Rick Paulas | Longreads | September 2015 | 31 minutes (7,584 words)

The bespectacled man with short-cropped hair stood up.

“Can I ask a question!” the man shouted, vocal cords straining. The audience turned. They were all members of The Latitude, a secret society based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 200-plus members of the crowd—adorned in confusing styles of dress: top hats, face paint, tailored suits, jeans and T-shirts, exotically colored hair in intricate patterns—were huddled in the high school auditorium-like confines of Oakland’s Omni Commons for what was billed as the society’s first Town Hall. The event was part celebration, part inquisition: the former since this was the most members gathered in one place at one time; the latter due to an inevitable—and, for some members, frightening—change coming to their beloved secret society.

A few months prior, an email was sent to all Society members. “For some time now, your provisional membership with the San Francisco House of the Latitude Society has been sponsored by an endowment bestowed by an honored member,” it read. “The end of this grant and provisional membership grace draws near, and our House will soon be supported by the paid dues of our members.” It linked to an explanation of membership “dues,” ranging from $36 a month to $360 for an annual membership. This was new information to members who, until that point, had been experiencing all The Latitude had to offer for free. The Town Hall, then, was a chance for members—or “compeers,” to use Society parlance—to address this sudden and dramatic shift. It would also be a chance for members to put face-to-name to the eight members that constituted the society’s leadership, many of whom they’d known only through posts on the exclusive message board.

And there they sat, on a stage roughly four feet higher than the rest, powder blue sashes hung across their chests, society-specific regalia pinned on: The Elders Council. They passed around a pair of microphones, answering questions asked by a ninth member, a “regular schmo” tasked with being that evening’s moderator.

“So, what is the Latitude Society?” the moderator started, reading from a series of questions that had been submitted via the website. One of the two Elders at center stage, a tall and quietly imposing man with a shaved head and more regalia than the rest, took the mic. According to introductions, this man’s name was Nicholson Blair.

“As we all know,” Blair started. “The Latitude is a very elaborate entrance.”

The audience laughed and murmured, recalling the first half-hour of that night that included a reading of the Society’s origin narrative (“The Fable”) by one of the more boisterous Elders. A few performed a whistle that caused other members to respond in turn, giving the cavernous room a soundtrack of echoing high-pitched cacophony. Blair waited for the commotion to flutter away.

“Is it a social club? Is it an entertainment? Is it a secret society? Is it a pyramid scheme, a Ponzi scheme, a cult? Is it a game?” he said. “If you believe it is a game, then it is a game with very high stakes.”

For the Q&A’s initial twenty minutes, the atmosphere was genial and positive. Questions were answered about where long-missing leaders had gone (“I’ve been on a boat”), why membership dues were needed (“We need to hit our bills”), and what the future of the Society looked like (“This is bigger than The Bay”). But there was a tension in the air that seethed and thickened with every passing minute.

“Can I ask a question!” the man in glasses shouted, out of turn.

Blair set his microphone down. The Elders Council turned to the interruptor. “Can we have a space, and I ask this lovingly—I would pay, I love the discussion—but can we agree to have a space where things are not recorded?” asked the man. He mentioned Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance program, taped events the group had held in hidden rooms in secret places throughout the Bay, hinted at a documentary that captured the precursor of what eventually became The Latitude. “At least, ask before it’s recorded,” he concluded.

“Wait, wait, wait,” shouted an anonymous compeer. “You mean ‘absolute discretion?’” The loaded phrase lightened the situation, a few laughs echoing through the commons. But the man in the glasses was not distracted.

“I ask for it in return as I give it,” concluded the inquisitor before falling onto his fold-out chair, a round of hearty applause.

Blair huffed an exasperated breath from his nose. The Elders on either side of the half-circle turned to hear his reply. Blair picked up the microphone. This wasn’t the atmosphere he had in mind when he first started his secret society.

Photo by Spencer McCall

* * *

Jeff Hull greeted me at the front door of his home near Oakland’s Lake Merritt with an offer of half his sandwich. He led me through the various common areas of his labyrinthian abode, before settling at a table adorned with a pair of glossy photography coffee table books, Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann and Phyllis Galembo’s Maske. In his perfect vision, he explains, these are the clothing choices Society members would wear to functions, a kind of Scandinavian Wicker Man after a side trip through Africa. In fact, one of the regrets Hull had about the Town Hall was that this aesthetic wasn’t on display. But it wasn’t the only one.  

“The Town Hall won’t happen again,” says Hull. “Calling it a Town Hall was inviting that kind of thing. Maybe next time we’ll give them pitchforks and shit.”

