mapping the machine

caroline wake: shopfront’s machine atlas

Tom Christophersen, Machine Atlas

Tom Christophersen, Machine Atlas

Tom Christophersen, Machine Atlas

THE TITLE OF SHOPFRONT’S LATEST PRODUCTION, MACHINE ATLAS, SUGGESTS SEVERAL POSSIBILITIES. FIRST, IT CONJURES AN ATLAS OF TECHNOLOGY, AN IMPOSSIBLE COMPENDIUM OF ALL THE MACHINES EVER MADE. SECOND, IT MAKES ME THINK OF AN ATLAS FOR A MACHINE—A VAST MAP OF ITS MYSTERIOUS INTERIOR—AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE BORING MANUALTHAT USUALLY ACCOMPANIES A PURCHASE. THEN OF COURSE, I WONDER WHETHER THE ATLAS ITSELF COULD NOW BE PUBLISHED AS A MACHINE. UNTIL I REALISE THAT IT ALREADY HAS BEEN, IN THE FORM OF GPS DEVICES. MACHINE ATLAS SETS MY IMAGINATION FIRING BEFORE I EVEN LEAVE THE HOUSE.

The evening begins on a Kogarah footpath in Sydney’s south in front of six screens roughly two metres high. Through a combination of projection and backlighting, a series of silhouettes emerges. The shapes suggest that machine-human hybrids are hiding on the other side: there are some recognisably human profiles and limbs, but also some suspiciously odd-looking additions and protrusions. This is followed by a magnificent monologue from one of the young performers about the long and complex history of humans and their machines.

The screens are moved to the side and we are invited to enter a mall where a “mysterious night market of mechanisms” awaits us. To the left, a man is distilling a “truth serum”—a complicated process that involves a member of the audience, several cups full of coloured fluids (red for love, green for envy, yellow for innocence) as well as some shredded paper and a sieve. Eventually a tiny vial of truth serum emerges to much applause. Further along we enter the Reanimator, constructed from black sheets and glow-in-the-dark stickers and with the casual and wayward look of a living-room fort. Winding our way through we soon meet a young man, who asks us who we would like to reanimate. We’re feeling scientific so we say Francis Bacon. He types the name onto an old typewriter and produces an old computer mouse, which he claims belonged to Bacon.

When we exit the Reanimator, we come across the Machinist Photobooth (really a small stage with a performer operating a digital camera). This is a great hit with the younger audience members: resplendent against a backdrop of rainbow stripes and fairy lights, they are photographed for posterity. Next to the photo booth there is a large screen with black and white animations made by and about school students. Nearby you can interact with Robosoft Windows, which places an individual performer in a clear box and the audience in control. When the spectator selects a tool such as the pencil, eraser or roller the performer enacts each of those actions.

While I can’t bring myself to interact with Robosoft Windows (too close to home for someone who spends her days on a word processor), I can’t resist entering the Biomechanics Booth. Here I am asked my age, birth gender, current gender, how long it takes me to power up in the morning and down in the evening, and when I had my last upgrade and service. The performer, looking a little like a manga cartoon figure with her blue wig, then asks me to close my eyes while she inserts a new chip into my wrist (bandaged on) before sending me on my way.

Every so often this mechanical carnival is interrupted by a siren or whistle, signalling another more theatrical interlude. Early on we are invited onto the street to see a boy dancing in and on a car. Later we stop to watch the human-machine hybrids perform a weird waltz in the middle of the crowd, while we step awkwardly out of the way. If it reads like chaos, it sometimes is—but it’s also exciting and there is a constant sense of anticipation.

As with technology itself—will it liberate or enslave us?—the dramaturgy of Machine Atlas is not always clear. It opens strongly but then seems to grind to a halt as we stand about waiting to access individual installations. Other times it lurches into action and we have to move fast in order not to miss it. One of my viewing companions comments that he’d like to see a human emerge at the end and put all the machines away, perhaps evidence of the almost irresistible desire to reassert human agency. But maybe this ambiguity is okay and more importantly, maybe it is a more accurate reflection of our relationship with machines. This prompts one last thought about the work’s title—what if we are not mapping but rather being mapped by our machines? What on earth would an atlas of humanity look like and where, for that matter, would actors fit in?

Shopfront Contemporary Arts & Performance, Machine Atlas, director Caitlin Newton-Broad, outreach director Sarah Emery, performed by members of Ensemble 2011, movement, Victoria Hunt, sound Michael Moebus (Meem), lighting Stephen Hawker, video Sasha Cohen, design Robin Whitmore, costume design Katja Handt; Kogarah, Sydney, Aug 26-28

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 32

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011