Friday 1 May 2020

Counting to One Million

What is the value of counting to one million? As in, if one person were to count all the way to one million, and you put a dollar value on them doing that, what would that dollar value be?

Counting to one million a totally pointless act. Nothing is gained by having someone count to one million.

So the answer is zero dollars, right? But then, a lot of work goes into counting to one million. Surely that work has to be worth something.

Fortunately, we need not speculate. In 2007 a man named Jeremy Harper counted to one million. He counted for 16 hours every day for 89 days. He live-streamed the whole thing.

I’ve been thinking about the value of pointless acts. About things like counting to a million: what their value is and why we do them.

I was looking back over the work I’d produced over the last year, planning to document the pieces I’d not written up, and realised this was a pretty consistent thread through all of them: pointless acts done simply to see what would happen if I did them.

Games that are unfeasible to play. Videos that are too long to watch. I like to see if they take on a life and meaning of their own with enough size, or enough time. I like sticking with an idea even when it’s going nowhere, simply to see what that nowhere looks like when you’re eyeball-deep in it.

Here’s what I’ve been up to.


A combination with my fascination with futile acts and a sense of being lost in time culminated in this alternative-controller prototype.

Three hourglasses control a clock: one for minutes, one for tens-of-minutes, and one for hours.

To add a minute to the timer, you must wait a minute before turning the minutes glass. To add a tens-of-minutes, you must wait ten minutes, and have turned the minutes glass ten times.

The installation measures the amount of time that has been spent paying attention to time.

I made a video demonstrating Hourglasses in action, but didn’t really take the piece beyond this. I liked it, but there were a couple of things missing. I wanted the hourglasses to be a consistent size, to be bigger, and of a better quality as objects - in particular I didn’t like the trailing wires getting tangled up. I also wanted the clock face itself to be a physical object rather than an animation on a screen.

I also wasn’t sure what I’d do with it after it was finished. Where do you exhibit something like this? Is it worth polishing it up even if I don’t know where it would go? In the end, I decided to put this one on ice until I had good answers for these questions.

But it got me thinking about video as a way to exhibit experiments like this - for people to engage with the idea without needing to be on-location with the object. I don’t expect anyone to watch the full 90-minute video from start to finish, but the fact that it is possible to… well, there’s something interesting in that I wanted to explore.

Journey to Lavender Town

I’ve written about this one in detail previously, but the premise is that I took a copy of Pok√©mon Red for Game Boy, and had the emulator write random data to the cartridge while it was being played. Core to the idea was that the player’s actions would infect the cartridge with bad data. The data defining the creatures would be used to corrupt the data for other creatures, as if contagion was spreading through the digital ecosystem.

I played through this modification of the game as a 27-hour long piece of video art.

I liked the strange effects that started to appear as the game fell apart. In the first hour or so you’d get all these surprising effects, but over time the experience would just become slow and murky. Against a game world that is already corrupted beyond recognition any further glitches cease to be surprising.

There was something beautiful, after the first few hours, about this world that had succumbed to slowness, incomprehensibility and decay.

I put the video up on YouTube, and never expected anybody to watch the entire 27-hour piece. I liked imagining that you could pick out any moment from it, out of time, and it would be this weird sequence of incomprehensible sounds and images… but a sequence of sounds and images unique to you. Anyone else picking a random moment would see something different.

Journey to Lavender Town was exhibited in full at the Overkill Festival - of digital art, music and games - in Enschede, NL. Watching how people interacted with it prompted me to think about what it was doing and what it wasn’t doing. I say “how people interacted with it,” but the biggest problem was that they didn’t, and on reflection I can see why.

If you walk past Journey to Lavender Town it will probably be doing nothing. A static screen of unreadable pixels with garbled noise over the top. There’s not really anything in there to stoke your curiosity, to make you stop and look. It doesn’t invite you in to explore it, figure out what’s going on, to ask you what you see in it.