Hull—who goes by the moniker “Nicholson Blair” in Society-related functions—wasn’t particularly pleased with the event he orchestrated. “People had a lot of questions and I think people wanted to feel heard,” he says. “They were. We gave the idea that a kind of democratic organization was presented. But, in reality, it’s not a democratic organization. That’s why it won’t happen again.”

This may sound blustery, but it’s not inaccurate. While various people have contributed and chiseled this nebulous idea into what’s now called The Latitude, the thing is ultimately Hull’s baby. The “honored member” who helped bestow the San Francisco House with a boatload of provisional memberships? The one speaking about The Latitude having “very high stakes?” The man who co-wrote The Fable at the group’s center that is only to be read by members? That’s Hull.

For the past 15 years, Hull has been a fixture in the Bay Area art scene, in particular on the Eastern side of the bridge. After living in Chicago right before the turn of the millennium, he returned to Oakland’s first dotcom bubble. “Suddenly, I noticed people moving from San Francisco to Oakland, and I thought, oh my god, they’re paving over Oakland,” he said. “I had no idea what would be happening in 2015.” In response to this initial infiltration, Hull orchestrated a series of underground events and publications—graffiti, zines, projections on the sides of buildings featuring local heroes, guerilla drive-in movies, night-time Capture the Flag games outside City Hall—under the name Oaklandish.

“This was before we had anything going on downtown,” said Hull. “You’d go downtown and watch the tumbleweeds.”

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Jeff Hull. Photo by Spencer McCall.

In 2003, Hull rented a gallery space in Jack London Square, and the team—which included a rotating cast of artists and then-wife Angela Tsay—began selling various forms of Oakland-centric apparel, like shirts and hoodies. “We saw, oh, it’s a brand,” said Hull. After getting kicked out of their space in 2005, they traveled to farmers’ markets to sell their gear. By 2008, Hull and Tsay had split up and Angela had transitioned to the CEO and Creative Director of the business and began expanding the brand. In 2011, Oaklandish opened its first apparel shop on Broadway in downtown Oakland, and has since opened a store in Fruitvale and a seasonal pop-up in the Oakland International Airport. (It’s a big deal around these parts; you can’t go for a stroll through any East Bay neighborhood without seeing someone walking by donning apparel with the outlet’s iconic oak tree/root system design.)

After leaving the brand in Tsay’s hands, Hull shifted focus to building what he now refers to as “the Jejune thing.”

Where does one start with the thing that was The Jejune Institute? I tried to explain it, in a series of articles for The Awl, after I happened upon the weird cult/scavenger hunt/alternate reality game/public art/space reclamation—insert your own descriptor here, if you’d like—project. (The articles, in fact, are the reason Hull granted me access to the behind-the-scenes goings-on of The Latitude that largely constitute what you’re now reading.) Go read those pieces to get a sense, if you’re so inclined. Or watch the documentary The Institute to get a more defined sense of what that project was.

But to understand this “secret society” venture and its potential struggles, it’s important to analyze how The Jejune Institute ended, and why it failed.

The experience of The Jejune Institute began with someone—a friend, an associate, a random person at a bar—telling you to go to the 16th floor of a Financial District building, walk to the front desk, and ask for “The Jejune Institute.” That was the “point of entry” for the experience. When a player did that, they were welcomed by a receptionist, given a key with instructions, and the game began, the first section necessitating them walking through a working office. When the experience opened in 2008, a few extra folks per day walking through the office wasn’t a big deal. But after three years, when word-of-mouth spread to the point where it was “booked solidly,” problems with design surfaced.

“We became a victim of our own success,” said Sara Thacher, who worked with Hull to design Jejune. “Having this constant stream of people who were not in the mindset of going into a professional office building made it challenging for fellow businesses.”

“The college sororities, the junior high kids, tourists, the kind of person that came in started to become anybody,” said Uriah Findley, another of the game’s designers. “Literally, there were junior high girls that ran screaming, and I’d have to yell at them.”

There was also the problem of funding. See, the entire experience of Jejune—besides a few small expenditures, like a CD, or maybe a BART ticket, and a small token from a Mission shop—was free, despite it costing somewhere in the low- to mid-six figures to produce. This was not a great plan for a business. But it’s not a terrible idea if the experience is a calling card to procure business in other ways, which is what Hull’s company—which goes by the name Nonchalance—was attempting. The idea was that corporations would be intrigued, give them a call, and throw money at them to design branded experiences.  

“We explored the hell out of working as a production company,” said Findley. “Everybody loved the ideas, but as soon as money people saw the price tag, it was, I can spend $15,000 and get a billboard, where I know traffic and know this many eyes will see it? Or, a bigger price tag and you’re telling me you might not even reach that many eyes? No money people got it.”

