Interview: Louise Coetzer of Darkroom Contemporary, Cape Town, talks about deus::ex::machina, October 2020 season

What: deus::ex::machina When: Premieres on October 12, 2020 Where: Vrystaat Kunstefees Snelstroom Price: No charge Available online: October 12-17, 2020 Bookings:   In person: Secret locations Locations: Cape Town CBD Where: e-mail or DM on Instagram to find out about “secret locations”

How do we navigate as humans -through the alienation – the geography – of algorithms, memes and displacement and confinement of lockdown? We stand two metres away from each other at the supermarket, blocked apart, masked off. Are there ways of connecting within the isolation of the screens on our devices – with each other- and with art and live performance? 

Cape Town’s Darkroom Contemporary was set to celebrate its milestone 10th birthday in 2020. Its celebratory programme was interrupted by Covid-19. Darkroom’s artistic director, Louise Coetzer has long embraced the use of technology in the company’s work and she set about finding ways to activate the digital stage by involving the viewer in the experience. She did not want to merely film a performance and for the audience to watch a screen- passively. The challenge during lockdown, was to ignite the digital stage with the surprise and excitement of live performance and venture into the world of telematic performance. Telematic performance involves transfiguring live performance – through the dynamic use of technology and bringing multi-disciplinary forms together – art, film technology, screen, design, music, aesthetics and interaction. Telematic performance interfaces with gaming and virtual reality modalities. It may be on a screen but it occurs in real time and each presentation is different.

With the move to lockdown level 1, it became possible to extend virtual/telematic performance and combine Darkroom’s October 2020 season with in-person on site performances. A hybrid of digital stage and physical stage will be used to present Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina,human geography in a virtual worldwhichpremieres on October 12, 2020 as part of Vrystaat Kunstefees Snelstroom. In tandem with the online deus::ex::machina, there will be in-person performances in Cape Town. The virtual expressions of the piece takes place in real time with the audience actively involved in the process of the work. Each online offering is unique because of the choices made by the viewer. So, it happening on the digital stage but it is a live happening with interaction from the audience. The work is presented as a game and is very much an experience. It is not about staring at a screen. Read on to learn more about deus::ex::machina- October 2020. It is hoped that this piece will be staged at other festivals, so check back to TheCapeRobyn for updates. 

TheCapeRobyn: deus::ex::machina – is being performed in a hybrid presentation – physical and online. Is the physical component only happening in Cape Town?

Louise Coetzer: Correct yes, but I wanted to create a participatory experience that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Hence the strong online/ virtual experience focus. The work has really been designed to offer a unique online experience, as opposed to a passive viewing experience. Because each performance for live stream will take place in a different public space in Cape Town, local audiences have the opportunity to participate in the physical, live performance. For now this is only in Cape Town due to limitations on travel, but we hope to take the performance to different festivals once travel becomes more accessible.

TheCapeRobyn: What is the time line – from “start” to “finish”?

Louise Coetzer: The experience is 20 minutes long. Viewers can enter the site a bit before the start time to test sound and read more about the project.

TheCapeRobyn: Where and when will the physical spaces/sites be in Cape Town?

Louise Coetzer: We have two special closing performances on October 16 at 6pm and October 17 at 11am, at Side Street Studios 48 Albert RD, Woodstock. Free entry. The ‘secret’ public spaces that may be accessed by the public, are as follows: E-mail us or DM on Instagram to find out each day what the ‘secret location’ will be. Full schedule follows:

FULL SCHEDULE OF SHOWS (Online and public)

MONDAY 12 OCTOBER – 4PM & 6PM (only online) 

TUESDAY 13 OCTOBER –  3PM & 4PM (online and live audience accessible) 

WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER – 12:30PM & 2PM (online & live audience accessible) 


FRIDAY 16 OCTOBER –  6PM (online & live audience accessible) 

SATURDAY 17 OCTOBER  – 11AM (online & live audience spaces)  (

TheCapeRobyn: Can you talk about the journey/genesis of this piece?

