Interview: Extending our realities in Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina – harnessing technology and real time touch and connection – the acclaimed dance piece is on the Curated Programme at 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda

What: deus::ex::machina – human geography in a virtual world

Where: 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda

~Friday June 24, 2022 – at 11am -Sundowners Stage
~Saturday June 25, 2022 at 11am on the Village Green and at 3pm on the Drostdy Lawns  

Cost: Free – but bookings essential
Direct booking link: and may be accessed online
Duration: 22 minutes Info:    
See the programme for NAF 2022: 

In 2020, in response to the shuttering of live performance because of the Covid pandemic, Cape Town’s Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre ventured into the exploration of “extended reality” with its  innovative immersive dance piece, deus::ex::machina which was presented at several virtual [online] festivals in 2020.This hybrid work incoprates telematic performance and may be viewed in person and online. With each iteration, viewers are involved and their participation, shapes the way each performance unfolds. [Telematic performance makes use of telecommunications and information technology such as gaming interventions]. At the core of deus::ex::machina, is about finding connections within the chaos of our world and attempting a way of coupling and touching. In 2022, with the ongoing pandemic, deus::ex::machina, reverberatesprofoundlyin terms of our search for individual expression and relationships within a grid of life which is leaving many of us flummoxed and unhinged.   Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina provides a potent expression of how we can navigate spaces – harnessing technology and real time touch and connection- by engaging with who we are and what we experience through art. It is wonderful news that deus::ex::machina will be on at the Curated Programme at the 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Darkroom’s Louise Coetzer, talks about the deus::ex::machina from hard lockdown 2020 to 2022 – when more than ever we are seeking connections within the ongoing chaos and uncertainty.”

History, memory, perception, culture, impacts how we view the world around us- three spaces at NAF 2022

There are three venues at NAF 2022. One is a theatre –ie it is indoors. The other two performancesof deus::ex::machina are in public spaces. Can you talk about the venues and how you approach deus::ex::machina in different spaces? Louise Coetzer: “The work was designed with the idea that it could be transposed to many different spaces. During our first run in 2020, we used six different public space locations, and then also on stage at Artscape Theatre. The work was intentionally created so that it doesn’t require any specific dance flooring or stage, dancers wear street shoes and the choreography was created to accommodate that. Placing the work in different public areas, adds to the uniqueness of every performance. Of course, the outcome of the viewers’ votes will always be different from one show to the next, but the location becomes another character that influences how viewers perceive the work. These different spaces each hold varying connotations for viewers, and I find that links up with the theme of the work: are we in control or are we the ones being controlled – how much of our own history, memory, perception, culture, impacts how we view the world around us; or to what extent is our world view impacted by what we ‘consume’ online. And next to that, the sonic environment of each location; which adds another layer to the experience. The work seeks connection within chaos, and the sound score plays a large role in that. The work incorporates two completely contrasting sound channels, and viewers control which channel they hear throughout the performance. The score includes musical contributions by Cara Stacey, Object Agency, Lungiswa Plaatjies, Matthijs van Dijk, Franco Prinsloo and NASA Sounds from Mars.”

Roaming sound systems

Sound operates differently at the live iterations? Louise Coetzer:  “At the live performance site, the two music channels are broadcast through roaming sound systems, which again alters each viewer’s depiction of the sound score, depending on where they physically are in relation to the speakers. On top of that, the ambient sound from that location, which adds to a somewhat ‘chaotic’ sonic and visual landscape, which reflects something about the past two years, I think.”

