Thursday, 20 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 12

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Perth Festival 2: I Think I Can, You Once Said Yes, Situation Rooms


Fun and Games


A signal strand in this year’s Perth Festival program is specifically devoted to digital, interactive, participatory and immersive artworks. In the last week, I’ve experienced three of these works: I Think I Can, You Once Said Yes and Situation Rooms.

Actually the program itself stresses the ‘digital’ label in isolation, perhaps as a more easily identifiable marketing tool. This emphasis is superficially misleading and at the same time deeply revealing.

Even at first glance, the technological buzz-word ‘digital’ sits oddly – and is even arguably at odds – with the more properly bio-psycho-social concepts of interaction, participation or immersion in the real world of the physical environment, other people and the process of making or experiencing art. Let’s be precise: ‘digital’ is a term derived from counting and applied to the processing of information. As such, digital technology is a tool, no more, no less. It can be either liberating or repressive, as its revolutionary or reactionary use for communication or surveillance currently demonstrates around the world. Its emancipatory potential in art is no different.

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I Think I Can is a free, family-friendly event at the WA Museum, created by Sam Routledge and Martyn Coutts and produced by Intimate Spectacle in association with Terrapin Puppet Theatre and the Fremantle and District Model Railway Association, in collaboration with local writers and animaters.

Basically, it’s a big model train set, including a miniature town and tiny figures. You do a short personality test and are allocated a toy ‘avatar’. You then issue short instructions to one of the animaters about where in the town and in what physical attitude you want them to place your avatar in relation to others. You also dictate a short scenario which is relayed to the writers by SMS. Live-cam feeds broadcast the resulting ‘scenes’ throughout the day on a website and a large screen overlooking the town. Virtual newspaper ‘stories’ are written by the local writers and posted on the website describing and interpreting the scenes, accessible at home or via computer terminals onsite. 

Both times I visited the museum there was a long queue and an estimated hour’s wait before I could participate. I hate queues and waiting, so instead I walked around the periphery of the town observing the action (and interaction). As it happens I’ve subsequently been able to participate in the work more fully at The Powerhouse in Brisbane, where it’s installed during the Australian Performing Arts Market (using a different local model railway). More about APAM in a future post, by the way.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time at the Museum, although some audience members looked a bit confused, there was some conflict between children and parents at the computer terminals, and the animaters looked a little stressed rushing around attending to people’s requests and then moving their avatars around with tweezers. In fact the calmest participants were a group of elderly men in uniforms standing in the centre of the town, whom I took to be members of the Model Railway Association. It certainly was a magnificent model railway, the trains came and went with impressive efficiency, and the custodians looked justly proud.

However I couldn’t help feeling that whole point of a model railway is that you operate and inhabit it yourself. In the case of I Think I Can the process of playing freely and directly had been successively mediated by personality tests, avatars, animaters, writers, cameras, screens and computers. In fact the level of choice is limited and the level of input heavily filtered by all of these variables, which are set by the creators of the work. Our level of participation was little more than that of test subjects in a controlled experiment.

I didn’t have a model railway as a kid, but I loved playing with toy cars, miniature soldiers and model warships and planes. I also loved dressing up and pretending to be other people. I grew out of war-games (unlike some in the military or the current federal government) and even toy cars (though I do occasionally drive a real one), but I never stopped dressing up and pretending.

I Think I Can is a very different kind of show, however, from one put on by actors or children. As the title suggests, it promises to magically translate our thoughts and wishes into reality by the force of sheer willpower – with a little help from technology (and a willing labour-force of art-workers dancing attendance on hand or behind the scenes).

As such it’s a classic case of infantile wish-fulfilment; perhaps even a classic case of adult fantasy (if not fetishism). It's also an emblematic work of postmodern pop-culture – which from Warhol to reality TV has (knowingly or naively) offered us the poisoned chalice of narcissistic gratification by means of the mass media, with all its false promise of interaction, participation, fame, personal fulfilment and alternative ‘realities’.

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You Once Said Yes in contrast is a one-on-one promenade performance that eschews digital mediation and involves real live actors. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons and directed by Mimi Poskitt for the UK company Look Left Look Right, it’s performed in the streets of Northbridge by a local troupe of twelve actor-improvisers.

I can’t say much about the content of the show without spoiling it. To be blunt, it's actually pretty thin: the characters and storylines are clich├ęd, and there’s little to bind them together apart from a few set-ups along the way. As with I Think I Can, there’s not much in the way of substance here, and the overall mood is a postmodern melange of sentiment and mockery.

