The 4852 year old Methusaleh tree is a long way from Manchester; it’s located in the White Mountains, Inyo County, California. Recognised as the oldest confirmed tree, there’s a piece of it here, rooted into the tarmac sea and spreading like postsynaptic neurons irking the city earth. How? Methusaleh - an interactive narrative project by Elle Bulger, soundtracked by Will Robinson and commissioned by the charity FACT for FACT Together. Elle describes themself as “a visual artist working to explore the use of techniques traditionally found in video games in creating works that have the potential to be viewed as art.” They’ve worked previously in 3D design creating an audiovisual piece on artificial intelligence and sustainable living called LAZARUS, as well as world building projects like Electric Islands.
Listen to our chat just here or read the whole interview below!
Will, professionally known as ‘Unweather’, is a musician who uses “audio recordings in the margins of notes taken from beat music, new age bass, radiophonics, bird science and cartoon room tone.” You can find his work here: https://unweather.bandcamp.com. He works with both digital and physical instruments and has released beautiful “degrading, doom-drone” from looped phone recordings of him playing his Grandma’s piano, (Aphelion) alongside “stochastic environmental music” in the form of Chaos as an Organising Principle (Serendipity). Don’t worry, we had to look up stochastic too. I couldn’t actually find it in the dictionary I have, so I had to Google it. We’ve got it as “having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analysed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.” Confused? I were a bit. Where’s the search engine that says things in unconvoluted terms? An Ask Jeeves pub man, with the pilsner fuelled energy of a quiz night brainbox. “Stochastic? In music? Randomly generated notes, I reckon. Now buy as a pint of Four, I’m having a slash.”
Individually, Elle and Will’s work is thinking art beyond the aesthetics. Their projects make you consider the internal and the external, the process too, whilst you’re also enjoying yourself. That’s evident in their collaboration too: Methusaleh - a 2D video game exploring choice from non-human perspectives. In my many playthroughs, I’ve lived as a salmon, a colony of ants and more: all whilst itching the skin on the walls of my flat in another national lockdown. See for yourself here at https://ellebulger.itch.io/methuselah . The artwork is incredible, and the opening theme lulls you into it, like settling into a new dream after waking up at 3 A.M. and realising there’s so much time left for you to sleep; so much more time to nurse The Prang. We caught up with Elle, and Will and discussed the ocarina, virtual spaces and The Void.
As mentioned, the project was commissioned by Fact UK through the new FACT Together. It was a scheme to support artists during the lockdown with the closure of galleries and museums putting out just about everyone who wanted to showcase their work. FACT’s brief was on the idea of The Living Planet and tasked artists with exploring our relationship with the natural world. Over 250 artists put together proposals and only 10 were chosen. Elle Bulger was one. You can find out more about Fact Together here. https://www.fact.co.uk/fact-together
Elle: I heard about the open call through my friends at Convenience Gallery at Birkenhead, who we’re doing some work with at the minute and, yeah, I went for it, honestly didn’t think I’d get it. But it was cool. I think it’s the first thing Fact have done of this kind where it’s all online, obviously having to migrate everything to be digital. I’m not really sure what else to say about the start of the project really. Methusaleh is in response to the brief that they put out. I responded to it in a weird order. I decided I wanted to make something that had narrative choices in it and kind of worked backwards from there. The brief itself talked about looking at things through non-human perspectives and considering how we react with non-human entities. I think Methusaleh just came from there. The format of it came from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino which is a book where Calvino puts forward a scientific event (for example the formation of matter like with the Big Bang) and then he writes about that event from the perspective of an omnipotent being who was there and witnessed it. In the story about the Big Bang, him and his family are all existing in this one point of space, all overlapping and clashing constantly. Suddenly the Big Bang splits them all apart and he writes about it like he’s just suddenly lost his entire family. It was that personal creative response to something that is usually a bit more distant that I wanted to translate into Methusaleh.
The narrative choice aspect being the linchpin of Methusaleh comes across strongly throughout it. You start off with the salmon run and take control of the Moon and the tides to guide the salmon. The choices you make can lead to a long and happy life, or death - the finality of which is rooted in the very first choice too. It rewards you with extra playthroughs, extra choices and throughout the game, you do begin to view a world beyond individuality. I definitely left the experience feeling part of an ecosystem. Will, later on, mentioned a poem - All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The poem concerns cybernetics but a BBC documentary series by Adam Curtis takes its name from the title. We watched the series after this conversation, and episode two talked about the idea in 20th century ecological philosophy, that there is a balance of nature and that everything is part of an interconnected system self-regulated by feedback loops like with computers. The idea, after many years, was discredited, but it made me think back to Methusaleh. The game plays with this idea and it’s counter. It makes you feel part of a system whilst reminding you that the chaos of choice reigns, highlighting the fragility of the world in which we exist. Death, extinction, sacrifice - it’s all a constant, and nature is fighting against them. But it’s hopeful too. There’s a drive, and a positive spin on the darker sides of philosophy that Elle delves into later.
