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the stage is everywhere : multimedia essay
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The Stage is Everywhere
A multimedia musing about distributed online performance
By Angus Leech and Sylvie Parent

Introduction: Mask and Stage
The stage is everywhere, and we are all players. Maybe it's fitting that such a sentiment - seemingly useful for describing a networked world in which every computer terminal, pda, or digital camera is a potential proscenium, and every Web surfer or wireless user a potential actor or audience member - might just as easily have been used to prologue an ancient street theatre performance or carnival, with action erupting in a crowded town square and passers-by all playing a role. After all, has anything really changed since Shakespeare, since Aeschylus? In a sense, the "digital" in digital performance seems merely another mask (prop, avatar) used to focus, empower, and camouflage the performative impulses of the human imagination, that underlying improvisatory face. A play is a play, after all, and often the fourth wall of the theatre stage (which actors have long plotted to breach) has simply been supplanted by the fourth wall of the digital screen. Yet technologies such as immersive virtual reality and mobile devices may eventually push these walls down completely, just as street theatre did. In any case, this much is certain: with its power to become both stage and mask, digital technology is today channeling, costuming, and extending human dramatic ability in some rather profound ways.

This short multimedia essay concerns itself mainly with the phenomenon of "cyberformance", a term coined by Helen Varley Jamieson (founding member of Avatar Body Collision) to describe the new medium of online performance - theatrical events and other genres that take place on the Web. In particular, we look at live performance that uses online chat and Web streaming technologies (graphical chat spaces, Webcam conferencing technology, wireless Internet, and more) to bring together remotely distributed performers and audiences in real time. (Of the projects mentioned here, only Mario's Furniture does not yet have a remote or online component, though the artists are considering this for the future.) This essay is no more, no less than a partial snapshot of current performance practices on the Web, in Canada and internationally. By mentioning just a few important projects like VJ Fleet, Chiasma, Avatara, The Roman Forum Project, Sister Valerie, and Mario's Furniture, we invite readers to consider the ways in which technology is already turning our conceptions of stage, and screen, inside out.

VJ Fleet
You've heard of drive-in theatre, now it's drive-around theatre. Forget on-board dvd - next year, ask your local auto-dealer to turn your sled into a mobile urban portrait instead, using the wireless Internet (WIFI) audio/video sampling and mixing system developed by Vancouver artist Julie Andreyev for VJ Fleet. (No, this isn't a standard factory option yet - but it should be.) Andreyev's mobile performance project has been touring the world, morphing iconic autos into migratory VJ mixing booths, hoping to download a critical look at 21st century autophilia right into the street. In each city visited, vehicles are souped up to reflect dominant trends in the local car culture: for Vancouver's New Forms Festival of art and technology in 2003, three buggies were customized, each with its own theme inspired by local auto-demographics: there was the opulent "Big Money", the sporty "Star Quality", and the compact clunker "Whiz Kids". Each was fitted with a large video screen in the back window, and a suite of equipment for mobile video downloading (of signals beamed from WIFI transmitters peppered across town) and on-board media mixing. The former enabled videographers back at the festival site to assemble urban imagery corresponding with each car's theme, then beam their VJ mixes to the roadster's screens (for example, Big Money was primed to street-cast common evocations of spending, such as vomitorious banking machines). Sensors wired to the cars themselves modified the video images: vibrations were added to the screen in response to engine purr; images angled themselves in sync with tilting suspension. Meanwhile, backseat audio engineer passengers sampled ambient sounds with mics strung outside the cars and remixed them on the fly, playing the results back over an FM transmitter that turned each vehicle into a pirate radio DJ platform. A bit distracting, perhaps, for people cruising the downtown strip; yet it may also have provoked a certain thoughtfulness about auto-bourne branding and identity, prompting rambling motorists to hum, "Baby you can drive my art car." - AL

