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Innovation as incarceration

Helen Omand: Fiona Malone, The Obcell


In the shape of the innovative sensor-based Diem Dance System, technology is at the forefront of contemporary dance performance in The Obcell. Created at the Danish Institute of Electro-acoustic Music, the system has been designed to give the dancer optimal movement range and creative control with two sensors/cameras being worn on the body. The apparatus is hidden in athlete’s strapping, suggesting injury or restraints.

This work integrates the capabilities and limitations of the cable-free camera/sound system, informing the performance’s concept and physical content. For example the 0.42 second delay between a movement trigger and the sensor response alters the performer’s natural body timing while tripping the audience’s perception of the real and the imagined. The tightly woven interplay between subject matter, choreography and technological device invites the audience to keenly observe the initiating source, making us both voyeurs and laboratory assistants.

A triptych relationship between the live body and 2 video mirror images acting as observational agents draws our eye to detail that would otherwise go unnoticed. A dialogue evolves between the body as subject and the camera as ‘tester’, representing the interdependent narrative of man and technology. We observe the physical and psychological journey of performer Ninian Donald as he grapples with solitary confinement and electric shocks unrelentingly administered to modify his behavior. He is reduced to a raw animal physicality of strained sinews, body arching in electrically-fired neural synaptic pain. He regresses into childlike states with repetitious pacing and body inversions as he attempts to deal with the inhumanity of his sterile environment. Escapist behavior emerges as creativity in the face of deprivation. These flights into altered states of consciousness invite retribution, testing his endurance. A night vision camera duplicates his presence 10 fold. Multiple images stare back at us. Uncomfortably we recognise the paradoxical question: who is watching who?

Ambiguity purposefully surrounds the location of The Obcell, suggesting a place of deleted identity, somewhere between penitentiary and psychiatric ward. The test is dubiously positioned between punishment and treatment. As witnesses we begin to feel complicit, due to our internalised discomfort and obedience to the authority of performance. Does anyone ask for it to stop? The performance reminds me of Stanley Milgrim’s 1963 psychological experiment which studied the human tendency to obey authority. A test subject was asked to administer electric shocks to another person (unbeknownst to the subject the shocks were not real): 65% of the subjects obeyed.

Informed by research conducted by director Fiona Malone at Long Bay Jail, this interactive multi-media dance work addresses multiple issues. Although choreographically thin in places, its depth may be fully realised with finer tuning or as a longer work. What makes The Obcell so unnerving is that the hypothesis for the experiment is never revealed. The calculated persecution so powerfully embodied by Ninian Donald is theatrically converted and refracted through projected real time images. He has no choice and we do not set him free. The immersive theatrical environment neither discloses his identity or the reason for his incarceration. This in turn creates a strange lack of empathy for the subject, bringing sharply into focus current issues surrounding all forms of detainment.


The Obcell, director-choreographer Fiona Malone, performer Ninian Donald, State Theatre Rehearsal Room, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Feb 19-28

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 43

© Helen Omand; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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