A few small projects—including experiences for The Exploratorium and the Oakland International Airport—and plenty of false starts later, and it was evident this plan wasn’t going to work. Perhaps more importantly, it was becoming clear that Hull wasn’t particularly suited to the atmosphere of pitching-and-wishing. “Jeff felt constrained by it,” said Thacher. “He was like, ‘I have so many ideas of my own, why would I want to spend time working on yours?’ Jeff likes to be his own boss.”

These dual problems—logistics for participants and lack of revenue—meant there were two choices: Redesign the game completely to take into account this new influx of people and make money off it? Or blow up the whole damn thing? Hull chose the latter.

“There were those of us who were enthusiastic about that prospect, but I don’t think that much interested Jeff,” said Thacher. “He’d already done it. He didn’t want to redo it.” And so, after a bold yet confusing event that acted as a closing ceremony of sorts for the game’s most hardcore players, The Jejune Institute was closed for good.

“It was kind of like, what next?” said Hull. And, as happens sometimes with these kinds of murky artistic projects to these kinds of open-minded artistic people, the answer came in a dream.

“It was like New Orleans, with elements of Tokyo, with underground and above-ground passages. You moved through the city without ever being on the streets,” Hull explained. “There was this elevator protected by thuggish, but very dapper, guards. I bypassed security and got into the elevator, and was elevated to this floor that had passageways to other buildings. And there was a woman there, and a book on a pedestal, and she opened it, and told me the principles of the Society.”

So, what is The Latitude Society?

* * *

latitudecard, credit nonchalance
Photo by Bill Gies

This is what I can tell you.

One day, someone you trust will invite you someplace. Maybe for a drink at a local dive, maybe a stroll through a park, maybe a picnic in the cemetery. There, they’ll explain they belong to this club, or secret society, or maybe they’ll describe it as a cult, but say it with a faint glimmer of mockery in their eyes. They’ll litter cryptic phrases into the conversation—“people create experiences,” “automated rooms hidden through the city,” “no one’s going to jump out at you”—and while those will be too obscure to mean much, they’ll be enough for you to accept the invitation. How could you not?

They’ll reach into their pocket, remove the invitation, and extend it. It will be a white plastic card with a magnetic strip, a code, and a website. It will be in a black paper sleeve, a gold-emblazoned maze-like symbol on front and a statement including the words “ABSOLUTE DISCRETION” on back. These words will stick with you.

You’ll schedule an appointment. You’ll receive instructions about your upcoming visit, including an address and a time. You’ll have five minutes after your appointment to enter before the door locks for good. You’ll get there early, but will take care not to loiter, as per the instructions telling you to “not draw attention to yourself.” So, you’ll stroll around the block, maybe grab an apple from the nearby bodega, more likely sidle against a building and check your phone. And when the approved time comes, you’ll go to the entrance, swipe your card through the reader, hear the lock disengage, swiftly walk in, slam shut the door behind you, and stand in utter darkness.

Slowly, your eyes will adjust. A deep sonic beat will pulsate, the volume subtly raising as the lights grow, forms taking shape in front of you. One large circular area will remain dark, and soon you’ll realize it’s a hole into the building’s depths. There’s no other way for you to go, and so you’ll slide down. This is the beginning of Book One.

After a few hours of making your way through Book One, you’ll return to the website. You are now a member of the Society. This will allow you to purchase memberships to gift to others, buy various forms of regalia—say, the powder blue sashes on display at the Town Hall—“play” subsequent Books, when they’re made available, and participate in Society events, such as the Town Hall, occasional “galas,” and regular “praxis” meetings, a kind of meditative roundtable discussion that reinforces the Society’s goals and ethos, while doubling as a networking sesh.

Kat Meler works as the lead organizer for the Society’s events, which, for first-time participants, are atmospheres thick with confusion. No one’s quite sure how to read them. Are the people being sincere? Is this some kind of role-playing game? What’s the puzzle we’re here to figure out? Trying to lock down solid answers is as difficult as trying to give a dog a bath. “You get into the blurring of what is live theater?” said Meler. “But, isn’t it all live theater?”

Photo by Spencer McCall

But The Latitude also—and this is where it sets itself apart from other experiential entertainment, especially Jejune—allows and encourages “compeers” to create their own experiences. In Latitude verbiage, these are known as “Autonomous Gatherings,” and they can range from terrarium building workshops, to tarot card readings, or just drinks in a dark, private section of the bar. “You might not have known someone who did this kind of woodworking or programming or writing before,” said Meler. “And that becomes a new organic relationship.”

