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Engram – The Invisible Theatre: How two Swedes made me aware of my own mortality on a Tuesday afternoon

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Engram is a site-specific piece of art based on storytelling, performed at the Reykjavík Arts Festival 2015. It allows the onlooker to be more than just that, to participate in the story and thus be a part of the artwork itself. Engram was created by Osynliga Teatern (The Invisible Theatre), a Swedish artist duo. It has been performed at several different locations before, but now it’s been adapted to be performed in Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavík’s most prominent landmark.

The artists put headphones on me and told me to sit down in a specific place in the church and just follow the instructions. Then the audio told me what to do for the next 45 minutes or so. To begin with I got a little nervous and cynical and started overthinking it. What if the audio tells me to do something stupid? Will I feel like an idiot? Do I need to interact with strangers? Is it worth it? What is art? You know, the typical everyday questions we all ask ourselves.

However, as the audio started talking to me I managed to get over myself, take it seriously and follow its directions. It felt like the lady’s voice in my ears was aware that I wasn’t sure about all this, her voice was somehow comforting. I soon noticed that the other participants weren’t all hearing the same thing as I was. About half of the group stood up all at once and started walking towards the altar, while the voice in my ears told me to get up and leave through the emergency exit.

In between instructions from the voice about what to do and what to think about, there was a recording from an answering machine. Someone that had been terminally ill and had now died was talking; discussing his illness, his hospital stay and relationships with his loved ones. Then we get a response from a woman, someone close to him, talking about her loss.

Most prominent in those wonderings were the ordinary things, practical stuff like if she would carry on living in their flat, whether he watched TV or not. How what he would miss the most was being a part of the mundane everyday life. Then the first voice again – telling me that I had 640 breaths left and when those breaths were over, the world would stay the same. Nothing would change when I was gone. It asked me how I would look at my surroundings if I knew I could never see them again? Where do my eyes go? What are the others looking at?

At one point, we were standing outside the church, a miserable-looking bunch no doubt, all wearing white headphones. The voice told us to stand next to someone, put our hand on their shoulder and look at them as we were pleading for help. I started to feel uncomfortable, but did as I was told anyway. I had a pretty amazing moment with some random, middle-aged, blue-eyed man I’ll probably never see again. I felt like he was going to cry. We stared into each other’s eyes for ages while the voices kept telling us about death, relationships, things that matter.  Telling us we now only had 490 breaths left.

So the voice transformed the audience into participants – actors, even – as it told me what the others were thinking. It forced me to put myself in their shoes, to wonder if they are sad, if they have experienced loss and regret, if there’s something they should have said, but didn’t. It was kind of a wake up call for me – a reminder to be considerate to others.

I kept breathing and the voice kept counting down my breaths. I thought that the audio would end when we took the last breath but to my surprise, the voice kept talking, describing how the world was still the same even though we had all taken our last breath. Eventually, we would be forgotten.

To conclude – I left the church feeling empathetic and insignificant.  Engram was truly moving and thought-provoking.

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