Playing with death and digital futures at The Rooms Festival in Bristol (Wired UK)

Cara McGoogan

Participants carving their gravestones for the Professor of Death Studies

Cara McGoogan

WIRED visits The Rooms Festival, Bristol, a three-day celebration of arts and technology.

An artificially starlit pathway wound towards the entrance of an abandoned courthouse in central Bristol, through an avenue lined with fake pink-blossom trees. At the end of the path stood a flashing, bleeping swing that called passersby towards it with blinking lights and a musical tune. To the right of the swing there was a set of stairs that led to the courthouse’s basement.

Jakob Sabra stood the bottom of the stairs contemplating his death — with a smile on his face. He was trying to figure out what to carve on his gravestone. With conviction he picked up a piece of chalk.

“And now to something completely different,” he wrote on a gravestone outline. Then he laughed, telling WIRED, only slightly erroneously, “it’s from Monty Python.”

Sabra is from Denmark, in his thirties and has a neatly trimmed beard. He’s a PhD student researching future cemeteries at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath. The gravestone blackboard was part of an art installation he and his department put together to get people to think about mortality.

The installation formed just part of The Rooms Festival — a three day event in the derelict Bridewell Police Station, Fire Station, Criminal Investigation Department, and Magistrates Court in the heart of Bristol’s city centre opposite the Galleries shopping mall. The arts festival — funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and curated by REACT — was designed as a “Playground for New Ideas.” It featured an interactive swing, a pitch black bio-activated maze, and an enchanted library, all wrapped together with lots of fairy lights. 

The installations weren’t gimmicky either. There were serious meditations on the future of books, how to move documentary storytelling beyond the screen, and how to grapple with digital archiving and death. 

Epitaph designs

Cara McGoogan

Designing your gravestone doesn’t sound like a playground activity. But Sabra insists it’s lighthearted, and added that death scholars “are actually very fun people. They do karaoke and dance at conferences.” This was reflected in the University of Bath and Arnos Vale Cemetery‘s installation, where the audience had to pick their “favourite” gravestone design and write an epitaph.

“We have these childlike big chalk sticks, which everybody remembers using when they were kids for making hopscotch on the pavement. And now they can relive that experience in a completely different setting,” said Sabra. “Death is not morbid. You know what death is all about, it’s all about life.”

There was a wider message in Sabra’s piece, too; he wants to have people think about their digital archive, and what will happen to that data after we die.

“We’re building our life stories in real time, but once we die who’s going to read them? Who’s going to use them? Who’s going to have to deal with them?”

Entrance to the Maze, in the Victorian dungeon of the derelict Magistrate’s Court in Bristol

Cara McGoogan

From Sabra’s cemetery WIRED entered the old courthouse’s Victorian dungeon, home to the Maze. It was a bio-activated labyrinth controlled by players’ breathing and heartbeats and, naturally, in both senses of the word, it was creepy. Everything oozed downwards. The peeling paint curled towards the floor, rust glaciated down the walls and (real) cobwebs hung from holes in the ceiling.

Thrown into a team of four, participants were given sparse instructions for how to escape the black maze. One teammate, Matt, put on a heart rate tracker and was told breathing out sharply, leaning forward, jogging on the spot and holding his breath would activate lights that would guide us through the dungeon maze. We had a timespan of 500 of his heartbeats to activate all four lights and keep them burning. With that brief, we entered darkness.

The first light came on as Matt jogged on the spot. An eerie glow led us down a passage to a cell. We entered into the rusty barred cage and ran to blow on the white box that was perched on a bench. Blowing on the light would keep it glowing while we found the other four lights. Manage to get all four lit at once and we would win the game and could leave the maze.

“I leant forward and I thought I was going to fall off a ledge,” said Matt in the darkness. 

Five hundred heart beats felt like an age in the depths of the courthouse. After blowing on a light for five minutes or so whilst staring at greying tiled walls, the big lights came on — we had won.

Participants listen to recorded memories of the Bristol Old Vic theatre’s audiences, players and backstage team

Cara McGoogan

After carving our gravestone and escaping a Victorian dungeon by breathing, WIRED then entered Quipu — a thought-provoking interactive documentary about some 325,000 men and women who suffered forced sterilisation in Peru in the 1990s.

The audience was invited to stand in a clinical waiting room designed to look like those where the sterilisations took place — complete with hospital curtains, paint peeling off the walls, and sand on the floor — and listen to the stories of sufferers. The full documentary is set to be released at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival

The Rooms Festival is running from 5 to 7 November on Silver Street, Bristol.

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6 November 2015 | 5:30 pm – Source:


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