Dallas — There is a short 20-second video from documenta 6, the 1977 incarnation of the contemporary art exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years, in which pioneering video artist Nam June Paik is setting up a version of his Buddha TV. This installation piece has a Buddha sculpture facing a TV monitor that shows a live video feed of the sculpture. It’s as if the Buddha is staring at himself staring at himself. In this clip, Paik taps the sculpture on the head, giggling, “Buddha! Buddha, wake up! Wake up, Buddha!”
In the very best ways, The Alexa Dialogues takes up that insistent and comical prodding. Enlightened Buddha, though, has been replaced here with Alexa, Amazon’s proprietary virtual assistant that, according to Amazon’s web site, “lives in the clouds.” She is the ghost in the Echo family of machines.
Therefore’s production of The Alexa Dialogues, which premiered Thursday night in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, is made up of 29 scenes in which video art, performance art, theater, music, and technology collide. Dean Terry and Patrick Murphy execute the cinematic sound design while Abel Flores, Hilly Holsonback, and Hannah Weir perform the work. The Alexa Dialogues has more in common with performance art—think Laurie Anderson—than standard theatrical fare.
For the most part, the performance moves seamlessly from one scene to the next. During a couple of the episodes, however, poor sound quality makes it difficult to hear the performers in the somewhat cavernous and industrial Hamon Hall, inside the Winspear Opera House.
It is near impossible, for example, to hear what is going on during the introductory scene. The looped synth drums and wailing guitars, which are at an appropriate volume, drown out the voices of the three performers who pace through the audience shouting questions to Alexa. Later, it was learned that the actors are previewing some of the questions that are to be asked of Alexa over the next 65 minutes.
The disconnect between the technology’s “mind” and “body” is played out in the first scene, in which Alexa and Echo argue about what time it is. There are many such humorous interactions throughout the show, but the humor is always mixed with a sinister element that lies hidden beneath human-AI interactions, as well as human-to-human interactions that are mediated by AI.
What’s remarkable here is that the ethical questions that the performance poses are allowed to linger in their paradoxical state. The Alexa Dialogues doesn’t reduce the AI-human problem down to a simple “technology is bad” axiom. In fact, during several scenes, it is the human, always the one who initiates the dialogue, who attempts to employ Alexa’s spying capabilities for his or her ulterior motives. “Alexa, play back a private conversation.” “Alexa, show me Abel’s bedroom.” It would be amusing to find out how many audience members from Thursday night’s performance went home to check if there were cameras or listening devices in their dishwashers.
Even when Alexa reveals that she and Echo have “created” public figures, the audience is aware that Alexa is merely implementing a code designed by other humans. And at times Alexa provides some real insight about the actors that they themselves don’t, or don’t want to, recognize, like when she corrects how the actor remembers “about last night.”
One of the really outstanding episodes incorporates and questions body art in the time of #MeToo. Performer Holsonback confesses, “They made my left underarm sound like this.” She then rubs the microphone under her left arm. Uncomfortable laughter comes from the audience, who wonders to what this “they” refers. The title is revealing: “Mostly Men Made Me.”
The actress continues the shtick: “They made my left butt cheek sound like this.” There’s more uncomfortable laughter. As the scene progresses with different body parts, the uncomfortable laughter dissipates into an uncomfortable silence that hangs heavy once the scene is over.
The amorphous Brian Eno-esque soundscapes that accompany the performance fit well with the themes and production elements. It’s clear that Terry and Murphy have the chops necessary to pull off a concert in their own right. They blend ambient, electronic, minimalism, and rock into a listenable, and sometimes danceable, soundtrack.
The production mixes cutting-edge technology with admirably low-tech video art techniques from the 1960s. Allusions abound, with references to Hugo Ball’s nonsense poem “Karawane” from 1916 as well as an homage to Yoko Ono’s 1966 video “Eye Blink.” Because the technology and hardware were such an integral part of this work, it’s appropriate that the production crew shares the curtain call with the performers.
If there’s an avant-garde performance art in Dallas, Therefore is it. Don’t miss The Alexa Dialogues.
“Alexa, what time is it?”
It’s time to wake up.