On the surface, the existence of these “gatherings” seem like simply a way for creative folk to find like-minded people to hang with, which, while a not-always-easy proposition no matter the city you live in, it’s not a paradigm shift in social connectivity.

But there’s also the unique vetting process that’s taken place. These people at this function, or this workshop, or this bar, they’ve been on the message board forum, they’ve been to a “praxis” or two, they’ve made it through Book One, they’ve slid down the same “rabbit hole” as you. At the very least, someone else thought highly enough of them to include them in this club. “It makes it unifying,” says Hull. “It’s the one thing you know, that everyone else has been initiated. I’ve been very good at not compromising that.”

This “curated community” is not a bonus side effect of the design, but something baked into its DNA. After his dream, after Jejune’s final event, Hull invited a small group to, as he puts it, his “monastic woods setting” in Mendocino. “We’re, like, literally off in the forest in a yurt,” he says. He set the tone by sending vague invitations about a three-day summit in the deep forest to “consider the next phases of The Latitude’s development,” acting as if this group had existed for hundreds of years. “Like the Masons, the Knights Templar, Illuminati,” says Hull. “I’m interested in the idea that somebody’s a puppeteer of reality. A lot of times it’s the discussion of the New World Order, or The Federal Bank, or the Bilderberg Group. I have this philosophy that’s like, it’s us. We’re the ones building reality.”

Hull called the Mendocino group The Elders Council, and they began painting the broad strokes of what this new experience would be. “It wasn’t just pretending a community, or pretending that you were being transported. It was actually, we can transport people and build a real community around this,” he says. The initial twelve invited four each, and so on, for the next three years. That’s how The Latitude Society was built.

Hull gives a large portion of the credit to distilling his vision to Geordie Aitken, who began working with Hull partway through Jejune. Aitken works as a professional facilitator. “And what I facilitate professionally,” he tells me, in a tone that blurs the line between sincerity and self-mockery, “is people’s personal and professional growth periods.” It’s a murkily defined job, manifested in corporate team-building exercises like Ninja Training seminars, or talking the top people in the top fields off whatever metaphysical ledge they’re on. “I’m really good at disarming really serious people and getting them to figure out who they are, what their purpose is, what they’re here to do,” Aitken tells me over the phone. “In that way, I feel like I get away with some very subversive, very humanistic work.”

After reading the Jejune website, Aitken was impressed by the irreverent, yet deadly accuracy, of the prose. “I cold-called him,” said Aitken. “Whoever this is, this is my guy.” The two quick friends began collaborating, with Aitken taking on a central role in Jejune’s closing seminar, commanding the stage and leading a large group of confused individuals with the same confidence, humor, and cult leader-ish charm he utilizes in corporate seminars. When Hull sojourned into the woods, Aitken was one of the first people he called.

“The proposition that Jeff and I originally started exploring is whether an elaborately curated experience with game-like elements, secret society elements, narrative elements, whether that Venn diagram could create a vehicle for personal growth,” said Aitken. “That’s a long-winded way of saying this was us asking, can a game help people in their real lives?”

It’s a goal that, frankly, sounds like a reach, particularly in our era of sarcasm, smarm, irony, meta- and self-referential narrative, the pulled-punches of hipster affectations. This tone is also, as you’d expect, not for everyone.

“It’s not the type of experiential entertainment I particularly want,” said Catherine Herdlick, who finished Book One and works in experiential art. “It’s like one of those secret societies they had in college, one of those non-frat frats. It starts in with a couple of behaviors I don’t like in myself.” The withholding of information, for one. “The tone of it is,” said Herdlick, before dropping her voice into a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone.”

There’s also the feeling that entry is purposefully limited, so as to skew supply/demand numbers and provide the venture with a “I want to be part of that in-crowd” sensibility, not unlike a restaurant keeping half their tables free from reservations so there’s consistently a line out the door, bumping up the cool quotient, feeding into the mythos, raising demand, making the line even longer. “It’s a tried and true marketing tactic,” Herdlick said. Another possible negative: The Latitude trying to be all things to all people. “It’s like they’re trying to be the one place to go for experiential entertainment,” said Herdlick. But while it may be broad and massive in scope, one thing it is not is tongue-in-cheek.  

“One of the main qualities that is in short supply amongst art culture and pop culture and in our daily lives, is a sense of reverence,” says Hull. “To be able to gather people together and whisper together in a room and be sincere, be really sincere. It’s hard to do.” When Hull was on the Town Hall stage talking about the “high stakes” this game has, he wasn’t being an in-character hype machine. He believes this thing has a chance to tweak our culture.

