/VANITAS/ by Zachary Small @ Dixon Place
/VANITAS/ unpacks our inextricable and very physical connection to, and at times our embodiment of, the web. At the start, one performer picks up a small gray square, which transforms into a mirror, revealing for the audience their own reflection: look at yourself! Characters emerge onstage to see themselves absorbed into a double-sided mirror as they converse with one another.
Trump is president and we are astonished that algorithms have not yet solved the question of who will be the next POTUS. Somehow, the world wide web could not spin itself far enough to breed empathy among the wealthy and the white for the diversity of humanity. Nor could it provide an apt enough picture of the levels of bigotry and apathy in this country to prepare those of us now standing in shock. Look at yourself, look around you, how did you miss this when we are more connected than ever to far away and varying perspectives?
Today, people are criticizing the algorithms that have gifted social media users with what they’re calling an “echo chamber,” an advertising scheme that brands us and sells us the brands to match. Despite the internet’s promise to expand our scope of consciousness, it has instead simply stretched our identity to a wider array of products, a more specific aggregate identity. We only see ourselves and things we like, people just like us stretching into eternity like a maze of mirrors.
/VANITAS/ explores the multitudes contained within the internet — the near infinite database of people, ideas, images — all refracted into a single beam composed of and pointed at the user. Directed by Naomi Boyce, the piece handles slippery notions of scale and materiality beautifully as it navigates between infrastructure space, internet abstractions, and our own bodies. It is not moralizing; it is exploratory. The writer, Zachary Small, emphasizes in the program that the audience must let the work wash over them rather than seek to make sense of what they’re seeing. While /VANITAS/ is constructed, like poetry, to eschew narrative, the work nonetheless has numerous movements and declarations stand out as unnervingly familiar. This is no robotic tale; it breeds empathy.
The work establishes the inseparability of our bodily reality from technology as three characters — accompanied by projections, mirrors, and live audio distortion — navigate the terrain of their augmented reality. How do we find our way in a geography that is at once entirely connected yet entirely alienating? Why is it that we can be with anyone anywhere at any time, but feel cut off in doing so? The three characters configure themselves within a framework that functions to contemporaneously alienate and elevate them, a concern even for the Modernists.
Throughout the piece, characters shout to be noticed by one another and the audience, then hide behind fake smiles and screens.
Shannon O’Brien’s character shifts between a marketing maven, flashing between an enormous grin and mollified apathy. Coming out of a catatonic reverie, she exclaims through her smile-snarl, “Your problem is not personal, you’re problem is PROMOTIONAL!” Market researchers brand us through any number of means so they can better advertise to us. Through curated Instagrams and calculated tweets, we’ve branded ourselves! Data brokers have proven that we are both product and consumer.
If technology is a vessel of us, then our success, and even our sense of existence, is equally dependent on our online health. At the news of a shark biting through the long and enormous system of cables that makes up our internet, Theo Maltz’ character sighs, “I should have archived my emails… I felt unsafe without your number in my hand.”
Indeed, this deep sense of attachment and vulnerability to technology as our bridge to others is felt throughout the piece, especially through bodily performative elements. Shannon begins a sequence of movements at a table, typing fingers, crossing legs. She is later joined by the other cast members in a dance of collective alienation.
Theo stands at length atop a chair where he eventually pulls a projector screen down, hiding himself behind the screen which oddly never receives an image. Soon after, he shouts at Shannon — now a walking commercial advertising romance and adventure — “Would you say it, just fucking say it? If only you’d say you love me back.” She responds, “Of course.”
And when you’ve been quite thoroughly frightened by the lonely abyss of the internet and its branding, Gabby Beans inspires empathy giving an exquisite monologue through any number of distortions by Chet King, the performance’s designer who sits on in a DJ booth to the side of the stage mixing sound in real-time. Gabby exclaims through an overwhelming static buzz, “Do wires scream when they snap? I do.”
Shannon eventually joins Theo on the chair and the two stand like two skyscrapers swaying. She says,”I wish it would all sink into the sea.” But isn’t it already there, awaiting a shark’s fateful bite? And if our data dies, are we not all free?
/VANITAS/ was performed at Dixon place on November 3, 2016.