The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

In The Room

Nora Raine Thompson muses on her expedition into The Room, a virtual collaborative imagination game created and facilitated by Anna Kroll and Chloë Engel.

Installation at Center for Art Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County. Photo: Anna Kroll.
Installation at Center for Art Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County. Photo: Anna Kroll.

Anna Kroll and Chloë Engel are dancers, and some of the most playful people I know.

I met Chloë in a musical theater day camp when we were eight years old, and we’ve remained friends ever since. I met Anna through that wonderful chain-link of a friend of a friend, at one of Chloë’s birthday parties. This past year they asked me to participate in their most recent yet long-running project together: an online game campaign where strangers engage in collaborative imagination, building a world together. This practice has taken many forms—a dance, a board game, a gallery installation—but it has always been both playful and profound. This work has also had many names, but I came to call it The Room, highlighting the surprisingly important container for the boundlessness that this practice seeds. I interviewed Anna and Chloë in 2022 to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of the work, and participated in an online campaign version of the game in 2023. These experiences shaped the below writing, an earlier version of which was printed as an exhibition catalogue accompanying Anna Kroll's MFA show at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Anna and Chloë are leading another online campaign of the game through The School of Making Thinking and Abrons Arts Center, October 6–27, 2023, every Friday from 6–8pm EST.

* * *

In The Room, we enter a realm of impossibility. Ears can catch fire, legs can be swings, and I can be a moth, crying at the funeral of a praying mantis. We build The Room ourselves. In it, impossible things become possible. We announce observations, movements, sensations, and decisions to each other. What is said is possible, plausible, done.

The Room can be accessed through various portals, but it is always lodged firmly in our overlapping imaginaries. I have listened to The Room being built and destroyed by dialing into a conference line. I helped build a room myself, laying in my bed, speaking into my laptop and waiting for someone to answer. The Room can be conjured through special playing cards, too.

Design for the board game version of the project, created by Anna Kroll and Chloë Engel.
Design for the board game version of the project, created by Anna Kroll and Chloë Engel.

In The Room we inhabit imaginary bodies, while also not abandoning our physical ones. There’s a particular sensation that develops in this tangible body, here, that feels like “being somewhere [imaginary] with someone else [far away],” in Engel’s words.1 Maybe the sensation of a wafer dissolving on your tongue, “bread becoming [imaginary] body,” offers Kroll.2

The Room fascinates me not only because my dear friends created its sturdy scaffolding and its alluring entrance and exits, but also because I am obsessed with impossible tasks. These are prompts that recur in devising processes and improvisation scores that sound metaphorical but are meant to be attempted in earnest. They use simple language and sometimes contain facile promises. But in doing an impossible task, matters rarely remain simple. In embodied experience, how we even came to decide what was possible or impossible seems to be laid bare as it, often, crumbles.

In The Room, impossible tasks become possible. Bread becomes body and I am there and here at once, detaching from myself to commit to presence elsewhere. In The Room, I announce that my body is turning into driftwood. At home in my bed, I notice my eyelids are hot. The Room is a practice of “embodied disembodiment” in Engel and Kroll’s words.3 The Room summons this strange self-aware yet self-negating status, bringing us to a realm of unexpected possibility, where to be embodied somewhere else does not require dissociating from the body here.

How one gets into The Room is important. It is not like taking hallucinogens and cracking open, senses flooded. The entrance feels more like tenderly pulling back heavy curtains to reveal an opening. Kroll and Engel guide you, like wind at your back, transmitting instructions with gentle clarity. This process, a vestibule before The Room, grounds us, preparing for groundlessness.

In an instructional slideshow, they state the obvious, because it is important: “You have a body.” They remind you that what is obvious is also complex, confusing, contains fractals: “Each space is a body.”4

Once in The Room, we have tasks to do: build a ground, build walls, build a ceiling. Be in it. There’s an agenda, but time is malleable there, allowing for spaciousness. “There actually isn’t much urgency,” Engel notes.5 Slowness is allowed. Also in the instructions: “It’s fine if you sit in silence for a long time.”6

One might approach The Room with hopes for control, a place to craft a tidy narrative in a fantastical world that could seemingly be constructed without the historical burdens of our reality. But Engel and Kroll emphasize that even in our imaginaries, because they are collectively built, no one player has complete control. Thus, impermanence reigns and change is inevitable.

A lack of control does not obliterate logic, though. The best rooms, according to Engel and Kroll, are ones where cause and effect are clear. Engel offers an example: “The frog jumps into the cake. The cake oozes down. The ooze is touching my toe. My toe is infected. I need to suck my toe. I’m sucking my toe. You’re looking at me. You pick me up. I’m a baby.”7 The best rooms are ones where multiple imaginaries are genuinely mingling and interlocking, their contents entangled, even if different. Ultimate control is ceded as interaction proliferates, and boundaries of me and you get muddled. But we do not, cannot, merge, even as we continue to make things happen. And we are making things happen here: only in the sliver of overlap of our imaginations. Vast fields of unknown remain just beyond the action in this shared space, as they do beyond the walls of The Room.