Louise Coetzer: Originally, I was commissioned by NATi to create a new performance work for the Vrystaat Kunstefees, planned to take place in Bloemfontein in July 2020. Of course, all performance festivals had to adapt their plans due to the pandemic. The Vrystaat Kunstefees hosted extensive discussion panels and research to figure out new ways forward, with many of the confirmed festival artists involved in those discussions. Once the festival confirmed that they would go ahead in digital format, they also launched new projects to support/encourage experimentation with the new digital forms. One of these projects was the Pan African Telematic Art Project (PATAP). I submitted this project concept and was one of two projects selected – to focus on how ‘telematic art’ as form can be furthered during this time. More on telematic art, to follow. Through PATAP, the project was then linked to the Pan African Creative Exchange (PACE) – that took place end of August – and was presented as work in progress. Through the PACE creative partnership with Ars Electronica, the project ( also as work in progress) formed part of their South African showcase of projects. 

Aside from that, it forms part of Darkroom Contemporary’s Ten Year Anniversary season of projects in 2020, funded by the National Lotteries Commission. 

So it was definitely not the project I would have originally created for the festival. This was conceptualised during lockdown and in response to the limitations. But with an interest in how those limitations could be seen as a positive – a push to develop a new form of work – rather than a negative. I have worked extensively with technology and new media over the past few years, but I wanted to use this opportunity to really push the experimental side of merging tech with dance.

TheCapeRobyn: For this season – October 2020 – deus::ex::machina is on the programme at Vrystaat Kunstefees Snelstroom– in telematic format. Due to Covid, anyone can view online – whereas normally one would have to go the festival?

Louise Coetzer: Exactly – the online experience can be accessed from anywhere in the world and is part of the Vrystaat Kunstefees Snelstroom. Digital definitely affects the accessibility of festivals. We recently had a project as part of vNAF [Virtual National Arts Festival] and the viewer stats were so much higher than it would’ve been if it was a physical show at the festival. Similarly we had a project as part of the digital Ubumuntu Festival in Rwanda and the project reached a much wider audience than a physical performance would’ve. 

Of course the access is also affected by data/ internet access, but with this project we have specifically tried to keep all the streaming files as small as possible. So the lo-fi look and sound of the online experience is an intentional choice to make the work accessible in terms of data usage.

TheCapeRobyn: The telematic expression of deus::ex::machina has been devised as a game. Who was involved in designing?

Louise Coetzer: The digital and interactive design has been done by Thingking – a designer – maker agency in Cape Town that we previously collaborated with on SWARM in 2012. Their game developer Sibongiseni Tembe, worked closely with Marc Nicolson and Padraig Riley (the Thingking team) to develop the website for desu::ex::machina to function as a ‘game’ .

TheCapeRobyn: Can you give insights how it unfolds as a digital experience and how the viewer becomes involved as a player as part of a game? 

Louise Coetzer: There are six stages, at each intersection the viewer/player gets prompted to make a selection. The selections from everyone online at that given time, gets tallied to become the ‘results’. These get sent to dancers via headphones as their individual set of instructions on how to proceed with the next part of the performance. The online viewer also has the option of two very different soundtracks to accompany the piece. They can keep switching between the two options, or choose the one they are drawn to most, or play both together for an ambi-sonic experience which reflects the cacophony of the urban spaces the piece is performed in.

TheCapeRobyn: Nothing has been recorded – each digital/telematic event takes place live?

Louise Coetzer: It is important to stress the fact that the online experience happens live and in real time. It is about ‘finding connection’.  I was interested to see how we can experience a feeling of connectedness while in isolation. By taking part in this online experience at the same time as others, by seeing how your votes instantly impact the outcome of what you are seeing. 

Through partnership with Silent Events SA, the dancers wear wireless headsets and the results are sent to them after each voting round. They then respond to the results, which either define who is dancing a certain section, what section they are dancing next, or how the piece ends – the one ending brings the dancers together, the other one leaves them isolated. 

So at each intersection the choices impact what happens next, and the way in which the choreography is performed will always be changing.

