If you've seen stickers and T-shirts sporting a menacing white alien head, then you've been exposed to Schwa, a project launched by artist Bill Barker nearly a decade ago. Composed of a series of picture books, bumper stickers, and inscrutable trinkets, Schwa employs an invaders-from-space motif to instill a feeling of ominous isolation and psychological totalitarinism. Barker's latest twist on the project, a Web site called the Schwatown Midway is his most effective piece yet.
Part of the fun of any carnival is its creepiness. At any time, you expect an insane clown to jump out and knock you across the forehead with an oversized hammer. Here, on the Schawtown midway, you're placed at the beginning of a narrow walkway flanked with games and attractions, rendered in stark 3D. The looped sample of spooky calliope music adds to the feeling of a solipsistic nightmare. Like in a real carnival, most of the games here seem simple on the surface but are maddeningly difficult to win. The "junk puzzle" -- in which you try to slide a few rusty nuts and sections of re-bar to maneuver a ball bearing from one side to the other -- kept me up well past my bedtime. After I'd become burned out from getting suckered at the game booths, I sneaked into various mazelike buildings on the midway and got myself into trouble by operating mysterious pieces of equipment.
Even though I never figured out what was really going on in the midway, it's the first Web site I've come across that transported me into another world. The fact that my questions about the place were never really answered is a deliberate element of the piece. Schwa doesn't explain how the world works; it creates a complex unshakable mood, one that has kept me coming back to the world of Schwa, year-after-year.