“One thing I believe in my heart is that this work will be referenced for a long time to come,” said Aitken. “It’s ahead of it’s time. Something important’s going on with all this.”

“I mean, if we succeed,” says Hull, “it’s going to last forever.”  

And it’s that ugly little word—if—that looms over The Society since the Book One doors were opened over a year ago. Because, while one problem that led to the demise of Jejune—the amount/type of people participating—has been deftly solved through the use of hand-me-down invites, the other problem with the money certainly hasn’t.

The Latitude, after all, is a startup. And the landscape of startups is a vast wasteland littered with corpses.

* * *

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Photo by Spencer McCall

While The Latitude is unique in terms of content and tone, it is part of an established genre of entertainment. When describing it, Hull name-checks escape room games, the urban chase game Journey to the End of the Night, and the British theater company Punchdrunk, who partnered with Emursive to create the interactive play Sleep No More in New York. “It took them years to be in the black,” says Hull, of Punchdrunk. “After years they’re like, now we’re breaking even, now we’re profitable, so we’re going to do a new one that’s even better.”

This problem of profitability, of sustainability, is at the forefront of Hull’s mind. By Hull’s estimate, they’ve put “much more” than $1 million into this project, a chunk of it his own money. Walk through the elaborately constructed rooms of Book One located in, let’s say, a not-so-cheap area of a not-so-cheap city, and you can see how quickly the money gets spent. That capital is recouped by sales from gifting memberships ($32 a pop, with a slight discount if you order in bulk), buying sashes to wear ($16), or picking up an “Absolute Discretion” T-shirt ($32 per).

“If you look at startups like Twitter or Instagram, billions of dollars in investment when they went public, but they still have no revenue,” says Hull. “They haven’t figured out their revenue model. I look at it similarly. We’re onto something, it has value, let’s cultivate it.”

The financially motivated intention of the experience is, at its core, to funnel members into the store where they spend money, some going towards inviting others, who will also go to the store, and so on and so forth. By Hull’s estimation, every person that walks through Book One generates $100 in the marketplace.

“The model is very pyramidy,” said Michael Epstein, a scholar and practitioner of interactive media who’s followed Hull’s work since Jejune. “I don’t think he’s trying to pretend it’s not. I don’t get the sleazy feeling from him. But I think he knew originally that he wanted to do whatever the fuck he could to drive people to the store so this could be self-funded.”

This is nothing Hull is evasive about; he uses the terminology of startups and VCs in our conversations, for example, calling the Autonomous Gatherings “our user-generated content.” But a funny thing happened along the way of this experience spreading organically through word-of-mouth: People clammed up. “If we could reach our capacity, we’d be doing fine,” says Hull. “But we’re at 15% capacity.”

Rather than casting a wide net, compeers became ultra-selective to the point of stasis. Some of this was faulty design (“Absolute Discretion” doesn’t exactly invite openness), some was the normal curative process that comes with forming a social group—only the insane invite all their friends to every party. However, no new members walking through the door meant no new money coming in meant something was broken. This led to the first big change in pricing scheme: the introduction of membership dues. (This, again, was one of the reasons the Town Hall was held; to reiterate, it costs $360 for an annual membership.)  

Aside from a few posters on the message board, this shift wasn’t met with overt negative reaction, as much as heartfelt attempts to fix the financial conundrum. One of the longest threads on The Latitude’s message board—evocatively titled “When a gift comes with a price tag”—is a collection of brainstorms about how to fund the Society, ideas like collecting grants or giving volunteers free membership. “I watched a debate with someone being, I did the math and if they generate $6,600 a month, they could pay for it,” said Findley, laughing. “Show me your math. They could run all the bake sales, art shows, busk all day, every day. I don’t think they have any perception of the cost.” (Findley helped design much of The Latitude and is an acting member, but has since left Nonchalance.)

To be fair, the introduction of dues was in the fine print since day one, with the introductory message to new initiates explaining that, for now, memberships were covered by a “benefactor.” And putting together something like this of course costs money, so being asked to pay isn’t out of line. But, something had changed to the project’s feeling after the email, no doubt. With the introduction of dues, inviting someone into the Society felt like you were buying them the first month of a magazine subscription.

“The financial part of it makes it a little weird,” wrote compeer T.S. in an email. “Either I don’t tell an invitee up front and they do the initial experience, are charmed, and then confronted with a nontrivial price tag to continue. Or I tell them upfront about the potential costs, undermining to a large extent the pleasant mystery that veiled invitations previously.” (I can relate to this; I still have an invitation lying around, unused, waiting for my hesitations to subside.)