Musically, the game sits alongside Japanese RPG’s and Mort Garson’s Plantasia among other things. It’s gorgeous layered synthesisers and field recordings of the natural world used to create a fusion of the fantastical and the real. Will talked us through some of his influences whilst composing for the game and gave us a big list, half of which was stuff we were into, the other was stuff we’d never heard of that drove us to go out and listen to it.
Will: So, Elle sent me a brief right at the start that was a pretty loose thing. I think it was before you’d done any of the actual programming. It was - what’s the word? Moodboards, early artwork, it also had a list of references to other artists/other albums. And when I thought “yeah, I wanna work on this”, it was because it was full of stuff that were my favourite records anyway. What was on there? Flying Lotus - You’re Dead, which has that video game japanese thing running through it anyway. What else? Can - Ege Bamyasi. That kind of rhythmic intensity going on. Foodman, I think. Konono no.1. All that stuff that’s kind of rhythmic and distorted and crunchy. I’ve forgotten what the question was. There was that which was my starting point and I got all of them albums in a playlist, listened to them on shuffle and tried to get an idea of the connections between them, and then other stuff I was listening to that I ended up ripping a lot off was - there’s this record by this guy (Matt Evans) from New York called New Topographics that is about … - You know the poem All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace? It’s a record that's based on that poem. So it’s that idea of cybernetics, digital human interfaces, and somehow that comes through in the music. It’s him playing drums against electronic sequences. So that ended up being an influence in some of the textures. I kind of robbed a few ideas off him. I suppose that’s basically it, just in terms of what I was listening to. There’s obviously tangents out of that Japanese video game thing into modular synth stuff like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith in the Theme and in Cloudburst - they were inspired by that and that sort of orchestral, electronic thing. And that one as well, I suppose is a bit of a - don’t know what you’d call it - BBC radiophonic workshop. I could keep going for hours now. Floating Points. He was on tour with his band in the US and they were staying for a weekend in which desert is it? Some desert... (Editor's Note: The Mojave Desert) They just got the band outside and they just recorded and there’s loads of stuff with feedback and long distance microphones and the reverberations of the rocks. So I tried to mimic some of that, some of the more abstract parts of that record.
Wide ranging influences are evident in the soundtrack. It behaves like a collage, using the instruments and samples to compliment the environments explored in the game: the water trickling in Silver Water (Coastline, Estuary, Depths); birdsong in Questions for the Ancient One. Although pulled together from various sources, Will uses his inspirations to create something fresh. He’d told us the who and the why, but what was the how?
Will: I work in Ableton live so I’m recording on a digital audio workstation so it’s digital, as well as using software synths, it’s whatevers to hand. Keyboards and guitars, there’s a clarinet on one of the tunes that I started learning a couple of weeks before I wrote that track actually. There’s an ocarina on that cloudburst track. I don’t know if you can hear it. It’s like oowOoowOoowooOOh. (Ed’s note: an ocarina is a small egg-shaped ceramic (especially terracotta) or metal wind instrument with holes for the fingers.) It was taking Elle’s lead really in terms of what was on the brief, but it was trying to have that same collagey thing that the artwork has, and translate that into the music as well.
Whilst playing the game, you live four lives that correspond to the four elements: water; fire; air; earth. In your fifth life, you exist as a bird discussing the big questions with the Methusaleh tree. This chapter called Wood can potentially lead you to a final chapter named The Void where you are instructed not to click. Whether you do or don’t is for you to decide. For us, it felt like the game questioned the structure of how we understand the world. Breaking existence down into four elements constricts your perception of life. We wanted to know more from Elle about the philosophy running round in their head when they wrote this.
Elle: I think it was again, just going to back Cosmicomics, I just picked a handful of - I wanna call them - biological systems or biological existencies that interest me. I’ve always been really fascinated by the salmon run. It was just a couple of them that came first. The ant colony came pretty close after cause that’s a really interesting one, especially the supercolony thing. They use tools and medicine and that’s just mad. The void was a really difficult one to do cause I knew I wanted to use it as one of the elemental themes, but traditionally the void, in Eastern cultures particularly, it means that which is not seen. How the bloody hell do I write something that’s not seen from the perspective of itself? So I was just trying to find some sort of link between all the other chapters and something that would drive them. Fear just seemed like a logical one, right? Even though we would see it as these entities are afraid of something whereas the non-human beings don’t necessarily see it as fear. They see it as a means to survive, a drive to exist. I think it was just an attempt to look at how we as humans might fear fear itself. Maybe? Something like that? It was difficult to get my head round it because I was trying to write from the perspective of fear in a way that wasn’t scary. A little bit difficult. That was the riskiest one in my opinion. That’s why it’s potentially the one that is missed. You’re not guaranteed to get the chapter if you don’t answer correctly in Wood.
