Omsk Social Club
One could easily say Omsk Social Club isn’t your normal art collective: the names and even number of members remain unknown and their works are purely ephemeral experiences, developed as hybrids of Real Game Play (RGP) and Live Action Role Play (LARP). But in saying this in relation to their work, one must also ask: What is “normal”? It might be defined as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern”, but Omsk subverts this notion, challenging everything we think we know about this so-called Life and our lived Reality. In the world of Omsk, everything is normal.
Founded in 2012 (then known as Punk Is Dada), the collective says, “the strongest piece of work we have ever come across is our own subcultures, these spaces of emotion, politics, aesthetics, fears and lust.” Rather than document subcultures in a static form, they began working with elements of RGP and LARP as a way to allow audiences to occupy these different spaces, even if only temporarily. Each work begins with an open call, asking for players to participate in a specific game. Participants (or, in art speak, the audience) are then sent emails with their character name, traits and objectives. It is up to them to further develop their unique identity and the game (or, again for you art folk, the performance) that unfolds according to their individual actions. Omsk sets the scene, but nothing is scripted, the plot unknown.
“We aim to induce states that could potentially be fiction or a yet unlived reality for the players,” Omsk says. “The game designs examine virtual egos and popular experiences allowing the works to become dematerialized hybrids of modern culture alongside unique personal experiences.” And unique experiences they are.
Emily McDermott: Let’s start with your name, because although one can speculate, I’m curious what “Omsk Social Club” means to you.
Omsk Social Club: Omsk was the city to which Dostoevsky was sent to after he was found guilty of trying to create social reform with culture, and he said he was literally buried alive. In the North of England, a Social Club is a traditional spot, something between a pub and a political think tank—but it would never call itself that. It’s a place people meet, talk, drink, gossip, fall in love, get into a fight. All of this contributes to Omsk’s makings.
EM: In LARP terminology, the word “bleed” represents a gray zone somewhere between fiction and reality, and the games you create take place in this space. Players often use elements of their own selves to develop their characters and the settings in which the games unfold are often the present day or not-too-distant future. What is the significance of including relatable elements of reality? Why not just make your games pure fantasy?
OMSK: Every world is a fantasy, even the one you and we live in. We just say it’s a “reality” because that’s what we have been taught. These ideas are our main impetus for working this way. With uncertainty comes new theory, the uncanny is often our catalyst, and who gets to decide where an idea begins and where it ends once it has started? Well, in the case of an Omsk work, only the players. As soon as the game is set in motion, we no longer have any control over the reality that’s created, nor do we want to.
So the words reality and fantasy don’t really exist, and we re-appropriate Life out of fascination. What lies beyond the standard state of perception is commonly based on cognitive emotions and experience. Real Game Play allows us to tap into that and use lucidity as a form of direct action.
EM: Direct action that often deconstructs our current realities, so to speak, in order to imagine possible futures, to rethink and reframe current perspectives. What are some of the pollutions you see in our current world which you hope to address?
OMSK: Oppression of thought and the demarcation of individuals are two of the biggest pollutants we try to address during the works. Omsk’s role-playing scenarios manifest through community values, online presence and subcultural aesthetics. Revealing social codes, political narratives, goal-oriented objectives and emotional discourse, the players spend hours, days and sometimes even weeks inside these immersive established environments, engaging in mimetic warfare, cultural world building and exchange. They live through attacks and alliances from peers and public interfaces, such as the world-at-large, which evidently bleed into their personal discourse and live reflections. Our aim is that the people involved come out with ideas on the plasticity of kin and develop, forking and glitching strategies for everyday life. They hopefully see the potential in unorthodox auxiliary/tools through the pervasive game they joined and go on to practice some of these ideas in their daily life.
In the past, Omsk has designed games that have introduced landscapes and topics such as rave culture, survivalism, catfishing, desire and sacrifice, positive trolling, algorithmic strategies, and decentralized cryptocurrency. Also, talking about pollutions, there is no such thing as a clean space, but there is always the potential for chronic optimism to guide you into the next passage what we call life.
EM: At DeadAir in Zurich last summer, I played a character whose motivation was to steal the event’s identity and deliver it to a more neoliberal regime. In other words, my character’s primary interest was to monetize the DeadAir event. This is the opposite of what Omsk’s pieces aim to do—they’re generally open to anyone willing to participate—so why create such a character?
OMSK: Friction is just as important as ease. Take the concept of positive trolling: people say, how can a troll be positive? A troll can be someone who questions your beliefs. Can you learn to troll yourself, can you learn to see others trolling you as a positive rupture to avoid becoming dogmatic and inflexible? In Omsk, we can troll each other because underneath is a foundation of trust, security and a bond that allows us to be critical of each other. Neoliberal constructs tell us to be obtuse, to be the loudest. This is not a way to build anything.
EM: Following that vein, at a Cryptorave in Berlin, my character was an anarcho-primitivist—against all forms of technology and capitalism, and therefore one of the last people you would expect to show up at an event which requires mining crypto for entry. It was up to me to figure out an explanation of why and how my character came to be there. To do so required deep research. To be honest, I had no idea what “anarcho-primitivist” even meant when I received the character description.
OMSK: Generally, people have to go out and research something they have never heard of or a viewpoint they would never normally adhere to. Part of our concept is to spread knowledge. Someone once told us they felt like our work was an empathy training camp and, on another occasion, someone took their character to the G20 summit protest in Hamburg post-play because they were so curious and the character gave them a way into this space. We are only trying to break open the world. How that is done is entirely up to the player, they are in control.
EM: You are making art but it is always ephemeral, never to be acquired by a collector, institution or otherwise. Many artists currently working with ephemerality sell documentation and remnants thereof, or concurrently produce more market-friendly works. You sometimes sell editions of props used in games, but your work primarily lies in the experience itself. So how do you understand, or where do you see, your own artistic output in relation to the oversaturated economy?
OMSK: Honestly, we have no idea. We don’t concern ourselves with what the market or the art world says we should be doing. We do what we think needs to be done and if that means we need to sell editions to be able to make our work accessible for all—as we have a strong ethos against pay-to-play mentalities—that’s what we have to do. Also, for us, experience of the mind is just as valid as a piece of Art as a displayed object. One has memories, one has gossip they can share. One of the main aims of Art is to possess the viewer. An unforgettable painting or a stomach-lurching video clip is Art, not the material it is made from. Art is emotive, not physical. It’s very personal; that’s why we know we make Art.
EM: Lastly, the theme of this issue is “unchain change”, which I feel is a rather apt way to summarize a large part of Omsk’s practice. Much like I had to google “anarcho-primitivist” and its associations, your games free the mind from its typical patterns and require players to stray from their digital paths, rupturing algorithmic predictions. Additionally, as you mentioned, it’s accessible to all. But this is my point of view. What does “unchain change” mean to you?
OMSK: We could say that we have bred a new culture for the entertainment of work, and this is our chain. This work chain has reached such a level of abstraction over the last decades that we have entered another plane in our socio-economic-lifestyles—one that is equally as uncanny and fantastical as the ones Omsk creates. The human body/mind/spirit is what needs to become unchained. The points, focuses, knots, blockages of the body are always inflamed, but in certain moments in our lives they rupture or release in radical serenity. Omsk believes this is the answer: the body must become a war machine for its own emancipation only then can it begin to build the world in which it is free from its own shackles.