If You See People in Headphones on the Santa Monica Pier, They May Be Watching You

Artist Marike Splint’s interactive project <i>Among Us</i> is making people rethink community—and immersive art

“Choose a passerby, someone you don’t know,” the voice told me.

I spotted a tall athletic man in grey sweatpants and a white T-shirt. The voice told me to follow him, and so I did.

“Stay at a reasonable distance,” the voice continued, “make sure you remain unseen.”

I felt like a spy, walking along the Santa Monica Pier in broad daylight, inconspicuously following a stranger. The voice told me to mirror the man’s posture, rhythm, and movements.

It’s surprisingly easy to follow a stranger, observe them closely, and even imitate their gait without them or anyone else noticing. But I’m no spy, and I’m not a stalker. So I didn’t follow the man for long. Soon enough the voice told me to slow down, come to a stop and whisper a soft farewell to my stranger as he walked away.

As I wished him well and watched him fade into the crowd, I was struck by the fact that, under ordinary circumstances, I would never have even noticed this man. I paid attention to him on this particular day because I was participating in Among Us, a uniquely interactive and immersive “auditory performance in public space” created by Dutch director Marike Splint.

Annie Gimas

Among Us is part audio-guided walking tour, part performance art, and part theater. It invites participants to don headphones and walk through a crowded public space, to observe that place and the people who inhabit it from a new perspective and to thoughtfully consider the nature of community.

Splint, an assistant professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, has long been interested in exploring ideas surrounding community. Her work regularly moves audience-participants outside traditional theater spaces.

“I think the question of who are we as a community, especially in a time of unprecedented migration and a time of so much happening online, is very much in flux,” the director says. “So what does it mean to be together or live together, both on a small and large scale?”

Splint developed Among Us several years ago in the Netherlands, where she produced it first in a bustling urban train station in Amsterdam and later in a pastoral field on an island as part of the Oerol Festival.

After moving to L.A., the director reformatted the piece for the 2016 Los Angeles Exchange [LAX] Festival, setting it in Union Station and altering the text to work for an American audience. That’s where Naomi Okuyama, the city of Santa Monica’s cultural affairs supervisor, attended a performance. She invited Splint to bring the show to Santa Monica, where it has since been performed multiple times and where it is being produced this weekend as part of the city’s Art @ Tongva 2018 season (tickets for the May 12 and 13 performances are $15).

In Santa Monica, Among Us takes place across two distinct “acts,” the first of which is a fascinating exercise in active observation.

The journey begins on the pier. Participants are provided with a cell phone and pair of headphones through which the audio guide is transmitted simultaneously to everyone in the group. An actor’s voice guides their steps and their gaze, prompting them to intently observe places, colors, street performers, and strangers’ faces. They’re asked to imagine details of the lives of the people in the crowd, to picture their homes, families, dreams, and ambitions. They’re asked to follow a stranger and imagine what they might have in common.

The second half of Among Us takes place across the street from the pier on a big, empty grassy knoll in Tongva park. Here, instead of blending into a crowd and observing others, the participants are the ones on display. They are asked to actively respond to a series of rapid-fire questions with a physical gesture, like raising a hand, forming a circle with others who answer similarly or taking a step forward or backward.

The questions all deal with community and society: “Have you ever felt lonely in a crowd? Do you spend more time on the internet than in public space? Do you feel American? Do you constantly check your likes on social media after you have posted something? Did you answer ‘no’ to the last question but is the answer secretly ‘yes?’”

The process is revealing, and it forces participants to publicly examine intimate truths about themselves and each other (or to specifically resist doing so).

Participants in Tongva Park

Annie Gimas

After over 80 performances of Among Us in the Netherlands, L.A. and San Diego, Splint says she has noticed a few trends. “Everyone has stolen something when they were a kid. Everyone has regrets,” she says. “Usually the people who say they are just trying to make ends meet are young women, and the people who say they make over $100,000 a year are older men.”

She has noticed that the size and dynamic of the each group changes the experience from performance to performance, too. The question, “Do you think life will be better for the next generation?” takes on heightened meaning when a member of the group has their baby in tow.

Among Us is a communal experience. I felt surprisingly close to my anonymous stranger on the pier, and I also felt intimately connected to my fellow participants. At the same time, it was a strikingly personal experience. Isolated from the outside world by my headphones, I considered my own ideas and notions of community in a new way. It’s also a completely immersive experience, but not in the throwaway buzzword way in which so many Instagram-friendly art installations are “immersive.”

“I think so often immersive means you are immersed in a fictional world,” Splint explains. “I want to immerse people in the reality that they live in. It’s not escapism. It’s more like documentary immersion.”

At the end of Among Us, I realized I had not looked at my phone once during the entire experience. I had not taken a single photo. I was too busy experiencing art, observing the world around me, and interacting with my community to check social media. I was too immersed in reality to post about it on Instagram.

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