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Dawn of the Digital Apocalypse

Alchemy, Narrative, and Dismantling Borders in the Virtual World

Anchuli Felicia King, a Thai-Australian cis, bisexual woman, is a multidisciplinary artist, but functionally considers herself a writer, mostly for theatre, but also for TV and film. These days, she is exploring the weird and wonderful world of doing online writers’ rooms over different time zones. Adam Cooper-Terán hails from the Southwestern United States in so-called Tucson, Arizona, the unceded lands of the Tohono O’odham. They identify as a Latinx-Yaqui-Jew, with heritage going into Mexico and Eastern Europe.

Anchuli Felicia King: You’re a designer, photographer, and video artist for theatre companies, performance groups, and musicians. Prior to the pandemic, how did the object of the internet function in your work, and how did it function internally in your stories?

Adam Cooper-Terán: In my work, the internet has always been a space to sample the alchemy of tags and memes. I didn’t really know what the implications of using the language of the internet as an occult practice were until maybe 2007 or 2008, when I began using Google Images as a way to derive media from a textual “crystal ball,” so to speak. The way a magician “spellcasts” to get their intended results, I was inputting words or phrases into the search engine and those results would be combined into these visual landscapes or multimedia collages. It was more about the coded language of the image or the metadata behind it to create an intended message or impression for viewers.

A lot of my digital work was heavily based on sampling and collaging hundreds of layers into spaces that I would consider landscapes. They were these large-scale printed representations of different themes or tags that related to a particular concept, such as an invocation or evocation of a particular Spirit or entity, or a death ritual. Before I used Google, it was AltaVista, and before AltaVista, it was Netscape. Linguistic inputs became the foundation of a very cut-up process, but also the building of something new. And video was a big part of that, too.

There was a period of time in 2009 or 2008 when a lot of websites hosted videos of the first memes—sites like eBaum’s World or even Google Video. Those became spaces to sample from, but because there was no software or plugins to download the movie file, I had to create the video sample by placing a camera in front of the monitor and recording the screen. Everything was being recorded to tape and then retransferred to the computer, so there was more of this deconstructing or dismantling of the literal data I was experiencing from these search engines or from a web browser.

three people seated

Adam Cooper-Terán, Anchuli Felicia King, and Jamie Gahlon at the 2019 Digital + Performance Convening in Kingston, Ontario.

There was never a thought about licensing or asking permission. In some cases, I didn’t even know who made the video because it was shared so many hundreds of times. A lot of this work came from a space of sampling, no copyright, working in open-source spaces. The copyleft movement, Creative Commons, cut-up methods, Dada, and hip hop’s philosophy around sampling were all woven into the process.

All of that was my experience of the internet, pre-pandemic. It’s still part of my work, but now I’m having to learn other skill sets. I’m approaching the internet as a broadcasting system, which requires its own set of tactics and ingenuity.

Anchuli: So much of my writing before the pandemic was about issues of globalization and my global politics. I’ve always tried to shift the narrative towards a more global awareness so that we as a global community start thinking about existing in an international community and not a national or local community. Then we experienced that in such an accelerated way with the pandemic. Yes, there have been frightening increases in nationalism, but we are suddenly so much more interconnected than we’ve ever been.

I’ve become a little more polemic in terms of wanting to dig deep into exposing the systems behind systems: how these big multinational tech companies and the underground exploit industry with a governing logic affect all of us. I mean, we’re talking on Zoom right now and I could get into a whole track about adoption of Zoom and the irresponsibility of us all as consumers, that we jumped onto a platform without fully understanding how much data it was collecting from us.

My focus has always been on trying to metaphoricalize the internet so that it’s easy to understand by somebody who’s maybe not interested in digital issues, so people can grapple with the moral complexities of them. But I have become more didactic about it because in order to really understand how the internet is having an impact on people, it needs to be deeply explained. It’s not enough to turn it into a parable, people actually need to be told, “This is how systemically the internet has changed.” We’re going to have to do that from 2019 to 2020... A bunch of my writing from 2018 and 2019 feels dated, which is nuts. The evolution of the systems we’re using is so, so rapid now. It’s difficult to cope with.