On the other hand, I was more than impressed by the work of the local actors. They fleshed out the characters as best they could given the limits of the script, and were charming, funny, sincere and surprisingly believable. I’m not a natural improviser, but I felt in safe hands throughout. In fact, I had a ball.

Admittedly I knew most of the actors, so I was hardly taken out of my comfort zone. Nevertheless I had that sweet sensation that even the thinnest one-on-one participatory performance can give of feeling my surroundings defamiliarized and the boundaries between fiction and reality pleasantly altered for a while afterwards.

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Situation Rooms is by far the most complex and substantial of the works under consideration. Its subject-matter and level of investigation distinguish it from most other works of this kind I’ve seen; and its fusion of immersive, interactive performance, digital technology, documentary theatre and installation art achieves a genuinely new formal hybridity.

The work is created by the team of German author-directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel who collectively form Rimini Protokol, in collaboration with designer/scenographer Dominic Huber, whose contribution in the form of the set is perhaps most impressive of all. The subject matter is the arms industry in all its ramifications, and the subjects are twenty interviewees from around the world and across society, including a German police officer, marksman and sports shooter; a Pakistan solicitor representing victims of drone attacks; a French security systems developer; a South Sudanese journalist and development aid worker; a Mexican drug gang operative; an refugee from Syria and another family of refugees from Libya; a first lieutenant in the Indian air force; a cafeteria manager in a Russian arms factory; a Congolese child soldier; a computer hacker from the US; a Swiss arms factory worker; an Israeli soldier; a German surgeon with Doctors Without Borders; a German war photographer; and various peace activists and politicians.

In terms of content, Situation Rooms does for the legal weapons trade what Traffik (the Soderbergh film and original British TV series) did for the illegal drug trade. In terms of form, however, it eschews fiction for documentary, and invites us to participate by identifying with the subjects and their situations, crucially by entering disturbingly real simulations of their homes and workplaces. We are given headphones and iPads, and then listen to the voices and follow the images of one subject after another as they navigate us through a labyrinth of meticulously reconstructed rooms in which we are given tasks and interact with objects, furnishings, equipment, machinery and each other.

It’s like playing a game. And for me that was also part of the message: that not only do we all play roles – and to some extent are the roles we play, even when we exchange them – but also that we all play a role in the global situation that is the arms trade: either directly, as producers, consumers, beneficiaries or victims; or indirectly, as members of social groups, organizations, institutions or even economies that are all ultimately linked in some way to the trade itself.

However, Situation Rooms is actually subtitled ‘a multiplayer video piece’. Is this simply a cynical piece of marketing; a symptom of a broader cultural trend; a commentary on the subject-matter of the piece; or perhaps all of the above?

For me, the iPad was redundant, if not actually an obstacle. In fact I got lost three times while glancing between screen and surroundings and trying to follow visual cues; I had to find an emergency exit door and be redirected back to my next designated room by a helpful Perth Festival attendant. No doubt this is partly a function of my age and lack of coordination. However I couldn’t help longing for the freedom to simply listen to the voices of the subjects, look at the exquisitely detailed rooms, follow verbal instructions and even stop and linger at times. I don’t think I’d have missed the contrived, somewhat awkwardly coordinated sightings, encounters and transactions with the other participants; on the contrary I’d have preferred our paths to cross at random.

In other words, I think I’d prefer to immerse myself in the piece as an installation rather than a game. Again, perhaps this is a function of my own personal preference for aesthetic contemplation or creative play rather than playing games, the task-based nature of which I generally find stressful and restrictive.

The iPads effectively separated us from each other, the work itself and its subjects. Their screens rendered us as isolated spectators rather than audience-members, let alone true participants in the unfolding of events.

This effect isn’t merely formal, instrumental or even experiential: it’s profoundly ideological and even theological. As surely as a traditional picture frame, a proscenium arch, or a cinema/TV screen, but more insidiously and ubiquitously, the hand-held device is a false window that simultaneously opens onto its subject or subject-matter and renders it as absent or elsewhere. While purporting to ‘connect’, in practice it disconnects us from each other and from reality. This is not only the case in the context of live performance, by the way.

As the short essay on 'theatres of war' in the program for Situation Rooms points out, it’s no accident that the internet was invented by the military. In the guise of extending our capacities, it has now infiltrated into all aspects of our lives.

Situation Rooms thus ends up being complicit in the very situation it describes. In the most chilling ‘scene’, we share a small room with a drone operator, sit in his chair and stare into his computer screen. In a sense, we’re accessories to such remote-control war-crimes every time we stare into our own devices, large or small. 

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Situation Rooms runs until February 23; You Once Said Yes finishes on March 2.




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