For more on Elle’s vision of the Void, go and play the game! For us it drew together ideas on eternal recurrence (the idea that all of the universe and history itself is in a state of constant repetition), the Absurd (the philosophical movement that believes humanity is constantly battling between it’s desire for meaning and the universe’s inherent lack of meaning), and of course Elle’s own ideas on fear. For a piece of work that delves into ideas of chaos and balance, the writing, the artwork and the music flow together in synchronicity. It doesn’t feel incomplete in any place, and each piece compliments another piece. Elle and Will gave us an idea of how that came to be and what it was like working together.
Elle: Honestly, I don’t understand how Will was able to put up with me. I’m the worst person to work for. When you were talking before about the title theme, when I was describing it to Will, I can’t express to you how much nonsense came out of my mouth when I was trying to explain what I wanted. I basically said “like the pokemon theme but nothing like pokemon theme at the same time. You can do with that what you will.” Somehow he managed it perfectly. I’m still baffled by how well he’s done, all things considered.
Will: I have to give a lot of credit to the artwork and the brief. Thinking back now, the music just made itself in a lot of ways. There were a couple of things that I wasn’t sure what the angle was, then I got back to Elle and sort of figured out a root through it. But for the most part, it was all there, you know what I mean? It sounds weird and I can’t quite account for it myself - my idea of how writing music should work, doesn’t explain how it actually does work. It doesn’t have to be the greatest piece of art in the world, it just has to fit this criteria, and then when that pressure’s gone, it frees you up a bit.
Elle: Having to do it remotely forced me to make the brief in a way that I wouldn’t normally. When I’ve worked with producers in the past, they’ve been able to play stuff at me and I’ve been immediately able to be like “no, yes, no, yes.” The circumstances did force me to make things a little more clear but not that clear. It’s the first thing I’ve made in 2D too, so it’s a bit different. It’s weird because I started off - I was gonna say as an artist - but when I was coming through art education I wanted to be an illustrator, a 2D illustrator and then in my third year of uni I started working in 3D and I didn’t ever go back to illustrating after that. It was strange to just come back and be like “oh, I’m drawing again.” Just thinking about how you can communicate things in 2D that you can’t in 3D. It was an odd change. And I’ve never done any pixel art before so that was also really strange. I started seeing everything in squares after a while. I was really lucky. I didn’t have anything in my portfolio that was like what Methusaleh was aiming to be but Fact just sort of believed that I could make it. I had no proof that I could. Luckily, they were willing to take the gamble.
Manchester and animation are two concepts that don’t instantly feel like they’re related. Because 2D and 3D animation is often surreal, it feels - through the way it’s produced - to belong to an Anti-Locale, a machine netherworld that exists only in it’s own bubble. We’d definitely love a community of 3D artists in the city, and there may well be that, so we asked Elle if they knew anyone they could recommend.
Elle: I only know of one artist in Manchester that makes 3D work, and he is honestly better than I am. There’s Greg [Gregory Herbert] who is based in Liverpool who was also on Fact Together. He works in 3D. Obviously in animation, it’s a really difficult medium to find people working in because there’s an equipment bar for it that there isn’t in other forms of art, which I know I’ve struggled up against myself - plenty of times. But I think now that everyone’s having to move online and make things digitally - just because of the nature of the world right now - more people are moving into digital work who wouldn’t do otherwise, so that’s kind of cool.
And that’s that - the equipment bar really being the biggest holdback to 3D and visual artists everywhere. For those of you with a deal more fiscal security than I know I do, Futureworks in Salford hosts a diploma in 3D Modelling and Animation. That’s £5500 or you can pay it in eleven £500 monthly installments. For those of us with little to no brass, we’re not sure what is out there that’s free. However, if any of you know any good programmes or charities that can help people get involved in this medium, then please let us know and we can relay that information! At least for now, we have Elle and Will collaborating together on projects like this. In that spirit, we were interested to know what they both had lined up in the future.
Elle: Well, Will has actually - for some reason - agreed to work with me on this project for Convenience as well. So it’s six parts over six months. The first part came out last month. The whole project is called Growth: Infinity and the first part is called Sanctuary. There’ll be a part each month and hopefully it will culminate in an event at the end where we will bring all these virtual spaces into real space! Hopefully, we can do something fun, but I don’t know how likely that is. We were actually supposed to do the event in September - but yeah, the project has become a very different beast to what it was at the start.
Thanks to Elle and Will for speaking to us about Methusaleh. It’s a fantastic game, and you should keep tuned in to what they’re both creating.