Network Performance and Digital Unmasking: 31 Down’s dataPurge at Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival 2015
“Hidden somewhere on our phones, our providers are selling a lot of data off to advertising companies,” says Ryan Holsopple, founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn-based 31 Down. To demonstrate, he asks if he can show me a feature on my iPhone 6. As I watch him go through my phone, scrolling through tiny boxes filled with apps, a terror grows in me. What if he stumbles upon a salacious text or a NSFW photo, or even pulls up my Grindr profile? How would he react to these digital sides of my identity? Instead, he simply shows me a detailed map of everywhere I’ve been since November 10th of last year, which I find fascinating in a creepy, Minority Report kind of way. I also feel completely violated. It is this fascination with–and fear of–being exposed digitally, and an awareness of how little is really private, which 31 Down explores in dataPurge
dataPurge is a 24-hour performance that can be viewed online by anyone for free, as participants (or “clients” as Ryan calls them) undergo a metaphorical purging of their digital life. “It’s not like we’re going in and erasing your phone or anything,” Ryan reassures me. “It’s kind of like a clinic that we’ve established to let people come in and do a cleanse like you would at a spa for your skin or something. You’re coming in to do a data cleanse and then you can go back out. And we offer a few different types of cleanses that facilitates [sic–or change] the needs that we have.”
The cleanse I’m signing up for is called “Data Dialysis.” “We go through everything in your phone, your computer, emails, through everything. And it takes about three hours to do that. You’ll have food and we’ll do some web hypnotherapy.” Ryan tells me all of this in his nonchalant voice over our granola bowls at MUD in the East Village, where we sit with one of his chief collaborators, Amanda Bender, who acts as a technician in the piece.
“I think that for some people, having an online identity actually allows them freedom to be the ‘real them,’ whereas some people use it as a crutch to hide behind and create a facade,” Amanda tells me. “Regardless, having this online identity takes away from who we are in daily interactions. I think that we don’t know how to communicate anymore. I think we’re bad at keeping eye contact. I think we’re scared to touch each other. I think it has kind of stripped us of a human existence.”
“If we’re on our phones all the time and using our computers, I think what I’m saying is that’s okay,” Ryan interjects. “It’s not a bad thing. But I think there’s a need that, instead of putting down your phone, you can do everything like you always do but just every three months you come to our clinic that we’ve set up and we kind of clean you out so you can feel free to move on again.”
I first became familiar with 31 Down’s work with Red Over Red, a dark, moody piece that played at the Incubator Arts Project in 2010. Co-written and sound designed by Holsopple, and directed by Shannon Sindelar, it was an intense, richly-layered theater piece about airline workers and a plane crash, featuring stark stage imagery and a complex sound design. Their next piece, Here at Home, played at the Bushwick Starr in 2011, and used similar techniques under the collaboration of Holsopple and Sindelar with text by playwright/performer Eric Bland. It dealt with the lives of lonely Wal Mart employees and of a soldier returning home from Iraq. I brazenly thought I knew 31 Down’s work from these two shows, but little did I know the company’s history–they’ve been making working since 2003–and depth of experimentation.
“The original mission was that I was a crossword problem-solving detective, so the name 31 Down comes from crosswords, and it always had these links to crosswords,” Ryan explains,excitement in his eyes. “In the beginning I was making work that were [sic–or change] more like radio plays. It was 31 Down Radio Theater, but we were always using technology in some kind of way. When I started doing plays, I had rules set out. Nobody ever talks with their plain voice on stage; it always has to be miked or mediated, except usually in every performance there would be one moment where they used their actual voice. Also, nobody ever sat offstage and controlled the show. Everybody controls the show from onstage, and other companies do this all the time, like Radiohole. When Shannon and I started working together, we started making bigger theater works, but then I wanted to step back and learn algorithms. And then I worked with Radiohole [on Inflatable Frankenstein and currently Myth, or Meth], and with them it’s all about making the sound live, generated on stage, and for me it was figuring out, ‘Well how can I do that?’
“Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, which is one of my favorite artworks, where he basically makes a way in sound to eliminate his stutter. So he recorded this speech about his stutter, plays it back, records that, plays it back, then records that, until the resonant frequencies of the room take over and you just hear tones. It’s beautiful. And I needed to recreate that. So 31 Down did that at the Brick Theater the summer before last. It was kind of a step back to rediscover how to do things. And even dataPurge has my overall aesthetic. That private eye sleaziness never left. It has this creepy underbelly to it that I think is essential in all of 31 Down’s works.”
“I did a show in the New York City Subway stations back in 2007 that was using the phone network, and I set up a 1-800 number that used the payphones in the Canal Street Subway Station to do a murder mystery. And that’s a Network Performance.” That piece, Canal Street Station, was a co-production with free103point9 (now Wave Farm), and was awarded a Best Of New York in 2007 by the Village Voice.
So it’s no wonder that PS122 partnered with 31 Down to apply for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Building Demand for the Arts Grant. “It’s about creating a virtual theater space. PS122 would have their physical theaters where they curate works and artists come in and perform. But maybe there’s also a virtual theater space where Network Performance would happen and people could be curated and commissioned to create works for the web. And that brings up questions like, ‘Is this needed in our world today? Will people who don’t physically go to a PS122 show still show up for an online performance?’ And so we got the grant and we’re launching this for COIL.”
Sitting at MUD with Amanda and Ryan, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the complexity of the project. Being unmasked digitally in front of anyone with online access is definitely a boundary-pushing performance piece. “Because it is a performance, right?” I ask Ryan. “I guess so,” he says with some trepidation. “There’s the suspense aspect to it. But I think it’s also genuinely offering a service. For instance, the Lovelorn Cleanse might be useful to people right now.”
The data Purge website describes the Lovelorn Cleanse: “Do you online date through Match, eHarmony, OkCupid and, the most recent stalwarts [sic], Tinder? Are you collecting a plethora of digital lovers but never facing them in reality? In an epic goodbye to these platforms participants will provide our team access to all their dating profiles, past and present, to examine what went wrong and help you [sic] find love in the future. A 30 minute – 1 hour cleanse is a free trial available for the heavy hearted”
If ever a heart were heavy, mine would certainly be among the first in line for cleansing. Indeed, there is something intoxicating about participating in dataPurge. It’s almost like a dare: How far are you willing to reveal yourself to the world? There are multiple facets ofmy digital identity; anyone who knows my Facebook can tell you it’s practically a performance art piece in itself. But there are other, more personal aspects of my digital persona that I like to imagine are separate and hidden from my other identities, but as Ryan points out, can be uncovered with just a few taps of a finger. For the voyeuristic audience member, watching participants be cleansed from the safety of their home will be fascinating, I’m sure. But I like a good challenge, and if there’s something within me to purge, purge away I shall.
Ryan Holsopple / 31 Down (NYC)
Commissioned by PS122
Co-presented with Gibney Dance
Online viewing and participation from 11am-11am starting January 15th at http://datapurge.me