University of Cambridge: Cambridge pop-up experience explores the Faustian pacts we make with digital tech

FAUST SHOP, a pop-up installation and performance in Cambridge asks visitors to think about their daily interactions with digital technology. And before they leave, it will ask them if they want to reclaim their digital soul.

Digital technology offers us the world but what does it take away from us and what does it want in return?
Annja Neumann
Do you understand how your cookies and data are being used? Do the benefits of using digital technology outweigh the negatives and the risks? How much of your digital self are you willing to sacrifice?

These are just some of the questions at the heart of a unique project about to take place in Cambridge. On 16th and 17th June, FAUST SHOP, a pop-up installation and performance in the Grafton Centre’s Sook Space will ask visitors to think about their daily interactions with digital technology. And before they leave, it will ask them if they want to reclaim their digital soul.

Stepping into the FAUST SHOP, visitors will be immersed in stories that blur the boundary between virtual spaces and reality. They will encounter characters in the flesh as well as on-screen through motion capture and digital art.

The venue, Sook Space, already employs AI-driven analytics using smart footfall cameras. FAUST SHOP will add a thermal imaging camera attachment to allow real-time capture of visitor’s “souls” as textures which can be collected and bought back as a special type of non-fungible token (NFT). All visitors will receive a special offer to either give their digital soul to Faust’s new lands or ‘take away’ the digital double they created during their visit. Information collected will then be emailed to them. The installation will also showcase digital objects donated by members of the public to share their personal relationships with digital technology.

The thought-provoking project, led by Cambridge Digital Humanities researcher Dr Annja Neumann, involves post-graduate students, researchers and artists from the University of Cambridge and the School of Creative Industries at Anglia Ruskin University.

The FAUST SHOP is a performance-based research project that uses site-specific theatre to explore agency and get people thinking about the goods and evils of technology.

Neumann says: “We all rely on digital technology now but how often do we stop to consider the impact that it is having on us? We’ll be offering visitors the opportunity to pause, experience their relationship with technology and before they leave, to choose whether to re-claim their digital soul.”

“This is the information that we trail behind us as we make our way through the online world. AI-driven technology produces a digital twin by drawing on our connections, cursor and eye movements, steps, interests, search terms, beliefs, and clicks on the ‘I agree’ button.

“How do we feel about this ghostly self? What would we do to rescue it? How happy are we to let it linger on forever in a place like this? Digital technology offers us the world but what does it take away from us and what does it want in return? These are the really big questions we’re asking people to think about.”

A performance for the digital age

The FAUST SHOP installation accompanies ‘New Lands’, a ticketed (£5) twice-daily (40 tickets per performance) 1-hour ‘augmented theatrical experience’ in the same space. ‘New Lands’ adapts Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s world-famous Faust to the digital age.

Dr Neumann said: “I’m amazed how relevant Goethe’s Faust feels today when the tragic play speaks about how technology moves us.”

The team are using structured light and LiDAR scanners to create 3D digital twins of the actors, and optical motion capture to map their movement onto their virtual twins. One of the performers will be wearing a wireless, inertial motion capture suit under their costume and custom developed software will bring the virtual characters and environment to life.

Audiences will follow Faust as he makes a pact with the Devil, offering his soul for unlimited data and worldly pleasures. Working with the devil, Faust embarks on the work of a god: the creation of a new land. The pact gives Faust access to new technologies that lead to the creation of digital doubles and him winning a new space to live in. Faust’s new lands eventually expand into the space of the Faust Shop where the audience receives a special offer: to buy back their digital soul.

Alexander Mentzel, an MPhil candidate at Cambridge University and Co-director/Co-writer of FAUST SHOP: New Lands, said:

“In our adaptation of the story, Faust’s magical new world unfolds across virtual and physical space, generated by the inputs of the audience themselves. So they will see a world of digital agents and hybrid actors rising up from a sea of data.”

“We’re interested in creating an environment that is at times seductive and at times alienating, allowing the audience during the performance to question whether they’re just passively watching or whether they’re actually complicit in the action. And by the end, they’ll have to decide if they want to sign themselves over to this new world or reclaim their digital soul.”

Dr Annja Neumann is Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at Cambridge Digital Humanities, an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Cambridge and an Affiliated Lecturer in German Studies at Cambridge.

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