So what if you watch a moment unique to you? Unless you have something to talk about with someone else, a way to describe your moment and see how it’s different from theirs, and a reason to want to find out what someone else saw, does it even matter that your moment is unique?

This is something I’ve tried to explore with subsequent pieces.


A giant 44-by-44 chessboard with 87 pawns and one king on each side. Beyond that the rules are the same as standard chess.

This was another piece trying to capture that sense of being lost in time. It also came from a sense of futility in UK politics, where I felt that those in government were technically adhering to the rules, but not acting in honesty or good faith.

To capture that feeling I wanted to create a game that was deliberately boring and uninviting. A game where no individual piece, no individual action, is of consequence. A game which expects you to adhere to its rules but has nothing to offer in return. A game about feeling small.

To exhibit it I made a couple of video sessions with the board. One against a human opponent, and one against an internet chat room on Twitch. The human-vs-human game went as I was expecting: a long, drawn-out, obvious stalemate. However, it was surprisingly fun to bump off pawn after pawn once you’d figured out a strategy for doing so. Despite a tie-game being inevitable, it was entertaining to find our own mini-objectives and put them into practice.

Playing against Twitch, the game took on a life of its own in an unexpected way: the pawns gained lives and backstories. Many moves were accompanied by little snippets of storyline, giving each pawn a name and a motivation for moving. “Jeremy steps one space forwards, not to go to battle but to get some eggs.” I tried to police the rules as much as possible, but given the effort the players were putting in to tell the story I felt it would be mean not to let them wreak a bit of havoc.

At roughly 4 hours into the stream, Jeremy became an egg, and we collegtively figured out how the egg should move on the board. At 5 hours, the stalemate was resolved by dropping an egg on the two kings. Both survived.

Pawns was selected to be part of the Now Play This exhibition at Somerset House in April 2020, which was unfortunately closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown. In its stead I was invited to run another online Pawns session. This time I decided that the audience would play against other members of the audience, and I would merely facilitate it. Without bringing attention to the fact, I decided that I would execute any moves given by the audience, regardless of whether they were legal or not.

When the audience grew wise to this, they first started cheating, but then started coming up with new moves that didn’t really fit the bounds of cheating or fairness at all: moves simply for experimentation, for storytelling, or to turn the game world upside down.

The kings were replaced with unionised pawn collectives. Some pawns went into isolation to avoid the pandemic. Some pawns went to prison, and other pawns teamed up to break them out. Bits of the board got removed and replaced with equipment from other games. This collective storytelling escalated in weirdness but retained a kind of heart and a spirit of goodwill. Uncountable viewers added ideas which were incorporated into the story, and everybody got to add a little piece to this narrative.

The session was documented in more detail here:

The transformation of Pawns into this wacky storytelling world was totally unprompted, and an absolute joy to facilitate. I’m not sure where it came from, beyond the improvisational spirit of everyone saying “yes, and” to each other’s ideas. It seemed to emerge out of nowhere, and I loved it.

There was this other little element that I never really considered in the moment but I see as I watch the footage back. It wasn’t just the game that was being played with; it was me, the host. The aerial view makes it feel like watching a lab rat in a Skinner box experiment, and while some audience suggestions poked at the boundaries of what could be done within the game board, others asked “what can we get away with asking this guy to do?”

Having the rules and objectives of chess acted as a grounding that each improvised suggestion could bounce off of. Nobody needed to be scared to chip in because, if they had no ideas, they could always just type a legal chess move. Meanwhile, every unusual command, such as “drink a glass of water filled with pawns” was that much funnier because it was supposed to be a chess move.

The hunger to explore the boundaries of what would happen was perhaps more a result of the human element than the rules of the game. The human host adds a certain unpredictability to the spectacle. “How will the guy carry out the move, if he agrees to do it at all?”

I keep on thinking about how much this piece transformed based on its context. It had been po-faced and serious when it was inert, unplayed and only seen in photographs. It gained a totally new personality when handed to an audience who were free to use it as they saw fit.