I feel like the digital platforms have connected me more – I have had the opportunity to participate in online forums, festivals and platforms during lockdown that would have been out of reach if I needed to be there in person. Travelling physically to conferences etc has started to seem unnecessary – good for the environment – but of course not the same as physical / in real life interaction. That’s why this experimental medium of telematic performance, distributed authorship tries to bring the viewer a sense of connectedness, even though it is digital.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you talk about “human geography in a virtual world” in this piece and how you have manifested this for viewer who I take it interfaces with dancers?

Louise Coetzer: I was interested in exploring human movement patterns: That is what the ‘human geography ‘ refers to how Covid-19 has placed limits on how and where we can move in public space. deus::ex::machina expresses how the movements and trajectories of people moving in public space unknowingly create a large scale choreography. Now, more than ever, we are acutely aware of our physicality in relation to others. We know the stickers on the floor when standing in line at a store. We’ve all seen the pics of dance studios with squares taped on the floor, prompting dancers to keep their distance. 

So in this case, the squares on the floor become the game grid, like in pacman or tetris, and the bodies moving are at times contained by the ‘box’ they are in, at other times they move freely through those ‘borders’. This is expressing the way we move in public space – both before Covid and now. 

The second strong focus, CONNECTION, is expressed in the way the choreography unfolds. I was interested to show physically the ‘chaos’ of how this time has made us all feel, but also wanted to show those moments of ‘connection’ that do happen regardless of how crazy this time might be. 

I approached it as a musical score and designed certain sections so that dancers might be seemingly dancing at random, all different and doing their own thing, but at certain points they ‘catch’ each other in a movement, a pause, a direction. This counterpoint can seem chaotic, and of course depending on how the votes go, will always play out differently.

TheCapeRobyn: The title: deus::ex::machina. You talk about “God from the machine”. I have always understood it as an unexpected intervention – a surprise device or insertion  – in a narrative which is chaotic or boring or going nowhere and then boom – deus::ex::machina- a godly intervention – magical etc. Can you talk about the title in relation to this piece?

Louise Coetzer: Yes your understanding of the translation is spot on! In the previous answer I mention the idea of ‘chaos’ in the choreography, as reflection of the chaos we experience but also a reflection of human movement patterns. So that was relevant to me in the title. 

But going beyond that, 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.

TheCapeRobyn: Darkroom has collaborated “with digital media artists to develop and research the crossover between technology and dance” and with the pandemic and lockdown, the company, in its 10th year has been positioned to extend its repertoire and intersection of live and digital and it sounds like this piece, brings that together?

Louise Coetzer: I definitely agree- deus::ex::machina is a culmination of many of our past ventures into tech and experimental performance. It is certainly not how we planned to stage our tenth anniversary season, but I felt like this time has prompted artists across the world to pivot, engage with digital media in new ways, and simply find a way to move forward. 

The time [Covid, lockdown] seemed to call for going all out experimental, embracing the challenges of live performance, pushing the art form forward. The work is experimental, of course we will look back at it and see flaws/ aspects that could be improved, and hopefully we find further platforms for the work after this initial run to do just that. But I would rather forge ahead with work that is challenging, experimental and new than to play it safe. Darkroom Contemporary, since its inception, has had the mission of creating work that is current and a true reflection ‘of the times’. 

We are extremely grateful to have had the support for this project from the many project partners and sponsors, and in that way have been able to provide work opportunities to artists and support staff during this difficult time for the arts industry.

Going into this year, we had an expansive sustainability plan and ideas about creating income streams for the organisationthen Covid… initially we also looked into ways of monetising the whole digital platform – but it is simply not viable to compete with Netflix etc during this time – everyone being financially strapped. I would rather use this initial run to document the work well, so we can pitch it to other festivals and hopefully tour with it next year.  Rather than to try make money off ticket sales right now and have a limited audience – I would prefer as many people as possible get to engage with it and that it can spark some sense of delight during this time

TheCapeRobyn: Telematic performance is not about replacing live performance, but developing a “new emerging art form”. Can you talk further about that?

Louise Coetzer: I am aware that many audience members are not into the idea of digital, I think especially for dance, that is such a visceral experience, Of course presenting it digitally will never be able to recreate that live experience. BUT, at this moment, what are our options? I absolutely believe theatre performance will return, but until then, we have a choice to engage with new modes of presenting work, or not. 