My political interest in the ethics of the internet has accelerated during the pandemic because the internet has become such a crutch and also because I’ve become more informed about who builds the systems and what their politics and economics are.

On Politics, Borders, and Dismantling

Anchuli: In the early days of the internet, digital artists had to do stuff that was necessarily alienated from the metadata, because it wasn’t so easy to get open-source software. They couldn’t just compile things the way we can now. It’s so easy for us to amass huge amounts of content and data and collate it, and with the ease of stock footage, it’s become enormously easy to cite and reference things on the internet.

Similarly to you in my work pre-pandemic, there was my multidisciplinary work and video design, and there was work where I felt I was really using the internet as a tool and a framework. I had used it as a broadcaster in that I was using live projection systems, interactive software, and gaming engines, but I’d never done heavy-duty broadcasting because I’d never had to actually stream out to a big audience.

It’s a really different pipeline in order to broadcast effectively. In my writing, I was dealing with the internet as an ethical option, metaphoricalizing it so that people could take a step back and wonder, How is this constructed? Who builds this system? What are the ethics around viral culture and cancel culture? What are the ethics around censorship and firewalling? What vested corporate interests are there in those systems?

My political interest in the ethics of the internet has accelerated during the pandemic because the internet has become such a crutch and also because I’ve become more informed about who builds the systems and what their politics and economics are. In that sense, in my writing I don’t think my interest in the internet has changed. It’s evolved and gotten more ornate, byzantine, and thorny, but in my capacity as a multidisciplinary artist I am shifting to how to use it as a broadcaster.

I think I’m way earlier on that journey than it sounds like you are. I won’t ever achieve mastery of one software or framework, I’ll pick up bits as I go and learn on the job. In doing this broadcasting work, what’s the most useful thing you’ve learned about yourself as an artist or about your own practice?

a group of actors onstage lit only by neon lights

Anchuli Felicia King's projection design for White Pearl at National Theatre of Parramatta, produced by Sydney Theatre Company. Photo by Philip Erbacher.

Adam: Probably that, more than ever, I’m really interested in broadcasting stories or supporting voices or communities that are not commonly heard or are on the fringes or outside of whatever is mainstream. You bring up a lot of political issues and are questioning who holds the power in those spaces, and I’m on the same page there too. My father was wrongfully arrested when I was only nine months old, and that set a tone for the rest of my life to be very anti-authoritarian, very politically minded, very mindful of the media’s power and how the media is used to break down different narratives.

I think I still have an antagonistic approach to creating spaces that are intended to affect audiences emotionally, but there’s always a story underlying what may be seen as provocative or shocking. My current work is very much about pulling back the layers of history and revealing, at least from a psychogeographic space, the cyclical, generational trauma of the Southwest. Coming from this land, it is so riddled with issues regarding not just the border, not just Indigenous rights, but also the “founding of the West,” the myth of the West. How this region has influenced other cultures, or other communities, or spread to different parts of the world where it’s exoticized. There’s a fetishization of this region from a landscape point of view, from a native Indigenous point of view.

The border and this time we’re in now is so heightened. Obviously, the stream of activism surrounding the wall has risen in the last several years, and that’s important. But now there’s much more noise. How do I dial in on specific stories and help them flourish? My point of view or opinion of this land is not mainstream-thinking. It has to do with social justice, generational trauma, and events happening outside of the internet. It’s always important to know there’s a whole world outside of the web and I have to remind myself my intention to tell a story a certain way shouldn’t rely on these “techno tactics.” There’s a way to just let the story exist and breathe. And if the story can exist by getting out there, maybe it has a power to really dismantle those narratives from the powers that be who make this media available to us.

For every system of control that establishes itself in a very direct and very antagonizing way, or in a very pervasive and ubiquitous way, there will always be subcultures or underground communities that will try to dismantle them.

On Gender, Identity, and Language

Anchuli: Can you talk about how the internet functions in border spaces? How do cultures and communities who are a part of a mashup locate or dislocate themselves on the internet?

