“I wanted to use trolling to address serious issues and ask questions.” London-based artist Calum Bowden, whose work examines our relationship with emerging technologies, is discussing Calls of Duty, his 2016 collaborative performance project that comprised a series of group vocal interventions within the popular first-person shooter games Call of Duty and Counter Strike.
The term “trolling”, in the context of the internet, refers to the act of publicly posting or voicing comments designed to provoke emotional reactions and instigate arguments. These anonymous and often cruel interventions have had some hugely destructive effects on victims’ wellbeing, but through Calls of Duty, Bowden subverted this association and used trolling as a tool for enacting positive debate.
“I grew up on video games, but I was always drawn to MMOGs for the interactions you could have with random people around the world. I found it exciting to have discussions with people forced into voice connection with me,” he says. “Calls of Duty came about when I began revisiting the bizarre mismatch of open voice communications and first-person shooter game mechanics.”
Bowden’s decision to introduce the video game medium into his practice came after he discovered the extent to which they infiltrate real-world affairs. “I found this NSA intelligence report leaked by Edward Snowden that discusses the ways terrorist organisations use video games for training and recruitment and conversation,” he says.
The project was developed over several stages. It began with Bowden adapting a Vietnam war protest song by 1960s psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish to address the War on Terror, which he then performed while playing Counter Strike online.
Bowden went on to stage a group occupation with a selection of participants from different walks of life, including a lawyer, a journalist and a teacher, who were invited to read out songs and written texts of their choosing. This was inspired by a performance by artist Lucy Reynolds called A Feminist Chorus, which involved the artist creating a score out of different feminist texts read by multiple participants. “Lucy’s project is about the communal voices of feminist history, and I found the format interesting because it’s not a polished performance, but more like a rehearsal, and participants bring whatever they like to the events,” Bowden says.
Among the attendees at Bowden’s group occupation was Zahra Qadir, then the news and social media officer at Active Change Foundation (ACF), a community leadership group set up with the aim of providing a space to discuss and tackle violence, extremism and religious hatred. “I had seen ACF’s viral #NotInMyName campaign and had a discussion with Zahra Qadir about ways they work to subvert the use of social media,” Bowden says. This introduction led Bowden to work with ACF on a third Calls of Duty event. “A collaboration grew out of conversations I would have with Zahra and Hamza [Abdulwahi, another member of ACF] about their subversive approach to the use of media.”
ACF have a youth centre in Walthamstow, London, which provides a space for young people to play video games and ping pong after school. Bowden made this centre the base for a series of workshops in 2016. “We had several sessions together over a few months where we discussed our favourite games, game genres, structures, themes, and graphics,” he says.
Bowden says the players’ understanding of video games meant they easily adapted to the task. “I think because they were already familiar with the gameplay and the type of language used in voice chat, they were willing to try messing with it, trolling, and communicating different types of messages.” The sessions culminated in a performance in front of a live audience at Rich Mix, an arts centre in London, for which Bowden asked each participant to select a written work or song to read out while playing Counter Strike. “The tone of the interventions was varied – it ranged from listicles like ‘30 of the Most Inspirational Quotes of All Time’ and a poem about time wasting, to just general banter about the game,” Bowden says.
On the day of the live performance at Rich Mix, the emphasis was on allowing events to unfold naturally. “It was all about improvisation. Texts are a good starting point, but they usually generate unexpected discussions, and I was thinking about platform design and the frameworks that structure something without forcing any specific outcome,” Bowden says. The result was a set responses ranging from anger and resistance to active participation. “The most common response was a bit of swearing and joking, but one of the best reactions was when someone was reciting a song, and this player turned out to be a grime artist and started sharing some of his verses.”
Through the use of multiple of voices in these interventions, Bowden hoped to draw on the work of 20th-century German political theorist Hannah Arendt. “Arendt writes in her essay On Violence that the opposite of violence is not non-violence, but power, which she understands as the the ability to ‘act in concert’,” he says. “Calls of Duty is about looking at the things that mediate between violence and power, the role of the voice, and the technologies that enable contemporary concerts. By throwing different platforms against each other – the Counter Strike game, the Active Change Foundation, and the space created for Calls of Duty at Rich Mix – I hoped to make their different effects visible.”
In each instance, by interrupting the typical experience of online shooter games, Bowden and his fellow participants forced the other players to engage in critical discussions around sexism, prejudice and violence. Negating the culture of isolation inherent within the digital sphere, Calls of Duty provided a platform for global debate that welcomed entirely new voices into the conversation.
Calum Bowden is currently completing a fellowship at FLAMIN. He is also co-curating a programme at Trust in Berlin, a platform for “utopian conspiracy”.