Featuring: Bitnik Media Collective,
On Friday April 9 (2007) I was at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich for the opening of the Opera Calling project. Opera Calling is an exhibition and performance created by the Bitnik media collective and artist Sven Koenig, to be running at the Cabaret Voltaire till the 2nd of May.
Entering into the (maybe not very Dadaist...) refurbished space of Cabaret Voltaire, I follow the steps down to the crypt to visit Opera Calling. The first thing I see is a forest of cables and phone receivers: 100 white phones are attached to the ceiling, while their receivers are bouncing down into the gallery space. Moving through the upside-down phone forest I can see two computer screens in a corner, with information flashing on them. Occasionally I can hear the familiar sound of dialling a number, and a phone ringing. Listening into a receiver I find that, most of the time, I can listen to the opera... That is not some recorded opera concert played back to the gallery visitors: if one is familiar with the programme of the Zurich opera, s/he will soon realise that s/he can actually listen to the performance currently taking place at the Opera House! Of course the sound is very 'dirty' but, well, that Friday we did actually listen to La Boheme -along with everybody else in the Opera House. The difference was that we didn't pay for a ticket, nor did we have to physically visit the Opera House. Instead, the opera itself called out to reach us, visitors in the Cabaret Voltaire, and Zurich residents in their homes...
The artists describe Opera Calling as an intervention into the cultural system of the Zurich Opera. What they have done is secretly place bugs within the auditorium of the Opera House, and redistribute the performances not through public broadcasting, but through calling up individuals in Zurich, on their landlines. As soon as the opera performance starts, a machine calls out Zurich phone numbers. If a Zurich resident replies, what they can hear is a computerised message explaining what they are about to listen to, and then a live transmission of the performance taking place in the Opera House. The visitors of the gallery space witness this interaction: they can see which phone number the machine is calling, and what the outcome is: will someone answer? Will they hang up? Will an answering machine come up? Will the person on the phone listen to the opera? When someone at the other end of the line picks up the phone, the telephones in the exhibition, like the telephone at this person's house, are connected to the opera.
Bitnik and Koenig talk about exploring the usefulness of as an artistic strategy of production. Opera Calling definitely is a hacking project: it hacks through a quite rigid cultural and social system, aiming to open this up to the general public. Andrius Kulikauskas uses the term 'social hacker' at a paper published in the Journal of Hyper(+)drome to describe a person who encourages activity amongst online groups, and is willing to break social norms in order to do so. [Social Hacking: The Need for an Ethics, Issue 1, September 2004] I suggest that this is exactly what the OC artists do: by performing a real, but also symbolic act of hacking (the sound of the live opera transmission becomes so transformed, that there is no way someone who intended to visit the opera in the first place would decide to go to the gallery and listen to the performance instead. In that sense, hacking into the Opera House becomes less a 'stealing' of the performance and more a symbolic act that makes a point around issues of open culture) the OC artists come up with an idiosyncratic solution to what they consider a problem: the 'closed-circuit' opera culture that seems to be preserving a class system due to the, prohibitive for many, cost of the opera tickets.
Kulikauskas describes the hacker approach as 'practical', 'nonstandard', and 'unexpected' [ibid], and I think that these adjectives very much describe the OC project: it employs simple, practical means like bugs built from cheap, readily available technology, to perform what definitely is a nonstandard action (how often does the opera call you at your home?...) with unexpected aesthetic outcomes. I thought that Opera Calling is an excellent project, as it cleverly appropriates the found content and social symbolism of the opera to create a new piece that can stand both as an artwork and as an act of social intervention. Within this context, becomes completely disengaged from any negative connotations that it may carry and, to my eyes at least, turns into a playful act of uncanny transformation and original creation. What I missed in this project though is the involvement of the home-audiences and gallery-visitors in this action as something more than what they would be if they were in the Opera House - that is audiences /witnesses. I think that OC has a potential in terms of audience intervention, communication, and community building, which it cannot fulfil as a 'sleek' gallery-based installation. I hope to see many more 'dirty' versions of it in the future...
The story so far according to an email update I just received (29 March 2007): `'For the last two weeks Opera Calling has retransmitted ten live performances of the Zurich opera to 1489 households in Zurich. The Zurich Opera claims to have found and destroyed 2 bugs. With the Opera in frantic mode and an unknown number of bugs still to find the *spectacle* continues...??_