This work is an interactive audio-oriented video game. The above documentation is a play-through demonstrating the key elements of typical gameplay.
FORMAT: Audio-oriented video game programmed in Max MSP
DURATION: variable; this walkthrough ~12 mins
PERSONNEL: solo performer
ORCHESTRATION: speech, live recorded/replayed audio, MIDI, found-sound, electronic manipulation
I love the detergent aisle at the supermarket. It’s not that I’m a germophobe (just ask my housemates): my infatuation with cleaning products consists entirely in the dazzling array of lurid, sparkly, bombastically-advertised bottles. This soap selection has a similarly vast range of price-points, too – but of course, it’s probably the same liquid, just in different packaging (rinse and repeat). If hyper-commercialisation is one ubiquitous modern experience, then surely e-commerce, the online point-of-sale, is its natural bedfellow. Duncan’s Detergent Den combines these mundane threads into one affectedly retro, audio-oriented video game, taking the form of a mock online store selling only cleaning products. When Duncan himself – an anthropomorphised sponge – belittles customers either for their hygiene habits or for insufficient spending, he intensifies and makes patent the modern marketing technique of imposing unrealistic, normative standards on consumers. All transactions are conducted in bucka-rucka-rees and dollary-doos; the exchange rate between these two fictious currencies is entirely random and changes periodically. A robotic voice reads Roland Barthes’ Soap-Powders and Detergents in the background, punctuated by vaguely discomfiting messages from Duncan and the satirical advertisements for each of the nine available detergents. The absurdist multimedia components combine vintage footage from bowling rinks, viral YouTube videos and heavily manipulated voiceovers. Almost all sonic elements are interactive – clicking on different parts of the advertisement window will manipulate its audio in real-time. Once a customer has finished selecting their purchases, they can proceed to the checkout protocol – in the interests of spoiler avoidance, I’ll leave that for you to explore…
The following remarks are adapted from an exegetical paper submitted as part of my final-year folio at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music.
I’ve always loved the ridiculousness of dishwashing detergent. It’s one of my favourite consumerist absurdities, paralleled only by self-raising flour and frozen garlic. Dishwashing detergent is hilarious because almost all products work equally well. Yet in every supermarket, there’s this wild range of advertising methods...and an even wilder range of price-points! This whole perspective was gratified when I read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957), which includes his fantastic essay Soap-powders and Detergent. (pp. 36-38) I decided to draw on the hilarity and semiotic value of detergent and create an absurdist, satirical, interactive detergent self-service checkout: Duncan’s Detergent Den was born.
(The anthropomorphised sponge who owns the Detergent Den is called Duncan – and not another 'D' name, like Danielle or Dougal – in honour of David Bowie’s son. Originally christened Zowie Bowie, Bowie Jnr waited until he turned 18 before promptly changing his name to Duncan.)
The satirical element is crucial: I am becoming increasingly fed up with the staid seriousness of contemporary experimental practices, and endeavour more than ever to incorporate humour and play into my work. Sometimes, I have done this without sociopolitical ramifications. In this project I have worked to sophisticate my cultural commentary by framing it in a satirical context. I feel strongly that humour is a brilliant method of disarming conservatism and criticism, and of subverting art-music’s propensity for traditionalist, elitist notions of virtuosity and solemn self-consciousness. It is also an excellent means of achieving the unpredictability which I had identified as a goal of the overall project – the work is routinely asymmetrical with regards to content and structure. The dissolution of logical sequences through the gameplay facilitates a dismantling of conventional formal organisation. In developing this piecemeal approach to curating an absurdist aesthetic, I’ve drawn heavily on influences from various media:
Flaming Lips (popular music)
Mighty Boosh (television)
Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel (art music/multimedia)
Umbilical Brothers (comedy)
Leonora Carrington (literature)
Beyond the critical and aesthetic concerns developed throughout Duncan’s, a commitment to interactivity is self-evident and guided the compositional process from conception to realisation. Duncan’s represents my first foray into real-time interactivity; it synthesises my two existing but previously separate practices of indeterminate works and animated/graphic notation. For a brilliant exposition on different modes of interactivity, it's hard to go past that outlined by Joel Chadabe (found in Gottschalk’s Experimental Music Since 1970 (2016)):
Simple action and reaction: eg. pressing a key on a piano and hearing a note.
“Fly-by-wire”: like a pilot flying a plane “at a higher level of abstraction, while giving control of complex local variables over to the system.”
Conversational technologies: instruments/systems which react (apparently) autonomously to performer-supplied input.
Multidimensional “life model”: interaction takes place “between a musician and an entire multidimensional context.”
Structure & functionality
The following is a simplified schematic of the structure of Duncan’s Detergent Den:
A player’s progression through the work is fairly intuitive; we are all familiar with online cart functionality or with supermarket self-service checkouts. Users play through three interactive interfaces (pictured below). Depicted below: the entry protocol; the main interface; and finally, the checkout.
The entry protocol requires users to speak and record their own name – this audio is then used to address the player at various points throughout the shopfront process, in a manner analogous to the use of personalised salutations in commercial mailing-list email communications. If the player fails to record their name in a reasonable timeframe, they are simply assigned the name ‘fuckwit’. Once inside the main shopfront, players can click on various labels, each of which trigger satirical or absurdist messages. Background audio also plays constantly – a looping, computerised rendition of the entirety of Barthes’ Soap-powders and Detergent is periodically interrupted by various randomly-generated messages. Clicking on a given, unbranded product triggers its advertisement (see screenshots below):
These advertisements can be manipulated by clicking on the screen as they play – a robotic list of all ingredients in the product is then read out. The location of the click determines the speed, pitch and volume of the playback.
Following the playing of each ad, a dialogue box offers a special promo on the given product, after which players will either be congratulated on their purchase by means of a video lifted straight from early-2000s bowling arcade animations (see below), or asked to re-consider their decline.
There is not scope here to discuss each and every aspect of the work, however I shall speak to the way in which the work provides each of the Chadabe's four modes of interactivity. Simple action-reaction occurs when the user clicks a ‘label’, and so triggers audio-visual material to play instantly and then return to the main screen. Abstract control occurs where the player clicks on a product without really knowing which brand of detergent it is, and is then guided through a sequence of successive encounters without any possibility of escape. Conversational technologies are present in the instances (labelled pink in the schematic) where the player is required to say their name or sing a lullaby, and the system responds accordingly. Finally, the sense of a multidimensional “life model” being at play manifests through the background audio and its periodic interruptions. These interruptions are triggered independently of the player, and which audio or action is triggered is entirely random. An element of indeterminacy, over which the player has no control, is thus incorporated into Duncan’s interactive experiential framework.
Click here for a PDF version of the above commentary and documentation.
For a version of Duncan's Detergent Den which can be hosted on desktop Max 8, please email me. There are versions for MacOS and Windows available...but pushing Max to its limits means that it's not as straightforward as a download link!