Commedia dell'Avatara
Avatar-based online performance has been on the scene since at least 1997, when US-based Desktop Theatre realized WaitingForGodot.com, a staging of Beckett's play entirely within the two-dimensional avatar chat space known as ThePalace.com. The project was hailed as new kind of online "street theatre", defined by the ability of the chatroom audience to crash the "stage" and intervene in the performance, disintegrating sharp divisions between observer and performer. (see Salon.com's "Clicking for Godot": http://archive.salon.com/21st/feature/1997/10/02godot.html). Chatroom charlatanism has since proven itself worthy through the interventions of cybertroupes like Desktop (www.desktoptheater.org), Plaintext Players (http://yin.arts.uci.edu/~players), and Avatar Body Collision (www.avatarbodycollision.org). The latter, a virtual theatre squad with international membership, recently created Dress the Nation (March 2003), a "cyber-demonstration" targeting the US invasion of Iraq in which fanciful avatars like "Bubba Bush", "Toe Knee Blur" and several burka-wearing "Women in Black" choreographed a provocative chatroom melodrama, then infiltrated public Palace spaces guerrilla-style, prompting impassioned reactions from unsuspecting online malingerers (a fascinating rundown is available on the troupe's site, as are future plans for an innovative online performance space, Upstage.org). Meanwhile, Canadians have also been active within this arena of cyberformance: From 1997 to the present, the Cyberpowwow project (www.cyberpowwow.net) has been gathering every two years to transform one corner of The Palace into a combined chatspace, Web art gallery, and library in which to explore issues of contemporary Aboriginal art, technology, and identity. And in 2003, Vancouver-based media collective 536 created Avatara (www.centrea.org/ESC/Artists/536), a remarkable documentary about the inhabitants of the 3-D voice chat environment DigitalSpace Traveler (www.digitalspace.com). Recorded entirely "in-world" via screen capture technology, the filmmakers donned avatar skins to interview Traveler members and document commedic acts like machinima musical performances, dance parties, funerals and church services, as well as metaphysically-elaborate 3D virtual stages built by avatar architects to serve their needs as role-players within this surrealistic living theatre. - AL

Chiasma
In her essay on Performance Art and the Native Artist, published in Live at the End of the Century: Aspects of Performance Art in Vancouver (edited by Brice Canyon; Living Arts Society: 2000), Mohawk artist Aiyyanna Maracle asks, "Why are so many Native artists embracing performance as the vehicle for their stories and imagery?" By the end of these thoughtful pages, Maracle concludes that "something different, something new is happening... A form, a structure deeply resonant with how we've always told story, but now with access to much higher tech tools to create the necessary elements." This emerging form, which Maracle calls "new ceremony as performance", is thick in the work of Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinabekwe from Northwestern Ontario, and one of Canada's first Aboriginal installation/performance artists. Belmore recently participated in a collaborative project entitled Chiasma commissioned for 2003's LIVE Biennale of Performance Art at Vancouver's Grunt Gallery (see www.livevancouver.bc.ca/chiasma). Chiasma consisted of a Web site with a chat space where users could discuss the Web-streamed performances of artists as they took place live on screen (three artists performed separately on consecutive days). The live acts were also viewable simultaneously in six gallery spaces worldwide, as streaming video projections with sound. For her performance, Belmore choreographed a series of ritualized actions linked to homelessness (collecting bottles, tearing open discarded fast food wrappers, nursing wounded feet) recorded on a live video feed with musical accompaniment, while pre-recorded images of the "tent city" recently erected by Vancouver's homeless to protest welfare cuts were digitally layered overtop. As Grunt director Glen Alteen explains, Belmore, whose art has rarely made use of digital technologies, was thrilled about the opportunity to work with the festival's technical staff, in order to Webcast an image of Vancouver very different from what her international audience was expecting - perhaps best summarized by a placard from one corner of the tent city: "This is the OTHER Canada, the poor, in your face!" - AL

The Roman Forum Project
"When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world," says the ghost of famed Roman clown Quintus Roscius, a glowing projection of George Bush partly obscuring his marble-white features, casting itself as his eerie double. "It was us versus them, and it was clear who 'them' was. Today we are not so sure who the 'they' are, but we know they're there. And I want to say... I'm sorry there's no cave deep enough for America or dark enough to hide." This is Bush's last will and testament, an "apology for everything", as imagined and orated by one of five Roman citizens resurrected from the time of Nero to become the principle characters of The Roman Forum Project (http://yin.arts.uci.edu/~players/RF2). Self-described as a "media commedia" melding Internet technologies, digital video projections, and classical Greek and Roman theatrical traditions, this polemical and anything-but-politically-correct satirical stab at 21st century democracy sees the five ghastly Roman statues meditating on the state of the present American Republic, from the post-election crisis of 2000 through the ensuing 9-11 catastrophe and war against terrorism's spiderhole shadows. Created by California artists Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen with the support of UC Irvine's Beall Centre for Art and Technology, Forum is an ongoing project that shifts its content with current events: In January, 2002, a "preview" Webcast, Virtual Live (http://yin.arts.uci.edu/~players/RF2/VL/index), was hosted at New York's Location One Gallery: bardic Romans delivered tragicomic 9-11 lamentations via streaming Internet video, while online viewers also amused themselves reading a series of live text chat improvisations from the Plaintext Players, scrolling by on the same Web screen (and followed up by an interesting discussion about the nature of online performance). In 2003, the full-fledged Forum production at the Beall Centre focused mainly on the looming war with Iraq. Dead actors pontificated from catwalks and a raised central stage as audience-members milled around the theatre space or watched and chatted online. Walls doubled as projection screens for digital images and live chat texts that often melded with the players' plaster-cast faces like incorporeal visors. - AL

Sister ValÚrie of the Internet
Like everything else, religious practices and beliefs have invaded the Net. But to what extent do they form a part of our culture and our collective imagination? Anyone who has lived in Quebec can tell you about the more or less visible impact of the Catholic Church's reign on individual and collective memory. It's in this cultural context, and after having played the part of many other characters in real space or Internet performances (such as Advice Bunny, Snow Flake Queen, and Mermaid of the Future, to name just a few) that ValÚrie Lamontagne takes on the role of Sister ValÚrie of the Internet (www.mobilegaze.com/sister_valerie) and brings one of Catholicism's most traumatic rituals - confession - up to date. With the help of video chat software, the artist creates online performances which enable her to absolve sinners in the digital age. In addition, written confessions can be sent to her anytime, and can be found in the archives of her Web site, thus making the most secret misconduct of a few accessible to all. In this sense, her project resembles other work which appeared early on in the history of the Net, such as Greg Garvey's The Automatic Confession Machine (1993-1994!), today no longer available on the Net, and Michael Samyn's I Confess (1996-1997) on the ńda 'web site (http://adaweb.walkerart.org/~GroupZ/confess/). These projects reveal the paradoxical relationship the Web surfer maintains with the computer and the Net, wherein the private world that is created between the user and the machine suddenly finds itself in public space. By availing herself of new tools on the Net, and thereby developing new creative paths for performance in keeping with her own work of personification, ValÚrie Lamontagne revisits the tension between the private and the public which is so typical of work on the Internet, even as she highlights an important aspect of her culture. - SP, translated by Timothy Barnard

Mario's Furniture
Using a healthy dose of humour, Mario's Furniture by S.E. Barnet and Hillary Mushkin joins performance with electronic games in its allusion to the famous character Mario, a classic of the genre created by Nintendo in the early 1980s. The video's soundtrack and catchy melody also recall the low tech quality of early electronic games. References to past work such as this are often the occasion for casting a bemused and critical look at the contemporary scene. On the one hand, the project aptly highlights the more playful aspects of performance. After all, don't we speak of actors in a play? On the other hand, it refers to the rapid development of electronic games and their great commercial success. Might contemporary art capture the public's attention by using the same strategies? In this work the artists amuse themselves by moving about figurines and miniature pieces of furniture, which correspond to people and furniture that must be moved at the same time and in the same way in real space. Visitors to the installation try to rearrange the furniture fast enough to beat the time of the artists (who have pre-recorded themselves playing the same game on a video which is projected in the gallery space) with the quickest of the two being declared the winner. The project's absurdity reveals the often laughable actions that electronic game players can engage in. The new setting tests the performance's spatio-temporal aspect by making it possible to confront the actions taking place in real space with those of the video, thereby creating a new space, a game space, a game with time and space. New versions of Mario's Furniture are in the works, which might make it possible to use the Internet to link up remote users - in keeping with the project's reflection on game space, and on the way culture has been overrun by electronic games. - SP , translated by Timothy Barnard

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