Developed during the past two and a half years by Chicago-based collective ATOM-R (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality), the performance piece Kjell Theøry bores virtual holes in the traditional theater experience. Housed in the ballroom of the Graham Foundation, the work makes extensive use of wall projections, live streams, and algorithmically generated text to create a layered, hypnotic dream space. Its four performers engage with technology on a visceral level, drawing the familiar tools of iPhones and MacBooks into a luminous collaborative dialogue between human bodies and machines programmed to speak to them.
ATOM-R plays in the liminal areas between defined categories, and “Kjell Theøry,” the third and final installment of its artist’s residency at the International Museum of Surgical Science, blurs multiple lines: between performance art and theater, theater and installation art, installation art and video, video and poetry. The group aims to question formal practice, the boundaries and binaries that tend to delimit image making and performance. By confounding form, ATOM-R simultaneously grapples with historical mechanics of homosexuality and queerness, and with how queer aesthetics have carried over to a society newly augmented by technology.
“There’s a sense of vaudeville, a sense of debauchery, a sense of working on a very theatrical manner,” Mark Jeffery, ATOM-R’s choreographer, told me after a rehearsal. “It feels quite new to me, to be playing with these techniques. It’s a sort of returning to the physical, returning to the historical, to understand how you present that in the virtual.”
Accompanying the performances, which premiered on January 20 and conclude this weekend, is “Kjell Theøry: Prologue,” an interactive exhibition spanning two rooms at IMSS. One room of the experience is a filmed re-creation of the performance itself, captured in three different environments: a “film shoot room,” as Jeffery describes it, at the School of the Art Institute; another room in the IMSS; and the Lucky Horseshoe, a gay bar in Boystown. The exhibit’s second chamber, filled with objects, merges ATOM-R’s past work with its current performance: A table from The Operature, the group’s second work with the IMSS, is split into five pieces that each stand vertically. There’s a scale model of an anatomical theater—a structure once used to teach anatomy and surgery, beginning in the 16th century—whose aesthetics guided the development of The Operature.
“Kjell Theøry: Prologue” builds on these recycled images by hanging an augmented reality viewer—an iPad with AR software loaded onto it—in the center of the room. Visitors can point the device’s camera around the space and see text mapped on top of their surroundings; they can also see renderings of ATOM-R’s performers, modeled from 3-D scans of the collective’s bodies. The group appears in the performance and its prologue, in one space virtually and the other physically.
The project braids together three distinct historical sources. It’s named for a theory of biology formulated by Alan Turing, the British scientist now known as the father of modern computing, toward the end of his life. Turing himself named Kjell theory after a young Norwegian man who was likely his lover. In 1952 Turing was convicted of crimes of indecency for having a relationship with another man. He was given the choice of being imprisoned or chemically castrated—he chose the latter and was injected with synthetic estrogen, which caused him to grow small breasts.
Mingling with Turing’s theories and writings are The Breasts of Tiresias, a 1917 play by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire about a Frenchwoman who transforms into the prophet Tiresias, and her husband, who with other Frenchmen becomes female and gives birth to 40,049 babies. The play, for which Apollinaire coined the term “surrealism,” was written after World War I to encourage men to replenish the country’s population. “Kjell Theøry” also draws upon 1928 film footage of the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival, an annual fertility ritual held in the Cornwall town of Padstow, in which performers dress up as horses who “impregnate” young women by gathering them under their skirts.
None of these source texts is reenacted in the piece; instead, they’re interwoven, and the harmonies among them grow clearer the longer the performance goes on. “We borrow from the containers of the past, but actually it’s through those lenses that suddenly you start to see a sense of the contemporary, a sense of the uncanny, a sense of the surreal,” Jeffery says.
Even the initial stages of the piece’s development came together through an uncanny simultaneity. While Jeffery was digging into the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival, Judd Morrissey, who writes scripts and computer code and also performs in ATOM-R, had begun researching Turing’s final years. “Turing had visited Norway towards the end of his life because of the oppression that he had been facing in Britain,” Morrissey says. “I just had this image of him in Norway with small breasts, and that image made me think of Tiresias in the sense of Turing being really a prophet of the age we live in now. You can trace almost anything to him—computer science, biology, even computer music—anything having to do with the computational age.”
The image of Turing as Tiresias brought Morrissey to Apollinaire’s play, itself a kind of fertility ritual echoing the festival of the ‘Oss. Images of fecundity and transformation drove Kjell Theøry, which was developed across multiple iterations during the past two years at residencies in Finland and the United Kingdom. “There’s something really strange about the sources that are sort of timeless,” Morrissey says. “They have very different readings when enacted in different contexts, and are mutated by those contexts—both the political context and the technical context.”
“I think both the play and the ritual are disrupting each other,” Jeffery adds. “I think that allows for us to open up that conversation a bit more around the sense of queerness, the sense of strangeness, the sense of something that’s surreal, the sense of something between gender or between animal and ritual or between mythical and mystical. With the work that we do, the material always has to be transformed. There’s a sense of excavation or exhuming, pulling something out of the ground and treating it.”
Witnessing that exhumation live is thrilling in the way it speaks to the surreal juxtapositions inherent in everyday, digitized life. Tweets jumble on top of each other—the app makes no distinction between bad news and bad jokes, and the continuity of experience within the screen alone feels disjointed, to say nothing of the discordance between the screen and physical space. In Kjell Theøry, moments of comedy, absurdity, and solemn reverence appear spontaneously. At one point in the performance, Morrissey spoke to a wall projection, and the computer attached to the projector appeared to “hear” his words and repeat them back to him in a synthetic female voice. Often, it got them wrong. At one point, when Morrissey was describing Tiresias, the computer added, as if from nowhere, the words “he has long hair.” It was as if it were witnessing the prophet’s gender transformation firsthand, as if the machine could see it better than any of us. v