Futurist cyberpunk hellscapes to accompany new songs from The Observatory.
Presented as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Demon States is one of this edition’s most unique offerings yet. Produced by The Observatory, the immersive mixed reality experience acts as a preview for the local band’s upcoming album with Koichi Shimizu, and combines their music with set design by Irfan Kasban, and virtual landscapes by Brandon Tay.
Split across four installations held in four different locations, each installation introduces audience members to a different track. But this is by no means a simple listening party; painstaking effort has gone into the construction of each space, shaping our mental state through Irfan’s sets before each experience.
Before entering, SIFA staff ensure that we sanitise our hands and put on latex gloves for hygiene purposes. Once within the space, another staff member assists us in putting on a VR headset and headphones, checking that we’re comfortable and that everything is in working order before being treated to a trippy, 3-D landscape by Brandon Tay. Then again, the word ‘treated’ might be pushing it – these surreal landscapes are often hellish, nightmare fuelled concoctions, evoking primal feelings of fear thanks to the depths of the uncanny valley Brandon plumbs.
But I say all this in the most admiring way possible. Demon States is the rare work that manages to combine the best of its contributing artists into a cohesive experience that builds on each other’s strengths. While each installation is distinct, all of them are united by their ability to create the feeling that we are no longer in control, or our every move is being watched in these alternate realities.
Take for example ‘Evil Eye’ at the Arts House, where viewers lie back on a comfortable rattan lounge chair before putting on the VR headset. Lulled into a false sense of security, the experience then transports us to a strange forest, writhing as a growing inferno consumes us all while rooted to our chair. We are reminded how even at our most calm, there is always danger lurking at the corner of our minds, preying on us when we least expect it, often inescapable no matter how much we struggle to resist it.
Similarly, ‘Animal’ at the Esplanade Annexe has us lying back on a cold metal ‘operating table’, while a wall of mounted fans whirr in front of us, each one attached with a light oscillating from side to side. In the VR world, we ascend upwards through shadowy visions of tigers to a mechanical overlord in this supposed ‘paradise’ we are promised. Meanwhile, in ‘The Imprisoned Mind’, we weave our way through a maze where soil has been set in cryptic, pixel-like arrangements, with a multitude of dome security cameras monitoring us. When we reach the end, all we see is an unassuming swivel chair. But this simple choice is all it takes to enhance the experience, allowing us to turn and see everything in this 360 degree experience, increasing the dizziness and disorientation we feel as we fall down a seemingly endless hole while pursued by spectral demons.
But it is title track ‘Demon State’ that stands out as the most thorough experience of the four. Held at the Esplanade B2 carpark, a place we rarely head down to, there’s something bizarre and hollow about traipsing across the wide empty space, devoid of cars that would usually fill the lots on a regular show night before COVID-19. It feels as if we’ve entered another world, and walked for some time before finally arriving at our destination, a parking lot tucked away in a secluded corner at the far end of the carpark.
We immediately put our guard up as we settle ourselves on a bedframe missing a mattress, and the last thing we see is a TV crackling with static and a toilet bowl, like we’re imprisoned in a cell, as the experience begins, and we’re taken on a theme park ride to hell. The sights are plenty: crude 3-D renders of humans, occasionally glitching as they turn their heads, or giant, disembodied limbs that seem to reach out to grab us. Looking down creates a sense of vertigo with nothing but empty space beneath us, and when we eventually reach a metropolitan city, the apocalypse has left its mark, as we rise up into a crimson sky, bodies raining down before we meet our maker.
With Demon States, The Observatory and their collaborators have crafted a series of experiences that will haunt us for some time. Playing on the feelings of entrapment and psychological anxiety these uncertain times have brought about, we are left to ponder over the question that remains: do we face our demons? Or do we run in the face of fear?
Demon States ran from 19th to 30th May 2021 as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 14th to 30th May 2021. Certain SIFA shows will be available on demand via SIFA On Demand from 31st May to 20th June 2021. More information available here