I prefer to think about ‘limitations’ as opportunity rather than limitation, and in this case, the limitation offers a chance to experiment in ways I wouldn’t have considered in another time. So I find that exciting and am grateful for the opportunity to be challenged in a new way. 

I am fortunate I guess because I am very interested in making experimental work, and I think it is necessary for the survival of the art form. Our dance audiences are not large, and I believe that developing work like this, that sits pretty far outside the conventional dance experience, has the potential to engage younger audiences and also those who do not usually go to a dance show at a theatre, but who may be convinced to interact with it in this format. How great if viewers from the gaming and tech communities are interacting with dance in this way? I see that as a win, and worth a shot. I also believe that it is necessary for dance to interact with other art forms, and other art platforms beyond the popular arts festivals. So having a dance work as part of Ars Electronica, and Fakugesi, is wonderful, as its bringing dance into those tech spaces.

TheCapeRobyn: I count over 25 people involved on this project? That is a lot of people who got paid during Covid?

Louise Coetzer: Yes that’s one of the reasons we decided to push a project of this size and of such interdisciplinary nature, so it could spread the job creation across many sectors. As NPO, job creation within the arts industry is our major focus and we are grateful to the funders who enabled this project, The National Lotteries Commission, NATi, Vrystaat Kunstefees & PACE, Andrew W Mellon Foundation, The Embassy of the Netherlands, allowing  Darkroom Contemporary us to employ so many professionals on this project during this time.

TheCapeRobyn: What is next for Darkroom Contemporary?

Louise Coetzer: Regrouping – as I think we have all been doing constantly this year. After the conclusion of both our projects at Vrystaat Kunstefees, we will take some time to reflect on the year and seek out new opportunities for this project for next year. As a project based company, we always try to remain agile as opportunities often present themselves at short notice. Plans for 2021, include national and international touring, but of course we are still in an uncertain times and doing all we can to remain adaptable to the uncertainties we face.

TheCapeRobyn: Site specific or site responsive- that has been core to Darkroom. Here, in Covid – the notion of site specific/responsive is taking place in parallel universes. But your digital platform is audience responsive. The audience in a sense becomes part of the body of the work?

Louise Coetzer: Definitely…like I mentioned, that thing of digital connecting us in new and profound ways, while we are physically apart. And certainly the idea of ‘distributed authorship ‘ coming in – the audience is shaping the outcome and so they are indeed part of body of the work, through their devices. And the live audience having a completely different experience – hearing the atmospheric sounds of the site coming into the performance, the wind, urban noise,  he rubbish, the human traffic along the public space – these elements all affect the way the work is perceived, the way the audience would make meaning.

Darkroom Contemporary- deus::ex::machina, human geography in a virtual world- production credits

Concept, choreography, creative direction: Louise Coetzer

Interactive digital design, set design, coding:  Marc Nicolson, Padraig Riley, Sibongiseni Tembe (ThingKing)

Performed by: Darkroom Contemporary

Dancers: Mukovhe Monyai, Christopher Sherwood – Adcock, Farnel Smart, Tania Mteto, Carla Scholtz

Costume: Henri Design

Project manager, technical support, project photographer: Oscar O’Ryan

Stage manager:  Buntu Tyali 

Rehearsal assistant: Natalie Fisher

Music: Lungiswa Plaatjies, Cara Stacey, Object Agency, Franco Prinsloo, NASA Sounds of Mars and other spaceflight missions, edited by Brydon Bolton

Channel 1: Street Mix, Dance of Death, Pas De Deux by Franco Prinsloo

Channel 2: Ndiyahamba ( Lungiswa Plaatjies, arrangement by Matthijs van Dijk, performed by the Night Light Collective with Lungiswa Plaatjies; Oscillations by Cara Stacey; Set (Object Agency Remix) by Michael Marshall (Object Agency) with Cara Stacey, Galina Juritz, Beat Keller and Antonia Ravens.

Darkroom Contemporary – how to connect  
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