Perth festival 2024: a voyeuristic work where the public becomes the show – but not all are in on the joke

<span>‘The gentle observations could have been scripted. Until it slowly dawns on us that they aren’t.’</span><span>Photograph: Miles Noel Studio</span>
‘The gentle observations could have been scripted. Until it slowly dawns on us that they aren’t.’Photograph: Miles Noel Studio

What would you do differently if you knew you were being watched? What if hundreds of people were watching and listening in as someone secretly narrated your every move? As the sun sets in glowing ombre shades at Perth’s Scarborough beach, those there for the markets and an evening stroll are visibly perplexed by us: 200 people packed into a grandstand facing not the water but the esplanade, wearing enormous headphones as we silently stare at – and sometimes laugh at – the people walking by.

Through the headphones we hear distant sounds of surf and play, as if picked up by a hidden microphone somewhere in the distance. A female voice – half-spoken, half-sung – sets the scene over gentle music. “A clear sky. A distant plane,” it breathes silkily. “Humidity 20%. The flare of a late afternoon sun creating dancing dots, oracular squiggles across your eyes.”

Invisible Opera, created and performed by Australian artist and musician Sophia Brous, is a site-specific work conceived in residence at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2019. It had its Australian debut at Melbourne’s Rising festival in 2021 and changes everywhere it goes.

Here by the water on a perfect, still evening, it begins as a lovely time – gentle observations about an idyllic locale that could have been pre-recorded. Until slowly it dawns on us that it’s happening in real time.

“A young couple, maybe a Tinder date,” the voice narrates – and 200 heads snap towards them on the footpath to our left. He’s taller, she’s bouncing with oblivious delight and my ears burn for them both as our narrator mocks her presumed dating profile: “Northbridge, 30, bicurious …” They seem to have no idea what’s going on.

A shirtless man jogs by, breathless, red-faced and unaware – his “bare chest showing just the rosiest tint of sunburn”, the voice chirps in our ears.

Which of these people have been planted by the production and which don’t even know it’s happening? The game becomes about guessing and the guessing becomes deeply unsettling, fast. We hear about “a small body on daddy’s shoulders” – and while I can’t see them, a few seconds later a two-year-old runs right up to the grandstand, her father in pursuit. He snatches her back and smiles up at us apologetically, but is clearly confused: who are these 200 people staring at my child and why are they now laughing at us?

Brous’s mastery is in the blurring of a fun concept and lofty themes – the role of public space, the ethics of voyeurism, how art is in the eye of the beholder – with issues far more sinister: over-surveillance and over-policing. Soon her Truman Show narration takes on a different tone: a cop reporting “antisocial behaviour” and trying to curb it.

Suddenly it’s as if we’ve tuned into a police frequency: “We have a gentleman, seems quite agitated, in the upper promenade,” she clips, as the tension rises. “There’s a lot of bodies moving. Let’s just try and stay on him.”

When a young man in a black full-face mask does wheelies on a BMX, she blasts out an order – “cue the mosquito tone, let’s see if that moves him on”; mosquito tones are high-pitched noises only audible to under-25s, and while all I can hear is a blast of static, a child sitting in front of me flinches (the technology has been used to repel teens from public spaces). Later, a young surfer steps towards the grandstand to smile up at us, perplexed. “I said less teenage boys,” the voice demands – but he can’t hear it.

The BMX kid was clearly part of the show – but when the surfer leaves our frame, I watch him ask a staff member what’s going on.

Brous didn’t create this work specifically for Scarborough, but the seaside suburb seems a perfect fit. Long-term residents are blaming rising crime rates on a recent redevelopment that was intended to make it more welcoming to outsiders and involved a skatepark. In November, the local council announced new “public safety enhancements” that would include “a strong WA police force ... directly supported by the city’s extensive CCTV network ... to enable a swift response to incidents”. A tale as old as time.

In my ears, the narrator now offers something between an overwritten real-estate listing and overzealous stage directions: “This is a leisure destination, we want it wholesome and active,” she says. “Can we get some puppies? More families?” – and a family walks their dog towards us. “Thank you, family. Less gulls please. Let’s get some wellness, açai bowls, kombucha, coconut water … pop-ups, where are my pop-ups?

And then the tension ramps up once again: “That BMX teen is on the grass, he’s too close to those kids – more mosquito tone please.”

The show’s final act becomes a fever dream of what a perfect beachside town might look like if they could only get the demographics right. I won’t spoil it. But when we leave the grandstand, headphones on, and follow directions to find the source of the voice (“I’ve been watching you too”), she sings sweetly in our ears: “Move freely here, where uniforms are circling. Here, where benches curve all the way down. Here, where bodies must not sleep at all times. Here, where spikes come up out of the ground. Here, where you are welcome.”

She’s singing, of course, to the mostly wealthy, mostly older, mostly white demographic that has the time and money to get to the beach for an arts festival event.

And when we finally find our narrator – gathering under her, looking up, waving and laughing – the message hits home: we may be welcome, we may be safe, but we’re complicit too.

The Invisible Opera runs at Scarborough beach until Sunday 25 February. Guardian Australia travelled to Perth as a guest of Perth festival and Perth writers’ weekend