If you’ve ever wasted an hour on the phone battling the computer-generated voice of your bank or internet provider, Swamp Motel’s new show will feel horribly familiar. A half-baked dystopian fantasy about data harvesting, it claims to be immersive, site-specific and “cutting-edge”.
Reader, it is none of these: it is you, seated in a cubicle in a defunct office building in Westminster, interacting for 50 minutes with what sounds like a robot version of the BBC’s International Editor Jeremy Bowen, through headphones and something called an “Echosump”. This is a sort of exploded word processor with a push-button microphone and a till-receipt printer, which curls off the case-notes you’re told to type. Oh, and you’re paying £35 for the privilege, if you opt for the 8pm slot on Saturday.
The premise is that you are one of 20-odd volunteers trying out pioneering new tech from medical company Saint Jude, which enables electronic voice communication with the subconscious minds of coma patients known as “sleepers”. Former transport offices at 100 Petty France, next to St James’s Park tube, have been minimally dressed with corporate badging and ominous workplace warnings to suggest a corporation that is slightly futuristic and clearly up to no good.
An actor-instructor, barely even aiming at creating a credible character, tells us that we can help bring sleepers out of their stasis by drawing out their secrets. We need to share as much of our own personal information as possible with them to engender empathy, and ask lots of questions, but nothing intrusive or sexual. Oh, and we mustn’t mention the C-word (coma). Then we’re shovelled into our cells and connected.
Of course, we’re all talking to the same sleeper: I checked with the bloke next to me. And of course, the instructions lead us to ask generic questions that trigger pre-programmed responses from the stilted, computerised entity provided by AI firm Charisma.ai. If it doesn’t recognise your statement, it just blanks you, a green light on the “Echosump” mutely demanding that you come up with something better. It’s like repeatedly facing a 404 error message on a website, or the infuriating “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that” of automated phone transactions.
To be fair, the nightmare scenarios that the AI describes when it deigns to speak are effectively creepy: stigmata, demons, the office Christmas party from hell. But they’re accompanied by doomy background music and bits of dialogue that destroy the already-flimsy illusion of coherence.
Worse, like so many supposedly immersive shows, this piece infantilises the audience under the guise of empowering us. While you can engage critically with a play you’re watching, here you’re a pawn in a predetermined plot. How much personal information will you spaff to placate the disembodied voice?
Will you undertake babyish acts of rebellion against your Saint Jude supervisor when it asks you to? Will you sing a nursery rhyme to it? Yes, you will, because the narrative you have paid to surrender to demands it. Makes you think, eh, sheeple?
Swamp Motel’s Clem Garritty and Ollie Jones were lauded in some quarters for the online entertainments they created during lockdown. It beggars belief that their big idea now is to isolate punters in front of a tiny screen and make them argue with an algorithm. Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations, by the way. Well, quite.
100 Petty France, to 11 March; saintjude.ai