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The Faust Shop: actors on a new stage

Digital technologies and automated actors organise our daily interactions and spaces. Effortlessly we become actors on a new stage of emerging digital life. I co-created the Faust Shop project to explore the digital promise and the Faustian bargains we make by simply following our daily lives. I am especially interested in how they shape our performative environments in terms of their visuo-spatial arrangement and our agency. The dramatic premise of the Faust Shop is that we are always already entangled in machine-mediated transactions. What are you willing to give when technology offers us the world? What does technology take away? You choose.

Digital Damnation?

The Faust Shop is an augmented theatrical experience embedded in an everyday street that explores the Faustian pacts in our daily engagements with technology. I first conceived of this project as a dramatic experiment with augmented space. Stepping into this pop-up shop you will be offered the opportunity to re-claim your digital soul. A ‘digital soul’ is generally understood as the information about ourselves that we record online. In this way, personalized data, or a digital representation of ourselves, a kind of digital twin, is produced by AI-driven technology that draws on the sum of our connections, mouse and eye movements, steps, interests, search terms, beliefs, and clicks on the ‘I agree’ button.

Allegedly coined by Hans Peter Brøndmo, who currently leads the The Everyday Robot Project at Google X, the term ‘digital soul’ has its roots in the corporate world but is closely related to its academic siblings, namely digital exhaust, digital legacy, personalisation algorithm or, by adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, digital afterlives.

Overall, the Faust Shop aims to create a theatrical event that empowers us to reassess the different avatars and performative environments we co-create in interaction with automated actors. In a new episode of the Digital Cultures Podcast, we are joined by the filmmaker Cary Parker, the digital activist and web designer Beatrice Murch, the letter cutter and graphical designer Roxanne Kindersley and CDH Research Fellow and myself. We will talk about the first phase of this project, how it reimagined digital futures, and what it meant when we say ‘WE ARE i’: 

Having explored different artistic directions initially, the Faust Shop marks the second phase of a set of activities which are part of a larger research project on the re-staging of public- spaces. In the latter, I analyse how our sense of the physical and digital has changed through pervasive digital mediation and in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Essentially, the Faust Shop playfully sets up different relationships with digital technology. In an attempt of ‘taking off the lid’, as Beatrice Murch put it, it theatricalises what frequently goes unnoticed: namely that we are the lead actors on this new stage.

Dramaturgies and architectures of augmented space

By creating a relational space, we collaborate with, and invite different publics to become co-creators of the Faust Shop. This includes artists, academics, digital activists, local schools and students and Cambridge-based tech company Sook. A first hybrid event on New Lands: Sacred spaces and the digital brought together different publics in augmented space. Held in Magdalene College Chapel in Cambridge, and across multiple locations on 6 October 2021, this dramatic experiment and panel discussion asked how we create public spaces in a digitalized world (more on this topic in a forthcoming blog post – watch this space!).

Screenshot of New Lands event engaged with an in-person audience in Magdalene College Chapel, Cambridge. The event was also broadcast to participants in Benson Hall in College (third Zoom box from left in the upper gallery) and spectators online on Zoom © CDH.
Screenshot of New Lands event engaged with an in-person audience in Magdalene College Chapel, Cambridge. The event was also broadcast to participants in Benson Hall in College (third Zoom box from left in the upper gallery) and spectators online on Zoom © CDH.

Reimaging digital futures: a call for donations, actors and artists

The Faust Shop takes its cue from outsider art. It is inspired, in particular, by this year’s Royal Academy’s Summer exhibition, curated by Yinka Shonibare, which not only asked the public to donate an artwork for the show but also claimed that anybody can be an artist. In the ‘WE ARE i’ episode of the Digital Cultures Podcast we discussed why it is more important than ever to be a creator rather than a consumer in a digitalized world. Following on from a reworking of the project, the Faust Shop calls for actors on this new stage.

Just fancy that! One does depend
On one’s own creatures, in the end.

Mephistopheles commenting on Wagner’s Homunculus project in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s ‘Faust: Part Two, Act II, translated by David Luke.

Donate an artwork: how do you picture your digital soul? The Faust Shop project invites donations from the public for an exhibition on Actors on a new stage to be held in a digital pop-up gallery in Cambridge in March 2022. My vision is for people from all walks of life to donate old or new creations, digital objects or artworks that explore their relationship or Faustian pacts with technology. These multimedia objects or rather their digital afterlife should offer glimpses into the imaginaries of our digital souls and in that way engage with questions around digital agency (further details about this call for donations are available on the Faust Shop website). Engaging with augmented spaces from an aesthetic and affective perspective directly reveals the consequences of our actions online. My work on the re-staging of public spaces draws on this transformative effect of mediatized theatricalisation by examining digital dramaturgy and digital aesthetic in cross-reality performance.

In addition, the Faust Shop project calls for local performers who are interested in playing a part in the Faust Shop performance, an immersive theatrical experience in a digitally adaptive space in Cambridge in March 2022. Finally, and through a third intervention, I hope to open the Faust Shop to debates about the co-creation of augmented space and its entanglement with automated actors. The digital homunculus project currently commissions artists who work across different media to create digital assets for both the Faust Shop performance and the Actors on a new stage exhibition (for further details about how to volunteer as a performer please click here.)

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