Interview: The whimsy of (mis)communication with Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s blame it on the algorithm- full-length live performance at Vrystaat Kunstefees 2022

blame it on the algorithm

Company: Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre

Where: Vrystaat Kunstefees 2022, in  the Scholtz Hall
Performance details: October 5 and 6 at 5pm and October 7 at noon
Tickets: R120 and R130 at venue
VSK website link:  

Choreography: Louise Coetzer
Sound score: Brydon Bolton
Technical co-ordinator: Oscar O’Ryan
Performed by: Christopher Sherwood-Adcock and Mukovhe Monyai  

Who are we to blame when we our communication gets missed, shredded and scrunched up? Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre’s Louise Coetzer, conceptualised blame it on the algorithm in 2019 and it was presented as a 12 minute work in that year, on several platforms. In 2020, it was commissioned as a full length work for Toyota US Woordfees and was performed at the beginning of March 2020- just before the announcement of the Covid shut-down. During lockdown, it was extended, developed and prepared for live performance. In  2022, blame it on the algorithm is being presented as a 50 minute dance-theatre piece at the Vrystaat Kunstefees – October 5, 6, 7. A duo, it is performed by Christopher Sherwood-Adcock and Mukovhe Monyai and is a multi-layered durational performance installation with a musical score, composed by Brydon Bolton, playing out on dot matrix printers, placed on the stage. The paper spewing out of the printers, becomes part of the performance and integral to the ‘body’ and ‘site’, of dance. And yes, there is dialogue – Singlish. Intrigued? Read on for more as Darkroom’s artistic director, Louise Coetzer talks about the genesis of blame it on the algorithm and its exciting manifestation in 2022.

Communication gets lost in translation and digital agitation

I am intrigued that you conceived blame it on the algorithm – BEFORE- our lives and communication modes changed radically in the pandemic. The conceptual arc – laid down in 2019 – is “a whimsical look at modern (mis)communication.” The piece “questions to what extent technology aids connection, to what extent it disconnects us from ourselves and each other, and how much of what we mean to communicate, gets lost in translation.” Here in 2022, blame it on the algorithm – is vividly emblematic of our dependency on technology- in the pandemic?

Louise Coetzer:  “blame it on the algorithm is a social commentary, and strangely, in 2022 the subject matter, the physical depictions, the sound score is actually more relevant than in 2019. As you mention, the pandemic has completely changed how we use technology to communicate and the extent to which we relied on devices in order to try find connection. Now that we aren’t in lockdown, that has become the new normal, we are still meeting on zoom, face timing, etc. I think now we are perhaps just more aware of how much we rely on our ‘digital communication’ modes. I think the intensity of social media was definitely already present before the pandemic, but I agree perhaps not so much on everyone’s radar. It is really interesting revisiting this work now, and seeing how the theme has actually become more prominent in our daily lives, post pandemic. Many of the physical expressions in the work -emojis, incessant texting, the total frustration and digital burnout- are more prominent on our minds now. But then, I don’t imagine tech and digital life dissipating anytime soon, it is bound to become increasingly present in our lives.”

Costuming – prophesying pandemic modes of communication

Before zoom was the predominant mode of communication, in 2019, you dressed your dancers in blame it on the algorithm, in gear which was to freakily prescient of what was to happen in ‘real life’?

Louise Coetzer Yes,the costume in blame it on the algorithm – a work shirt and tie on top- with only underwear- no bottoms – is actually funnier now- as we can relate it to the zoom work meetings during lockdown in a nice top but with pyjama bottoms.  Indeed, the art of conversation has completely changed and the way we communicate will continue adapting through technological development. But how much of it actually makes life better?”

Title – algorithms -showing us what appeals to our own unique likes, interests and conversations

The title – blame it on the algorithmis very playful. I want to start singing and tapping my feet. It immediately pings for me in terms of the song, Blame It on the Boogie, (1978). Was the song an inspiration?

Louise Coetzer: “The work is definitely has a playful edge. The title actually comes from the 2009 song ‘blame it ‘(on the alcohol) by Jamie Foxx. The lyrics go: ‘blame it on Patron, got you in the zone, blame it on the a a a a a alcohol. Basically, as if blaming it on the alcohol will get users off the hook and excuse whatever chaos they might’ve caused under the influence. I thought the play on words was comical – how easy is it ‘blame it on the algorithm ‘ when that algorithm is literally tailored to only show us what appeals to our own unique likes, interests and conversations.”

Communication interupptus- without the human nuance of spoken conversation

Core to the piece is “a duet of missed, caught, and misunderstood dialogue; blame it on the algorithm voices what is to be found – or lost – in translation.Is there dialogue in blame it on the algorithm- ie words spoken by the performers -overlaid with the soundscape?

