If a machine could write dramas, what would they be? This is the idea that London-based artist collective Villa Design Group explores with The Tragedy Machine, their waggish, new exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Spawned from a sci-fi worthy premise, the exhibition-meets-theatrical production springs out of the group’s reaction to their stridently academic venue. “Mass production has always been an interest of ours especially the mechanization of work and what that might mean to art production,” Villa Design Group member William Joys tells The Creators Project. “MIT provides such a strong math and science context, so we decided to take it on instead of ignoring it. Because we have a lot of interest in producing theater, we wondered, quite earnestly in the beggining, if it would be possible to create a machine that could write tragedies. We were thinking we could collaborate with some sort of artificial intelligence department.” The collective was told their dream was still an impossibility—leaving writers everywhere relieved.
Nevertheless, the spectacle that Villa Design Group ended up producing feels just as ambitious. “We think of ourselves as a kind of theater for design," Joys explains. The set and the costumes are custom-made. A three-paneled paragon acts as an impressive backdrop, submerging the audience in a scene from Stonewall, a widely-criticized 2015 film idealizing New York’s 1969 riots and the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement. Stonewall isn’t the only Hollywood reference; clips of Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything and Lili Elbe in 2015’s The Danish Girl flash on the bellies of the robots that guard the stage. “It was a kind of a whimsical idea,” Joys explains. “Through watching the different films, it becomes clear that acting is mechanical. It’s almost like Eddie Redmayne becomes a machine that can serve two different functions in a split-second. These films also talk about subjects we are interested in like sexuality and science, so it works in that way, too.”
Villa Design Group often works in layers. “We always start with a matrix of ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and we work from there,” Williams explains. As their influences intermingle, the initial images and ideas begin to free associate with one another creating new pathways for meaning. Folding in on itself, this self-referential tactic allows Villa Design Group to produce work that is simultaneously personal and corporate.
Sexuality and its public face, too, play large roles in The Tragedy Machine, echoing much of the collective’s past work. At Art Basel Miami Beach 2015, Villa Design Group mounted a solo booth with Mathew Gallery composed entirely of neon-lit, steel secturity doors, inscribed with illustrations of infamous homosexual serial killers. The doors were inspired by the gates at the Versace mansion, in front of which designer Gianni Versace was famously murdered by Andrew Cunanan. In The Tragedy Machine, everything feels vaguely erotic. Objects and bodies are completely fetishized—encouraging a collapse between man and machine. Villa Design Group’s strength seems to be their ability to conjure both pleasurable and painful images of desire.
Their four-act play is a rewrite of Eugene O’Neill’s boozy saga, The Iceman Cometh. Instead of Greenwich Village, This Is It or Dawn at Bar Bazuhka takes place in Bar Bazukha, a favorite spot that the group frequented while staying on the Greek islands. Like O’Neill’s irreverent, drug-addled characters, the cast of The Tragedy Machine lives under constant strain. This extremism is exemplified by characters like Bruce Ritz, an English fashion photographer dying of AIDS, and Odele Iodine, the recently blind owner of Bar Bazukha and a faded lesbian rock star.
The absurdity of the storyline is only surpassed by the outrageously produced set, but strangely enough, they work together, creating another sense of awe entirely. The result is unapologetic and rambunctuous. For those not lucky to enough to have gotten seats at the preposterously intimate, one-night display, we recommend praying that the piece grows legs for an East Coast tour.
Villa Design Group’s The Tragedy Machine will run from May 20th to July 17th at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Get more information here.