Complicated Progress

Photo by Kent Meister

Photo by Kent Meister

My love of theater about little-known historical women has deep roots. Those roots extend all the way back to my middle school years, when I would compete in National History Day, researching, writing, and performing original one-woman shows about under-acknowledged female greats. Therefore, The Oracle at The Brick was a natural choice for my pre-Halloween theater festivities: an interactive exhibit about Iris Atalanta Lee, a radical Luddite from the first British Industrial Revolution who was beheaded for inciting a rebellion.

As I learned in the introductory video, the Luddites assembled during the first British Industrial Revolution, circa 1811-1816. They were protesting at a point when humans in “developed” countries still had a concrete connection with the processes of creation. Iris was protesting against the automation of the stocking factories in which she worked, and became known as “Queen Ludd.” On the cusp of industrialization, the move towards mechanization felt like a profound loss for those who derived their self worth from their physical productivity. Industrialization represented a loss of job, and thereby a loss of purpose.

After her decapitation, Iris’ head was displayed on a post in the town square, to serve as an example for other rabble-rousers. Days later, the head was stolen and rumored to be spouting prophesies in the local Luddite headquarters. When the building burned to the ground, the skull went missing, although it reportedly has done a fair bit of world traveling since then. Iris was the only woman executed in the Luddite revolts.

Bonus trivia from my admiration of obscure women from history: Iris’ namesake Atalanta is the protagonist in an excellent Greek myth. Atalanta came into the world in the “undesirable state” of being female, and was thereby carried into the woods and left to die. Instead, she was adopted by a she-bear and later grew up to become a skilled huntress. Adamantly refusing to be married off, she devised a foot race contest, agreeing to wed any suitor who beat her in the race. If they lost, she got to behead them. The heads piled up. Did Iris’ parents have any idea just what history they were invoking when they named their baby girl?

From this fascinating history, the Operating Theater Company has created a site-specific experience: part museum exhibit, part haunted house, and part documentary theater, it ran at The Brick from October 22-31, 2015. (The company describes the exhibit as “an immersive living wax works.”) In wending my way through the maze, I was unsure at what point we departed from reality, but willing to suspend my disbelief.

Operating Theater Company is named after the “traditional operating theater in which medical students perfect their craft in front of an audience of their peers.” The company has created 10 unique full-length productions since 2004, as well as dozens of short-form performances. They are “intent on pushing the boundaries of theater as an art form; blurring the line between performer and audience; questioning beginnings and endings.”

One of the standout elements of the installation was an antique radio “broadcasting” the BBC radio news summary of the Luddite insurrection, planted in the middle of a live ant farm. As the ants scurried back and forth, constructing their hills around the radio, I sympathized both with the Luddites, caught in their moment in time and infuriated to lose their productive purpose, and the industrialists, trying to maximize the productivity of the hive-like factories for the greater good, even if meant a reduction of human jobs.

This exhibit combined notions of technology and magic, making it difficult for the audience to find the line between the scientific progress represented by advances in technology and the human capacity for belief in forces we don’t understand. Personally, my understanding of the possibilities of artificial intelligence is about equivalent to my circumspect belief in ghosts/astrology/déjà vu/fateful coincidences. I am willing to be talked into just about anything, but I can’t guarantee I will keep the faith once I’m out of earshot. The Oracle provoked its audience to question what “progress” means for humanity: if technological advances take away our autonomy, are we stronger or weaker for it?

One particularly poignant example came in the mention of Ada Byron (Lord Byron’s daughter and Countess of Lovelace), who encountered Iris’ skull at a society party, observing it as it “spake from althers beyond the ken of humanity,” and then wrote the next morning about her desire to create a mathematical model for how the brain generates thoughts, “a calculus of the nervous system.” The irony that a Luddite’s skull kindled the desire to begin building a computer was certainly not lost on this audience member, and piquantly underscored the diverse, mystic attempts of humans to make sense of the world.

I joke about being a Luddite, because I don’t own a television or use Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat, but the story of Iris Atalanta Lee revived the true significance of that affiliation. I may eschew modern conveniences, but I don’t actively destroy them. I may worry about my privacy, but I can hardly be bothered to keep up with my Facebook privacy settings. The Oracle drew a historical protest against technological progress into our very relevant present, as we are constantly asked to re-evaluate what we are willing to sacrifice for mechanized convenience. With mentions of the Turing test of artificial intelligence and a cyborg simulation, it was hard not to draw comparisons to Ex Machinaas Iris’ story progressed into the future. Whereas Ex Machina predicted dire consequences for humans when we tamper with artificial intelligence, the future depicted in The Oracle displayed a more hopeful human capability to learn from forces outside our control.

Whether we obstinately cling to tried and true systems that keep us in tactile connection to all dimensions of our existence, or spiral off into analysis and simulation, creating short cuts and conveniences through the aid of machines, we are all trying to lay claim to the world, to feel connected and powerful within it. And yet, it feels too simplistic to reduce this piece into a story of science versus faith, blue collar belief versus white collar abstraction. The Oracle tells a more complicated story, depicting the human pendulum swing between time and labor-saving “progress,” and the loss of livelihood and identity that this progress can inflict.

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