This is the number the phone calls.
  • This is the number the phone calls.

It sounds like a terrible idea for a fundraiser, but the one-item sale at alternative film venue the Nightingale on Saturday is something of a put-on. It’s part of an odd, genre-bending art show promoting Kentucky Route Zero, a surrealistic computer game made by Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, a pair of School of the Art Institute grads known collectively as Cardboard Computer.

Kentucky Route Zero may not ring many bells in the art world, but the PC game’s first three episodes have earned awards and high praise in the gaming press, in part because the game thumbs its nose at the medium’s well-worn conventions. There are no puzzles to solve or people to fight, and you’d be hard pressed to classify anything you do as an “action.” Interaction is mostly limited to clicking objects and choosing snippets of meandering dialogue.

The goal of the game is to lead an antique furniture deliveryman named Conway and a cadre of quirky southerners through a secret highway in rural Kentucky. Along the way they encounter haunted mines, giant eagles, and an underground whiskey factory staffed by skeletons. Kentucky Route Zero is often tossed into the “adventure” genre, but that classification fails to do justice to a haunting head trip of a journey that feels like what would happen if David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor collaborated on a computer game.

Kemenczy and Elliott have further muddied the waters of the genre by creating three “interludes” between episodes. Each of them extend the game’s universe into unexpected mediums. The first, Limits and Demonstrations, is a virtual art museum displaying the works of Lula Chamberlain, one of the main characters you encounter in Kentucky Route Zero. The second, The Entertainment, is equally as meta—you digitally inhabit the role of an actor in a play that once employed Lula as a set designer. Or you can opt to download a paper script and read a hard copy of the play instead.

The latest interlude, called Here and There Along the Echo, is about bringing a virtual world into the physical realm.

“Our game doesn’t have a solid format and we like to experiment with different formats and really play with the idea of what a game is,” said Elliott, who recently moved from Chicago to Elizabethtown, Kentucky (not as a stunt for the game, he insists). “We wanted to experiment with something completely screenless in this case.”

That experiment first led Cardboard Computer to buy a few outdated touch-tone phones off eBay. Kemenczy, the game’s art designer, hacked the phones and installed a device to make users believe that the phones only call one number. Pick up the receiver and you automatically tap into an audio recording that claims its a drifter’s guide to a place called the Echo River. An old coot named Will (a minor character in Kentucky Route Zero) drawls random non sequiturs like: “For a catalog of subterranean birdsong, press one. For help identifying something in the dark, press two.”

Last year Cardboard Computer sold two of these “haunted” phones online. They auctioned a pink phone on eBay for $315 in November, and then posted an 80s-style informercial online to sell a second model. This weekend’s event at the Nightingale, “Weird Telephone, only dials one number,” will feature an in-person auction for the third phone—a black touch-tone Western Electric—and a sale of some prints of the game’s art. Elliott and Kemenczy will also be on hand to walk the audience through segments of Kentucky Route Zero.

Even if you’re not the winner of the auction, it’s still possible to use your non-haunted phone to call the number (270-301-5797) and listen to the recording of “Here and There Along the Echo.”

The show is curated by Video Game Art Gallery, a local nonprofit born of a desire to bring the art and gaming world together under one roof. They’ve organized similar pop-up events since August, though Chaz Evans, VGA Gallery’s director of exhibitions and programs, admits that this one-off auction qualifies as it’s most unusual.

“It’s mysterious, yes, but insofar as the work of the artists is also mysterious,” said Evans. “This is how Cardboard Computer operates. They’re also mysterious.”

“Weird Telephone, only dials one number,” Sat 3/21 from 5-10 PM at the Nightingale, 1084 N. Milwaukee
$5 (suggested donation)