Review: Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina, October 2020

Venturing into Cape Town’s CBD yesterday, Wednesday October 14, 2020 and I felt as if Ihad been on another planet. I have been on planet lockdown. It was my first drive into the city during the week, since lockdown clicked in to place March 26. As I encountered traffic and noise on main roads, I had to re-calibrate my senses. It felt like a schlep to make my way to watch Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina at The Civic Centre, Albert Luthuli Place. I pondered the fact that it is much easier to watch from home- no parking issues and no stress.  It is. But let me tell you, nothing beats live. It was exhilarating to watch Darkroom Contemporary’s deus::ex::machina play out, framed by the city; with the sounds of the city filtering into the piece. Read on and I will tell you why it was such a thrill to be there, in-person.

Conceptualised, choreographed and directed by Darkroom Contemporary’s Louise Coetzer, deus::ex::machina was developed during lockdown forthe Pan African Telematic Art Project (PATAP). Read about PATAP and telematic performance in the interview with Coetzer, on TheCapeRobyn. Link follows.

Now, October 2020, lockdown level 1, Darkroom is presenting deus::ex::machina on two platforms – virtual/digital stage, as part of the Vrystaat Kunstefees Snelstroom and in-person at sites in Cape Town. Some of the sites are open to the public and some are not. Today, October 16, Darkroom performed deus::ex::machina at The Cape Town Stadium in Green Point. No audience was in attendance. To get a sense of the virtual rendering, I joined the stadium show, online.

The in-person sites are “secret” and need to be accessed by sending a direct message to Darkroom on one of its platforms. This weekend, for the closing days of this season, the venue is being widely publicised – Side Street Studios, 48 Albert Road, Woodstock. See poster, on this post, for details.

In presenting deus::ex::machina, Darkroom is staging the piece on the digital stage as a live stream and with telematic elements. Telematic modalities draws extensively on gaming theory which enables the viewer to participate in the digital experience, by making choices, like in a game, which determines how each segment of the action/narrative proceeds.

If you are watching at home, you vote at cued in points and you do the same if you are physically there. On screen, alerts pop up. On site, a person with a megaphone prompts you to vote- one of two endings- different couplings etc. Yes, the people at home and the people at the live event are experiencing the “same” performance. It is the same but different. The soundscape is heightened when listening at home, with head phones. My experience, on site, was soundscape mixed in with city noises and the brrrwhoosh of the generator used to set up the sound.

The soundscape is an artwork in its own right. There are two parallel sound tracks that one can select on screen.  Louise Coetzer explains: “In the online version, you can push the volume sliders at the edge of the screen to adjust sound – you can either put the one side all the way up and the opposite all the way down – that way you choose one soundtrack over the other OR play them both as ambi-sonic experience here are two channels of sound. One channel is music by Franco Prinsloo- Super urban sounds. He recorded that in Sunnyside in Pretoria and created this extensive soundtrack- human traffic and noise. The 2nd track is a mixture of pieces by Cara Stacey, Lungiswa Plaatjies and Matthijs van Dijk. They work extensively with traditional African musical instruments. So there is quite a strong contrast which I thought is interesting because the project is part of the Pan African Telematic Art Project, so it was about reflecting the very different sounds that we experience in our daily lives, living in South Africa.”

The sound was amplified as I listened with headphones, at home. On-site, I lost out on the multi-layered sound track but I gained a different perspective from the sound around me. In order to experience the soundtrack, on-site, I was handed a pair of headphones and that was amazing. Although, it is wonderful to hear what is around in a space, if offered that option, I think I would elect to don the headphones, on-site. The headphones heighten the sense that was is involved in the online gaming experience.

On the screen, I could not see the dancers in detail. In person, at the staging at Albert Luthuli Place, I was captivated by the chalk grid on the ground which is core to this piece. Coetzer is working with blocking as a way of reflecting how we are charting human geography through the pandemic. We are cordoned off from each other; by stickers on the floor at the supermarket or wherever. The foot work is very precise as the dancers keep to the grid, stepping out here and there but essentially staying in the frame. For me, it conjured up a sense of game; like hopscotch. It also brought to mind, games that children taunt each other with – do not step son the cracks in the pavement or else – you will might come to harm- and fall or disappear. I could not see the intricate dance craft on the live stream from the Stadium. The bright sun faded out the lines. Online, I could not change my view point as I could be, being physically there. Onsite, I was able to walk around and get different perspectives. But the soundscape was definitely heightened in the online experience as was the thrill of voting as prompts popped up on the screen.

At public art performances, there is always the unexpected – people who wander by and have no idea what is going on and those who simply walk and do not stop. Yesterday, there were four people who strolled past, totally disinterested. I heard a mobile phone go off.

After re-calibrating, and positioning myself, it was absolutely wonderful to experience the piece live. Lockdown has made us sluggish. Mask on and get to Woodstock in Cape Town, on the weekend and watch this incredible company – dancers coupling, separating, charting their own human geography as they receive prompts from the audiences – online and onsite – determining their progression on the grid. This is the intervention of deus::ex::machina – the mediation from someone or something – boom – to throw one off course or to provide a new direction, solution, diversion. The pattern is disrupted and that is what we get in deus::ex::machina. I loved both experiences.

deus::ex::machina is a thrilling public art piece, created with innovation, vision and verve by Darkroom Contemporary, Cape Town, Africa, pandemic times. Over 25 people were paid for their work on deus::ex::machina. In addition to creating an intriguing dance/performance art piece which resonates profoundly around how we are spatially charting our geography through these surreal days, Darkroom facilitated funding so that creatives could paid. Artistically, it happens to be a huge success but it was a mammoth and risky project. Big round of applause for Darkroom’s founders, Louise Coetzer and Oscar O’Ryan for the intellectual and creative energy in making this piece a reality, during the pandemic.

There is no charge to view the October 2020 season of deus::ex::machina – online or in-person.

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”

❇ Image credit: Oscar O’Ryan. Image supplied