Critical Engagement in a World-Widening Web
Have you ever looked at the world’s first-ever website? Uploaded in 1991, it’s a white page filled with clear and concise text, in black with blue hyperlinks. The “World Wide Web” allures in its deceptive simplicity; the site’s one-sentence description titillates: “a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.” The hyperlinks have intriguing titles like “What’s out there?,” “People,” and “How can I help?”
No way. It’s too good. A universal collectivist art project.
This first webpage and the World Wide Web was invented in my lifetime. Thirty years ago, it summoned users like an offering and a challenge—a global invitation to build a new “large universe.”
What stands out to me now are the terms “access” and “initiative.” The World Wide Web began as an open-source call to action by and for people to more easily and widely gather and share new information. This makes me wonder: How did this offering, this internet-invitation, grow into both the beautiful connective tissue and collective tool we all work through and the hegemonically corporate, vitriolic, data-mining beast we fear? How did the global community build this “universe”? Was it truly “accessible?” As a collective initiative, how are we caring for its further growth together?
As the world reckons with multiple pandemics—white supremacy, COVID-19, global warming—I look to this alternate universe for both information and revelation about the people we have been, the people we are, and the people we want to become, globally. And, as we’ve gotten to know this new partner intimately from performing on, within, and around it, how are we considering it intentionally as a place, performer, and object in our work? As artists, how are we performing the internet?
As the world reckons with multiple pandemics—white supremacy, COVID-19, global warming—I look to this alternate universe for both information and revelation about the people we have been, the people we are, and the people we want to become, globally.
Performing the Internet
The phrase “performing the internet” was first coined by professor Todd Anderson, a member of the band I’m in, h0t club, and one of the founders of Babycastles gallery. Last year he and I co-taught a course at both New York University and the New School on, among many things, using websites as stages to perform and culture jam in front of a live audience. We focused on playing with the social and political implications of—and embedded within—computational technologies (like the internet) while investigating and developing new theatre forms. At the same time, we developed an accompanying ethical framework to consider the intrinsic relationship between the physical world, analog environments, and digital experiences. From extraordinary student collaborations that took on isolation, exhaustion, and gender performance to actors building characters around browsing histories, our student’s creativity and consideration inspired.
Now, due to the pandemic, the internet has become the primary conduit to much of our theatrical-artistic connection. For theatremakers, creative new initiatives amidst complete formal upheaval continue to crop up, but how are we considering the multiple implications of moving into a new virtual “universe,” like data mining, Google and Amazon’s corporate hegemony, and wifi access and expense? And how are we considering artists whose work has always been in and around the internet as beacons in this new work? We as artists can and must dive deeper into how we co-create with, conceptualize from and around, work with and on, and embrace the physiological ramifications of the internet universe in our lives and in our work.
Last year, I met playwright Anchuli Felicia King and performer Adam Cooper-Terán, along with the collective performance group Complex Movements, at the FOLDA Festival’s Digital + Performance Convening. The multiday event, co-produced by HowlRound and SpiderWebShow, invited conversation and questions around the ethics, content, and interconnectedness between digital content and performance, and these attendees shared new ideas about embodiment, ritual, social justice, and globalization that profoundly changed the way I thought about art-making.
In this virtual moment, I look to their voices, along with those of my collaborators Todd Anderson, Miller Puckette, and Martim Galvão, and the amazing performer Onyx Ashanti. How are they considering this high-speed communication highway as intrinsic to, part of, and an actor in our global moment? How are they working on expanding, experimenting with, and taking care of this new universe? How do they not take for granted this space but force it to reveal itself—the good, the bad, and the ugly—before humans and artists commit further to a symbiotic art-making and life-altering relationship? Can unpacking the internet be a bellwether for how we all can unpack and restructure our society and our organizations? Can we reconceptualize our relationship to the internet by dismantling, questioning, and addressing the internet in our creative work? I’ve curated this series in hopes that we can start considering some of these questions together.
As the conversations in this series unfold, let us celebrate that while it is only this internet-entity that makes this series possible, it is human collaboration with intention and connection that makes it meaningful.
Unpacking and Examining the World Wide Web
This series, comprised of conversations between Anchuli and Adam, Todd and Martim, and Miller and Onyx, aims to spark discussion around how we as artists must hold, mold, and consider the collectively made internet object-universe. It moves from a cross-continental conversation concerning mediation, revelation, and global politics to close collaborators taking on context collapse and the performance of identity online, and beyond.
In the first conversation, Martim, a multimedia composer, and Todd, a digital poet and software engineer—both part of h0t club, the intermedia performance art group—delve into the World Wide Web as performance space in and of itself. Specializing in playful muzakal examination of corporate hegemony, storytelling, and the digital interfaces of our everyday, these two unpack the unconscious “performance” and emotional journey of internet browsing, mixtapes, Todd’s new performance software HitchHiker, Amazon.com, and building websites for performance.
Next up is a conversation with writer, dramaturg, musical artist, and intermedia performer Anchuli, whose work has been seen globally, and visual and sonic artist Adam, whose multimedia rituals and storytelling originates from and within their transcultural standpoint between Mexico and Arizona. The two artists dive into the medium of the internet, which has been and is one of their primary dramaturgical partners, and unpack how and why they treat it as “an original collaborator in their work” as the global becomes the personal.
The series continues with an interview between two icons in the software and transmedia performance world: Miller and Onyx. Miller, a creator, musical artist, and software engineer—and the legendary founder of widely used open-source platforms like Pure Data, OS, and Quacktrip—dives in with Onyx, the performer, musician, and fabricator of his symbiote—which is like a working costume piece, a continually evolving, malleable prosthetic synthesizer outfit that runs on Pure Data—that Onyx creates electronic sound with via bodily motion. As these two riff about jazz music, the growth of online possibilities bringing nuance to live performance, teaching, and the evolution of computer systems, it’s clear that there’s a kind of hope that what has been gained with this internet-object should not just be examined, played in, or collaborated with, but should be built to creators’ needs for revolutionary new modalities of nuanced, interactive art-making.
The series concludes with the incredible, inspirational Complex Movements, the Detroit-based collective that combines the science of complex systems with storytelling, music, community building, and organizational culture-shaping to build multimedia theatre events that consider intentional revolution, resistance, and radical joy. With a focus on translocal multimedia production, mutual aid, and virtual community-building, Complex Movements’ intersectional method of creation may be the primary model we must turn to as theatremaking not only goes online but also moves into the next decade as a hyper-conscious, just, and forward-thinking art form.
The internet is a difficult bedfellow to separate from (you are online as you read this). So, as the conversations in this series unfold, let us celebrate that while it is only this internet-entity that makes this series possible, it is human collaboration with intention and connection that makes it meaningful. Let us also step back to peek, poke, and listen with intention to how multifaceted artists, engineers, writers, and culture-shapers consider this internet object-collaborator-friend (and foe) through the original system of human reflection: talking directly to each other. We might also consider how to reclaim and reconnect to the internet—a universe that is now continually co-opting and collaborating in our own practices, politics, and work, whether we like it or not.