Adam: A lot of my previous work was about dismantling borders or dissolving the concept of borders from a geopolitical standpoint, but also with genres. We both have mixed heritage, inhabiting these in-between spaces that are delineated for autonomous communities, but we’re the bridges between these different communities. Maybe we function more as conduits to dissolve and break apart certain spaces we cohabit.

How people self-identify is shifting online. It has influenced me too—in these times, I identify more as non-binary and queer than ever before. I’ve found more acceptance being in this liminal space between the genders. I feel there’s more privacy trying to maintain these communities online, too. Some of it is out of safety, especially within trans, queer, and BIPOC communities. There’s very much a need for having safe spaces online.

And these spaces are not necessarily inclusive or open to the public. It is not necessarily broadcast publicly. It is just a private Zoom session for the dozens of people who are part of the community to experience. I think different identities are seeding and trying to grow out of this chaotic landscape. The dark side to this is subcultures like the incels or alt-right, where you have very chaotic people metastasizing into their own ecosystems. But queer community blossoms in response to this other world of people, and they are radicalizing what being male or female means, or wanting to shapeshift into different identities.

Anchuli: You’re so right that people’s notions of static identity—culturally or in terms of gender or any other identity—are starting to break down because we spend so much of our time in this internet space, where people are distanced from their corporeal life. It’s a more fluid space that people get to navigate differently. I spent so much of 2019 traveling for work and putting a bunch of carbon in the atmosphere, and I think now people have become much more open to the idea doing the same work remotely.

I have felt, very literally, borders breaking down in the work I’m doing. The two TV shows I’m working on have been international spaces, and both have a strong focus on social justice and activism. We managed to interview incredible activists and experts, and I don't think we would have had that access in the same way before the pandemic, or that those people would’ve spoken to us with the level of transparency. But now everyone’s in the same moment.

I want to go back to something. It’s so beautiful that having this time and space has allowed you to recalibrate and reconsider where you sit in terms of gender and how you want to navigate those politics. Do you feel that was a journey you were already on pre-pandemic and the pandemic was just a catalyst? Or was it very much spurred by being in this moment?

a person seated at a desk with a large projection to their left

Annia Jekka, a solo performance about the history of the Tucson Basin which premiered at Golden Saguaro on 11 March 2020. Photo by Steev Hise.

Adam: It definitely was a path I had already been on, which began at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018. I think it was always percolating in my life, but I didn’t really know how to define myself other than being a genderbender, really. But now there’s definitely a way of self-identifying and being in spaces where that is part of the culture and dialogue. And this goes back to language too, how we codify different words. Not just in ways of identifying ourselves, but it is how we are communicating at the end of the day, and communicating in ways to go beyond the fringes of our comfort zone.

When I was privileged enough to travel to different countries in the past, those experiences always opened up my brain to different worlds, different histories, different myths, different stories of oppression, different modes of activism that I would’ve never learned just sitting typing behind this computer and looking online. I think the two complemented each other. There’s something powerful in that too, but it’s strange for this time.

For you, as an international artist who travels by plane and experiences the moral and ethical dilemmas that brings up, it’s inspiring to see how you consider those things. Everyone must reconcile their shit with this planned obsolescence we’re all using and born into. It’s not up to us to dismantle the airlines per se, but to address and acknowledge the problematic nature of flying in planes, and to acknowledge our place in it.

I predict there’s going to be a huge uptick in digital apocalypse art because we are so, so reliant on the internet in a way we’ve never been before.

On the Internet as Freedom Object and Dismantling Power

Adam: In my mind, the internet has always been this cosmic, galaxial image or object. But still I have to acknowledge the systems of power that created its foundation and allowed it to perpetuate. The real battle is in the information, the data wars, info wars, of the corporate powers wanting to clamp down and make certain spaces of the internet completely under their control.

I always go off of this dancing logic: for every system of control that establishes itself in a very direct and very antagonizing way, or in a very pervasive and ubiquitous way, there will always be subcultures or underground communities that will try to dismantle them in some way. Groups that would be trying to find other avenues or ways to break it up, or just make something different or new. The idea of creating private networks or private spaces for that to exist has always been part of the history of the internet. For all the effort surveillance culture is attempting to track everyone, from their phones to their faces, there will always be ways to dismantle those systems too, or to take back some power.

