Project Profile | Systemic Crisis


Doireann O’Malley, Conversations in a Cross-Town Algorithm, installation view; photograph by Marcin Lewandowski, courtesy the artist and National Sculpture Factory. Doireann O’Malley, Conversations in a Cross-Town Algorithm, installation view; photograph by Marcin Lewandowski, courtesy the artist and National Sculpture Factory.

The buzz was very particular, before entering Cork’s Granary Theatre in mid-December to attend the premiere of Conversations on a Crosstown Algorithm (2022). The new work, by Doireann O’Malley, was co-commissioned and presented by the National Sculpture Factory in association with Cork Midsummer Festival. 

Speaking to people beforehand who had been involved in the work’s presentation added to a slight sense of mystery around it. “Whatever you’re expecting, it’s not going to be that”, they said. They weren’t trying to be evasive. Conversations proved to be one of those precious experiences where any attempt to describe it immediately requires a qualifying, and probably contradictory, counter-description. The true nature of the work inevitably falls between any thumbnail encapsulations that might be proffered. This is particularly appropriate for Conversations as it presents a dizzying interrogation of human identity, while equally questioning the integrity of material reality and the role of technology in a moment of general systemic crisis.

O’Malley describes Conversations on a Crosstown Algorithm as a 3D theatre play. Although it has the three-act structure of a play and its presentation in a theatrical context is important, it is essentially an hour-long 3D animation. However, the label, ‘theatre play’ is not at all whimsical. It serves to initiate the theme of systems and identities in freefall, even before the ‘play’ begins, by calling into question the category of ‘animated film’ that it might otherwise have quietly slotted into. 

Entering the theatre, the ‘theatricality’ of Conversations is immediately apparent. An enormous freestanding LED monitor, more suggestive of advertising than cinema and upon which the ‘play’ will be screened, dominates the dimly lit space. At its base, the ground is scattered with a covering of dirt and rubble while a bright light hitting the back of the screen further illuminates the theatre space. The concept of presenting an animation that will constantly draw attention to its virtual nature and the fragility of its image as ‘theatre’ – a medium that traditionally prides itself on live physicality –  provides an appropriate frame for the multilayered identity trips that follow. The setting causes the animation to be ‘performed’ rather than simply ‘screened’ through rooting it in a contrastingly tangible reality.

When the lights go down, the audience finds itself submerged in total darkness, along with the voices of the play’s two characters. Samantha (Mathea Hoffmann) and Olda Wiser (Juan Carlos Cuadrado) share this womb of darkness with the viewers and begin speaking from a place of oneiric privacy as their images emerge only ever so gradually from the gloom. Yet it is the privilege of not being seen, of not having to present an image of self, that allows a friendly intimacy to blossom almost immediately between these two queer figures from different generations. Samantha confides that, by having defined themselves by their accomplishments, they are trapped without a true sense of self. Olda reveals how traumas have led to a yearning to constantly shift dimensions, to keep escaping. 

When the lights crash on, things change; the scene moves to a strange, chaotically morphing space – part lounge, part casino and part data storage facility. The characters have also changed, grappling with tenser outfacing personas shaped by the massive pressure of societal conditioning that is everywhere reinforced by technology. Identity is navigated like a nightmare video game, defined by externally generated rules from which escape is no longer possible. The play’s end strongly suggests that it is too late to flee to the ‘real’ world outside of the duo’s virtual space because that world is already ablaze. 

The pessimism of O’Malley’s vision is somewhat leavened by the wittiness of the dialogue and the compellingly frenetic trippiness of the imagery. This reaches a notable highpoint in a scene exploring Samantha’s hellish fixation on tennis that culminates with hundreds of tennis balls cascading down like a spectacularly denatured hailstorm. But the essential darkness of the piece is consolidated by a series of what might be described as ‘documentary’ interjections in which an AI voiceover variously describes the controlling influence of fungi on the animal mind, the complexities of racial profiling in surveillance technology, and the planned development of cyborg insects to be released into nature as spies. The systems of control, discrimination, and surveillance that the characters have internalised and propagate are far from being purely subjective conditions.

The eloquent immateriality of the 3D animation is perfectly suited to conjure the unstable universe of Conversations on a Crosstown Algorithm. It engagingly conveys the unhinged capacity for morphing at the speed of thought that permeates this space, while also highlighting the fragility of the characters through glitches that sometimes cause the edges of the figures to flicker in and out of vision, making hands and feet merge with the flooring, for example. Conversations on a Crosstown Algorithm builds a witty but ultimately frightening model of a world so trapped by failing systems that any attempt at self-transformation or escape lead to dead ends. 

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker living in Cork City. He is currently Film Artist-in-Residence at University College Cork.