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Added on, 09 September 2015

Nell Frizzell experiences ZU-UK's RioFoneHack project and finds push-button phones curiously sentimental.

Have you ever walked past a ringing telephone and picked it up? It opened up a whole peck of trouble for Colin Farrell in Phonebooth. It blew the whole case wide open for James Stewart in North by Northwest and makes things seriously stressful for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, to name just some of the last century’s greatest artistic moments. For me, answering a ringing telephone in the middle of the Olympic Park led to a quite unexpected six minute Brazilian push-button science quiz and a more than mildly intimate interaction with a stranger in a trench coat.

I was in the post-sport Tellytubby land of the Olympic Park to experience RioFoneHack – the latest immersive performance art piece by ZU-UK. Following its award-winning success with an overnight production of Medea, ZU-UK havs turned its attention to Artistic Director Jorge Lopes Ramos’s native Brazil.

“We were commissioned to do something at the end of the Cultural Olympiad in the North West to link it up with the start of Brazil’s supposed Cultural Olympiad programme,” says Ramos, as we stroll through the dry flower beds of Stratford’s most expensive park. “That never actually happened – but we created a live performance and visual art piece in FACT Liverpool and Abandon Normal Devices in Manchester.” This piece, which would form the basis for RioFoneHack, was Ramos’s answer to a basic question: Why would anyone in Britain care about an Olympics that is going to happen in four years in Brazil? Why would the average person in a park care?

RioFoneHack, to put it simply, is a trail of three Brazilian phone booths, dropped in the middle of Stratford. Each one invites the audience, one by one, to use the heavy metal buttons and smooth plastic handset to follow a set of programmed instructions, and in so doing so reconsider their relationship to their immediate surroundings, technology and cultural stereotypes. “The process of just installing something in the park was a little clunky at first,” says Persis Jade Maravala as we sit in a nearby cafe waiting for the rain to ease. “I had to get quite a funny form called Permission to Penetrate.” Which sounds, if we’re honest, more uncomfortable than clunky.

RioFoneHack project

“The phones themselves are really interesting creatures. They were originally designed by a Chinese woman to be both public but at the same time act intimately,” says Maravala, who wrote each telephone script in collaboration with a different artist. “The original idea was to see how close you can get to a pre-recorded system. We wanted Brazilian voices for each phone because the important conceit is that they have been lifted out of Brazil and parachuted into the Olympic Park, including all the graffiti and stuff.”

It is certainly a strange experience to be standing just metres from an upended, weed-chewing British duck, as you read the words "Medo de que eu me AMC!” scrawled in gold pen onto the hood of a Rio phone booth. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily transported to the carnival streets of the Brazilian capital, but it did lend a certain foreign flavour to an otherwise familiar stroll through my local area, forcing me into noticing things that would have otherwise escaped my attention.

The programme for the first booth I visited was written by Maravala in conjunction with the founder of Forest Fringe, Andy Field, and asked me to guess how far Rio was in pylon lengths and, somewhat impertinently, asked me to key in my own age. The second, a more meditative piece co-written with Shunt founding member and artist Clare Qualmann, included a visual sensor fitted just below the keypad that claimed to measure my heartrate. The fact that it was a heart-shaped piece of cardboard with a piece of bluetac behind it made me slightly suspicious of just how technical the sensor was, but nevertheless, it was lovely to stand, protected from a fine mist of summer drizzle, and listen to this soothing, disconnected voice. The final booth I went to was a How Brazilian Are You-style quiz, co-written with games writer Holly Gramazio, which ended with my being rechristened with the more Rio-friendly name, Raimunda.

As with many such projects, the relationship between audience and art in RioFoneHack weighs heavily on the technology. The hardware, the digital programme, the sensors and the system have to work so well as to be almost invisible – making way for us to consider the larger, more abstract concept. I wondered, was Ramos ever worried that they had invested so much into public phones – a piece of tech notorious for breaking down? “Every project we work on a different site, which means that every time we start a new project we have to start again. But before I went into theatre I was going to be a computer engineer. I’ve always had that fascination with the magic of technology.”

"As with many such projects, the relationship between audience and art in RioFoneHack weighs heavily on the technology."
It’s just as well, for the technical obstacles to the project were not insignificant. “Everything has to run off batteries, as there’s no electricity in the Olympic Park,” explains Maravala, who has spent weeks wandering around the site trying to find the perfect, creative, sheltered spot. “When you have people buying a ticket to come and see your work there is already something of a contract between you and your audience, but we don’t have that contract here,” she continues. “I’m still working on making sure people realise they have permission to pick up the phone. We had to put quite clear instructions on the phone and the moment you pick up the handset you hear music, to make it clear that it’s working. But when I’ve sat here and watched how people use the phones, before they were even working, I was really surprised to see them pressing buttons. It was like watching people in a lift just punching buttons.”

Indeed, one of the most unexpected effects of RioFoneHack was a total, Proustian memory of sitting in my grandmother’s old armchair, aged about nine, playing with the thick cream buttons on her telephone. It was the first push button phone I’d ever seen – my family was sticking obstinately to a wall-mounted, circular dial nightmare that took about 47 seconds just to dial my friend around the corner. If a trail of Brazilian public telephone booths can bring back memories from my childhood then it must, surely, have been a nostalgic experience for Ramos? “Of course this project does link back to thoughts of my childhood and family,” he replies, as we head back to my bike and his daughter. “I have memories, but I know they aren’t Brazil – I can’t go there; they are the past.”

Perhaps Ramos is right. Perhaps when you’re far away, these familiar buttons and dials are the only way to remember where we’ve come from. Perhaps it really is like E.T. told us – we just need to phone home.

Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist and writer. She has written for The Guardian, Vice, The Independent, Elle, The Debrief, the British Journal of Photography, Grazia and anyone else who'll have her.