There’s this need to anonymize more so than ever before. Access to smartphones and cameras used to be very costly, but now there’s potentially a camera on every corner or in every tree, in urban spaces especially. That changes the way people are accessing their technology. It’s scary and terrifying on one level, but it’s also exciting to see it unfold. There’s so much nuance to it and I never want to approach technology like it’s this evil specter of the Beast coming forth, the Antichrist. We’re fighting for the freedom of the internet—that’s been an ongoing discussion for many years now.

On Apocalypse Art, Spirit, and Ritual

Adam: Maybe this is the evolution of things. As we get more technologically connected and we become more integrated with all of these metrics, there’s going to be a moment perhaps when everything will fall apart. A great collapse.

Anchuli: I predict there’s going to be a huge uptick in digital apocalypse art because we are so, so reliant on the internet in a way we’ve never been before. Our societal anxieties include, like, “We don’t know what we would do if these systems suddenly shut down.” And it would be very easy for them to suddenly shut down because it is a bunch of server farms, but it’s also very literal fiber optic cables running under the water. A digital apocalypse is not inconceivable.

Adam: It’s just under the surface. I would say, maybe as the antidote to that, there has to be space for spirit to exist—the power of the human spirit can evolve, but it requires the practice of ceremony.

There are moments when I know I want to be part of spaces not about the doom and gloom either. More than anything, I think we’re so conditioned to be thinking and feeling like it’s the apocalypse because we are in the Kali Yuga, or the end of an age, if you believe in Hindu cosmology.

This is the end of the cycle repeating itself again, or the snake that’s eating its own tail. It is cyclical. That is where the basis of my belief comes from. If we’re in this very chaotic time, then the need for rational thought and intuitive and spiritual notions, has to be very present. Maybe that’s the performer in me wanting to try to flip it just like a Trickster. Coyote is always laughing even when shit goes wrong, even when they’re covered in shit. There is still a need to find humor and that can be spiritually healing.

a group of actors onstage

Golden Shield by Anchuli Felicia King at Melbourne Theatre Company. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Anchuli: One difficult thing about the way we’re living now is that it’s so alienating physically. I think you’re so right, creating that space for ritual and tapping into ancestral knowledge and trying to see it as part of a loop that’s continuing is one of the best ways we can grapple with the moment so it doesn’t just feel like a rupture, like things are breaking around us. I struggle to sometimes tap into the circularity of it.

Adam: For you, it’s this continuum of going to the next one, to the next one, to the next one.

Anchuli: Exactly. We’re like nodes of historical ruptures.

Adam: All of this takes a certain level of access and openness to learning the accessibility needs of everybody involved. That’s the challenge. If we’re doing this for the internet and we’re broadcasting out, or we’re in a position of being producers through the internet, then now we have to consider all levels of communication that people use or require. That’s true language justice. The interpretation and translation—all that has to be considered.

But also, to balance that notion, we don’t need (nor have the resources) to consider every person in the world. Who is our community who really understands or knows us? Who shows up to support if we’re not necessarily trying to evoke radical change? We have to maintain our own inner circles too, if only to laugh and love. You gotta have that handful of very special people who you hold on to dearly. They’re your anchor, the people you swap stories of funnier things with, or share music with, or just shoot the shit and have a dance party with.

Anchuli: Yes, dance party. I’m here for it. You can be DJ.

Adam: We could both DJ and VJ.

Thoughts from the curator

The internet defines our present-day ecosystem. From work to play, the packets we send and receive over clouds and hard drives don’t just keep our lives running, they define how we run. As theatre artists, how can we consider the internet as a place, performer, and object in and of itself? The question is not just, “How are we performing on the internet?” but, as the internet is an ever-growing open-source tool and object, “How are we performing the internet?” In this conversation series, software engineers, musicians, culture-shaping collectives, writers, and ritual makers look at how the internet has been and is a critical unsung part of our new narrative. These makers contemplate intention, play, genesis, open-source, context collapse, collaborative mediums, and data collection, and dive into the call to action for a more robust dramaturgy and intention around the World Wide Web.

Performing the Internet

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