Closing Out Philly Live Arts With “Extremely Public Displays of Privacy”

New Paradise LabsExtremely Public Displays of Privacy, part of this year’s recently wrapped-up Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, asks how and whether we can locate authenticity in the age of carefully curated web presence. In the process, it delivers a data bomb to presence and corporeality, concepts that remain increasingly marked targets in theatrical discourse. It is a performance adventure in three acts, several social networking platforms, and multiple spatialities. Needless to say, this was the Festival piece I was looking forward to with the greatest anticipation.

Act 1 is performed across the virtual prosceniums of Facebook, Tumblr, and Youtube and can be accessed whenever you please at The protagonists are Fess Elliott (Annie Enneking) — maternal milquetoast and middle-aged musician who fled the allure of the limelight in her youth — and Beatrix Luff (Brittany Freece and Mary Tuimanen), enigmatic internet persona and web celebrity at large. Fess falls prey to Beatrix’s electro siren song, following her into data streams and the anxieties of exposure.

Act 2 is an interactive walking tour through Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, led by Ms. Elliott via podcast. It can be downloaded to your portable device here. Fess completes a series of seven scandalous public displays as assigned by Beatrix, part of a condensed seminar on successful exhibitionism. At any given moment, the site she occupies on the screen corresponds identically to the spectator’s view of the surrounding environs. In a scene outside Little Pete’s Diner, if the viewer’s iPod is properly aligned with the building’s outline, it creates an optical illusion in which Fess appears to be standing just across the street. There are several of these perfectly choreographed moments when her virtual presence penetrates material space.

Acts 1 and 2 are spectacular specimens of transmedial theater. They make use of media technologies not only to connect users/viewers to a virtual love affair, but immerse them in it entirely. They also never stray into the realm of pedantry or proselytizing. Beatrix, a young digital native and new media artist, stands in for the utopian promise of how the web might function as a dematerialized stage against which a chorus of posthumans can perform multiple selves. Fess is positioned at the opposite pole, wary of how online activity might feed into a control society of ubiquitous surveillance. She retreats to the solitude of an isolated bunker and goes off the virtual grid, following media theorist Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “avant-garde practices” in the digital age are those of “non-existence.”

In Act 3, we are invited into the material space of Fess’s private bunker for a 75-minute concert peppered with brief storytelling and family photograph show-and-tell. While Annie Enneking is an artist and songstress of immense talent, Act 3 is frustrating in some respects — and, it would seem, intentionally so. At this point, having so diligently studied Mmes. Elliott and Lux, we arrive with the expectation of witnessing something authentic between or about these women beyond what we’ve hitherto experienced. They will be appearing live, and in the flesh. Beatrix, whom Fess refers to as her “invisible girlfriend,” never makes an appearance. We learn that Fess’s fragrance of choice is called Everything.

Fess has lined the walls of her studio with sheet metal to obstruct any electronic signals that would try to penetrate her media-free fortress. This room is located inside a large wooden box onto which videos of Fess and Beatrix are projected on a loop. Unbeknownst to Fess, she is situated squarely within a cubic field of mediatized representation.

Extremely Public Displays of Privacy runs until October 1st.

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