Arriving at Brighton’s Old Market theatre, I was promptly ushered into a space inhabited by a number of intriguing marble-finish objects that appeared to be melting into an oil-like substance on the floor. A large, black, marble cube dominated the space, surrounded by a number of other objects such as a half-melted table. On closer inspection, the objects were in fact painted with a marble-effect. This established some level of insincerity in what I was viewing, a manipulation of what was reality and what was fiction.
These objects made up the art installation for Ashford-based dance company AΦE’s immersive journey into the unconscious mind, WHIST. The paint used on these objects acted in the same way a barcode would, enabling our VR headsets to recognise each object in the room, triggering a 360-degree film unique to that particular object.
After donning a headset and following a brief explanatory introduction, I was instructed to find a particular object within the installation: a birdcage. In order to activate the VR film unique to this particular object, I was encouraged by one of the supervisors to carefully inspect it. This meant walking around the object and playing with proxemics, which compelled me to see the object from many different angles. Doing so made me notice that the two-way mirrors supporting the birdcage changed from mirrors into completely transparent structures depending on where I stood. It was clear that first impressions were not to be trusted in this environment and that my perception would play an imperative role in my experience.
The importance of perception was no less apparent in the VR films, which allowed us to take a 360-degree look around the spaces that the characters inhabited, leaving it up to the participant to decide where in the film they looked. It later became apparent that where you looked during the film would determine which object you would next be instructed to find. Each person immediately became an active participant in the piece, unconsciously determining their own unique path through the installation. These individual paths meant that narrative became disjointed and non-linear, encouraging participants to seek their own unique meaning within the perplexing, poetic films, which sent us on a psychedelic trip through the captivating life of a fictional family. The films contained a number of performers who enacted emotive and poignant experimental movement sequences in dream-like and nightmarish environments. The disjointed surrealism of these films left me curious, slightly unnerved and eager to discover more.
What would have been clear to all well informed participants was the fact that the work centred on Freudian theory, with the company enlisting the help of psychoanalyst, Emilia Raczkowska of the Freud Museum London. For me, the most obvious investigation into Freud was that of the Oedipus complex. A memorable example of this being a 360-degree film in which one of the characters appeared to climb inside his mother in an act that acutely showcased the power of physical, non-naturalistic theatre, while confronting a somewhat disturbing and challenging part of Freudian theory.
Exploring the Oedipus complex in situ with the incredibly dramatic environments which the fictional family inhabited, called to mind great Greek tragedies such as Electra or those of the Oresteia. The costumes were very often extravagant and theatrical, and the piece was filled with incestuous family drama and bloody conflict. Yet, there was no chance of WHIST falling into the stale cliché’s sometimes seen in modern versions of Greek tragedy. This was a wholly unique and original reimagining of traditional tragic theatre; WHIST beautifully exhibited how an engaging story can be told through minimalistic movement and the imagination of an actively invested spectator.
Featured Image: The Old Market