Artistic Prelude to What I’ve been working on…

I remember very clearly, one of the first times I played Wizards Unite. The highly-anticipated (at least highly anticipated for Potter fans) Harry Potter mobile phone game to be released by Niantic, a videogame design firm I knew from Pokemon Go (which I have never played) and Ingress (which I have.) Part of Niantic’s claim-to-fame is their ability to produce games that overlay gameplay onto google maps: to engage with the “game world,” you literally walk to locations in the “real world” and interact with game elements that are geo-tagged to be located there.


A few days into playing the game, I visited the National Gallery of Art for an exhibit on renaissance paintings. As I wandered into a different wing of photorealistic oil paintings, my attention had waned, and so I turned on the game to see if any Harry Potter creatures were geo-tagged to the museum. Several were.

I then began to surreptitiously play the game while in the sparsely populated area. I would look at a painting of the seaside while the game loaded, then battle an Erkling (a spindly, thin goblin creature.) Erkling defeated and map reloading, I turned my attention to a still life with water shimmering through a translucent glass vase, and then looked at my phone to rescue a Mooncalf (a short, stubby, blue-furred, llama-like creature with overly large eyes) from its shackled chain. I glanced up to see to portrait woman lounged on a settee with a book. I could almost smell the light dust of forgotten past and the pine oil pressed into the glowing wood of the table where her book rested. A howler harassed two goblins. I wandered by an oversized landscape painting, which was taller than me and yet so finely detailed. I could hear the ducks as they cause small splashes as they skitted across the distant lake. I could hear to munching and soft grunting of the moose in the foreground as they grazed on the forest greens.
Alternating between the flat yet layered experience of the game with its limited pixels and yet fluid movement, and the static but deeply rich and real oil paintings caused my brain to kick into a higher gear. While one would think that playing a game would distract me from the paintings, playing the game immersed me in them more. By stimulating my brain’s flow and triggering my imagination, the game opened my mind to receive and mentally create more stimuli than were present in reality.
If playing the game increased my brain activity to such an extent that static, artistic depictions felt, sounded, and even smelled more real, then what exactly is being communicated by that game, and what augmented realities are finding their way into my mind without my being aware of it?

In the coming days, I’ll publish “Wizards Dis-United: How the Harry Potter Mobile Game Augments Reality to Strengthen White Supremacy.” A colleague, Michelle Ledder, and I are premiering it as a presentation at the Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Academic Conference this Friday, October 16, 2020.

Thai Protesters use Harry Potter Symbols to Rebuke Government

Image of Thai protesters with Wands Up Harry Potter gesture from The Guardian

Image from Photograph: Sopa/Rex/Shutterstock via The Guardian

A series of protests and rallies have spread across Thailand, condemning the government. The protesters, many of them high-school and university-aged young people, are using art to circumnavigate the lèse-majesté laws in place, making it a crime to defame, insult, or simply criticize the royal family. By using the images, symbols, and narratives in Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, protesters can critique a government which has acted in eerily parallel to the books’ plots:

  • King Maha Vajiralongkorn was crowned King Rama X of Thailand in 2016, and later the Palace led a campaign that changed the constitution to give the king increased emergency powers.
  • The Thai Crown is closely linked with the Thai military, as the king now has personal control over several influential army units and the Prime Minister previously led a military coup
  • Police have increasingly harassed activists
  • Nearly ten dissidents who have fled the country have “disappeared,” and at least two are confirmed dead
  • Public school students face stricter behavior and personal appearance guidelines set forth by the government.

The imagery and language of Harry Potter are being used by the protestors to call out their government. Many protesters use “Wands Up” gestures using prop wands or glowing cellphone flashlights to evoke imagery of the final battle for Hogwarts against the Deatheaters in the penultimate book. Some dress in Gryffindor colors or witch/wizard robes. A few dress as Deatheaters and hoist gilded gold framed images of Lord Voldemort– gold being the color of The Crown in Thailand.

The youngest protesters also use other art forms to tell their stories. The New York Times published a photograph of high-school-aged children performing the Mockingjay Salute. Their article also explains a piece of performance art by one such child protester: she was tied to a chair, a pair of scissors on her lap. Audience members (fellow protesters) are instructed by a nearby sign to cut her hair to the government-mandated crop length– even with the bottom of her earlobe.

Hundreds of young protesters use pop culture iconography, imagery, and narratives to indirectly criticize their government that limits free speech. It is indisputable, at least in Thailand, that art continues to be a powerful tool against oppression.

 

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