media, performance, and politics
Thursday April 17th 2014

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Performing the web

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As part of PERFORMA 09 Eyebeam presented an event on Friday, November 20 featuring net art pioneers JODI (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) and emerging artists from Eyebeam’s studios, senior fellow Jeff Crouse and research associate Aaron Meyers.

Described as “work that speaks to the speed of, and ruptures in, social media and user-generated web platforms,” it was a fantastic affair. While the first part of the evening focused more on mediation as the message, the second was less transparent, with many layers of performance being mediated in many different ways.

THE SYNAPTIC NOISE OF REALTIME MULTI-LINEARITY

the wheel

the wheel

JODI’s “The Folksomy Project” uses YouTube as source material, with the artists’ custom software selecting and manipulating video responses pulled from the site. For the performance at Eyebeam, two pairs of live-respondents sat head to head at laptops entering their video responses with thumb taps, while on a large screen, a wild whirl of video danced to the audio of a thousand unrelated images, controlled by one of the artists. Nearby, another laptop in YouTube video response mode recorded a record player spinning a 45.

The experience of the work was like being inside of an enormous web bubble, plummeting to the depths but never running out of this particular kind of oxygen. As the ersatz cyborgs, so completely committed to their digital participation added their entries to the noise of the system, it was impossible not to think of Raymond Williams’ concept of “flow,” applied to the web; despite the chaos there was a beautiful order to the whole thing.

Content becomes meaningless in this realm; nothing is signified: the mediation is the message. Only the data could be more compelling.

REALITY PERFORMANCE IRL

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Eyebeam senior fellow Jeff Crouse makes parodies of technology in the form of software, websites, and installations. Aaron Meyers is a designer and programmer using generative strategies in the creation of software and moving image. Their “World Series of ‘Tubing” game-show has players compete against one another by selecting and presenting their “best” YouTube video clips. The audience picks their favorites using laser pointers that register their votes, both quantitatively, and visually, on vertical sidebars.

Blurring distinctions between performer, audience, and participant, this work exposes and makes fun of network culture.

For TWSOT, the audience was seated in front of a stage with a table and two chairs facing each other. Here, the attempt is to make the technology invisible: two input devices on the table are screened from audience view by a solid panel, and the computer running things is on a table off to the side, unlit like the other elements of the performance. The inventive technology utilized coded cards, which, when held in front of the input devices, resulted in the video playing within the frame of the cards, side by side, projected onto a large screen center stage behind the players. It was when the players’ cards became too overlapped (or when they were trying to cover up their opponent’s card) that the processing became overloaded and crashed.

Among the interesting facts of the game show was that those who were empowered to vote had to exchange their ID in order to get a laser pointer—so, just like online, the system had the data of the voters. The beery audience didn’t seem to care much about this, releasing passports and drivers licenses freely, and whirling their beams of green light everywhere like children at the circus. Everyone involved in the performance was protected with infrared goggles, except the audience.

Each of the contestants, six “prosurfers,” were introduced with a video montage, complete with obvious faked imagery by the hostess, a kind of contemporary Aeon Flux, played by EJ who was seated to one side of the stage, and occasionally projected onto the screen inside a locker room. She was impeccable in her performance—also interviewing the losers of each round and disparaging the audience for their decisions.

Three ‘professional’ matches were followed by a match between ‘schmos,’ selected based on how well they scored on trivia questions submitted before the start of the show. The final match pitted the overall pro winner against the schmo winner. In the end, the schmo won, but it was pretty obvious the schmo was also a pro. If you ask me, the fix was in, which would have been completely in keeping with the whole affair.

Charlie Schmidt’s cool cat, horseballs, fireworks plane, crazy weatherman laugh, Arnold rave, John McCain learns to smile with his eyes, and Christian Bale takes David to the dentist (mash-up) were among the winning (and losing) entries. The audience carried on as if it were a real game show with real skills being demonstrated. At one point, emcee Yatta (Crouse) asked the audience to name their favorite ‘Tube. Baby deer escapes lion was one. Monkey peeing in its own mouth was another, which gained much more attention, and within seconds, audience members were watching it on their handhelds. All I could think of were the four favorites on my own YouTube account, all of them music videos, and I accepted the complete and utter schmo status I’ve had unwittingly for so long in the world of ‘tubing. All I do is upload video footage I’ve shot. How old school is that?

Ashton Kutcher’s successful race to beat out CNN for twitter followers made it evident that social media can be used by an individual to amass as much attention as an institution. But as this performance construct also asks, to what end? These competitors didn’t create the content–but just like the video respondents on YouTube, they create a response to it by virtue of their socially constructed identity, their celebrity manufactured by the numbers. They choose their favorites, and re-present them. They–we–are the new curators, retweeting remixes for reconsumption.

emcee congratulates one of the winners

emcee congratulates one of the winners

In the end, the vote was extremely close. And perhaps if it hadn’t been for the system crashes, Paddy the pro would have beaten Dan1, that particularly performative schmo. When the screen went blue for the second time, Crouse’s ebullient emcee character wisely ad-libbed, inviting the contestants to perform their videos instead. This was not the terrain of Paddy, who had made a classic Alvin & the Chipmunks selection; but she was helped out by a volunteer from the audience. Dan1, on the other hand, had his female counterpart jump to the stage, and performed the Aussie party boy video (or something akin to it) like they had been preparing for this moment. Dan1 was the perfect winner—an affable attention whore dressed in noticeable attire if not a costume, who literally filmed himself the entire time. This was a defining moment in his life, whether real or fictionalized. It made the entire thing less surreal, the most genuine moment of the evening, that is to say, in the case of Dan1, who was obviously performing, not a performance at all.