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A Deep Dive into Main Menu
by worker-owner Arianna Gass

“Main Menu” is a 30-minute interactive live performance for one player at a time, performed entirely on the phone. During the call, players meet a fictional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system named Annie. Though the call feels and sounds like a customer service call, players will soon discover that Annie is more powerful, capable, and quite a bit stranger than other IVRs. While Annie strives to provide solutions to player’s life problems, players will learn more about what it’s like to live on the fringes of the human experience. “Main Menu” seeks to interrogate the boundaries between the cybernetic and the biological, exploring the customer service phone call as a unique and potent distillation of our current regime of neoliberal biopolitics.

Through this piece we ask: How does the scene of the customer service phone call challenge mutual recognitions of humanity? What corporate and technological systems participate in this disfigurement? Our performance questions the capitalist directive to place profit over people and the technodeterminist belief that vocal synthesis, machine listening, and machine performance are indicative of social progress and advancement. Our research for this project has included science fiction by mid-century cyberneticists Alan Turing and Joseph Weizenbaum, ethnographic research on call center labor, and contemporary media theory by Simone Browne, Kalindi Vora, and Neda Atanasoski. We have also done extensive practice-as-research, developing experiments to test contemporary IVR systems like Google Duplex/Google Assistant, as well as the IVR systems for brands like American Express and Amtrak.

This project originated at an Obvious Agency company retreat in January 2019, where we explored our collective experiences with IVR and call centers alongside a desire to find a fully digital rehearsal process to facilitate collaboration between Arianna (based in Chicago) and Daniel and Joseph (based in Philadelphia). Our experiences of important personal events – navigating insurance and health cares systems, the death of  a parent, and negotiating student loan debt - have been punctuated by frustrating, difficult customer service phone calls. Our interest in the customer service phone call as a medium for live interactive performance began because we saw these calls as fractals of larger struggles between corporate interests and something recognizable as “the good life.” The current iteration of “Main Menu” is the result of two years of development and collaboration.

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