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Vanitas: an app to die for – Precinct

Article in Precinct 19 July 2017

An app that lets audience members experience Melbourne General Cemetery like never before? Victorian College of the Arts Lecturer in Theatre Robert Walton explains more. 

By Robert Walton, Lecturer in Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts

This weekend (20–21 May 2017) at the Melbourne General Cemetery, artist Jason Maling and I will test the latest edition of our transmedia app experience Vanitas.

Blurring documentary with fiction, Vanitas is a reflective thriller about life’s great mystery: death. Experienced through their own smartphone and decrypted through the secret language of flowers, each visitor will embark on a self-guided walk through Melbourne’s oldest modern cemetery. Alone.

Intrepid audience members will listen to the app as they wander towards a rendezvous at the centre of the cemetery. It’s a meditative experience that asks you to listen deeply and look closely at the world around you. In Vanitas, not everything is as it first appears.

Rachel Ruysch, Vase with Flowers, 1700. Wikimedia Commons.

A vanitas painting portrays collections of objects symbolic of the certainty of death. We were inspired by a painting from 1700 by Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch called Vase with Flowers (above). Ruysch’s floral vanitas depicts blooms just passing their best, on the cusp of wilting or being eaten by bugs. Her mysterious painting, like all vanitas pictures from that era, reminds us that all living things fade, and that our objects will outlive us and become the last traces of our daily lives.

In much of Australian culture, death remains taboo. For a variety of reasons, we are unable or unwilling to talk about it. In fact, we often go about our lives as if death is a fate that will not befall us personally. Australia also has the second highest uptake of smartphones in the world.

Hence, we have made a smartphone app as a vanitas for our own times. The interface itself is based on Ruysch’s painting with each flower representing an episode in the story. Like the flowers in the painting, you are drawn to some episodes first and then chance upon others along the way. The shift between guided and random order allows the audience to weave their own connections with the threads of narrative we present.

The story mixes documentary, autobiography and fiction and is told wholly through remixed audio fragments taken from interviews with a variety of experts on the themes of vanitas, flowers, life and death. We find out about the secret language of flowers, witness a cremation, and talk to botanists, historians and professionals from the death industry.

We are lucky to have Southern Melbourne Cemeteries Trust in our city; world leaders in forward thinking about the future of our cemeteries. Those we have worked with from the Trust’s team have been great collaborators and have helped us to understand how death practices have evolved over the last century and how they might develop into the future.

What is clear is that Melbourne General Cemetery in Parkville is a place of extraordinary national importance. It is a haunting museum and art gallery of lives past, like the shadow of the city itself.

And, with 300,000 people buried there, it’s certainly the biggest venue I have ever played. But the dead are what you’d call a captive audience.  On the whole they are very well behaved bunch; they don’t give much back. They seem to be enjoying the show so far, yet we live in constant fear of a standing ovation.

The audience on the weekend can expect a meditative experience exploring themes of death and transience. Ticket holders can arrive any time between 10am and 4pm on their chosen day.

Audience members will be asked to come with a fully-charged smartphone (Apple or Android) with an Australian mobile number, email address, access to the internet (there is no WiFi in the cemetery) and headphones. Once booked, they will be sent an email with information on how to download the Vanitas app before coming to the cemetery.

Vanitas was commissioned as part of In Your Hands – a new series of artworks and installations that invite audiences to create experiences mediated through hand-held technology – by Arts House through the Australia Council’s New Digital Theatre Initiative. Tickets are available from Arts House. Admission: $10

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Find out more about Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts. 

Banner image: Jason Maling and Robert Walton.

A smartphone thriller told through the secret language of flowers.Created by Robert Walton and Jason Maling 20-21 May 2017, Arts House & Melbourne General CemeteryMore dates in the pipeline!

Vanitas at Melbourne General Cemetery

20 & 21 May 2017

Book Now

The latest edition of Vanitas will get its first public outing at Melbourne General Cemetery very soon.

Booking is essential.

Come visit us in Australia’s most historically significant cemetery.

Confirmation Presentation 1

Lecture: Transmedia Dramaturgy – Theatre, Smartphones and Networked Performance

Confirmation Presentation – 4pm 16 December 2015 – Art Auditorium, VCA

Please join me at this public lecture followed by a discussion.

Do hybrid media performances require a transmedia dramaturgy?

The aim of this research is to examine the dramaturgical, philosophical and aesthetic capabilities of performances deliberately expanded to spread across and be experienced through the everyday technologies of a ‘networked culture’.

I will present an overview of key literature and focus specifically on the findings from a series of experimental performances delivered on smartphones over the year (The Asphodel, Still Life and Dark Telephony). I will introduce the first prototype of the Vanitas project, presented at Arts House in November, which was deployed across an app, voice calls, SMS, webpages, maps, an installation and Errol and Victoria streets in North Melbourne. I will conclude by laying out some of the challenges of researching in this field and outline my plan for completing this research over the next two years.

Dark_Telephony

Dark Telephony

9-11 October 2015

Prototype Performance – Performing Mobilities – Between RMIT and North Melbourne

Throughout 2015 Robert Walton and Jason Maling are developing a responsive time-based narrative experience that moves across media, bodies and technologies, between public and private spaces. Dark Telephony is controlled by call-centre technology and will be mediated by an interactive telephone system via individual mobile devices, social media and its human avatars. In this iteration the Dark Telephony system will manifest a live performance for a small group of participants. Part call-centre horror story, part spectral encounter with oneself, the work exploits the uneasy relationship we have with automated disembodied telephone systems. It plays on that vague sense that our mundane communications are not all they seem and an all-pervasive and non-locatable ‘other’ might actually be tracking and directing our movements. Participants will literary ring in to be wrung out.

More information on Performing Mobilities website.

hands-raised

New Commission: In Your Hands – Arts House / Australia Council

In 2013 I worked with Arts House (North Melbourne) to initiate In Your Hands, a project based on developing what I term ‘itinerant’ art works, that require the audience member to physically move in order to performatively ‘enliven’ or ‘instantiate’ the work. My collaboration with Arts House is built on a mutual interest to find ways to understand and encourage itinerant works created by theatre makers that often proliferate outside of existing institutional support structures.  The project, which starts this year (2014) and ends in 2016, was successful in securing $250,000 from The Australia Council’s Digital Theatre Fund.  In Your Hands brings together four teams of artists with professional app developers and theatre producers to explore the potential of ‘theatre’ works on mobile devices in public space. The aim of the project is for each of the teams to create (at least) one art work, and in so doing help venues better understand how to support similar projects in the future. I will lead one of the creative teams to realise a new work in 2016.

The creation of this work is part of my ongoing research into ‘transmedia mobilities’ that is an area of focus for my research at University of Melbourne.

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