This Man Is Not Who He Says He Is

John Hanacek/Guardian
John Hanacek/Guardian

Back in fall 2004, Warren College senior Tristan Newcomb found himself in a slacker’s dilemma. He had signed up for an extra-credit group project in lecturer Brett Stalbaum’s introductory Computing in the Arts course, but — after a couple of distracted, Perrier-fueled meetings — he soon realized he and his classmates were nowhere near motivated enough to develop the video game they’d promised.

“We’re art students getting high on fizzy water — so there was no way we were going to suddenly go around the clock trying to finish this thing,” Newcomb said. “And so we came up with the idea that we were going to have to fake it … We’re going to have to fake it in such a way that the faking it was better than if we’d ever done anything real.”

So Newcomb recorded some video footage of himself and other group members navigating what he considers to be the worst student-developed video game ever created. Location: gas station on a floating island. Character set: a few indiscriminate Lego men and SpongeBob SquarePants. The objective: to fetch a golden orb and exchange it for gasoline.

On top of it all, Tristan decided to present the footage to his peers as if it were an actual class project, using a DVD to simulate live laptop projection of the game.

At first, it was just a way to dodge the real assignment. But once the students started rehearsing their performance — a string of computer glitches followed by a full-fledged emotional breakdown, courtesy of Newcomb, as instable programmer guy — they realized their hoax could be so much more than a scapegoat.

However, before they could perform it in public, they needed the go-ahead from professor Stalbaum.

“They were concerned with the ethical dimensions of the deception, or — possibly closer to the truth — they were more concerned whether I would allow it in my class,” Stalbaum said. “They asked me if it was OK, and essentially, I only had to give them permission to do something daring … Sometimes, that is all an art teacher needs to do.”

The day of their first performance went swimmingly — or horribly, depending on which end of the room you were facing. Playing the student programmer, Newcomb floundered as his shoddy software “froze” on the projector screen, and he took to filling the awkward pauses with bizarre puppet videos and existential monologues.

Still, his student audience remained numb.

“As soon as [students] see technical glitches in a presentation, they begin to disconnect and they go into the world of the laptop or the iPhone,” Newcomb said. “It fed into all their secret expectations that this was going to be a train wreck anyway.”

On that fateful day in 2004, the Gaming Response Resource Foundation was born. Since then, Tristan has performed before a collection of visual arts courses at UCSD. Some involved participation from Stalbaum himself; others unraveled the elaborate story of a fictitious GPS student-tracking system meant to curb UCSD’s supposedly severe hit-and-runs rate.

There was even one 2005 performance in which Newcomb forced a painstaking lecture on a crowd of Sixth College orientees.

“That was the one where Brett had to run interference for us because the Sixth College provost wanted to stop the performance,” Newcomb said. “Everyone in the room thinks it’s real — only we and Brett know that it’s fake. And once we flounder for 24 minutes — and it has to be 24 minutes, because the DVD that’s playing on the screen behind us is 24 minutes — we can’t stop it. The train’s going down the track and there’s no way to get it off the rails or to get it to stop without giving it away. So we’re having to consistently flounder, and the provost is looking more and more irritated [at] us, and really disappointed with Brett because he isn’t stopping this.”

In the end, Stalbaum convinced the provost that Newcomb’s presentation would teach students an important lesson on technical difficulties, and he was able to wrap up the show without interruption.

After a five-year stretch of GRRF performances, Newcomb has partnered with Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Simon Quiroz and Revelle College senior Roberto Rosales to launch Lumalin Productions — a film company that will sell full-length features online at www.lumalin.com.

“These aren’t really the calling cards to walk up to Hollywood with, and go to [International Creative Management] and go, ‘You know what, I want to direct an episode of CSI and to show you my skills as a filmmaker — here’s GRRF,’” Newcomb said. “It’s such an unfamiliar structure — the software demo as stealth existential theatre — that we’re going to have to go directly to the very small fraction of the public who would dig this sort of thing.”

So what could possibly be next for the Lumalin Team?

“Horror films,” Newcomb said. “Well — existential horror films.”

And you might be so lucky to catch some behind-the-scenes action.

“We’ve got until June 2010 to use [UCSD] as a film set,” Newcomb said. “Our student IDs say we can film anywhere on campus and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Readers can contact Alyssa Bereznak at [email protected].

Screen shot 2009-10-29 at 9.43.16 AM

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