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The inner volcano
Geo-politics, pitching and Playable City
Ometepe is an island of sibling volcanos nestled together in the generous embrace of Lake Nicaragua. It was the meeting point for indigenous communities travelling here from North and South, following the prophecy of two fiery gods surrounded by “agua dulce”. They carved their stories into the rocks thousands of years before the Conquistadors arrived and all but erased their culture.
We visit two small museums and two fincas up in the hills where a few petroglyphs can still be seen in their original positions. Faces, snakes, butterflies, maps of the stars. One stone records the ceremonial sites of the community, one for elders and another for children. A three-month calendar carved into volcanic rock is protected by a palm-leaf roof. Our guide, an enthusiastic boy following in his father’s footsteps, tells us they made a natural acid from local plants and ‘painted’ with it, rather than etching with rock styluses. A one-eyed farmer hopes between stones and delights in telling us the word ‘orchid’ comes from the Greek for ‘testicle’.
Today the lake is famous for its freshwater sharks, left behind when the water receded during a prehistoric dance of tectonic plates. It is also at the sharp end of some fascinating geopolitical jostling. The lake promises a new inter-oceanic pathway from the Atlantic, up the San Juan river, across the lake and past Granada along a mooted canal, to the Pacific. America sat on the canal rights for a hundred years to protect their investment in the Panama Canal, but with Nicaragua far friendlier with Bolivia, Venezuela and Russia, the rights now belong to China.
There is fierce local resistance. It would be an environmental disaster for the lake and for the land, cleaved apart to bear steel ships loaded with plastic. For now, the lake and Ometepe island are mostly tranquil places. Fincas growing plantain, coffee and cacao line the slopes of the volcanos. Kite-surfers thrill at the winds passing between them. Tourists pootle on scooters hunting for sunsets.
A paved road circumvents the north volcano but mercifully the southern ring road still has large unpaved sections. The ongoing development of infrastructure feels inevitable but the bumpy tracks and simple smallholdings are a lovely reminder of the rich rewards in doing things slowly.
Nicaragua is a fiery, complicated country. In Leon they talk of the internal volcano, one that drives them to write majestic poetry one day and take a pistol to their president on another. Ortega has done lots wrong – imprisoning political rivals and dissolving the press – but arguably a lot right, building infrastructure, tackling crime and funding free health care and education. At any point things could bubble over as they did in 2018, but at the same time the country seems to have found its groove.
Granada is a classically colonial town of gridded streets and courtyarded houses, all Italian and Andalusian architecture. Its principal museum is a magically confounding place. From wicker chairs to weeping Jesus in thorns via luminous paintings, ancient pottery and carved rocks dissolving from age; a courtyard of slender, soaring palms, library shelves with ancient British engineering manuals, a snoozing security guard and a scale model of the one-time capital painstakingly wrought in folded paper. In Granada, the wooden bench slats go missing in the night, so during ‘La Pandemia’, street furniture was gradually replaced with wood-effect metal. It has a scrubbed up, slightly sanitised feel.
Our Irish hotelier tells of his 20 years here. The local Sandinistas were quick to apply pressure on him to pledge allegiance, threatening death for not publicly showing support. The Irishman said, “I’m not from your country so I won’t be getting involved in your politics. If you’d like to have me shot, I’ll be on my doorstep at 3pmtomorrow.” Not only did he live to tell the tale, he was recently granted honorary membership, effectively making him a Sandinista paramilitary.
Meanwhile, in the UK
The Playable City commissions have been announced! Thought Den made it to the semi-finals (60 people in a room thinking about play) but came a whisker from a commission. Six teams will be gearing up to start prototyping in Spring. There will be huggable robots, zoetropes and, of course, some playful AI action.
Our pitch felt strong. The Miro board of ideas and our final 5-minute video pitch (pass: bristolwins) are open for interested passers-by. We had a simple premise (giant dice for the public to roll while they stroll), a vision (emergent complexity from self-initiated play) and a strategy: place successive prototypes in front of play-testers to see what works and build on the best bits.
However, as you’ll see in the pitch, there were too many creative routes on the table, from storytelling dice to rule-based play and even mechanised, self-rolling dice. We wanted players to guide development from the very beginning, but the absence of a clear focus was our downfall.
Every pitch is a balancing act, that fine line between the benefits of asking an audience to inform direction and the drawback of making it up as you go along; the benefit of presenting a singular, decisive vision and the risk that being so defined makes it easier to form objections.
What’s the lesson here? It doesn’t matter how you spin an idea if you’re beaten by a better one, but given the choice between more or less, between a list of options or an informed decision, go with the latter. I’ll follow my own advice and just say: less is more.
Short things to wrap this up
An inspired turn: Mauritshuis has temporarily loaned out its prized Vemeer and spun a quite brilliant “My Girl with a Pearl” social media campaign
Gruesome begone: see how surgical procedures are done, via the medium of Playdough
An alarming publicity video: the El Salvadorian government’s crime strategy is a blunt one. Arrest everyone with tattoos.
A diligent citizen: there are scones out there and someone has to taste them all. I love this crowdsourced joining of the dots. And it reminds me of the V&A’s old tagline, “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.”
I’m still writing from distant shores. Thank you for tuning in to this broadcast from a cloud forest in Costa Rica. It’s cold and rainy but it’s definitely not England and it’s utterly gorgeous. Back soon!
PS - In San Salvador’s Museo Marte we watched an artist working onto an internal, two-storey gallery wall with charcoal collected from a burnt-down city market. Rumours swirled that the market was set ablaze as part of an effort to clear up the city. Arts and culture at its most vital.