“It kind of sucks that it feels so innocent, but attached to it is this thing of like, we want your money. There’s something incongruous there,” said Epstein. “But Jeff is really straightforward by saying, now we need to charge you money, because all this shit costs money.” Unlike, Epstein points out, ostensibly free websites that earn their money off user data.

So, why is it so incongruous? Part of it could be of how Hull operates his projects, without a clear “opt-in” point of entry, blending together fiction and reality. “When you buy a ticket and enter a turnstile, you’ve put a big fence around what your project is and what it isn’t,” says Hull. “What it can be, and what it can’t. I never want to do that.”

Sometimes, this manifests in simply awkwardness, such as the blurring of “what is live theater?” at Societal functions. (Or, non-Society functions: I’ve spent more than a few conversations with Hull where I’m not quite sure he’s being on the level; the ten minutes I was waiting at his front door after our scheduled meeting time was, of course, not him “running a bit late” as his text said, but clearly a diabolical power play.) Other times it can completely change the context of the narrative being presented, which can have unintended, and potentially harmful, side effects. (During Jejune, there was a participant who locked himself in his home for an extended period of time because he thought the cult was real. “That was pretty scary,” says Hull. “It definitely made me anxious, the fact that he blamed Jejune for that.”)

But this also manifests in how consumers respond when being asked to pay. If you go to a grocery store, you know you’re required to pay money for that banana. The social contract’s been signed the moment you walk through the doors, because that’s what we’ve learned, and also because there’s a clearly delineated line drawn between in-store and out-of-store. But this project—whatever it is—is not comparable to anything out there currently.

“You have people paying $300 a year for a membership to a crappy gym, people see blockbuster films for $16 a pop, and they don’t even get to keep the 3-D glasses,” said Aitken. “Those are known categories of expenditure. But this? We have all of these things bleeding together in this unholy way, so we see those tensions surface.” The fact that there is a price associated with the product, to Aitken, represents the goal they’re trying to accomplish. “If this was just an art project, just a lark, that people could consume for free,” he said, “that’s saying this has no value in the world.”

The membership dues, however, are just one of the changes coming. They’ve also made the decision to “open up” to the outside world, using as-of-now unclear methods to provide those in other cities and other social circles entry. There were rumors they’d hold a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign, but Hull nixes those notions. Currently, there’s an “Inquiry Form” for those wishing to inquire about membership. And, make no mistake about it, the fact that the very piece you’re reading even exists, that Hull allowed access to the goings-on, is a calculated move to build awareness. (When he was recently asked about the existence of this project, he was very close-lipped.)

The fact is, the small, exclusive-seeming society is about to get a new influx of people, one way or another. Everyone I spoke to on the board-of-directors side of things are not only pleased about this, but say this was always part of the plan. And there is expansion planned, with the opening up of other chapters in other cities and countries, but only once the San Francisco House becomes self-sustainable. “We got a big old plan,” says Hull. “The direction we want to go in is to have a distributed model. To create a platform that other people in other areas can interact with The Latitude Society. But we actually have to show up in those locations to get it started.”

However, most compeers I spoke with felt something may be lost with expansion. “The openness actually makes me less prone to invite folks,” wrote one compeer who wished to stay anonymous. “Most of what makes The Latitude attractive rests upon most of the population not knowing about it. The premise of its seclusion really sets the tone and bumps the experiences to a higher level than novelty.”

Another potential issue is the one that befalls all designs that include participatory art, or User-Gen in the words of social media. It’s the too-many-cooks rule. When you have a lot of voices, the vision gets watered down pretty quickly. “We live in an age where we can really easily give people tools to contribute back to any work of art,” said Epstein. “But the problem is that it is incredibly difficult to maintain the integrity when you allow that type of publishing to happen.”  

This is troubling from an aesthetics standpoint. Again, this is ultimately Hull’s baby. If you’re looking for an auteur behind this, it’s him. He’s the creative director/CEO with a specific look/style/vision he’s going for. Sure, he’ll delegate responsibilities and take suggestions from his team, but the buck stops with him. So what do you get when, quite suddenly, the experience is opened, in whatever small way, to those who may not entirely get it. As the Society expands, and more compeers enter, and more Autonomous Gatherings find their way onto the schedule, a more fine-tuned curation process will be needed.

“I’d be happy to kick people out,” Hull says. “My team is a little more sympathetic and they have more compassion than I do. But I, personally, would be happy to kick people out. It’s not for everybody. It’s not even for everybody who thinks it’s for them.”

