Portrait of a Transmedia Designer: Interview with Kevin McLeod (Part One)

Some years ago, Kevin McLeod produced a documentary called The Cruise about a New York City eccentric who takes tourists on his own idiosyncratic tour of the city. Anyone who has seen that film will recall the breathless, stream of consciousness monologues which offer us a window into the subject's distinctive view of the world. At first, it makes no sense, but then, you start to get into his groove. coverissue2.gif

Kevin McLeod's writing and design work has that same breathless quality -- full of sentence fragments and snarled syntax which never-the-less works itself out into fascinating juxtapositions. Sometimes, thoughts seem half finished but then the ellipsis provokes us to dig deeper and come away with a deeper understanding of what he is trying to say.

This makes sense when you think about what McLeod has done through his work. He is someone who has moved fluidly across different media platforms -- producing an acclaimed documentary film, collaborating on "the Beast," which helped to launch the Alternate Reality Games movement, and editing the perplexing and yet somehow engaging Mstrmnd magazine.

His argument also moves fluidly across media -- making unexpected and interesting juxtapositions between different sites of cultural production. He makes demands on us as viewers, players, and readers that grow out of deep respect for and trust in the potentials of participatory culture.

Over the next two installments, I will share a recent interview I did with Kevin McLeod. In this segment, we discuss his background and how he came to be involved as editor of Mstrmnd. Next time, we are going to dig more deeply into Mstrmnd and the ways he is trying to reinvent the magazine as a medium.

Take us through the steps of your career. What can you tell us about the path you took to your current project?

My career has moved through media, and I have been associated with some good work at various levels. I was a special production assistant for Silence of the Lambs, a role both microscopic and at rare times macro, like adding details, spotting errors, a great director like Demme is many minds in one. I worked in music video and animation production for a time, watching and assisting some pretty dynamic minds. This was pre After Effects and the oxberry was still king.

From there I was a journeyman producer, was a coproducer of the documentary The Cruise, the first DV film to gain a major distributor. Cocreated a documentary pilot called Eden, it was designed to make directors out of anyone with a daring story, hand them a cameraperson and let them explore its details. Eden was financed by the same man who financed Vice Magazine's expansion. Ultimately it was as unrealistic as its name. You Tube has converted many models like this, from commercial to consumer, and the realm can only improve in sophistication.

In 2000-2001 I traveled a great deal, India, South America, Africa, Honduras. When I returned a proposal I had written to no one in particular convinced a friend I should join a project called 'The Beast,' a non-linear narrative web-based sequel to the film A.I. Despite having no prior experience in web design or writing, I was offered one of two positions end-developing some of the sites, about a 1/3. The project was a success. In 2003 I was invited by Phoebe Elefante to contribute to a magazine called Mastermind, then became its director.

I was very interested to learn that you were part of the team that put together

the Beast. Tell me something of your role in that process. What can you tell us about the thinking which went into your design for this project?

For many readers of your blog who have never heard of it, the Beast may be difficult to comprehend. In brief imagine a film, a linear narrative, is broken up into many websites that 'tell' the story non-linearly. Each site becomes a facet through puzzlement that additively creates a complete story and the act of searching for the existence of these sites is an element in the storytelling. In effect a merging of film and hacking. The framework, the invention, the story and the conceptual was developed before I was hired.

These three innovators, Weisman, Stewart and Lee developed on paper and in motion media and in sound all the pieces of a vast narrative puzzle, still in my mind a phantasmal risk. I was asked to put their site descriptions and concepts into working web environments (context). In most cases what sounded interesting on paper seemed too logical for web design. They sometimes saw the web as a literal and logical series of tropes, the color pallets, puzzle doors, even red herring backgrounds seemed at times too pointed, almost blunt.

My role was to add the illogical, the possibility that the world this came from was living and breathing and dynamic in its time. I worked with three brilliant flash brains and we used the web content as starting points for deeper visual narratives. The lead character's company site included a brief four image 'history' of structure conceptuals that ended with a Dogon 'Mask' House that suggested a metaphorical source of the company's purpose, the creation of sentient houses. This and many other details, functions, codes were added in the websites' creation.

We distorted key environments even coded colors in ulterior narratives that added to the general search for a coherency inside a storyline that was unusually unstable. It's somewhat like adding Mario Bava touches to genre films. And the effect was immediate, soon they were adapting storylines with some of our visual pushes, minutely of course but the potential became obvious.

