guernica: Whoa. I didn’t know they could do that.
Spencer McCall: What—clone dogs? Yeah, it was the only company that did that in the world for a while. I did the media for it. I got to travel all the way around the world, filming the deliveries and the cloned puppies to the rich people who owned them. I was kind of the propaganda master, putting videos out to show that propaganda was good. [laughs]
Then it went out of business, I lost my job, and at the time I was just kinda bumming around, looking for video jobs. Ultimately my friend Gordo got me in touch with [the Institute.] Every 6 months I’d get an email saying, “Hey, can you do this video?” I got very limited information. After a few years of doing that, I had enough accumulated footage from them to get a picture of what this project sort of was.
There were numerous, numerous individuals who didn’t think about this in any kind of trivial manner. This was a serious manner, not to be trifled with, a battle between good and evil…nature and science.
Guernica: Did you know Organeil (pronounced Organelle), the movie’s craziest character?
Spencer McCall: No, but people said that I should know him; he’s got a lot of perspective on the whole thing. And he really does, I used a very small fraction of what I interviewed him about. I got his whole life story—it was amazing. I don’t even know where to start with Organeil…all the things that toe the line between reality and fiction.
His life story is insane. He’s a runaway, he’s been visited by these interdimensional beings, he was born on Christmas so he’s got this grandeur complex, he considers himself Messianic. It’s really crazy. He was angered by my portrayal of him, because I didn’t include a lot of his philosophy…these pseudoscientific insane ramblings. He was hoping I’d get this manifesto out there, because he’s homebound. He hasn’t left home since July 2009.
Guernica: Were most of the other players eccentric?
Spencer McCall: Absolutely. The word I would use is unstable. There were numerous, numerous individuals who didn’t think about this in any kind of trivial manner. This was a serious manner, not to be trifled with, a battle between good and evil…nature and science. Ultimately, as hard as I tried to reach out to those people, the closest one I got to was Organeil. Close to 10,000 people participated in this, and out of those, probably about 100 were closer to delusional tendencies, off-kilter ideas…maybe that’s just reflective of this city and the counterculture, but there were definitely some spooky people involved.
Guernica: Who is Octavio Coleman Esq., the “villain” in the game?
Spencer McCall: An actor—a brilliant one. Arye Michael Bender. He’s got a rich history in the Bay Area. Any kind of game or story needs a good villain, someone to rally against. He helped turn the story into a bit of an opera. I think it’s something people needed.
Guernica: Yet there wasn’t a “bad guy gets killed” kind of resolution at the end of the film. Was there a purpose behind that irresolution?
Spencer McCall: Absolutely. That was definitely Jeff’s goal, to say, “Look, you can be triumphant without blowing up the bad guy, without making his guts explode.” For me, that’s always been frustrating, that the movie only ends when the bad guy gets killed. That this idea is constantly reinforced in our culture. I mean, life is so precious, so to not have the bad guy humiliated or killed at the end, but to say, “That’s not what it was about, I was giving you a motivation to go out and explore,” it was great.
That being said, a movie needs a greater resolution than an experimental art piece. So for the film, I needed an end…I needed to solve something. And to me, that was figuring out why Jeff did this. What he never admitted was that Eva, the girl he based this on, was real. The fact that that’s the catalyst is what I felt most fulfilling. That was enough for me.
Sometimes you need ambiguity to truly discover; sometimes you need mystery to solve a mystery.
Guernica: It was interesting to me that you didn’t have any narration in the film. Was that on purpose?
Spencer McCall: Yeah. When I started working, I had every intention of using a narrator, and I have pages of voiceover that kind of hold your hand as you walk down the road of discovery. Then maybe halfway through the film, I analyzed what I was making, what the point of the film is, what the art project is, and I realized how detrimental [narration] would be to the film. I’d be doing such a disservice to what this project meant, which was about self-discovery. It was about being presented with media, and the situations of experience, and doing it on your own and learning about yourself as you explored. To have a narrator—to have someone telling me what these images mean—it would’ve killed any hope of continuation of that idea. Sometimes you need ambiguity to truly discover; sometimes you need mystery to solve a mystery. So it felt very contrived, to add voiceover.
I wanted to turn the film itself into a game. If you do enough Googling, you’ll get all the answers you want. But for me, it’s almost more fun not knowing everything. It’s almost a metaphor for life and existence in general. There’s so much we won’t know, being here and being sentient. That’s why we read books and movies, we like knowing there’s an answer in this world, but often we get these false platitudes from movies.
Guernica: What do the central ideas of the film—nonchalance and Elsewhere—mean to you?
Spencer McCall: Nonchalance is this idea that if you remain naïve to a lot of the problems in the world, at least, the more trivial problems—like heartbreak, or finance, or doing laundry—if you don’t let those sink into your body or mind, then you’re impenetrable to them.
So the idea that being naïve, having your head in the clouds, can make you impenetrable to pain and stress. People who are in the clouds often seem to be the most balanced, and happy. They’re rare, but we see them. Like the character in Harry Potter, Luna Lovegood. She’s very floaty, like a cloud—nothing can hurt her. However, in the film the concept of nonchalant is, you’re either going to be that way or you’re not. The idea was nonchalance is this natural concept, that it can either come to you or not.
So nonchalance is enlightenment. Elsewhere is…I don’t want to say heaven. It’s like the world that you live in if you’re a nonchalant. Elsewhere is this place of magic. It’s almost this unattainable thing. A lot of people had this idea of what Elsewhere was. It’s never fully fleshed out or explained simply because you had to have your own interpretation of it.
I’m gonna start making a film about someone who doesn’t know they’re in the film—and that’s all I’m gonna say at this point.
Guernica: What are your plans for the future?
Spencer McCall: I’m in the early phase of my next feature. Things are busy right now with screenings and things. I’m so lucky, don’t get me wrong, it’s like trouble in paradise, but I want to get back into production on a feature. It’s going to be science fiction-y, and mystery.
Basically I’m gonna start making a film about someone who doesn’t know they’re in the film—and that’s all I’m gonna say at this point.
Guernica: Is that…legal?
Spencer McCall: [laughs] it will be. With this person, it will be.
The Institute is screening across the country throughout October.
Susie Neilson is a junior at Northwestern University, where she studies journalism. She is feisty and bookish. Reach her in Seattle, Chicago, or on Twitter.