Rob A Bank With Blast Theory : All Tech Considered If an eerie British voice on the other end of your cell phone was walking you through a bank robbery, would you have have the guts to go through with it? NPR's Laura Sydell finds out.
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Rob A Bank With Blast Theory

A child plays in downtown San Jose.  ramberto /via Flickr hide caption

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ramberto /via Flickr

I’m standing on the corner of First and San Carlos Streets in San Jose -- in front of Original Joe’s Pizza. I was told to stand here at exactly 2:15 on Sunday by a mysterious recorded voice at the other end of my cell phone.

As expected, the call came 45 minutes before I arrived.

At 2:15, I get another call.  It’s the same man with the middle class British accent. He tells me to walk down the street, past the tree with the wool socks on the branches, and lock myself into the public pay toilet and call him back. It’s a strange request, but I comply.

The stranger asks me some questions: Am I the type of person who would take a leadership role in a dicey situation? If so, hit 1.  If not sure, hit 2.  If no, hit 3. He explains he’s asking the questions to make sure I’m suitable for the mission ahead.

When he’s finished with his questions he asks me to leave the toilet and head down the street and around around the corner.  I’m going to meet up with a partner.

“You are going to rob a bank,” he tells me.

I am nervous.  Who will this partner be?  Am I sure I can go through with this?

I arrive beneath an awning near a parking garage with the man still on the phone.  He warns that I should be careful not to be conspicuous.

“There might be someone watching you,” he tells me.  His voice makes me nervous.  Suddenly everyone I see is a potential friend or foe.  Every time someone walks by talking on a cell phone I wonder if they are here to meet me.

My partner never shows up.  But, the man tells me I can go on without him or her if I chose.  I can go and rob this bank alone.  I chose to go.

He asks me to scope out a Bank of America off a park in the center of San Jose. It’s noisy and crowded because there is a children’s festival with live music.  I feel I’m in my own little paranoid world despite the laughter and music all around.

I realize no one else knows what’s about to happen.

After I’ve scoped out the bank, the man calls me back.  He asks me to describe how I imagine the bank robbery will happen.  He tells me he’s going to tape my thoughts.  I enjoy laying out the details.  I imagine how I’ll walk in to the bank, how my feet will click clack along the cold, hard floor and echo up to the high ceiling. I explain how I’ll hold my gun up to the clerk behind the counter.  I’ll be nervous but firm.

And as you probably guessed, this is a fantasy.

But unlike “Made in the USA” by Jean Luc Godard, the French movie upon which this performance is based, this fantasy uses the audience to create the narrative.

The piece is called “A Machine To See With” and it was designed by the artists group Blast Theory as part of the Zero One San Jose Biennial.

The festival brings together works by more than 150 artists who are using technology as material to create and comment upon the impact technology  has on our lives.

In a similar project titled Ulrike and Eamon,  Blast Theory explored whether or not participants would kill.  Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the Artist

Matt Adams, one of the Blast Theory artists, says they were interested in how video games and social media all make us feel as if we are involved in the creative process. Yet, as Adams says, while the technology seems to offer you choices, they are actually very limited.

There’s certainly truth to what he says.  We may feel as if we are expressing ourselves in video games or on Facebook, but we must always play by the rules of the software.  Adams says he wants his project to draw attention to the “double edged sword” of much of this technology.  It makes you feel free yet it has many limits.

In Blast Theory’s game, you don’t end up robbing a bank.  In fact, right before the crucial moment the voice tells you, “Face it, you don’t have it in you to rob a bank.”

It was true: I couldn’t hold a gun up to to teller’s face.

Then the voice takes participants -- there were more than a dozen -- to a Greyhound Bus Station.  They are all asked to hug each other.  But, Adams says ultimately to hug or not to hug is a decision left up to the participants.

I confess I was very intrigued by the “A Machine To See With.”  In some ways, it made me feel like a child playing pretend. My biggest beef is that cell phone technology wasn’t quite up to the task.  At times it was hard to hear the voice at the other end and my phone cut out.

Blast Theory’s Adams admits that’s a problem.

“The potential is only just beginning for mobile phones and how we can use them in games and art," he said.

I agree.  I think that the computer technology that has so often kept us all at our desks in front of our computers or in front of our TV screens could ultimately bring us out into the public to be together in groups sharing in and creating an experience.  A game/art project like “A Machine To See With” is just one of many early possibilities I've heard about.

Adams says they will deploy the project again at Sundance in January and then later in the year at Banff in Canada.  I have to say I enjoy the idea of all the film buffs at Sundance giving this a try.

Adams also has the tapes of the participants giving their bank robbery fantasies. But, he doesn’t know yet what he will do with them.  I’d love to hear, them, so, I hope he finds a way to make them public.