(One example is Hull’s attempt to keep religion and politics out of Latitude-related events and discussions, a goal circumvented with the introduction of a “Diversity Guild,” an effort by members to keep the group’s demographics from being so singular, which is to say, so very white. “I hate it, it’s so stupid,” says Hull. “It’s disingenuous to do outreach in that way. The only way it’s going to become a more diverse thing is if people start to naturally give out more invites.” Hull claims he’s going to “shut that down,” but as of this writing, the message thread is still active.)

The various tensions from expansion will be, quite possibly, the main struggle as The Latitude finds its footing. But Hull and Aitken, and everyone else at The Latitude, looks at this with hope and possibility, not doom and gloom. “No new thing is brought into this world with smiles and cherubic expressions only,” said Aitken. “I think the tensions and ripples of discontent are good news, really.” Plus, as Hull mentions, whether or not the entirety of The Latitude is composed of someone’s personal favorite people doesn’t really matter. As in everything in life, there are tiers of engagement, many of which can be curated—or, culled, if you want get nasty—based on one’s personal preferences.

“With growth, there will be some sacrifice. We do run that risk,” says Hull. “But it’s like any good event or party you go to. Your job isn’t to like everyone. If there’s enough of the good stuff, you’ll keep coming back. Even at your favorite parties, there are people you find annoying.”

latitudeplacemarker, credit nonchalance
Latitude place marker. Photo by Bill Gies

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“The first feather boa I see tonight, they’re out!” Hull says, jokingly.

We’re unloading supplies from his car, parked outside the back entrance to Children’s Fairyland, a “storybook” theme park that cradles the northwest inlet of Lake Merritt. Hull’s Nonchalance has rented out the park—which usually can only be visited by adults if they’re accompanied by a child—for the The Latitude Society’s first-ever Solstice Eve Gala. (Although, to maintain the Society’s narrative, the invitation calls the affair its “66th Annual.”) This, less than a month after the Society’s more confrontational Town Hall meeting, is to be a celebratory occasion.

For Hull, there’s a vital importance to this site hosting the first Society-sponsored party. Not only has this been part of his own personal growth—he was a child performer as the character of Jack, his sister taking the role of Jill—but there are clear inspirations between this old hokey theme park from the 1950s and his work. “Follow the yellow brick road,” says Hull. “There’s a magic key to a storybook that’s falling literally into a rabbit hole. Yeah, it’s totally informative.”

Before the event, Hull and a large group of volunteers are going over party logistics. Where will the performers be positioned, who’s in charge of the kegs, do we have enough glow sticks. Hull takes a moment from greeting his crew—hugs and smiles, all around—to finish up our interview. I take the chance to finally ask him who exactly this thing he’s created, this Latitude Society, is for.

“It’s for me,” Hull says. “I’m curious, I want adventure, I want to find a way to have meaningful engagements with individuals and groups of people, I want to partake in experiences.” He raises his voice. “I’m hungry for experience. I want somebody to show me experiences and lead me the way towards them.”

If there’s a central ethos of this project, it is this: Give experiences. The first line, in bold, at the website page soliciting members to choose the level of dues-paying that’s appropriate to what they can afford, states: “We value experience.”

“I don’t want to get too woo-woo here,” Aitken said. “But it’s reorienting people to their lives and helping them see there are more choices, more options, than they realized. It’s the experiences we have in our lives that lead us to the beliefs we hold which shapes our behaviors that we enact which give us everything we get.”

Get that core concept in your head, and you can see how it manifests through the project. The first act of the entire project is the extension—or, more accurately, the reception—of an invitation. That, in itself, no matter which side of the invitation you’re on, is a curated experience. (And invitations can be elaborate. “My general plan is going to be to catch up a little bit, then talk about the Society vaguely, then tell him I want to give him an example of experiential tithing,” wrote one compeer on a message board thread devoted to invitation-giving tips. “There, I will ask him, ‘If you were to surround yourself with those of like heart and mind, who would they be? Together, what would you build?’ Then, I will apply a temporary tattoo on him, say a bit more about a secret society, hand off the invitation, and take off the blindfold.”) This whole thing, then, is a way to teach people how to do this kind of thing.

“The end game is, we’re educating people about what immersive narrative experiences are,” says Hull. “We’re showing them how it’s done.”

When Hull speaks about his creations, he often mentions “the magic circle.” That’s the idea that, here is a controlled space where everyone agrees on the rules, let’s have some fun. You can see this in a role-playing game, an improv scene, even a softball game where relatively calm people are allowed to get relatively amped up until the final out is recorded. In a “magic circle,” participants are allowed to feel, and thusly act, free because everyone around them is on the same wavelength. “With the safety of the magic circle, people can experiment with creating experiences that they wouldn’t risk on the outside,” said Aitken. “There’s something cool when you have these agreements for discretion.” (Orgies, I’m guessing, aren’t too far off from this concept either.)

