Frag or Be Fragged
Eleven men and one woman
faced each other, armored from head to toe in steel and leather. They
gripped swords, maces, axes and shields. The sun was setting, and the
west-facing room, still steamy from a burning afternoon, had cooled off
just enough to begin the battle. Behind protective hay bales, a phalanx
of spectators crouched, stood and spilled out onto the street,
straining to hear as Aaron Darkhelm, clad in a tunic (but no dark
helm), officiated at the opening of the battle. “If you are killed,
acknowledge the kill, go off the field, and wait to re-enter,” he
announced. “Each melee continues for 10 minutes solid. There will be
nine melees. You’re going for the most kills. Pace yourself; it’s gonna
These were the basic rules for Untitled War,
a performance presented at the Machine Project gallery on Alvarado at
Sunset and organized by Brody Condon, an artist whose work is rooted in
video games and their culture. Condon invited fighters from the Society
for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a group that seeks to live and fight
according to the technology and values of the Middle Ages, to do battle
in the manner of online first-person shooter competition. When you log
onto such games, there may be 10 players already “fighting”; whoever
gets the most kills, or “frags,” wins. If you are killed online, a few
seconds pass before you re-spawn. Likewise, at Machine Project, a
fragged fighter would re-spawn — in this case, behind the hay bales —
before rejoining the fray.
As technicians tweaked the
ceiling cameras sending a video game–like composite view of the action
to a screen at the Echo Park Film Center next door, scorekeepers got
ready to count frags, the “populace” cheered, and combat commenced. Dr.
Tom Davidson, a maiden frolicking in a somewhat medieval-looking
costume replete with diaphanous veil and who is also a practicing M.D.,
leaned over to whisper, “I’m a little worried about the safety
Swordplay is loud in a small
space. Despite the fact that the fighters wielded rattan mockup weapons
cushioned with duct tape, they took genuine swings. Which were
deflected by genuine shields, or absorbed by genuine armor and helmets.
Of those, Philippe de Tournay’s pig-nose Bascimet was particularly
striking. It was fashioned, he had told me while suiting up, after a
genuine 15th-century helmet style that was contemporaneous with the era
of his SCA character, a courtier to the schismatic pope of Avignon
circa 1460. On the field, Philippe cut a nice figure in a red coatehardie, bearing a Vanguard of Honor, a colored ribbon that waved with each parry and thrust.
And yet Phillippe was not as
seasoned as some of the other fighters. The SCA is not the Renaissance
Faire, Condon had told me; nor is it a medieval version of Civil War
re-enactment. These battles are not choreographed, and the hierarchy
within the SCA is based on battle skills. In the Machine Project arena,
a few of the 12 combatants quickly distinguished themselves as superior
warriors. Lord Johannes the Southerner racked up four kills in just the
first round, and that was with an already-broken kneecap. Sir Eronric
of Devon and Sir Gavin of MacDomhnuill were close behind.
Beneath the clatter of the
medieval mano a mano, I got commentary from Julia Rupkalvis, a Marine
veteran and military adviser to Hollywood with a degree in hoplology.
(That’s the study of representing military action theatrically.)
Rupkalvis, who owns more than 150 swords herself and recently trained
Colin Farrell in the bladed martial arts of antiquity for his title
role in Oliver Stone’s Alexander, noted that the successful
fighters in the gallery employed better defensive strategy. (She also
told me that Brad Pitt’s leaping sidewinder stab in Troy was an art of combat known as “total B.S.,” but nevertheless “looked pretty cool.”) As Untitled War unfolded,
Rupkalvis liked one burly fellow in a cloak who made nice use of his
shield, and frowned when an opponent aced him with a quick flat snap to
the head. “That would never have happened in real combat,” she said.
“That guy’s sword would be way too heavy to move that fast.”
Meanwhile, the one
skirmishing woman, Condessa Battista de Kie del Goya da Lagos, was
having trouble fighting Florentine style — wielding two weapons and no
shield. Battista was getting battered by a hulking knight with a broad
sword and a round shield. “Two swords wasn’t a good idea. She would
have had an advantage in maneuverability because of her size and
speed,” Rupkalvis explained as one of Battista’s flailing swords, in a
moment of medieval friendly fire, accidentally disabled an ally. “But
that was negated by the confines of the gallery.”
By the final round, the
action had slowed significantly. Most of the fighters, sweating
profusely, ate platters of pickles for their salt and water. The
spectators drank Coors and Bud Lights out on the sidewalk, paying only
loose attention to the battle through a TV mounted above the doorway.
Mark Allen, the owner of Machine Projects, was nonetheless pleased.
“The crowd is losing interest,” he said. “But that’s kind of a perfect
development — like in today’s world, where there’s a war going on in
the distance, up there on a television. And we all pay close attention
at first, but then start to relax and watch with a few beers.” Inside
the gallery, Johannes the Southerner, heaving with exhaustion, managed
to raise his sword for yet another kill.
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