Vanitas - an app to die for: Interview with Rob Walton

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Vanitas is a richly sonic piece of theatre delivered onsite through a smartphone audio app. It is comprised of a highly original mix of sound: from music compositions, to interviews with funerary experts, to experts on witchcraft to a long and rambling dialogue between two unknown characters, who like anyone experiencing the app on site, are also piecing the story together.

The Vanitas experience is loosely based around a set of paintings done in the 1600s that are both beautiful for their detail and eerily disturbing. They’re full of wilting flowers, skulls and are highly referential of the transient nature of life, beauty and decay. This gives the work a strong historical and intellectual footing and sets up the intrigue and mystery that has us walking around a cemetery searching for answers. Cemeteries are arguably one of our most powerful collective sites for stories and Vanitas capitalises on this deftly. Vanitas first went live at the Melbourne Cemetery a year ago. A year later and here I am doing it as a part of the Horizon Festival here on the Sunshine Coast.

Come my arrival at the Caloundra cemetery with my phone and headphones, I park my car and walk to the pergola as instructed. Here I am met by two Vanitas people, suitably dressed in black. They are here to tick me off their festival booking list, see me right, and offer me Vanitas tea. Vanitas tea! Caloundra cemetery isn’t the oldest of cemeteries. It’s not full of rotting headstones and anthills or beehives. The homeless aren’t shacked up, and it all seems a little safe and sterile - not unlike like the Sunshine Coast more generally. But it was a beautiful early autumn afternoon, mourners were coming and going, and I could see four or five people visibly wandering through the gravestones and plaques with their headphones on - there’s something almost shameful about walking through graveyard with your headphones on. I am soon asked for my phone number, told me to start walking and listen to chapter two. Someone will meet me. Right. And off I go.

What I experience surprised and impressed me: Vanitas is setting the bar for app based theatre and has much to teach those of us who are working in this field. Rob Walton is the co creator of Vanitas and he agreed to talk with me. Apologies for the poor sound. Things can only get better. But for those like me who are fascinated by geo locative storytelling process and how other artists and producers and writers are approaching this field today, this interview is well worth checking out.