“Art, yeah? What’s it about?”: The Features team has a LARP

by Julia Males, Isaaq Tomkins | May 9, 2023

On May Day Eve, some Isis Writers headed to Tap Social, or Atik, or the Bullingdon, but Jules and Isaaq did not. Well, we did, but before our respective events, we decided to pop along to a Live Action Role Play event organised by Xsist Media in advance of Lucas Closs’ play Mitigating Circumstances. When most people hear “LARP”, they no doubt imagine lanky teenagers with homemade capes pretending to be mages, or Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan dressing up as a medieval knight to spend more time with Dobby.

However, the Xsist Media event promised to be a very different sort of (k)night. Sophie Barshall (an MSt History of Art graduate), Lucas Closs (a Creative Writing Masters student at Kellogg College), and Rachel Dastgir are the writers and producers behind Degree Show LARP, in which various artists, critics, collectors, tutors, and journalists gathered for the degree show of the BA Fine Art programme at the Xsist School of Art, a prestigious arts university in Oxford.

“The degree show is the most critical moment in these young artists’ careers so far, marking the end of three years at university and providing the opportunity for important members of the art world to see their work for the first time.”

Of course, all the aforementioned characters were LARPers whose roles had been assigned to them in advance. Artists were to come prepared with their final pieces to exhibit.

Jules became Fy Wombly, an artist working at the intersection of yoga, crystal healing and art. As per her character profile, Fy “enjoys informing others of their energy with detailed assessments, promotes giving feedback after social encounters, and is aware that they have lost friends in this way but still doesn’t really understand why.” Challenge accepted.

Some of Fy’s minimalist, energy-based art

Isaaq became Xavier Smith, another artist whose interests lay in British folklore and proving himself to his recently remarried parents. His piece of art was an inflatable, sexless mannequin, which had been covered in pages printed out from the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, a catalogue of different types of folktales. He wasn’t pretentious.

Xav looking incredibly chill prior to the event

While the event was a time for imagination, creativity, and fun, rules were needed to separate LARPers from the am-dram hoi polloi. They were as follows:

RULE 1: Always say “yes”

“For LARP to be successful, participants must always say YES”

Entering Common Ground, we were met with the intimidating energy of young artists, undercut only slightly by harsh overhead lighting. Dotted around the room were various displays of art: flowers grew from a pot full of cigarette butts and one lucky piece of supermarket trout was brought back to life, its packet becoming its display case. Cordoned off in the corner was an artist performing their piece live, throwing playing cards around the room in a dejected manner somewhat reminiscent of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s ‘Can’t Help Myself’. (Google it.) 

Introductions were quickly made by the head tutor of the Xsist School, and from there the ‘say yes’ mentality worked well in helping people to get to know each other, or reunite: “I recognise you from somewhere!” was how Fy met one of her oldest collaborators and long-time friends.

Unfortunately, saying yes didn’t work out for some as well as others. One artist had brought in a piece called ‘Found Items’, in which an array of everyday objects were arranged on the table as if on sale. What story did each item imply? Who had lost them? How? While these were pressing issues, an even more pressing question many people had was: “Can I have some of that hubba bubba?”. The answer was naturally “yes” each time, and before long poor Luce began to complain: “People keep eating my art!”

RULE 2: Do not try to start an uprising

“Do not introduce storylines antithetical to the success of the LARP. Things like unionising to take down the corporate university board or spreading a conspiracy theory that all the artists are lizards just cut the evening short and stop everyone from developing their characters properly. If your character has a big personality, that’s great, but exercise a level of restraint so as not to encroach on the development of the LARP”

Cooperation is essential for the success of the LARP. Artists, buyers, and critics showed an impressive commitment to their roles, not even breaking character in the smoking area. What’s more, the big personalities in the room (read: everyone) were creative in a way that expanded the fun for all. An artist working in the medium of scent came with two vials, one filled with a pleasant perfume and the other with a more pungent unguent. Her instructions were simple: take these vials and spritz people with the scent that matches their energy. This is exactly the sort of thing which aided in the development of the LARP, since it encouraged people to interact with and evaluate one another, creating friendship in some places and tension in others…

As the night went on, we found ourselves forming a strong energetic connection with another resident artist who wore lots of stripes on lots of shirts. The connection became literal when she tied ribbons to our fingers and started leading us around with ribbons connected to her back. As more people joined her collective mind, they were forced to meet and learn about each other – another case of someone being adventurous in a way that helped the group connect.  Though fun for the most part, our commitment to the bit eventually became difficult to maintain when we could not detach in order to use the bathroom. It was worth it for the LARP though, wasn’t it. Wasn’t it?

RULE 3. LARP is not improv

“Compared to improv, characters are rich from the offset, which should allow for the exercise to transcend being interesting simply because it was a success (i.e. the ‘audience’ believed in it), instead becoming something generative, thought-provoking and totally immersive.”

As the evening entered its final phase, Xsist leaders Andy Cibatta (Lucas Closs) and Miss Maya Meyers-Briggs (Sophie Barshall) gathered artists, critics and collectors for a final appraisal. Two tired-looking Common Ground bartenders looked on, surrounded by warm wine and six-pound beer, as Andy thanked all artists and attendees. He rounded off his roundabout speech by asking: “Art, yeah? What’s it about?”.

The LARP became whatever you made it. It was what you found yourself telling someone in huge sunglasses who you’re sure you’ve met outside Plush.

We spoke to co-creator Sophie after the show. She commented that “We wanted the evening to be fun. We agreed that if people’s characters were able to transcend that and reach something more profound, that would be great. But it was never an objective of ours – we wanted to keep it light and open-ended, whilst avoiding satire (this was very important to me).” At the end of the day, Sophie comments: “We were all really happy with how it went.”

Given that at most art exhibitions, we all end up role-playing as art critics, the LARP wasn’t such a dramatic departure from reality. Any sense of being able to say we did it ‘ironically’ slips from our fingers as we realise we did, in fact, spend our Sunday night explaining, comparing and evaluating pieces of artwork that we had all made and brought in. We were licensed to be daring, critical, eccentric, and artistic – if only for a few hours on Little Clarendon Street.

A May-day-eve well spent.


Fy and Xav.

Words by Isaaq Tomkins and Julia Males.

Photo credits: Sophie Barshall, Isaaq Tomkins, Julia Males