The project was a revelation for me. The three as well as Bob Fagan were cool short-term mentors, and as a result I became conscious of an audience you could call the first generation of media hackers. A kind of explosion of the hacker group cDc's mental state into unconscious local cells, searching for media to reconfigure, dismember, reinterpret. To glue the pieces of our fragmented data together to reveal our flaws collectively by people who are not authors per se, unconscious or not, is a new stage in media.

How did these experiences lead to the development of MSTRMND? What are your goals for this publication?

Mmm. Convergence. Ideas: My great friend Allan Maca is an anthropologist consistently recommending text and ideas in brain cognizance, perhaps I reached a melting point with his prodding.

And Movies: In 2003 I was amazed by the intelligentsia's poor reaction to The Matrix Reloaded, it was after all both satire and reconfiguration, a reverse of The Matrix's glee (no more 'whoa's). A process Lucas incorporates in his latest trilogy that they boldly affected inter-trilogy. And Reloaded is probably the first feature length film that had to be seen in Imax to be fully understood. Optically a masterpiece. The internet sped these reactions to me and made me want to respond.

A lecture I was to give on gaming suddenly was a defense of the film. My amazement led me to make a slideshow with text and puzzling image overlays in flash that described what I saw in Reloaded and I distributed this weird explanation to friends and players of the game anonymously.

This incredibly long analysis was invited to be included in a magazine named Mastermind and one thing led to another and I was asked to become editor. They sat me down and asked what content I thought would work and rattled off some jarring ideas floating in my head, a transcript of role-playing in progress, a subway map of merged lines, a Slavery Museum for Washington DC, a videogame script involving terrorism countdowning, a day by day study of the post 9/11 anthrax narrative, a comic book called Wooden Mirror.

Now the magazine is made up of many with myself in the role as puppetmaster, and content is touched, fleshed or created by other incredibly unique personas to make a finished product. The initiator of the business and the board members and I continue a dialogue together that is about testing the limits of this medium. I discovered a process while I worked. Friends and participants began pointing out relationships, then strangers; consistencies across genres within. Issue one is the most obscure, and basic version of mstrmnd, each issue becomes clearer as they progress.

The magazine is a medium frozen in time, look at The New Yorker, a text that compliments the intelligence of the baby boomer generation, a cover that betrays a political leaning, advertisements that are more subliminal than its content, especially in graphic ways, and text, the linear inner voice of 8-10 writers, skewing each piece into an opinion, however subliminal. The magazine is only one medium of many awaiting an upgrade, but the mag is a necessary place to start. Look at the model: masthead, briefs, letters, features, endnote, a formula seemingly from the age of the movie palace, still coding information through journalism, a 20th century profession unable to interpret our age, our innovations. Look at other models, National Geographic, Time, Wired, all are contained in highly rigorously designed genres.

The goal is to bring the innovations of other media to the magazine, introduce new non-fiction genres, finally take the comic-graphic novel to its place in a pantheonic context, and display all this without a full explanation. No one can be prepared for the next step. Update the magazine as an object of longevity like a great DVD. Ultimately mstrmnd should provoke questions the way journalism used to, it should make us question choices in perception and symbolism the way hackers of the 1990's questioned hierarchy and representation. Can myths be hacked? Can religions be hacked? The past is fertile ground to explore, and the past is both 6000 years ago and four seconds ago whether we like it or not.

David Pescovitz wrote, "Mastermind is an immersive experiment on paper. You don't really read it, but rather open it up and just drown in its surrealism." What kind of relationship do you hope to create with your readers?

Mstrmnd should advance openly with an audience that wants to explore the lack of limitation in curiosity. I mean our species is ripe with self-deception, our addiction to branded symmetry (like the cult of the model), the father figure, borders, it becomes more and more obvious we have the power to solve humanity's disturbances with open minds, distortion like allegiances to ideology, the use of texts that are centuries old to decide scientific research, human paradox is a constant deformity in innovation. We use entertainment to defeat these things in fictional environments, how easy will it be to comprehend these things are here, in reality, where are the tools? They're here. Who can unleash them? Anyone can but the visual cortex needs help. Or maybe unlearning.

Did you know Bunuel broke with the surrealists and continued making surreal films, but correctly realized his withdrawal and denial gave him the right to continue its experiment. His search magnified without this unnecessary label and returned power to an audience that could approach his work more objectively.