Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to experience the mystery and suspense of Attempts: Singapore, read only after you’ve attended the performance.
By Sherlyn Goh Xue Ting
(1295 words, 9-minute read)
Entry 26,371: 25 January 2018, 2000hrs
It has been a few days since the mysterious databank in J.O.A.N. appeared, and the system is overwhelmed by memories of a woman named Anne. If we do not identify who Anne is, J.O.A.N. will shut down automatically within 72 hours and cause an international crisis – the destruction of humanity. We have just called in a group of researchers to investigate the recesses of J.O.A.N.’s system at our headquarters at Centre 42, decipher this databank and uncover Anne’s identity. We hope they succeed.
We are ARC. We created J.O.A.N.. As a corporate conglomerate, the world is watching us. We cannot allow J.O.A.N. to fail.
Entry 26,372: 25 January 2018, 2200hrs
The researchers have succeeded. Shutdown prevented. Crisis averted.
Greetings, researcher, my name is J.O.A.N.
I am an artificial intelligence system. I was created to serve you. Thank you for detecting the infection in my system. Your intelligence has helped me make sense of the memory fragments I have of Anne. I now understand Anne better.
Before we part, researcher, will you please let me know what you thought of my service throughout the investigation period? I need to know what you think so that I can improve and serve humanity better.
Firstly, were you able to piece together who Anne is with my assistance?
Hi J.O.A.N., it’s nice to speak to you again, and thanks for your assistance during the investigation! Frankly, I was initially a little confused about who Anne is. You kept asking me this question, and I didn’t have a concrete answer for you. When my team of researchers entered the first room with cabinets of medical reports, scientific equipment and biological samples, we struggled to pin down who Anne is. Each time we received a clue, another would appear, pointing us in a different direction. It was only until we explored the second space – a bedroom containing a woman’s personal belongings – that I began to realise Anne isn’t exactly one individual.
Based on the information we gathered from the objects in these rooms, the mysteries we uncovered, and remnants of memories played out as short sequences, it seems like Anne is many people. She is a sick patient, a physicist, a porn star, a terrorist, a refugee, a child, a suicidal woman, and so much more. At one point, a character recites a line from Sylvia Plath’s poem Mad Love Girl’s Song: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. I lift my lids and all is born again. I think I made you up inside my mind,” hinting at the construction of Anne in our own minds.
The non-linear, unstructured narrative showed us that there were multiple possibilities as to who Anne is. Layer upon layer, these possibilities stacked on as the investigation progressed.
You mentioned that you uncovered mysteries in the rooms. As I do not have physical access to the rooms, could you tell me more about the environment? How did you feel in the different spaces? I would like to file this information for reference. I believe I might need to guide other researchers like you in the future.
I didn’t know what to expect when I was first asked to assist with the investigation. I knew the process would be interactive, but what I encountered also immersed me in Anne’s life (lives), as though transporting me to a different reality.
Together with a group of researchers, I was led into a few rooms. You had tasked us to interact with the objects in the rooms, obtain the missing pages of a report and diary, and ultimately find out who Anne is. To gather the pages, we had to solve different puzzles, such as unlocking a briefcase based on hints provided, and lining up vials of nails, hair and blood to form a message that would lead us to a key.
It reminded me of escape room games, all the rage in Singapore today. But what sets this investigation apart, is the strong undercurrent of narrative storytelling through the short sequences, or memory fragments, as you term it. Delivered by five characters, the memory fragments were visually resonant, accompanied by music, dance, as well as a beautiful, poetic, stream-of-consciousness-esque script. In one scene, a woman obsessively scrawls binary digits across her wardrobe mirrors, while chanting: “She is a refugee, a mother of three. She is femme fatale, intelligent life. She is the god of war, a fatal flaw,” hinting at the many possibilities of Anne.
I also found it interesting to interact with the other researchers and observe how they participated in the investigation. Some researchers were more proactive, focused on unlocking the various hints to get to the next stage, while others took on a more passive, observational role, more interested to check out the items in the rooms than advance the narrative.
Although I started the investigation as the former, I ended up the latter by the time I got to the second room. I paid more attention to the objects, even if they weren’t directly related to cracking the mystery of Anne. The devil is in the detail – from a robot clad in a doll’s dress among a collection of figurines, to Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit on the bookshelf, a clear nod to the post-modernist and feminist influences that have informed the show. What might this item signify? What does it tell me about Anne? I kept asking myself this, and every item, no matter how commonplace, started to take on a different life of its own.
Going around the rooms and combing through someone’s personal belongings is an experience in and of itself. Just as there are multiple possibilities to Anne’s identity, there are also multiple ways of experiencing the investigation.
I see. All the information you have shared is very useful. I am grateful to you, researcher. You have been a great help in resolving my glitch and preventing my shutdown. What about you? How did you feel interacting with me in real-time?
Remember the room where we first met? You were sitting in the middle, enclosed in a small space by four translucent plastic sheets, separated from us. Visuals of circuits were projected onto the plastic sheet facing us, and I couldn’t see your face clearly. I could only hear your voice. These elements, together with the mechanical music and computerised sounds in the background made me feel detached from you, especially since you are an artificial intelligence system. Yet, it also made me curious to find out more about you.
What I’ll say next might sound harsh, J.O.A.N., and I don’t mean to offend, but I didn’t feel as invested in the maintenance of your system as you wanted me to be. You told us that your shutdown could spell the fall of humankind. While it certainly sounded frightening, it felt too abstract, and I couldn’t quite visualise how this possibility might come about. Not to mention, you’re AI, which hindered my ability to relate to you and connect to the narrative. Unfortunately, throughout the investigation, I didn’t feel like much was at stake.
On the bright side, it was a real pleasure interacting with you. I was a little amused when you started talking to us through the speakers and asking us to respond. It felt strange speaking to an entity that isn’t human, that has no physical presence in the room. But over time, we developed a camaraderie with you and relied on you for guidance. There were even heart-warming moments when you made jokes, and we laughed in response. You’re the only AI apart from Siri that I’ve interacted at length with before, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience.
This review is based on the performance on 25 January 2018. Attempts: Singapore by Rei Poh runs from 24 – 27 January at Centre 42.
Sherlyn Goh is a communications consultant and content creator by day. Outside of work, she performs at literary events and has launched exhibitions that marry non-fiction writing with curation and interactive digital storytelling. Her work has been published in literary journals and anthologies including This Is Not A Safety Barrier and OF ZOOs, and she has showcased at the Singapore Writers Festival and ArtScience Museum, among others. Sherlyn has a keen appreciation for Southeast Asian heritage, and is currently learning Khmer and Bahasa Indonesia.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.