directed by Mark Bolotin, presented by Synarcade Audio-Visual at Artshouse, North Melbourne Town Hall
Humankind’s endless fascination with its origins would seem to set us apart as a species. Are we the end product of a Creator god’s divine plan, or the latest iteration of some cosmic process that awaits our further understanding? With the sequencing of the human genome and earlier achievements such as IVF, some have argued that humanity has effectively transcended the mechanics of blind evolution, and that its agency is now more or less under our control. These developments present vitally important questions to our future as a species, especially given the looming scenario of corporate ownership over gene sequences that may prove instrumental in the elimination of disease, or the screening of embryos for potential abberations. Who owns us? Are we perfectible? What are we sacrificing should we seek to circumvent chance itself? The spectre of eugenics, as ever, presides over such debates.
Synarcade’s latest project Emergence seeks to probe into these tangled thickets. Registered users log into a website to provide information that will go towards the engineering of their desired ‘offspring’ – a controlled experiment in the creation of a human being. After signing a waiver form and entering the space, participants are given ‘halos’ – gender specific tracking devices that monitor their movement through the space and aid in the correlating of data, the results of which are tabulated on the fly and incorporated back into the ‘presentation’, which takes the form of a private attendance in a lab of the Department of Biological Sciences to observe the experiment as it progresses through successive phases of ‘conception’.
The proceedings are orchestrated by the ‘Head’ of the Department, who presides over the experiment and who determines its parameters, while a team of ‘techno-surgeons’ process the results in real-time from a dimly lit bank of computers in the corner. Participants witness the ‘birth’ of the experimental subject, and at certain stages in its growth cycle are required to make decisions as to what qualities they would like to see installed in its development program. These take the form of census polls, requiring the participants to decide whether the entity will be creative, logical or philosophical in nature; whether they are to be disciplined or encouraged for individualistic behaviour; and whether they will be forced into complete honesty or allowed the ability to lie. The decisions made have real consequences, and are revealed through video sequences showing the effects of such. It is entirely possible that the created entity will turn out to be a drone, or a psychopathic danger to society.
It is hard to do justice to just how successful Synarcade have been in merging the trappings of technology with the concerns of a theatrical experience. The ethical quandaries that are thrown up in the course of the evening are real and their effects on the audience are palpable, resulting in some quite heated debates occuring within the space. The result is an experience that is both cerebral and visceral, with a genuine emotional attachment possible between parent and offspring. As a work of participatory theatre it is well-conceived, and as a social experiment it is an intelligent approach to concerns that will no doubt attain even greater significance in the years to come. Despite the choices presented feeling somewhat reductionist at times, the net result is a powerful and sometimes chilling work of interactive art.