Interview for Springerin magazine (Austria) about “The Big Plot”. 2009.
Alessandro Ludovico: You defined The Big Plot as a romantic spy story played on the infosphere. Can you give me a more detailed description?

Paolo Cirio: It's experimental storytelling, which uses videos, texts, pictures, signs and performances to tell a story about espionage, political issues and sentimental relationships. It is presented over several media channels and in public spaces and includes audience participation. The spectators play a crucial role in the unfolding of the story; they follow clues by reading diaries and watching videos of the characters, they assist at public events, they find other pieces of the story disseminated over the internet and they can contact the characters to find out more information.
The fiction is based on a true story; the main role is a Russian spy who was arrested in Canada three years ago. By using his real cover name, I exploited his identity and his life to fictionalize an alleged plot by a Russian political movement. One of the aims of this movement (which does have a counterpart in real world as well) is to create a super-state called Eurasia. During the story any political aspirations are spoiled by complicated love tangles and weaknesses in the psychological integrity of all the characters.

AL: The story revolves around four main characters. Each has uploaded videos to their own YouTube channel and pictures to Flickr accounts. They each manage a Facebook account, and usually a blog. Some use even more platforms (like a LinkedIn account), some use less. Do you conceive of social networks just as a means to properly channel specific types of information or as platforms with specific qualities that need to be exploited as a group? How did you make use of them for the different characters?

PC: Each character functions as a narrator and each chooses what to show us, providing a versatile, expressive tool to work with. Such active roles convey connotations to the story by developing distinct narrative voices through the way they manipulate media.
So a character's choice of social network platforms and how they use these platforms helps to depict traits and qualities. For example, the spy, who is the oldest character, does not over-expose himself. He posts a little photography work on Flickr and has a Facebook account, but only because his friends have forced him. In contrast, the political leader spreads his propaganda widely, making use of several platforms, while the journalist exploits the social platforms suitable for her job, such as LinkedIn.
However here we need to mention a distinction: between media that log our lives without our consent or control, and those we intentionally use to broadcast our personal information. To make reference to this important difference, the project also details some information on platforms like Google and Wikipedia. Each media aims to have an appropriate narrative function.
The notion of Personal Media should have a broader meaning, in which any technology that allow us to broadcast personal content becomes a powerful and dangerous tool for social relations. Look at the portable devices that increase permanent interconnectedness, social networking applications that boost interpersonal communication, fast platforms for self-publishing and the consequential general loss of privacy – all these things affect how we experience our private lives and how we relate to others. The book The Future of Reputation By D. J. Solove explains some of these issues.
Dramaturgically, the characters of any contemporary fiction should deal with social media, because they are the most utilized way of communicating sentiments, events, relations, etc. of common people. The empathic effect on spectators should be stronger when a fiction uses the same medium of expression of audience's ordinary articulation of the reality.

AL: You selected the four professional actors through a real casting process. Their recognizability is primarily through their faces (as it is in the Facebook philosophy), so was this the most important element you considered in the selection, or were there others? How have you planned their interrelation?

PC: Like a casting for a movie I selected actors who better personified the characters of the story, but in a way that blurs actors' real lives and fictional identities. For example, the psychologist of the middle managers is actually a real New York psychologist, his second job after being an actor. He acted and recorded some of the video episodes in his studio. The young leader is a native Russian guy, who sang in a Russian rock band with its own real-life fan base. The journalist is enacted by an actress who lives between Toronto and Berlin, and who often travels in Russia, exactly alike the fictional character does in the fiction.
I also asked the actors to give me some of their intimate pictures, which portray them with real friends and relatives. This posting of real pictures on the characters' blogs and Facebook profiles, in combination with fictional revelations of their experiences, created a perilous mixture of verisimilitude, which resulted in some actors refusing to take part at the audition stage. I was extremely determined to obscure real and fictional spheres, without missing specific attributes of both.

AL: It's essential that part of The Big Plot happens in physical reality, especially some of your interventions, which can be described as creating an "Alternate Reality Game". What's your approach to playing online and offline at the same time? Did you face any unexpected results?

PC: Through my experience creating and orchestrating smart-mobs with street-art happenings, I have become interested in actions conducted in public spaces that are organized via digital networks, in which participants are directed by instructions to show up at a real-world location. Unsettling the social conventions of public spaces is one of my major ambitions. Inevitability, I saw creating an Alternate Reality Game as a way to bring together all my former experiences and to exercise myself in theatre and cinema, which are also my passions.
The point of working on physical reality is that if a project is not declared as fiction, or art, people believe in it much more than online reality, where people are always more skeptical and the effects are softer - working with both could simulate reality almost perfectly. This simulation is the scenography of the stage where roles play the fiction.

AL: After the plot reached an appropriate stage of development you decided to open the platform and so the narrative. Then, after some press feedback you told me that a student community in US started to develop many more characters and stories, deeply shaping the story. Who are they and what, in your opinion, motivated them to embrace the story?

PC: Honestly, I haven't much information about who they are, but I'm quite impressed with their determination and insistence to act in the story. They set up more than ten new characters with Facebook profiles, blogs, twitters, and so on - some even posted video pieces. They follow the plot-line, however they created new pieces of the story, over which I lose all control, except via the four main characters who try to lead them dramaturgically.
From a proposed experiment, I have created a real participative drama, which is not a hoax or a game but genuine fiction. I think that with the Alternate Reality Game, we definitely surpass older notions of passive media spectatorship. People have learned some rules and practices – they now know how to act and play in immersive stories.

AL: This movie is scattered in online platforms and physical reality with multiple points of reference. Are you comfortable in calling it a post-movie? And why do you think it can be defined as "Recombinant Fiction"?

PC: It does look like a post-movie, but there is an ongoing discussion about how to call this "new form of art", and there have already been many suggestions. I use "recombinant" because I think that the Critical Art Ensemble theory of Recombinant Theatre has given prophetic and creative ideas of new forms of fiction, specifically when they have a political or social dimension. Personally, I see The Big Plot as a conceptual art piece, although it's difficult to maintain a formal integrity because of its experimental nature.

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