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it’s a jungle in here

As you board your train, your phone starts to ring. You reach into your pocket to pull it out, accidentally bumping the man behind you. While you answer your phone, he turns to you, looking angry. “Sorry,” you mouth to him, still on the phone. He rolls up his sleeves and shoves you, then grabs your phone out of your hand and throws it into the ground. The other train passengers look uncomfortable and avert their eyes. You try to defuse the situation, but before you know it, you’re on the ground and being punched repeatedly. Suddenly, the man morphs into a ferocious bear. The train pulls to a stop and the bear drags you out of the carriage.

This is one of the three confronting scenarios you might find yourself in if you participate in Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine’s newest interactive art installation It’s A Jungle In Here, which is showing at Screen Space as part of the 2011 Melbourne Festival. It sounds violent, but it’s actually a stop-motion animation made with cardboard cut-outs; it’s darkly whimsical rather than disturbing. Knowles explains that she and Sowerwine decided to use a train setting because “you’re going somewhere and it traps you for a time, but then you’ve got these timed openings where you can escape.”

The installation consists of a wooden booth that seats two. After donning headphones, the participants place their faces in cut-out holes to view the video and—through a live feed that maps their faces onto the animated characters—are forced to take on the roles of the attacker and the victim. The victim’s side of the booth contains a microphone that they can shout into to protest; there are two potential outcomes in each scenario, depending on whether they make noise or not. The attacker is provided with a button that has to be pushed to make the scenario progress.

“We wanted these subtle, realistic situations that started off quite neutral and then escalated into something more intense,” says Knowles. The scenarios were drawn from both Knowles and Sowerwine’s personal public transport experiences and observations.

They initially used the face mapping technology in their 2010 interactive art installation You Were In My Dream, which won the Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award 2010. But whereas that was set in a literal jungle, It’s A Jungle In Here is a metaphorical one, where people turn animalistic and social expectations crumble during unsettling encounters with strangers.

“We are building on the same technological experience with the face being transposed into an animation, but the real impetus for the work was creating a dramatic tension between two viewers,” says Knowles, who began collaborating with Sowerwine in 2001.

“I think that’s really the most important part of it, getting the two people to have this experience together and be sitting next to each other in real life, but having this relationship imposed upon them that they haven’t really got any control over. You find people that feel like apologising to the other person because they really do feel implicated! It’s almost like a performance between them as well.”

As it happened, I viewed the installation with Screen Space volunteer and Masters of Curatorship student, Lisa Gluck. We played along, acting out our given roles with appropriate facial expressions, until Gluck took on the character of a man who began groping my character.

“I wanted to participant in the animation, but eventually I actually took my face out and didn’t finish the scene because it was very awkward!” says Gluck.

“It was quite a confronting thing to have my face there and obviously not want to be doing that, but feeling as though it was happening.”

While many people who see the installation bring a friend along, Knowles says, “Two strangers is definitely the most confronting way it can be experienced. There’s definitely something about making strangers interact that’s really interesting.”

Is it perhaps because then the experience is more realistic and therefore creates more of an impact? If the idea of It’s A Jungle In Here is to emulate a sort of human jungle, then incorporating a sense of unfamiliarity and unpredictability makes sense.

“We have this social etiquette that everyone knows, and as soon as you start breaking out of that, something about your personality has to revert to this animalistic thing,” says Knowles.

“If you’re being attacked, you’re going to have to respond to that in some kind of way, and a lot of the time probably in an instinctual way.”

The fight or flight response is inbuilt into all animals, humans included, and is another notion that It’s A Jungle In Here explores. When a situation deviates from what is socially acceptable, it can be hard to know how to act or how to neutralise hostility or discomfort, simply because there is no predicting how the other party in the situation will respond to your actions.

When you’re dealing with somebody who’s not working the same rational state as you, you don’t know how your actions are going to affect it,” says Gluck.

Similarly, in the installation, participants don’t know how their actions will affect the animation’s outcome. While Gluck’s character was harassing mine during our viewing, it began morphing into a couple of snakes. I shouted into the microphone, which caused the woman my face was mapped onto to morph into a tortoise that withdrew into its shell. Knowles tells us that had I not shouted, the snakes would have crawled into the woman’s clothing.

The technological side of the installation also holds a lot of meaning. It’s A Jungle In Here was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, who presented Knowles and Sowerwine with a Digital Culture Fund. According to their website, the Australia Council is interested in funding “artists and audiences co-creating new forms of live experience; experimentation across platforms and to engage diverse communities with creative practice; [and] inventive strategies for live collaboration, presentation and distribution of artwork.”

Knowles compares the idea of having your face mapped onto a multimedia animation to your online persona. When we’re on the internet, with our computers acting as a barrier, we may choose to act differently than we would in real life.

“We’ve set up this thing where it’s just a button click to keep aggressing. We’ve made this very attractive booth and attractive animation that’s inviting you to do these horrible things!” Knowles says.

“It’s very easy to go on Facebook and write something horrible; it’s your self-control or your personality that stops you doing that. It’s a public forum and people are not being responsible, because you’re in your bedroom on your computer and you just feel like it’s you and some words on a screen. Suddenly our tiny little bedrooms are becoming this global public space.”

It’s easy to compare this to the false sense of privacy we feel when we’re on a train with headphones clamped firmly over our ears, our chosen music drowning other sounds out. In the animation, you can see the other train passengers taking notice of the confrontation, but they never interfere. It echoes the real world, where many people are unlikely to react strongly to something unless it directly involves them.

“Everyone is keeping to themselves and has this insular kind of world around them. Your space is just you and whatever you’re affecting directly around you,” says Knowles.

“When all these online communications first started, it was a bit more of ‘oh it’s just online,’ but I think over the past five years, it actually has become [reality],” says Gluck.

Since technology is becoming so ingrained in all aspects of people’s everyday lives, and art is often a reflection of society, it’s only natural that contemporary art includes technology in some way. Even more relevant is the art or theatre work that aims to bring people together in a collective experience. As Knowles describes it, it’s “the power of everyone being connected all the time and that becoming part of mainstream culture.”

It’s A Jungle In Here is a psychodrama, social experiment game and multimedia art piece that explores many topical facets of modern life with an animation that’s all at once confronting, humorous and visually enticing.

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