Chloë drew a Venn diagram, kind of like this one, around the top of my arm in 2020. Weeks later, I had it tattooed onto me. At the time, I think we imagined it as a subtle symbol of relationship, in which the overlap is precious and abundant, and yet cannot define or fully constitute the expansive being beyond.

No wonder The Room feels like a way to practice relation.

In The Room, we attempt to inhabit a world that allows for possibility, while also accepting the impossibility of a united, cohesive, or absolute understanding of another, or even the space we built. In participating in a campaign, a multi-week iterative version of The Room played with strangers online, I occasionally found myself fantasizing about the contents and events of The Room between sessions. These daydreams always dissipated quickly, upon my realization that new narratives or details that emerged in my imagination alone were not really in The Room. I would stop myself from animating other characters in their absence and resist foretelling actions before they could be spoken into existence. This is something I struggle with in “real life.” I have a habit, like many, of anxiously trying to prepare for unknown futures by deploying my analytical thinking. This tactic assumes there is a way to know another person or environment enough to be ready for anything. But in the rules of The Room, you can’t rely on this system of thought. You must respect fellow players’ interiority while also accepting the interconnectedness of players, objects, materials, and actions. You must be present and accept a sort of inevitably “entangled” existence, even if imaginary.

I am borrowing the word “entangled” from philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva, who proposes a new way of figuring the world in her manifesto-esque 2016 article, “On Difference Without Separability,” published in the catalogue of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, titled INCERTEZA VIVA (Live Uncertainty). She outlines the dangers of operating from an assumption that everything can, in one way or another, be separated, measured, and known; and how such a premise allowed for the creation of Whiteness, through the separating, measuring, and presumed knowing of the racialized Other. She proposes a different definition of being, an entangled way. As I paraphrase zealously in my notes, she suggests that “BEING IS RELATION.” If we take this to be true, we can start to imagine what da Silva calls, “The Entangled World.”8 A world in which every thing is an expression of its entanglements with everything—utterly inseparable. This inseparability, though, does not mean our world is really a homogenous soup. She argues, as the title of the article implies, that everything is inseparable and nevertheless abounding in difference. Maybe it’s a world of intersections and overlaps, endlessly complex Venn diagrams joining on different planes and dimensions.

Photo: Tomi Faison.
Photo: Tomi Faison.

Such rethinkings of the world have been described and fought for by many theorists, activists, and artists, but da Silva’s particular account has stuck with me, in part, because of her emphasis on imagination. She even proposes a kind of imaginative practice: “release thinking from the grip of certainty and embrace the imagination’s power to create with unclear and confused, or uncertain impressions.”9 This mode of creative construction would loosen the hold of ultimate knowing, separating, or merging, and the “partial and total violence they authorize.”10

So, what does the embodied experience of releasing thinking feel like? Where does this (im)possible task appear?

Perhaps in The Room: a place constructed by plural imaginations and rife with uncertainty despite its text-based existence. A place that requires the negotiation of the blurry bounds of selves, but where we can hold murky opacity and stark difference at once.

To be clear, imaginative practices on their own do not necessarily create The Entangled World da Silva has described. Imagination can create constructs of separability too, notions of individualism and hyper-autonomy that stick, stubbornly. And we could create all the same old systems of oppression anew in The Room, falling into patterns of control. Da Silva emphasizes the need for change, even postulating that “only the end of the world as we know it” can break down fixity and make room for something else.11

Photo: Anna Kroll.
Photo: Anna Kroll.

In The Room, things fall apart.

The Room usually floods, burns, or disintegrates over the course of a game. This creates “needs and stakes” for the players, as Engel put it.12 The falling apart tightens the stitching between players’ imaginations and actions, even as their world unravels. In The Room, we practice the cyclical project of endings and beginnings, noticing their inextricability. In the Room, we sense our entanglement as our worlds end and begin again.

  1. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, in discussion with the writer, December 3, 2022.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, “Principles of the Practice,” December 4, 2021. Instruction slideshow for The Room.
  5. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, in discussion with the writer, December 3, 2022.
  6. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, “Principles of the Practice,” December 4, 2021. Instruction slideshow for The Room.
  7. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, in discussion with the writer, December 3, 2022.
  8. Denise Ferreira da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability.” Catalogue of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo - Live Uncertainty, 2016, p. 65.
  9. Ibid, 58.
  10. Ibid, 58.
  11. Ibid, 59.
  12. Chloë Engel and Anna Kroll, in discussion with the writer, December 3, 2022.


Nora Raine Thompson

Nora Raine Thompson is a writer, performer, and dance scholar. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Performance Studies at NYU.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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