Sharing deus::ex::machina with a broader audience at NAF 2022

It will be presented in a hybrid format at NAF and also live streamed online- simultaneously with the live. What are you bringing to the NAF 2022 season that has been informed by the works journey so far? This is 2022 and we are in better days, still in the pandemic, but here you can actually perform live at Africa’s largest festival which was in hibernation for two years? Louise Coetzer: “It’s wonderful to see festivals returning to live, in person, formats after two years of mostly online presentations. I feel like the shifts and changes that have happened due to the pandemic, have definitely opened lots of new doors to experimentation with form and presentation mode. At the same time, I understand that online formats are not for everyone, so having the option of presenting something as ‘hybrid’ is ideal, and it seems that many festivals are going that route too. I don’t think there is any going back to how things were pre – Covid, we are in a new normal and still exploring how to navigate that. It’s an exciting time, and we are grateful and excited to have an opportunity to revisit this work, and to share it with a broader audience at NAF.” 

A search for connection within chaos

When you first conceptualized the piece – for online attendance – we could not connect physically and by bringing in the voting element- you were able to connect with your audience by immersing them and involving them in the performance. This is very different to simply watching a dance piece, online, passively. You were then able to incorporate site performance with online – simultaneously and that will be in place for NAF. In 2022, we are in ‘happier’ days as things are way more open. But we are still very much in a state of chaos- emotionally. The world is in chaos. Your thoughts on how this work sits now, 2022? Louise Coetzer: “The creation of deus::ex::machina in 2020 was very much a response to the chaos we were living through during the pandemic. As you mentioned, the pandemic has now moved along to seemingly happier days, but it does seem as if the world is just chaotic in many ways. I think at the start of the pandemic, during our first lockdown – the most prominent experience people felt was that lack of connection, being isolated. Yet instantly, new ways to connect became second nature: Zoom meetings, Google hangouts, Instagram Live, online conferences and arts festivals… human connection didn’t get lost, it just adapted really quickly and became something new. I wanted to play with that in the work, and show how wonderful, unexpected, unique, or fleeting human connection can be. So I think that still holds relevance, and the beauty of art is that everyone’s perception of it can be different, influenced by their own unique filters. “

Movements and trajectories of people moving in public space, unknowingly creating a large scale choreography. 

In 2022, perhaps there is a lot more awareness of how we are being tracked by platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Google. I search for Makhanda and adverts pop up for FlySafair and game reserves. Can you talks about how our awareness and uneasiness is perhaps feeding into this work. We are glued to our devices. We love the access it gives us to connecting with others but yes, we are making pings on the algorithms, on social media. In a sense, this work is even more pertinent now- connecting in the chaos- using technology in a ‘good way’ – like you do – so we can participate and be immersed in the piece- your thoughts? Louise Coetzer: “Well, I’m interested in that tension between those ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of what technology adds to our lives. It plays such a large role in most of our lives, and yet we know, for example, how negative social media can be for mental health, how our information is easily tracked or shared, how algorithms tailor advertising precisely to us to sell us things…and yet, we are glued to it, we quite willingly make it a part of our lives. So it does beg the question, who is actually in control. I wanted to give the audience this interaction through their devices, where they actually control the human dancers through a device, in real time. That is one layer of the work, and there is an uneasiness to that, but the experience is quite fun and playful – so that echoes this tension.”

Uncoupling of bodies within the gaming grid space

Choreography – can you talk about the coupling and uncoupling? Has the choreography changed since 2020- been added to, shifted? Louise Coetzer: “The movement composition focuses heavily on different groupings, coupling and uncoupling of bodies within the gaming grid space. This is the ‘human geography’ reference, a depiction of the ‘connection within chaos’ at other times. This time around we’ve had time to further refine the choreography, but it hasn’t been shifted. Each performance iteration presents the choreographic phrases in new combinations, as decided by the audience vote, so the work keeps changing somewhat anyway – through the way it combines different dancers in different sections, the way their movement pathways result in new connection points, and the way the soundtrack varies between left and right channel.” 

