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Heisenberg In Red Square

June 25, 2019

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle posits that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly at the same time—in other words, you can only ever be absolutely certain about one, never both.

On Friday, May 17 and Saturday, May 18, more than 100 participants brought the principle to life, first on the University of Washington’s Red Square and then in downtown Seattle’s Freeway Park playing Heisenberg, an audio-immersive game that can include anywhere from 30 to 800 players and investigates what happens when we assume others occupy or experience the same realities we do.

Commissioned in the wake of the 2016 election, Heisenberg is the creation of artist Janani Balsubramanian who, working with a group of astrophysicists, applied contemporary particle physics to sociopolitical puzzles. Through audio headsets, the game invites audience members to inhabit a range of characters from particles to neutrinos to supreme court justices as they follow a set of instructions that directs them to interact with other players whose own instructions may—or may not—be the same.

For the passersby on Red Square or in Freeway Park who were not part of the game, it must have been a strange sight: people running, assuming strange poses, shouting phrases, chasing and being chased for no discernable reason. For the those of us playing the game, however, what began with an assurance through our headphones that “everyone would receive the same instructions” slowly evolved into a discombobulating set of exceptions: I was told to link hands with the person next to me—why is he running away? I am shouting Be Free—why are you whispering Be Calm?

Synchronous behavior slipped out of synch then snapped back; players could no longer predict how others might respond to the instructions coming through the headphones; increasingly we experienced random actions and reactions from others that seemed inexplicable given what we believed to be true—

Which was the whole point of the game.

Through Heisenberg, Janani Balsubramanian asks: if we don’t know what’s coming, how do we live?  And: if we don’t know each other, how do we live together?

Balsubramanian was invited to bring Heisenberg to Meany Center by UW Creative Fellow Meiyin Wang as part of a day-long symposium, This Is How It Ends—the culmination of her three-year research project on the intersection of technology and the arts.

Through a series of performances and panel discussions, Wang brought together musicians, theatrical directors, filmmakers, digital artists, game designers and experts from all walks of art and tech who are conceiving of ways the arts can disrupt, inform, and influence emerging technologies.