TECHNO-DREAM AND NIGHTMARE CHOIR
– a consideration by Frank Barry
A futuristically primitive live/streaming performance presented by the BLACK BAG MEDIA COLLECTIVE headed by Liz Solo and Tina Pearson and including members of the BBMC, ethno-musicologists from Memorial University and other artists via SECOND LIFE and live stream from Germany, the USA and beyond — with Krista Vincent, Sarah Commerford, Chris Tonelli, Mehrenegar Rostami, Andreas Mueller, Mike Kean.
The other night I attended a strange performance. And by strange I mean original, interesting, moving – good. In a small room in the basement of the LSPU Hall a group of performers/artists/musicians had gathered to ask themselves a question. Their intention (I believe) was to perform both the question and the myriad answers (more questions) that the original question evoked. The question was this – What are our fears and dreams of the emerging digital technology?
The night’s performance was divided into five different pieces each connected to the other by their use and concern with digital media technology:
NOT MARIO – a young woman (Sarah Commerford) sings operatic phrases via Skype on a large screen while being answered by live singers in the room.
This piece gave me a sudden jolt into my own past. Years ago I was present at a fado performance in an old tavern in the Barrio Alto in Lisbon Portugal. The singer, a local woman in her work clothes, stood at the bar with a glass of wine and sang in a voice of melting steel about a small bird (her love) that had flown away. The customers, regulars at the tavern, answered her song in the timeless tradition of human choruses since the dawn of music. They echoed her grief and the sad melancholy that can only be known by those who have felt the pain of a broken heart. In other words all of humanity.
Now here I was over thirty years later sitting in a room experiencing that same need and beauty of the whole communicating its humanity with the one. It was not in a seedy tavern nor did the singers wear the telling clothes of their singular trades. The soloist was on a screen removed far from the scene and the answerers were as diverse as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But that same thrill was there. That sharing of our common voice. That yearning of the human soul to know that others have felt as it feels. That it is not alone.
ANSWERING MACHINES – here an artist in Germany (Andreas Mueller) sampled old messages left on found answering machines and played them via Skype video stream while two artists (Tina Pearson and Chris Tonelli) in the room re-interpreted the text live.
This piece evoked immediate and uneasy feelings in me about things that I had felt when leaving messages — some dire, some crapulous, many drunken, some angry, some pleading, all soul sick — on the answering machines of old girlfriends. I wondered if they might still be out there. That voice of my younger self, drunken, pleading, angry, sobbing, trapped in some sort of electronic amber but capable now of being rejuvenated and exposed via some new media, like the one I was witnessing. It made me feel uneasy that something that had faded (thankfully) from my mind could be lodged in some data cloud and distributed infinitely and universally. It raised not so much a fear, for love sick youth is well forgiven, but the thought that other things might remain as well. If I the atheist, am proven wrong, will St. Peter have a means/media with which to expose/broadcast aloud to the celestial jury/everybody else — all my guilty shit?
TENDER BUNDLE – a woman (Krista Vincent) performs tonal interference (live) on an oscilloscope exploring the feelings she had while unwrapping her old electronics equipment.
This was a haunting performance. There’s something about bending sound that always stretches my spinal cord. And once again the piece seemed to be about a memory and induced memory. The first time I heard a Jimi Hendrix record I was transfixed and transported simultaneously and this was before I knew that mind expanding drugs were available at the local mall from someone other than a licensed pharmacist. Once again I had the thought that here I was at a performance about modern digital technology and I was being transported backwards not forward. What was happening?
IN THIS FAR NOW – Second Life avatars from around the world perform a piece accompanied by musicians and Liz Solo singing live in the room.
I have to say that I really don’t yet understand the central idea of avatar based performance. But I think I’m starting to get it by thinking about them as a sort of electronic puppeteering. I relate very well to puppets. I know – what modern human couldn’t? But I mean I relate to them as the puppeteer. I’ll often stick a sock on my hand and have a good old chaw with my woolly homunculus. A homunculus who agrees with everything I say because of course it’s me. And to my understanding the Second Life avatar must be a realization of some other artist’s own me but one that can now span the world. I still have problems with their templated looking design but that is definitely subjective. One thing did occur to me as Liz moved in proxy with the foreign avatars was that it would be a great way to learn a folk dance. The past again?
ONE THING INTO ANOTHER – in this piece found texts from various social media were woven together into a song performed by the artists and participants in the room.
This was a very moving piece that allowed us to share our common humanity using both text media and the human voice.
Somehow the whole night made you realize — no feel — that whatever these new things are they are tools made by us and that we are responsible for them. Another beautiful, and perhaps strange, thing about the night was that I felt that I was at the very beginning of something. That I felt something like that old ape had felt when he knocked a tree limb against a rock and all the other apes looked up. Do it again! Do it again! Make that sound. Tell us something.
I felt that I was not in a room of technology whiz kids but in a room where adults were asking valuable questions about the nature of a human creation that was changing our lives. To be in a room where people were asking valuable questions was original enough these days but to see them do it without the smugness of rhetoric but with a true need to ask the questions was as exciting a piece of honest theatre I’ve seen in a long time.
Some of this new technology has now been around for a long time in today’s terms. But what was new and original and exciting about the night was, in the end, the questions that arose from experiencing it, not alone in a room, but in a community that was asking, like Gauguin’s famous questions, which in fact were themselves a form of mixed media as they were painted as text on one of his paintings. Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? To which I will audaciously add – And who is bringing us there?
A night of questions. A night of memory. A night of future.
– Frank Barry, 2013
Barry is a writer, actor and director for theater and film. He currently lives and works in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
All photos on this page by Rhonda Pelley.
This essay was commissioned by the Black Bag Media Collective. The Techno Dream and Nightmare Choir was made possible thanks to the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Media Arts Section.