Mimicking old school 80s video with gaming interface

There is a great deal of high tech in deus::ex::machina but it also draws on old school modalities? Louise Coetzer: “The gaming interface by ThingKing (Marc Nicolson, Sibongiseni Tembe, Padraig Riley) is intentionally designed to mimic old – school 80s video games. This gaming grid came from how we would tape out the required 2m square ‘safe social distance’ on the studio floor. During lockdown in 2020, I noticed how our movement patterns in public space had been affected: Suddenly we were keeping distance between each other in stores, standing in lines demarcated by stickers on the floor – the image of Pac – Man dodging the Ghost Gang came to mind…So the performance expresses how the movements and trajectories of people moving in public space, unknowingly create a large scale choreography.”

Cloning, artificial intelligence, robotics – the title deus::ex::machina –a ‘God complex’, maybe

Can we talk about the title: deus::ex::machina: “god from the machine’ Louise Coetzer: “The :: in the title alludes to coding, and the title deus::ex::machina/translates to ‘god from the machine’. I am interested in how technology controls us -all consuming social media, the algorithms that decide what we see on our feeds, fake news etc, and how we control things through technology: Cloning, artificial intelligence, robotics etc. Our advancement in technology offers so much positive but equally negative potential – and does it give man a God complex? So in this telematic performance – viewers control the dancers through their devices/ machines, The website counts the votes and displays the results, I control the initial choreography but not how it unfolds, the dancers are human so of course human error could alter the course of the performance too… Who is ultimately in control? Man or Machine?  So the play on words ‘God from the machine’ , refers to this conundrum as well.”

Darkroom’s merging dance with technology

Before the pandemic, had you worked with telematic performance or was that something that came about because live performance was halted and you had to make a performance space online, virtually? Louise Coetzer:  “The work was developed in response to the call out for projects from the Pan African Telematic Art Project in 2020. As my choreographic research focuses on merging dance with technology, I was intrigued by the idea of presenting dance as telematic performance. So the concept followed on from that – how to merge live dance performance with internet technology in a real time, interactive experience. My ongoing research relates to merging dance with technology. Before the pandemic, this was often through live performance works, while dance film has also formed a constant part of my work focus. So, the initial development of deus::ex::machina was in response to the limitations brought on by lockdown. Theatres were not operating at the time, and arts festivals were hosted as online events. We created the work by rehearsing at outdoors spaces, and selected outdoors performance areas. This way, members of the public (in Cape Town) could still see the work live while safely social distancing, or could choose to participate online, from home. But the idea was to offer both options. This time around at NAF 2022, it will be great to have a larger physical audience present, while still having online viewers from anywhere participate alongside.”

Live at NAF 2022 – deus::ex::machina

Very excited to see this at NAF. When I attended the site specific performance next to Artscape in Oct 2020, it was my first outing to see a theatre a piece. The city was still a ghost land. I had lost my peripheral vision and the noise – traffic etc – was disorientating. Watching this marvelous piece of theatre unfold before me – was absolutely astounding. Louise Coetzer: “Thank you for coming out to the performance! I think that is so true for many, that feeling of disorientation and having to re-adjust again to being around people, in busy areas. We look forward to bringing the work to NAF and look forward to seeing you there.”

On site: Darkroom Contemporary team – doing the technical stuff for deus::ex::machina, Albert Luthuli Place, Civic Centre, October 2020. From left- Buntu Tyali (stage manager), Louise Coetzer (artistic director and choreographer) and Oscar O’Ryan (photography and technical manager).
Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

Telematic performance: Gearing up the sound, deus::ex::machina, Albert Luthuli Place, Civic Centre, October 2020. See dancers in foreground. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

Team work: Tremendous collaboration behind the scenes -transmitting deus::ex::machina as a hybrid dance theatre piece- live and online – at the same time- with audience voting – drawing on gaming modalities. This is from the October 2020 site performance Albert Luthuli Place, Civic Centre, Cape Town. On the left is Natalie Fisher (rehearsal assistant for deus::ex::machina).
Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

✳Featured image – deus::ex::machina- performed live in Cape Town, October 2020. Pic: Oscar O’Ryan.