Perhaps this is the nature of playful art: serious or silly, it can be both. An unplayed game is just a provocation, but that provocation is still meaningful. Once it’s interacted with it becomes something new, defined by its players: a force the artist can nudge but not control.

Alice in Wonderland

This one’s pretty simple: I shuffled all the words in the novel Alice in Wonderland, but kept the punctuation in the same places. Then I had it printed as a book. I plan to do a dramatic reading of it at some point, but I haven’t got round to it.

Reading it aloud I like the fact that mixing random words with the intonation in the vocabulary makes it all sound like Shakespeare. But I’m fully expecting to find something new in it once I’ve been reading nonsense continuously for several chapters!

1001 Game Ideas

My plan was to come up with 1001 game ideas, in front of a camera, over the course of 8 hours. I managed 502 in 9 hours, which is still pretty good!

The idea came from looking back on Journey to Lavender Town. I liked the idea that stopping to watch for a minute would be your own personal little fragment of the spectacle, but in practice if you stopped and watched for a minute there wasn’t really anything to see. I wondered if a person talking into a camera for an unfeasibly long period of time would better capture what I was going for.

If you stop and watch you should get a little fragment: the idea that you are hearing right now, which you could perhaps describe to someone else who had seen the video. That fragment is part of an ongoing narrative that is much easier to parse than the one in Lavender Town: how tired and delirious is the man on the camera? How will he have changed when you come back after an hour?

Before filming I expected that the ideas would get increasingly repetitive and derivative as I got more tired. In reality this did not happen. I stayed very keen for these to be “good” or at least “interesting” ideas throughout. As I grew exhausted each individual idea would take longer to come out, and that goal of 1001 ideas seemed more and more impossible.

My favourite moments looking back are those spent staring, with total horror, at a word that I was getting zero inspiration from.

One Hundred Symbols

One hundred books, each one unique. Each book has one hundred pages, and on each page is one of one hundred symbols. Each of these symbols is rendered as a collection of smaller copies of these hundred symbols.

There is one symbol that appears exactly once in the entire book.

Computers are really good at dealing with extremely large numbers, and dealing with randomness in a way that is almost alien. If you ask a human to do something random they’ll do something within the limits of their imagination, prior influences and desires. When you ask a computer to do something random it really is random. That is, it follows a logic you’d never be able to follow.

I liked the way digitally generating these arrangements of symbols created something that looked like an alien artefact: incomprehensible, but also like something that is supposed to be understood.

Having one symbol in the entire book implies an objective, a game, a task: find that symbol. But the scope of the problem is so large, with far too many symbols to check through to make this even remotely doable. For a human, that is. The puzzle is there, existing in the book, and when you open it you have something you want from it beyond just looking at it. Nevertheless, this is a desire that cannot be fulfilled.

As I write this I realise that it has something in common with Pawns: that a certain part of the experience is had not through interacting with it, but in seeing it in its motionless state and knowing how it should be interacted with.

Finding something in nothingness

So, it turns out you can put a price on counting to one million. According to his Wikipedia page, Jeremy Harper’s live-stream raised $10,000 for charity.

I wonder if counting to a million would have been as valuable if the money had gone, not to charity, but to Jeremy Harper’s back pocket. I wonder how Jeremy Harper looks back on counting to one million.

Did he learn something from it? How does it feel to be the guy who did it? Is that more valuable than money ever could be?

Maybe it’s the whole world who benefits from his work. Now that Jeremy Harper has counted to one million none of the rest of us have to.

I’m looking back on these things, pieces of work I made simply to see what would happen if I made them. Each of them did, in the end, have something to say to me. Some of them didn’t work, some were simply boring, and I learnt something from examining what didn’t click. Some of them transformed into beautiful colourful things that would never have happened if the initial proposal wasn’t so oppressively dull.

Some of them taught me the value of the proposal to interact, even when interacting is impossible.

Some of them got me one step closer to the feeling of counting to one million. Not there yet, but closer. Closer to the sheer, beautiful pointlessness of counting to one million.