Louise Coetzer: “The ‘missed, caught, misunderstood dialogue’ refers to the choreography. For this work I wanted to physically portray how easily we live ‘past’ each other, how often we ‘miss’ connections and how our virtual habits’ -social media, meta verse, scrolling- blinker us to the real world passing us by. Also, how easily digital communication is misunderstood, read without the human nuance of spoken conversation, and therefore so often misunderstood. So the dancers do actually dance ‘past’ one another, never quite in synch, never really on the same page, often having ‘their lines crossed’. Though it can be quite a heavy subject, the work is intentionally tongue in cheek and playful. Dialogue does form part of the work, but with a slight twist. It is spoken in Simlish – the official fictional language of The Sims Nation.” [Simlish is the official fictional language of The Sims Nation, the video games franchise, manufactured by Electronic Arts Inc.]”

Scoring and designing blame it on the algorithm

Brydon Boltons score is performed live by a symphony of three dot- matrix printers- which “amplifies this digital agitation and misunderstood dialogue. Does he sit on stage and do the dancers interact with the sound installation? 

Louise Coetzer: “Brydon Bolton has written the score as word docs that feed through the three dot matrix printers. Each printer has a unique sound pitch as it scans back and forth across the written text. The text has been arranged, as a score, to create a rhythmic and somewhat incessant musical score. The live performance starts when we press ‘print’ on the word document.  There is no musician on stage, but the sound from the printers feed through microphones as they run through reams and reams of blank paper- depiction of the endless meaningless scrolling of digital content. The visual set elements of the work morph and build. It is almost a dance work set within a durational visual and sound installation that the dancers respond to.”

Printers- texting, disagreement, confusion and frustration

The printers are placed on stage?  I see from the pics that there are scrunched pieces of paper – balled up? Do the dancers scrunch up paper, which comes out of the printers?

Louise Coetzer: “Yes, the three printers are on stage, on stands of various levels, with microphones picking up each printer’s sound. Throughout the 50 minute performance, each printer runs through meters and meters of blank paper; a nod to the endless meaningless scrolling social media offers. This slow build-up of more and more paper is part of the visual installation that acts as durational performance setting. The dancers are going around in repetitive cycles of scrolling, texting, disagreement, confusion and frustration. And yes, as to the second part of your question: The paper pieces form part of the durational performance installation. They are thrown onto stage from the wings, accumulating throughout the performance.”

The ping of dot matrix printers

Dot matrix printers have been largely replaced by laser but are cheaper to use and have other benefits. How did you source them?

Louise Coetzer: “Generally they are not used very much, anymore, though some businesses value the cost effectiveness and still use them. We sourced second hand printers through the classifieds and actually they weren’t that scarce to get hold of. The ‘impact’ as the pins strike is what causes the rhythmic sound track.”

The trajectory of blame it on the algorithm

During lockdown, Darkroom embraced technology and the screen as a medium but you waited until things normalised to present blame it on the algorithm as a full length public performance?

Louise Coetzer: “This wasn’t a work I felt could be adapted for different presentation modes during lockdown. It is designed for the stage and it is exciting to now have the opportunity to revisit this for Vrystaat Kunstefees in 2022.  It premiered at the Baxter Dance Festival 2019, as a 12 minute work, with sound score projected through one printer. After that initial run, I was immediately interested in extending the work as I felt there was a great deal more to uncover within the theme, the sound design and the visual elements. The shortened version was performed soon after that, at Infecting the City 2019 and Norval Foundation as public performance. It was then commissioned for Woordfees 2020 as a full length (50 minute) work, with three printers for sound, and performed at the beginning of March 2020. The final festival performance was the day before the Covid announcements came, so we had just completed the live performances before everything got shut down. For the virtual Pan Africa Creative Exchange in June 2020, the work was presented the piece, as a ‘tour ready’ stream and as performance recording. This was during lockdown.”

Algorithm at 2022 Vrystaat Kunstefees

blame it on the algorithm is being presented at 2022 Vrystaat Kunstefees- three performances, at Scholtz Hall on October 5 and 6, at 5pm, and October 7, at 12pm. Exciting. Do you have plans to stage blame it on the algorithm, in Cape Town or elsewhere in South Africa?

Louise Coetzer: “It is wonderful seeing the arts festivals return to in – person events in 2022, and it will be interesting to see to what extent hybrid events remain popular. I do think having both has value, but also that this year artists and audiences are all just exhilarated to be physically present at festivals after such a long time.   blame it on the algorithm forms part of Darkroom Contemporary’s tour ready selection of works. So we are constantly seeking out further platforms and opportunities to present the work outside of Cape Town and at home.“

Dance-theatre: blame it on the algorithm, a live petformance by Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre (Cape Town) was conceived and conceptualised in 2019, by Darkroom’s artistic director, Louise Coetzer and is eerily prescient of what how modes of communication would be radically altered in the pandemic- for instance dressing our top halves, while in zoom/video conversions. Note the costumes in blame it on the algorithm– “a work shirt and tie on top- with only underwear- no bottoms”. The dancers are Christopher Sherwood-Adcock and Mukovhe Monyai .Pic: Oscar O’Ryan.
Communication pings via dot matrix printers: In blame it on the algorithm– paper spools out of dot matrix printers, on stage, which ‘play’ the sound, scored by Brydon Bolton. Pic: Oscar O’Ryan.

✳ Images by Oscar O’Ryan. Supplied.