The Justice Syndicate

Rachel Briscoe shares insights into the development of new work by fanSHEN.

Posted on 13th December 2017

Written by Rachel Briscoe

Near Now Fellow Rachel Briscoe has been researching new tools, technologies and techniques to shape future projects developed by her interactive theatre company, fanSHEN.

In 2015, fanSHEN created Invisible Treasure. It was a project about invisible systems and how we relate to them. In the past, power was quite visible (a castle with loads of soldiers) but now – where do you locate the internet, the financial markets, electricity? We wanted to make a piece which invited people to consider their complicity with and agency within invisible systems.

Having made an experience without any actors, we realised we’d made a piece which asked how a group would behave in response to a structure. Night after night, we’d sit watching the feed from the camera in the space, praying that the tech wouldn’t break during the show (it often did). Sometimes we’d forget to be worried because we’d get drawn into the dynamics of the group – how strangers engaged with each other, how alliances within the group switched, how they made decisions.

We started to wonder how else we could use playable environments to explore this fascinating social psychology of groups – to give people an embodied experience and then invite them to reflect on what had just happened. We’d also thought about how we could use technology to support the experience — on Invisible Treasure, we’d felt that the tech had been our magic cloak of invisibility, allowing us to get out of the way and help the group playing engage directly with each other.

One of the people who came to Invisible Treasure was neuroscientist Kris De Meyer. In 2016, Kris joined us for some time at Dartington as part of fanSHEN’s associateship there, working on the ideation for two new projects which later became Disaster Party and The Justice Syndicate.

The Justice Syndicate

A top surgeon accused of a serious crime. Conviction would mean planned operations will not go ahead – and the evidence is far from conclusive. Or is this just another case of someone so important they’re above justice?

The Justice Syndicate is a piece of playable theatre drawing on a jury format. It asks how we make decisions, how we deal with our preconceptions, and how much you’d want strangers making judgements about you based on the contents of your phone.

Power and privilege; trust and technology; thought and action.

How will you vote?


As part of my Near Now Fellowship, we created version 1 of The Justice Syndicate in June – Sep 2017. We’re now moving on to version 2, which will include:

  • Some dramaturgical work around the order in which people receive evidence.
  • Tech fixes to debug voting and enable the game to be played on a variety of devices.
  • Improvements to user experience.

We’ll be playtesting in London and Nottingham in February 2018.


What were the helpful shorthands, we asked ourselves, the contexts within which players would know immediately what was required of them. With our work, which often feels unfamiliar in terms of ‘theatre behaviour’, we’re always looking for the familiar element which will help players orientate and relax. So the jury: Twelve Angry Men, Ally McBeal, The Goodwife… here, we found, was a format that everyone understood. They must assess evidence, make arguments and reach a decision. As a group.

Twelve Angry Men, 1957

Twelve Angry Men, 1957

The subject matter of the trial would need to be challenging; it would need to make people really interrogate their own beliefs and then argue for them. It would need to be a complex case which would draw in players’ beliefs and values.

We were interested in the points at which people would form or change their opinions. As the trial progressed, we were interested in directing certain pieces of evidence to certain jurors; obviously everyone would see the evidence, but could we alter someone’s beliefs by asking them to read out loud evidence that confirmed or contradicted the position they’d assumed thus far? To do this, we would need a system which tracked people’s preferences in the ‘testing the water’ early votes, knew how long they’d taken to make decisions and what evidence they’d returned to during the ‘review’ sections.

Judge, Jury and Executables

In 2017, computational artist Joe McAlister joined the project, building a system that sends audio and video evidence simultaneously to the twelve juror tablets. The system logs guilty/not guilty ‘testing the water’ votes and time taken to cast them. It also logs exclusion preferences (here we mix Big Brother with the criminal justice system, offering jurors the option to exclude one of their number, first in a private vote and then publicly). Using machine learning, specifically polynomial regression (trained on this prior data) the system attempts to predict how likely it is a juror is going to vote a specific way. This is computed live during the trial and allows the system to target jurors with specific evidence to present to the group.

With The Justice Syndicate, what we’re trying to do is to give people an experience where, as a group, they tackle some difficult issues – and then provide a space afterwards for them to reflect on how that was. We hope that taking part can enable people to become more aware of how they respond to situations where fundamental disagreements are likely - with the long-term aim of building the capacity to more constructively engage in such situations. It’s an artwork but also a way of collecting anonymised data; Kris will be able to do new research on the data that is collected each time the game is played.

Find out more about The Justice Syndicate and other fanSHEN projects at fanshen.org.uk.

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Author

Rachel Briscoe

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