This attempt to provide a magic circle is also why there are monikers associated with The Latitude, as in, participants—on the message board, in various transmissions while playing the Book aspects, at Society events—are referred to by names they made up (Hull’s “Nicholson Blair,” for example) instead of their given names. “It’s been a favorite tactic of cult leaders,” said Aitken. “That’s an old trick. I think we’re reapplying that in a very new context. It’s an elasticity of identity that allows more exploration.”

(Important Counterpoint: “What I think I originally liked about it was that he was mocking this idea that we need these confines,” said Epstein. “I’m not sure if he’s liberating people to become more participatory, or if in some ways he’s enabling people to be cut off from each other even more.”)

So, okay. This is all fine. But, what’s the angle? Why is Jeff Hull doing all of this? This is a question I’ve been asking myself since Jejune, when I was participating in this fantastic thing, for free, and it wasn’t entirely clear how I was being exploited. Sure, he wants his projects to make money. Of course, he wants these things to be self-sustaining. But what’s the upside?

“Jeff’s a guy who, frankly, could be doing whatever the hell he wants to be doing. So, why does a guy use his money to back a project like this?” said Findley. “He believes the creative landscape has become stagnant. He believes there are better ways to tell stories and create communities. He believes things like this are more valuable—if not more valuable and important—than going to the movies and gym memberships and lattes and shopping malls.”

“My impression of Jeff is, this is some culture-jamming he wants to see in the world,” said Meler. “And he happens to have the time and resources to do something about it. That’s the core drive.”

“Jeff is creating The Latitude for the betterment of people,” said Spencer McCall, the director of The Institute. “I know that sounds corny, but I really do think so.”

There’s a story Thacher told about a failed attempt during Jejune’s Chapter II. When I played it, I was tasked with collecting wooden “Hobo Coins” from the Mission’s unique independent shops, solving a riddle which ended with a solution that was an address, going to that location, getting something, going to a different location, relatively standard scavenger hunt stuff. However, this wasn’t the Chapter’s original design.

“Jeff wanted to work with buskers and homeless guys in the Mission and Market Street district,” said Thacher. “We’d give them wooden nickels and players would drop a dollar in their hat and they’d hand you one. I said, I don’t think that’s a very sustainable thing. The movie version sounds amazing. But, in actuality, people who busk and homeless guys are not super reliable.”

The first day the Chapter launched, Hull tried to do it. “He really, really wanted it to work,” said Thacher. So, he went there himself and waited for the first round of players to get there, approached the various buskers and homeless people in the area, and gave them the Hobo Coins. And, for the first few players, it actually worked. They made the proper transaction with the dollar, received the wooden nickels, and continued the scavenger hunt. But, alas, the problems of the design were quickly clear, and it didn’t last a second week.

This, to me, is the key to Jeff Hull as a game designer, storyteller, whatever you want to call him. He wants desperately to change our interactions, to tweak our sensibilities, to alter our experiences. He’s not worried about ruffling feathers, and he has enough of a “fuck-you money” cachet to congeal his dreams into something substantial. More than one person I interviewed spoke about compeers reading The Fable—a central part of the Book One experience, a fairytale Hull helped write—to their children as a bedtime story. That’s a cultural impact. That’s what Jeff is going for.

“The Latitude Society is not winking or nudging,” he says outside of the Fairyland gates. “Although, there will probably be a lot of drunk people at the thing tonight.”

In a few hours, Hull will don his outfit—a massive headpiece and staff that makes his already tall figure even more imposing—and revel with the rest of the members of this society he’s created. The 300-plus attendees will stroll the usually-forbidden-to-adults confines of the theme park as awkward giants. They’ll listen to cellist performances, watch a stilt-walker stroll the yard in the costume of a majestic beast, participate in a narrative-based scavenger hunt, whirl in a glow-stick-infused dance party, and drink and be merry. People will be dressed in confusing styles of dress, from suits to jungle outfits to everyday plaids to baby carriers to a surprising assortment of people in clown makeup.

The approaching night, certainly, will be an experience to remember.

“Look,” Hull says before the Gala, pointing out his motley crew of volunteers unloading art and kegs and A/V equipment. “If you look at the faces of all the people who are here tonight and participating… these are the people. All this shit they brought, these are their art installations, and their pieces that they’re bringing to this.” He pauses and wraps his fingers around the chain-link fence, opening it for a group of performers to pass through.

“I think this is it,” he says. “I think this is what we thought it was going to be.”

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Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not. He lives in Berkeley, is a White Sox fan, and is working on his first novel. He can be found at www.rickpaulas.com.

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Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles