The Screens

All the World's a Cyber Stage: The State of Online Theater

Watery-looking clouds move haltingly across the computer screen. The Net-fed image, pixilating frequently into tiny, painterly cubes of digital cumulus, delights Rae C. Wright, the author of Art Thief— a live performance made accessible to screens internationally via Franklin Furnace. "I love these clouds," she announces, "I think they are so beautiful in this medium . . . and I stole them." Wright's singsong narration boasts that most of her content was taken from other artists, including Anna Mosby Coleman (the clouds), Deb Margolin (photographs of children), and Halona Hilbertz (an altered section of a previous online project). Wright's idea is that all art making is a form of thievery, ambiguity of ownership being a particularly keen issue to artists working through the Net, where every user's screen is a potential resource for image capture. Her appropriation is an expression of the freedoms and uncertainties of this infant form— Netcasting and its singular mix of live performance, animation, video, and chat.

Use of the Internet by artists and theater makers has met with only variable success so far. The medium promises great things— body transcendence and omnipresence— but on practical terms, this has usually translated into tedious rounds of clicking and waiting. And the novelty of the technology itself often upstages the content. The best live stage performances enable the transcendence of the body through what Artaud coined (yes, in the '30s) theater's "virtual reality." But today's cybertheater still has a ways to go in its own scenario of romantic transport.

"We're in a phase where we're testing the concept," says Kathy Brew, director of Thunder-gulch, a new media-arts center on Broad Street. Experiments have been valuable, if nothing else because they express something about the crush that art currently has on technology. If post­World War I collage-type art showed new rifts in the collective consciousness, there is a sense among Net artists that their work responds to today's real and surreal conditions. According to Monika Wunderer, a dramaturge and performer for international virtual projects, online performance illustrates "global thinking." Artist Adrianne Wortzel's work with robots is partly a meditation on surveillance tech, in whose spying eyes, she says, "we are all actors in the theater that's the world."

The Ubu Project: Bunraku for new media
Hiroyuki Ito
The Ubu Project: Bunraku for new media

Franklin Furnace is a pioneer in the field. The performance space closed its Tribeca location in February of 1997, reconstituting itself as a virtual institution. For Martha Wilson, the Furnace's longtime director, the transformation has been formidable. After all, the performance art the organization had supported since 1976 was predicated on the raw shock of live presence: Annie Sprinkle's cervix, Penny Arcade ranting, Karen Finley in the throes of trembling horror. By contrast, Netcasting is smaller (the RealPlayer viewer used to transmit the pieces is only three inches by two and a half inches on your screen), safer (no sprinkles from Sprinkle), and happens at a technological remove.

The "live-ness" of cyber performance centers around chat: the real-time, text-based communication between logged-on viewers and the performer. Martha Wilson calls chat "the sore spot in Netcasting practice." It's had mixed results on Pseudo Programs, Franklin Furnace's 30-channel hub. Some performers, busy with their material, have chosen to ignore the chat element altogether, while others have integrated audience response— like Anna Mosby Coleman, who sang the scrolling chat. The "lullaby of the indiscriminate," according to Dia Web-artist Kristin Lucas, chat can bring out people's bratty propensities. Wunderer notes that just as children need to be taught how to clap and hush appropriately at the theater, a non-Web-acclimated adult audience needs to be taught the protocol of telepresence and the anonymity it sometimes entails. Pseudo's non-moderated sessions have veered from the sort of questioning you might expect from a phone-in show, to base wolfishness ("The comments on Halona Hilbertz's walking piece never rose above 'nice butt'," Wilson reports), to general apathy towards the ongoing performance.

If parallel editing and slow motion in film once heightened and made sport of our experience of time, the Net's mind-bending promise is to muck with space and distance. It's not quite there yet, but certain groups and individuals are making intriguing, even visionary use of remote participation on the Net. Cu-SeeMe, the desktop video conferencing system, seems to be the tool of choice in this regard, since it offers fairly decent connectivity with minimum bandwidth. Users can transmit audio and video images through the Internet pretty painlessly, and in performance the four-level gray-scale rectangles are little windows projecting scenes from different worlds. Adrianne Wortzel's recent Sayonara Diorama at Lehman College's Lovinger Theater projected a series of Cu-SeeMe windows onto a 12-foot-by-12-foot screen. There were puppets coming in from London, toys from Finland, a street cam from New York, and, for a time, one anonymous member of the Quickcam-owning public. In addition to integrating these foreign points of view, this dance opera about Darwin and the birth of a new species also projected the views of several remotely controlled, camera-bearing robots who roamed the stage.

The award for the grandest, though not fully implemented, scheme for worldwide performance goes to Oudeis, a project for which Wunderer is dramaturge. Involving participants in Canada, Hawaii, Australia, Austria, Germany, and Argentina, Oudeistruncates Odysseus's fabled years-long journey into global e-mail routing time— about an hour. During initial performances at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna and at the '97 Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, audience members could either watch an actress deliver lines in German in front of a large screen showing Shockwave animations, or they could make use of the available terminals to follow the performance, somewhat differently presented and in several languages, on ATHEMoo, the text-based virtual environment sponsored by the Association for Theater in Higher Education. The ultimate goal is to have several staged performances going on at the same time, in different countries but linked through the Internet. The idea, a mind-boggling one if you think of the logistics, is that, using sensors and Net-linked mikes, the same dialogue might be heard simultaneously on all stages. Each audience, however, would view just a portion of the live cast— so that maybe only the nurse and Penelope would be onstage in Vienna, the actor playing Odysseus would be in New York, Telemachus in Ljubljana, and the rapacious suitors still elsewhere. The absent actors would be represented by tall "light cones" that, the organizers hope, will flash colors to indicate revenge, longing, welcome, and other Homeric sentiments.

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