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A Machine To See With
Published on Monday, 29 August 2011
4

4 stars

St George's West (venue website)
Theatre
24-28 Aug, 2:00pm-2:45pm, 2:15pm-3:00pm, 2:30pm-3:15pm, 2:45pm-3:30pm, 3:00pm-3:45pm, 3:15pm-4:00pm, 3:30pm-4:15pm, 3:45pm-4:30pm, 4:00pm-4:45pm, 4:15pm-5:00pm, 4:30pm-5:15pm, 4:45pm-5:30pm, 5:00pm-5:45pm, 5:15pm-6:00pm, 5:30pm-6:15pm, 5:45pm-6:30pm, 6:00pm-6:45pm, 6:15pm-7:00pm, 6:30pm-7:15pm, 6:45pm-7:30pm, 7:00pm-7:45pm
Reviewed by Sarah Hill

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

Standing alone on Princes Street, my phone rings. ‘Listen very carefully,’ instructs an anonymous male voice on the other end, while my eyes scan the throng of people around me. ‘What I’m about to say to you is very important.’ He pauses. ‘And I’m only going to say this once.’

A Machine To See With is an interactive cinematic experience, which places you centre stage as protagonist to a heist movie. With only the instructions from an automated voice message for company, the mission propels you through the city streets as you make your way ever closer to your final destination. It’s a challenge that’ll certainly test your initiative, as from the moment you leave St George’s West, there’s no knowing which you’ll turn. From here, you’re on your own, and how it all ends is entirely up to you.

It’s not quite as adrenaline-pumping as the movies, but there is certainly an exciting ‘gaming’ element to this piece of digital theatre, as well as more than a touch of The Truman Show. As you set off, the voice on the line informs you that everything you can see – all that purports to be reality – is, in fact, artificial. Suddenly, the city becomes a cast cinematic space; a gigantic film set in which you may begin to question the motives of passers by. Every facial expression appears deliberate: are these actors, or are they ordinary people, completely ignorant of your predicament? However far you’re prepared to let your imagination run riot, the experience encourages a hyper-awareness of the urban environment around you, and of your own placement in the immediate here and now – for me, a real eye-opening revelation.

At several points along the journey, the voice on the line calls on your observational skills. As an initial device it did well to introduce the premise of surveillance, yet to me, the ‘heist’ storyline was rather disappointingly executed. Much time was spent simply walking, which meant that the pacing of instructions lagged occasionally. The uncertainty as to whether you were being watched was a real thrill, but to maintain interest, it could have done with introducing more opportunities for human contact.

Furthermore, whilst the piece is conceptually fascinating, its heavy reliance upon technology highlights a few unresolved problems for digital work of this discipline. Halfway through the mission, my phone signal cut out. As a result, after five minutes of deliberation and no apparent change, my suspense of disbelief had faded. It was unfortunate that I was unable to lose myself in the experience for its entire duration without an ongoing awareness of unreliable technology: it goes without saying that this piece requires a fully working phone, but some problems, like mine, remain beyond anticipation and control.

That said, like much interactive work such as this, what you take away from the experience has much to do with the attitude of the individual. The limitation I faced was frustrating enough for me to admit defeat and return to base, yet I chose to take it on as part of the challenge, simply another problem to be resolved. In this way, it wasn’t as obtrusive to my experience as it could have been – yet, my mission having stalled, the staggering of participants was put out of joint. I became distracted by others around me on their phones, all of us trying and failing to remain inconspicuous. The solution would perhaps be to offer a set of different missions to avoid this awkwardness.

Blast Theory have been exploring the virtual and the real for over 20 years, and this ‘locative cinematic’ commission is certainly testament to their impressive body of work. Whilst the gaming element is likely to appeal to a younger, techno-savvy participant, A Machine To See With is certainly insightful and thought provoking enough to appeal to a wider audience than may be expected. My main concern, however, remain with its technological limitations, which have yet to find a satisfactory resolution.

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