It’s been an absolute age (well, about a year anyway) since I visited those innovative people at Chronic Insanity. They are well known for pushing boundaries of the possible in both live and digital situations. And that’s not to mention the sheer amount of work they produce; the aim is twelve pieces of drama every year. Their work often has a comic or dark edge to it (sometimes both) and plays around with expectations and format so that the audience never knows quite what to expect – but that’s the joy of what they do.
First, I caught up with an interactive audio piece created for “the data driven digital art and performance festival” Puncture The Screen 2022, so it actually has been around for quite some while. If you’ve ever been plagued by those PPI compensation cold callers, Interdimensional Phishing Scam will ring more than a few bells. After downloading an app you’ll find yourself “talking” to call handler Keith who assures you that the princely sum of £1,705.77 will be yours just by going through a few simple steps. Unfortunately though, his computer isn’t behaving and so instead you find yourself being passed through a whole set of randomly generated responders across the reaches of the multiverse. This includes someone who has the single word vocabulary of “potato” and a set of orang utans making a ransom demand. Indeed kidnapping as a topic pops up more than once – at least it did in my version, who knows what you will get? I also received a litany of complaints from my phone itself – apparently it is only comfortable in certain rooms of the house and tried to set down some rules which it is keen for me to obey going forward. Jamie Drew and Joe Strickland’s script is a good deal of fun and purports to follow a path according to your responses. I actually found that element a bit slow going but I’m sure that’s more to do with my inadequate phone than the app itself; maybe I should have asked Alexander Graham Bell while I had the chance – and that opportunity did arise. The sound design from Hannah Gallardo-Parsons is very authentic and while the trip round the multiverse takes in many dimensions it may comfort you to know that wherever you end up, the same highly annoying piece of caller on hold music plays interminably. Did I get my compensation? Unfortunately I didn’t, or I might have been able to splash out on a better phone; maybe you’ll be luckier but I wouldn’t count on it.
A quick switch from phone to laptop took me to Penumbra which is also an interactive piece but this time with a visual dimension. It’s also cleverly self-referential being set in the Void, an underground cavernous space which Chronic Insanity is currently converting into an arts performance space. Penumbra takes the form of a site visit from CI artistic director Joe Strickland (who has also written the piece) and is purportedly going to turn the space into an escape room. They are shown round by Harry Kingscott’s Caretaker who seems to have more than one personality, sometimes equable, sometimes rather more testy. The observer prompts the action by deciding which way to go through the space and asking questions. A lot of this is overly mundane but there are clues that something more other worldly is going on. Eventually it all becomes a quest to get hold of three keys to effect a return to normality. I’m sorry to say it (this must be the first time I’ve found myself actually disliking a Chronic Insanity piece) but I found the whole thing rather tedious. There are great swathes of time where not much seems to happen; the build up at the start is particularly sluggish – unless that was just a result of my unfortunate choices. When the main plot does get going there is far too much over explanation of what needs to be achieved rather than just getting on with it; this slows the action down even further. For what I assume was meant to be something in the horror genre, it was almost devoid of any sense of dread or anticipation. I was in even more of a hurry to leave than the protagonists but for rather different reasons.
Of the two pieces, the first is far more in the vein of the Chronic Insanity I have come to know, appreciate and respect; the second, alas, is rather a misstep. The Nottingham group are due to bring two pieces to the upcoming Vaults festival in London: All Falls Down and BATMAN (aka Naomi’s Death Show). I aim to try and catch at least one of these and, given the group’s previous form, you should too.